The 3 Types of White Papers – And Why You Should Care

Cover photo (typewriter) for post discussing the different types of white papers businesses can write.

Some marketers are a bit like cats — they love chasing after laser beams and shiny objects, but they’re frequently left with little to show for their efforts. That’s because innovation often comes at the expense of efficacy. What’s new and different isn’t necessarily what works the best, and that’s why CEOs using Snapchat filters will never get you as many qualified leads as a professionally written white paper.

I get it. White papers seem boring. They’re dry and full of data, and they’re almost never the right place to shoehorn in a sweet cat joke. Or at least that’s what people seem to think. In reality, white papers can be as formal or as funny as you like, and even when they’re light on the cool factor, they more than make up for it in ROI:

  • 76% of buyers said they’re willing to share their personal information in exchange for a white paper
  • One poll found that 79% of B2B buyers felt white papers were the type of content they were most likely be share with coworkers

White papers give the reader confidence in whatever product or service you’re selling, and that can mean the difference between a casual would-be consumer and a loyal customer.

Author Gordon Graham is known as “The White Paper Guy” — which makes sense, seeing as he literally wrote the book on the subject. Graham may not have been the first to identify the three main types of white papers, but his names for these powerful marketing tools are now widely used, even if most people don’t realize where those names originated.

The Backgrounder

Brands looking to disrupt the industry with a new piece of technology or innovative service often struggle connecting to audiences. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the unfamiliar, and it’s even harder to get consumers to spend their hard-earned money on something that feels confusing.

The “backgrounder” white paper includes educational content summing up the most important features and benefits of whatever it is you’re marketing — think of it as your what and your why. While a product description grabs attention, it barely scratches the surface in comparison to a white paper filled with technical details.

Use your backgrounder to:

  • List study data to support science-backed claims
  • Explain how a product works and why it’s a game changer
  • Establish your brand as an industry leader based on performance, innovation or some other documentable characteristic

You can use this type of white paper in several places in your sales funnel. It works near the beginning as a strong introduction for B2C customers or educational tool for journalists (think stating your case to a Consumer Reports contributor, for example), but it can also help turn a warm lead into a completed sale.

The Numbered List

Numbered lists mimic one of the most popular blog post formats seen these days, and for that reason they’re regarded as an accessible way to convey information to varying demographics. Light on the tech speak and created with readability in mind, numbered list white papers answer common questions about a product or service while presenting your brand in a positive light.

Titles like “5 Life-Changing Benefits of Programmable Refrigerators” or “10 Ways to Revolutionizing Your Digital Marketing Strategy” help reframe information in a way that’s less intimidating and, if you’re up for it, fairly entertaining.

In fact, numbered list white papers can be as provocative or tame as you wish. If you want to push the envelope and challenge your competition, you can do that here. If you want to infuse a bit of humor or even fear (“3 Things That Prove Cold-Brew Coffee is Your Real Boo” or “6 Reasons Why You Can’t Afford to Miss the Blockchain Train,” for example), you can do that too. That kind of flexibility makes listicle white papers suitable for almost any stage of your sales funnel and almost any audience.

The Problem/Solution

Problem/solution white papers are serious docs for serious people making serious decisions. Often viewed as the most logical and overtly persuasive white paper, the P/S identifies a business problem common to the target audience and clearly and convincingly shows why your solution is the best one available. Business-to-business marketers often use this format to bolster their case when speaking to potential partners or clients, which in itself is a compelling reason to commission one ASAP, and the fact that P/S white papers have a long shelf life means your investment is more likely to keep paying dividends.

Whether you’re looking to change public opinion, build a following, enhance your sales and marketing plan, generate new leads or carve out a place in your industry, a problem/solution white paper could be exactly what you need to shake up the status quo and establish your authority.

If you need to inform and persuade your audience — and really, who doesn’t — you need a white paper. Understanding which type of white paper you need and how it’ll fit into your content marketing strategy may take some time and the input of a specialist, but the potential for attention-getting thought leadership is worth the effort.

Meghan McKenzie

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Meghan heads up Enterprise Sales with Crowd Content and comes with 10 years of sales and marketing experience. She loves selling awesome writing services that are proven to work, because she'd rather express herself through eating cheese and drinking wine and leave the writing to the pros.

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