White papers: FAQ for content marketers

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White papers are a staple of B2B content marketing. White paper writer Chris Alden walks you through some frequently asked questions – so you know where you stand before you start.

What is a white paper?

A white paper is a piece of evidence-based content marketing. It’s usually a PDF which you can share with your leads or prospects – to communicate a point that’s based on stats or detail.

How long is a white paper?

A white paper can be any length, but they are often around 2,000 to 3,000 words. That’s about 8 to 12 pages.

Ask a freelance white paper writer what the right length is for what you want to say.

When would you use a white paper?

You’d typically use a white paper to build your credibility with prospects. But it can also be a lead generation tool – where you attract a prospect with a white paper that can answer a specific query, in exchange for an email address.

How does a white paper support your content marketing?

Once you have a white paper, you could repurpose it in multiple ways – so you can keep making evidence-based points throughout your content marketing, for months to come.

For example, you could fillet white paper stats for social media posts, blog posts and infographics. Or even talk about them in your podcast.

Who else is using white papers?

The annual B2B Content Marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute is a great source of info on the content marketing tactics B2B marketers are using. In 2020, it found that 47% of B2B marketers use white papers – see slide 25 below:

That compares to 93% who create blog posts – so a white paper may be a way to stand out for marketers.

What kinds of white paper are there?

There are many different kinds of white paper – but what they all have in common is that they present evidence to the reader in a detailed way, to make a point.

Where white papers differ is in the kinds of evidence or data that are being presented.

A white paper could:

  • Present the results of a survey you’ve conducted in-house
  • Review evidence from surveys that are publicly available elsewhere
  • Present technical data, for example when launching a new technology product or category
  • Include interviews with third-party experts such as academics.

What can my white paper be about?

That’s up to you, but the sky is the limit: if there can be data about it, there can be a white paper about it.

One basic ideation exercise I use is “Who–What–Why–Where–When”.

  • Who is doing interesting things inside or outside my organisation?
  • What are they doing or saying? What are the trends?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • Where are they doing it?
  • When – or over what time frame – are interesting things happening? A white paper could look into the past or the future.

See my idea development service if you need more help with white paper ideas.

What do I need to create a white paper?

The two main things you need to create a white paper are (1) a freelance white paper writer, and (2) something to say.

As a white paper copywriter, I can write a white paper based on research you commission. Or I can use my journalism skills to base it on stats that are publicly available elsewhere.

As long as you are making an original point or telling your own story, it’s often acceptable to use third-party sources to back your point up.

For most commercial uses, it’s a good idea to get permission to use third-party stats, but this is often easy to get.

To add depth to a white paper, I can also conduct interviews with academics or your own in-house experts.

When creating a white paper, what other resources do we need?

Apart from a freelance copywriter to write a white paper, there are a few other resources you might need:

  • Someone in-house to “own” the project. White papers can include many data points, so you need someone who can vouch for the claims you make.
  • In-house experts. If you can think of one or two in-house experts who would be happy to chat with your copywriter about your topic, that can add depth to the report. The same experts would need to be available for sign-off.
  • A really good designer or design team. Make sure your designer has experience of producing reports, because this is an area that’s easy to get wrong.
  • A market research team. This is not essential if you’re relying on third-party sources ­– but vital if you’re commissioning a survey of your own. Don’t base a white paper on an informal survey your PR conducted on Twitter, for example – it just won’t stand up to scrutiny.
  • An editor or proofreader. As a copywriter, I am happy to proofread white papers I’ve written once they’ve been through the hands of a designer. However, the ideal scenario is for the proofreader to be a different person from the copywriter, as this allows for “second sight”.

Do we need a writer if we commission our own survey?

If you commission your own survey from a market research team, you’re in a strong position, as you have your own data to work with, and are less reliant on other people’s.

But it’s still a good idea to use an experienced copywriter to write up your white paper based on the survey you’ve done.

What if our white paper is very technical?

If you are creating a techie white paper for a highly technical audience, as a first step you will probably want to get a subject expert to draft it. A generalist white paper author can theoretically handle it, but they will spend so much time referring back to the technical specialist that the specialist may as well have the first go.

That said, technical experts can sometimes “miss the mark” when it comes to pitching a white paper to a target audience. So you might need a writer or editor to go through a document and make it more accessible.

If the white paper is on a technology topic but not for a technical audience, then the copywriter is probably the best person to write the white paper draft from the start.

How do I create a white paper for my business?

To get started, send me your copywriting brief. Try to include some detail not only about your audience and what you want to say, but also what evidence you plan to rely on when writing your white paper.

If you want the white paper to include third-party data points or interviews with experts, please say.

What is the cost of a white paper?

You might expect to pay about £1 to £1.40 per word for white paper copywriting. This reflects the work involved in:

  • Writing a white paper outline
  • Researching the white paper, including finding statistics and conducting interviews
  • Writing the white paper itself, to your house style if you have one
  • Suggesting ways to present data graphically – or helping explain it to the designer
  • Attributing external sources with appropriately styled references
  • Providing revisions, as part of a clear content sign-off process.

How else can you help?

For more info on my freelance white paper writing services, see my product page on white paper copywriting.