Wikipedia defines a white paper as an “authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem…often used to generate sales leads, establish thought leadership, make a business case, or educate customers, channel partners, or investors.” White papers need to have enough content to build a credible story, so you’ll usually find them to be roughly 8-20 pages long. They can be written in a variety of styles depending on the goal of the white paper. I find them to be valuable tools at any of the stages of the buying cycle.
The buying cycle consists of several stages that people go through in engaging with you and becoming clients. The buying cycle (my preferred term) is sometimes referred to as the marketing funnel or the sales funnel. The stages, listed below, each serve a function for your audience as they look for solutions to problems they have. And you need content that addresses each of these stages to help your potential clients move through these stages. Here’s how you can use white papers in each stage.
People become aware of your firm or product and service as something they might have an interest in. They may not even be aware that they have a problem that you could help them solve, but something grabs them enough so they engage with you. A white paper that is educational is appropriate for this stage. For example, you could create a white paper on cloud computing, clearly defining the term, adding research results to show how firms in a particular industry are using cloud computing, and then showing what value it might hold for a reader’s business.
People realize they have a problem that they want solved, so they start looking for possible solutions. A white paper that offers a case study is appropriate for this stage. For example, you could create a white paper on cloud computing that shows how one of your clients successfully converted desktop computers to thin client computers using software hosted virtually, in the cloud. Make sure you focus on the client and the solution and not on your firm.
People want to narrow their list of likely solutions to prepare to make a decision. A white paper that compares your solution to your competitors’ and shows in what ways yours is a better solution is appropriate for this stage. For example, you could create a white paper that talks about the different services that are needed to implement a cloud computing solution; the white paper could feature a table comparing how different companies deliver those services (billing terms, costs, age of service, infrastructure, supported operating systems, security, support, etc.).
People want to know what they are buying and what the deliverables look like. A white paper that provides a story of a client’s experience with you is appropriate for this stage. For example, you could describe what the experience was like for a client once a contract was signed, how you worked with this company to implement your solution, what unexpected problems they might have faced and how you dealt with them, how they are using your solution, and maybe even some results they’ve achieved.
When people have come to trust you and your firm, they might become your advocates, recommending you to others. All of the above white papers are appropriate for this stage—you just want to make sure that the content of the white papers have enough value that your clients are willing to share them with others. You also want to make it easy for them to share, either not copyrighting the content or, alternatively, licensing the content under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0, which allows them to freely share your content with attribution.
How do you use white papers?