Here’s a headline I spotted recently:
“Big Truck TV Launches a New Online Video White Paper Channel.”
Naturally I was curious.
This turned out to be a set of presentations with a talking head giving advice to trucking companies.
So what’s with calling these “white papers?”
Some people are tempted to call anything they create a white paper… just to suggest that their content has all the gravitas of a real white paper. But be careful!
The term “white paper” carries many expectations.
If you use it carelessly, you will disappoint your best prospects.
Instead of building up your firm as a trusted advisor providing useful content, you could do exactly the opposite: You could tear down your firm’s reputation by disappointing readers and wasting their time.
I believe there are four basic tests you can apply to a document to see if it’s fair to call it a “white paper.”
White paper test #1: Is it a written narrative?
Almost by definition, the term “white paper” suggests a narrative presented as text. Text is easy to review, skim, scan and skip.
To me, the term “video white paper” is nonsense.
Our eyes and our brains simply don’t process video the same way as text.
When executives need to make a big decision, you better believe they want something in their hands to read and discuss—not a video on YouTube.
White paper test #2: Is it a substantial length?
Most people agree that a white paper should contain useful information, not a sales pitch.
This means helping the reader understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.
To accomplish that, a document needs a certain heft. Two or three pages won’t cut it. A 2- or 3-page article might be helpful, but please don’t call it a white paper.
I believe that a true white paper has at least five pages of real content, plus whatever front and back matter you include: most likely a cover, and pages for Contents, About the Company, and Sources.
White paper test #3: Is it for pre-sales?
Internet marketing guru Perry Marshall names 40+ types of documents that he treats as “white papers” including application guides, cheat sheets, installation guides, manuals(?!), optimizers, pocket guides, troubleshooting guides and tutorials.
But much of this list is documentation used AFTER a purchase when you need help to install, use or troubleshoot some product.
Take it from someone who wrote this type of documentation for years: This may be useful, but it’s not the same as a white paper.
To my thinking, a white paper is a document used BEFORE a purchase. In the pre-sales stage, you’re in the world of marketing where your writing must inform and persuade.
After a purchase, you’re into technical support where your writing must document and explain. In most companies, you’re also dealing with different teams, different realities and different budgets.
White paper test #4: Does it provide referenced facts?
One final consideration. I believe a true white paper presents a logical argument supported by facts and figures, quotes from industry experts, impeccable statistics and credible reports.
A white paper is not just an opinionated rant. It is a dignified and carefully reasoned discussion of a topic.
So when is a “white paper” not a white paper?
Hint: When it’s a video, when it’s only two pages long, when it’s documentation, or when it’s an opinion piece unsupported by any facts.
Please use this term carefully, so that it continues to signify a worthwhile document of value and substance.
Key characteristics of a white paper
To sum up, a white paper must be:
- A document that contains narrative text
- At least 5-6 pages long in portrait format
- Educational, practical and useful, NOT a sales pitch
- Intended for use BEFORE a sale, not AFTER a sale
- Made up of referenced facts, NOT just opinion
- Formatted with an introduction or executive summary at the start
If a document in question meets all those criteria, you can very reasonably call it a “white paper.” If not, please call it something else.