What Should a White Paper Look Like?

A white paper is a piece of long form content marketing and contains a high level of research. White papers usually follow an academic and include footnotes and referencing.

All white papers will include;

-a title page

-a contents page

- main section

-a conclusion

-reference section

Longer white papers may also include a short summary before the contents page. This is known as an abstract.

The main body of the white paper will depend on which type of paper you are producing and what your aim in producing it is. Typically, the main body of the paper includes three distinct sections and each section can run into several pages. The three sections generally follow the format below;

- Section 1: Problem- what is the problem being addressed?

- Section 2: Solution- what possible solutions are there to this problem?

- Section 3: Case study- an example of a company or an individual who has used that solution and the results that were achieved

The structure of a white paper

Title Page Your paper should have a punchy title which attracts the attention of your target audience and looks interesting. The title should also be easy to read and use clear, non-salesy wording. When it comes to titles the shorter the better- you want it to be scanned easily by your reader.

Abstract (optional) An abstract (short summary) is usually only included in the lengthier papers.

Contents Page Each page of your paper should be numbered and the contents page needs to be accurate.

Problem In a Problem/Solution white paper, the first section of your paper will set out the business problem that you are attempting to solve.

Solution In a Problem/Solution white paper, the second section of your paper will set out the solution to the business problem that you have identified.

Case Study Case studies are an incredibly persuasive means to demonstrate to your readers the success of your solution. These should be concise, genuine and where possible include photographs and testimonials from your satisfied customer.

Conclusion Your conclusion should be concise, persuasive and punchy. A white paper is not a sales pitch but you can get away with being a bit pushier with your conclusion. You might want to subtly mention a particular product that you sell or embed a link to your sales pages.

References White papers should include a reference section at the end where the research that the paper has referred to is detailed. There are various ways of referencing but the Harvard style is most often used. The key is to be consistent so whichever referencing style you opt for make sure that all of your sources are cited in the same way.

A white paper is a heavy duty piece of content marketing and is not intended to be skim read. It is a professional document which should be serious, well written, well edited and cohesive. For this reason white papers tend to be ‘written by industry experts’. You should not see any typos, spelling errors, grammatical errors or formatting errors within a white paper. White papers will usually be read by your readers more than once, but only if reading it is easy and distraction free.

White papers usually incorporate a design element and most copywriters and technical writers who produce them work with a graphic designer who will ensure that the page layout, images, icons, fonts and colours are dynamic and visually appealing. Sub headings, graphs, charts, bullet points and images are all used within white papers to enable readers to find the information that they need and to make the paper more accessible.

What format should a white paper be published in?

A white paper should look like a serious, academic document and they have historically been published as a PDF file. More recently, in some part due to the limitations with reading PDFs on mobile devices, HTML5 and JavaScript are now used. There is also a growing trend in the technology sector specifically to make white papers interactive. The style of your white paper and the format in which you choose to publish it in will depend on your business, your offering and your audience.

1) PDF File

In the past white papers have almost always been published as PDF files and there are some advantages to this. PDF is a portable document format which works on Windows, Macintosh and Unix. It can be shared across different platforms and so PDF is a good choice to use over the Internet.

PDF also allows you to lock your document with a password which means the editing, copying and printing options can be limited meaning that your white paper can’t be altered once published. The PDF viewer is also freeware so your PDF document can be read freely by anyone and on any device.

PDF is a well known format and when design elements have been added the PDF can be easily printed and shared without losing any of its visual elements. For these reasons a lot of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) prefer to print their white papers as PDF files.

However, technology has now moved on and larger businesses are now starting to move away from PDF towards more interactive formats.

2) HTML5 and JavaScript

Because PDFs are fixed layout documents they are very difficult to read on smaller screens. This means that over half of the visitors to your website are unlikely to read your white paper after downloading it if it is published as a PDF file. By publishing your white paper in a PDF format you are therefore limiting the ability of your prospects to engage with your paper and you considerably reduce the impact of the white paper.

By harnessing the technology that powers websites- HTML5 and JavaScript- you can easily create mobile-friendly, responsive white papers that are easier for your audience to read than the traditional PDF. Producing a white paper using HTML /JavaScript requires an understanding of code or the purchase of software which can convert the document for you, but it does reduce the laborious input of the design element that the PDF demands.

How many pages should a white paper have?

According to Investopedia white papers should be ‘at least 2,500 words in length’. There are lots of differences of opinion about this however and sometimes long form content that is considerably shorter than this has been called a white paper. The general consensus in the industry seems to be that white papers should be at least 6 pages long but can stretch to ‘upwards of 50’’ if the subject demands it.

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Victoria Doxat is a freelance copywriter and lecturer from Petersfield UK and has produced thought leadership communications for a diverse range of businesses. If you have any questions about white papers or would like to learn more about thought leadership, you can contact Victoria at hello@victoriadoxat.com or visit her website at www.victoriadoxat.com.

The information in this article was taken from Victoria’s white paper ‘The White Stuff: Why White Papers are Good for Business’ which can be downloaded for free from her website.