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How to understand your white paper’s audience

Comedians know it. Politicians know it.

And white paper writers must know it, too:
The first key to success is to understand your audience.

“Understanding your audience will help you write the content they need in the words and the way they need it,” says industry veteran Ginny Redish in her excellent book, Letting Go of the Words.

Knowing who you’re speaking to can also help you select and organize your content to be useful and appealing.

That’s why you really must start every white paper project by doing an audience analysis. This doesn’t have to take very long or cost a great deal.

But it’s a step no white paper writer can afford to skip.

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Knowing your audience helps you answer all these questions:

  • What problems do they experience?
  • What terms and acronyms do they already know?
  • How much technical detail can they understand?
  • What proof points and sources will impress them?
  • What should you put in and what leave out?

Assuming your white paper is a pre-sales document aimed at likely prospects, you need to ask the client, the sales team, and anyone else who can shed some light on these three questions…

Q1: Who is the ideal prospect for the client’s offering?

The answer includes demographic data such as age, sex, education, location; anything you can state as facts or numbers.

This should also include psychographic insights about the attitudes, issues, or opinions of those prospects. If you have no research on this, take your best guess.

And you should also consider so-called technographics, or how they will access the finished white paper: hard copy, desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. The answer for B2B prospects is generally on a desktop or laptop.

FYI: These days, only 5% to 10% of all white papers are ever printed out.

But for those people, here’s a best practice: Proof your white paper on both color and black & white printers, to make sure that those relying on a hard copy can read it properly.

This practice has an extra benefit: It will help people who have visual problems or are color-blind to decipher your graphics on the screen as well.

Q2: What do they do on the job?

This includes their job title, responsibilities, and where they fit in the hierarchy: Are they a decision-maker, a technical recommender, or someone who’s on the selection committee?

Q3: Where do they work?

This includes the size, type, sector, and location of the organization.

Ideally, the client has created a set of personas (character profiles of typical customers) that spell all this out. If not, consider this your first research job.

Ask anyone who talks to prospects: people from marketing, sales, or customer service. A customer advisory board can be an ideal source.

Then use your research to develop a brief description of your intended reader. The closer you can get to an actual person you can visualize, the better.

Some real-world examples

Here’s the format I generally use to describe a white paper audience:

“Our intended reader is a [sex] [age] [job title] in a [size of company] [sector of company] in [location of company] [anything else important].”

Here’s what this looked like for one white paper I wrote recently:

“Our intended reader is a male 40- to 60-year-old IT director in a mid-sized manufacturing company with headquarters in North America and manufacturing outsourced to Asia.”

Sometimes the demographics are less important than the concerns driving your audience.

Here’s another example I developed:

“Our target reader is a seasoned project manager working in a federal government agency or with a prime contractor for a major stimulus project. This project manager is responsible for coordinating many subcontractors to bring in a project on time and on budget.”

As you draft your white paper, you may have dilemmas or differences of opinion about what to put in and what to leave out.

In that case, ask yourself, “Does our audience need to know this? Would they understand this? Do they care about this?”

This customer snapshot will guide you.

What if you have more than one audience for the same document?

In that case, call one the primary reader and the other secondary.

Focus at least 80% of your content on the interests of the primary reader.

And if you need to, you can layer the information for the secondary audience as discussed in this article.


What do you think? How do you analyze your audience(s) for a white paper project? Please leave a comment below.

This article was originally published in June, 2014.
Last updated December 3, 2022.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. […] the company has developed any personas to represent their key target markets, get them and study […]

  2. […] For more, see Know your audience for a white paper. […]

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