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White paper writer tip #1: Stop selling

Every white paper writer must avoid the #1 problem with white papers: Too much selling.

The solution is simple: Stop writing sales pitches and calling them white papers.

White paper sponsors must recognize the danger of inserting a sales pitch into a white paper. Stop pressuring your writers to include them. Stop shooting yourself in the foot!

What’s the problem with selling?

Don't shoot yourself in the foot by writing your white paper as a sales pitch

Survey after survey points out that no white paper reader wants a sales pitch.

If a prospect wanted your pitch, they’d just call up your 1-800 line and ask for a sales rep.

But they seldom do that. More often, they search the Web for some help.

Business people want useful information to help them understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.

Unless you give those readers what they’re looking for, your white paper will sink like a stone.

Even though a few people may download it, no one will read past the first page or two of a sales pitch. And, they certainly won’t pass it along to anyone else in their company.

All the time and resources you spent to create that white paper will achieve nothing.

In fact, you can even infuriate a prospect so much they take your company off the shortlist of vendors they’re considering.

Instead of helping you win sales, your sales pitch can actually cost you sales.

Here are some tips to help white paper writers and sponsors stop using sales pitches.

Stop selling tip #1: Stop talking about your company or product

The tough fact is that no one cares about your company and how long it has been in business and how many awards it has won.

Your prospects really only care about the business problem they’re wrestling with right now.

If they wanted to find out more about your company, they would have clicked “About Us” on your website. Instead, they clicked “Resources” or “Downloads” or that juicy title for your white paper that turned up in their Google search results.

So stop yammering away about your company and your product. You have better places to do that than in a white paper.

Suggestion: At the end of your white paper, include a short section called “About the Company.” Use the same standard corporate boilerplate as in the company press releases. Keep it to half a page or less.

Stop selling tip #2: Stop saying “we” and “our” and “us”

When you stop talking about your company, product, team, excellence, commitment to customer service, and so on, you naturally stop talking about “we” and “our” and “us.”

That’s a good thing.

Suggestion: Talk about “you” and “yours”; namely your readers and your prospects.

Stop selling tip #3: Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes

photo of various men's shoes

The key to successful content marketing—including white papers—is to engage your prospects around the challenges and problems they’re facing.

That’s what interests them. That’s what keeps them up at night, and drives them to push a sales process forward.

Suggestion: Before you write a word, find out everything you can about your target audience.

Next, try to think like them. Worry like them. Google like them. Then write for them.

For more tips, see my article “Know your audience.”

If you have more than one audience, see my article
How to write a white paper for multiple audiences.”

Stop selling tip #4: Ask yourself, “Who cares?”

A couple questions lurk at the back of every white paper reader’s mind: “So what?” and “Who cares?”

That’s why you must test every white paper topic you dream up with these tough questions:

  • Does my audience care?
  • Are they dying to know about this?
  • How will this content help them?

Notice that a topic like “how great our product is” will dissolve into jello when you pour the sulphuric acid of the above questions onto it.

If there’s anything left at the bottom of the barrel after the acid drains off, you may have a topic worth developing.

Suggestion: Make sure that the topic you’re writing about matters to your prospects. If in doubt, ask them.

Ask your customer advisory board, if the company has one. Ask your sales and support teams. Create an online survey. Do whatever it takes to test out your ideas before you publish them.

Stop selling tip #5: Push vague ideas into concrete features and real-world benefits

Even in a backgrounder white paper that’s all about a product, you must stress concrete features and real-world benefits.

I recently saw a white paper that touted software “written in C# for the most up-to-date codebase.” This is neither a concrete feature nor a real-world benefit.

The fact that code is written in the C# programming language is simply a fact about the product. To most readers, it’s an inconsequential fact.

Dissolve that in the acid of the three questions above, and all you’ll have left will be a few wisps of smoke.

As a white paper writer, you must push the laundry list of facts about a product into something your readers care about, something that speaks to them.

Here are some of the classic benefits that business people care about:

  • Saving time
  • Saving money
  • Streamlining processes
  • Boosting reliability
  • Boosting customer service
  • Gaining a competitive edge

Think: better, faster, cheaper.

If you can translate a C# codebase into one of these benefits, you have something to say to prospects. If you can’t, drop that item from your backgrounder.

Suggestion: Focus on the concrete features and real-world benefits that really matter to your prospects.


See tip #2 in this series on how to build an argument using Aristotle’s 3 elements of persuasion.


What is the worst “sales pitch” in a white paper you’ve seen? How would you turn this into a benefit that real people care about?

Please leave your comments below.

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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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