How many flavors of white papers are there?
Most “white paper experts” list 8 or 10 types of white papers.
When I first started in white papers, I used to agree.
But after working on 306 of these documents, I’ve made a startling discovery.
There are really only three main flavors of white paper. That’s right: three.
If you understand these three flavors—and when to use each for optimal results — you can quickly get on with the business of generating leads and building recognition.
Here are the three main flavors I see:
- A product backgrounder details the features and benefits of a specific product or service
- A numbered list provides a numbered set of tips, questions, answers, or points about a certain topic
- A problem/solution white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to present a new solution to a widespread problem
What’s more, I believe these are as easy to tell apart as vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream.
A product backgrounder is like vanilla ice cream
You don’t get any surprises when you order vanilla.
This flavor of white paper pitches the technical or business benefits of a product or service.
And it uses a harder sell that’s best for prospects at the end of the customer journey.
A plain-vanilla backgrounder is fairly easy to prepare, but it won’t generate as many leads as other flavors.
It’s a good flavor for a well-known company that doesn’t need to work hard to attract prospects… but not recommended for a smaller firm fighting for recognition.
The reason: The people who most likely encounter a product backgrounder already have your company or your product in mind. That leaves out a huge number of prospects.
Many more will search for the problem they’re struggling with. It’s the difference between searching for “Acme ScanOMatic 3000” and “paper burden.”
A product backgrounder is great to support a product launch, like when Acme unveils its brand-new ScanOMatic 4000.
You can send a vanilla white paper to journalists and bloggers while a new product is still news.
A numbered list is like strawberry ice cream
A numbered list is a light and lively treat that’s easy to digest.
This white paper favor consists of a set of tips, questions, or points that explore a certain business issue.
It’s the easiest one to create, and great for quick content to publish online or in an e-newsletter.
You can use the flavor to grab attention with a provocative take on some issue.
For instance, Acme Scanning might issue a document called something like “16 Ways to Generate Less Paper, Starting Today.”
You can use a numbered list anywhere in the customer journey.
But while a numbered list is fairly easy to write and quick to read, these tend to lack the depth and staying power of the other flavors.
It’s not easy to delve deeply into any topic with a numbered list.
A problem/solution white paper is like chocolate ice cream
A problem/solution white paper is a rich and satisfying experience.
Problem/solution white papers take a soft-sell approach that educates readers about an issue and positions your company as a trusted advisor, not just a vendor.
These are best for prospects at the start of the customer journey.
The typical problem/solution white paper describes a widespread problem, and how every attempt to solve it has been unsatisfactory. Then it recommends a new, improved solution in generic terms. Finally, it shows how your product truly solves the problem best.
For instance, Acme Scanning might release a problem/solution white paper called, “How to Streamline Your AP Processing by 50%.”
This is the toughest flavor of white paper to create since it demands a mountain of proof. And it requires your sales and marketing team to stop pushing your product so hard.
The upside is that more people will encounter a problem/solution white paper and value its contents.
That’s why a problem/solution white paper usually generates the most leads for the longest time.
One problem/solution white paper I wrote was online continuously for seven years, and still generating leads every day!
A white paper is like an ice cream cone!
Find out more in this free special report for B2B marketers and writers.
This 15-page guide explains when and how to use each flavor of white paper for best results.
(Click the cover to get it)
Originally published: 2012
Last updated: May 16, 2022
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