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When is a white paper NOT a white paper?

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!

 

man wondering if he's looking at a white paper

 

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.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ 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 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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3 Comments

  1. Why Use White Papers? | Neil Stubbs Copywriting on March 11, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    […] Gordon Graham of “thatwhitepaperguy.com” has observed that  “skeptical prospects” are looking for vendors to serve as a “trusted advisor, and not just a peddlar of their wares” (White Papers for Dummies, pg. 68, by Gordon Graham). This is why white papers are so important. White papers contain the information, research and data needed by multiple decision makers in a company. […]

  2. Dinnae on June 24, 2020 at 3:01 am

    gotta ask…. what’s your view on companies like hubspot and google choosing to drop the space, and call them whitepapers instead of white papers?

    • Pauline Clark on June 26, 2020 at 8:59 am

      We brought this question to Gordon and here’s what he had to say:

      “Interesting question. So here’s a data point. Googling “white paper” gets 6.29 Billion hits but probably pulls in a lot of hits about stationery and printing. Googling “Whitepaper” gets only 103 Million hits but they’re probably all about B2B content marketing.

      At That White Paper Guy, we’ve always used “white paper” (with space) because that’s how the term originated many decades ago.

      But many of our prospects ask us about doing a “whitepaper” (no space) and we certainly know that they mean.

      So I think this is one of those “you say potaato, I say potato” things. To each their own. No matter how you spell it, a white paper is still a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic.”

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