Fifty Five and Five
how to write a white paper

How to write a white paper: B2B technology marketing

  • The value of writing content that stands out to the audience
  • 6 steps on how to write a white paper (with tips and useful sources)
  • Free white paper synopsis template download
How do you feel when some middle manager at the office suggests you “write another whitepaper”? Dread? Anguish? Despair? Do you see weeks of revisions, meetings, redline and passive aggressive comments down the side of your document?

Not everyone’s a fan of writing white papers (although we are), the less sexy cousin of blogs in the extended content marketing family. Nonetheless, as online marketing expert Perry Marshall points out, they remain one of the most powerful tools for marketing – especially in the world of B2B and Microsoft partner marketing.

The Internet is choc-a-bloc with content trying desperately to grab your attention. Even the best blog post in the world will struggle to keep your readers’ attention if you have product adverts down the side of the page. By contrast, a white paper stands out from the crowd and draws on that most precious of commodities: time. If someone downloads and really reads your white paper, they’ll have really engaged with you, your ideas and your brand. And nothing’s more valuable than that.

If you’ve ever struggled with how to write a white paper, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. If you’re trying to market some incredibly complex app that enhances SharePoint are an add-in for Dynamics CRM, explaining that product in clear, plain English is a real challenge. At Fifty Five and Five we’ve spent a long time honing our technique on how to write a white paper and we’re going to share all our devious tricks with you today. Read on for our tips on making white paper writing easy and you’ll a free synopsis template.

Planning how to write a white paper depends entirely on your style and your organisation’s processes. Whether you treat a white paper as a project that you enter into your PPM software or you simply scribble out some ideas on a scrap of paper, you’re going to need a basic plan.

It’s valuable at this point to have a discussion with your company’s product team, understand the tool you’re trying to sell and ensure everyone’s on board.

Step 1: Work out a plan

How you plan your whitepaper depends entirely on your style and your organisation’s processes. Whether you treat a whitepaper as a project that you enter into your PPM software or you simply scribble out some ideas on a scrap of paper, you’re going to need a basic plan.

It’s valuable at this point to have a discussion with your company’s product team, understand the tool you’re trying to sell and ensure everyone’s on board.

The plan should include:

  • A rough idea of the product and aims of the paper
  • A deadline
  • A decision about who will oversee the whitepaper production – including content writing and design

Step 2: Know your audience

Nothing’s more important than knowing your audience when it comes to writing a white paper. You can have the greatest topic in the world, but if it’s not actually solving anyone’s problems, don’t expect it to be a hit. Marketing is all about responding to those questions that people are already thinking about (even when that’s unconscious).

how to write a white paper

Many of the most popular posts are structured around the themes of ‘why’ and ‘how to’. Why is this? Dopamine, that’s why. We are all naturally ‘programmed’ to seek out information. The more information we have, the more choices we feel we have. On a very basic level, that information will make us more likely to survive.

Your audience might not be facing life or death, but choosing one product over another could have a serious impact on their career. Offer them a solution – via your white paper – which will help them understand more about the world, more about your market and more about the options out there.

  • Write down in free form who you think your audience is. Where are they from? What does s/he look like? What is s/he worried about?
  • Also scribble down some ideas about what your reader is looking for. Do they want simple how-to steps, or do they want a detailed technical guide?

A more formal approach to understanding your audience is to create a full persona, detailing background and biography information.

Step 3: Do your research

If you’ve ever wondered where Fifty Five and Five’s name comes from, it refers to an Albert Einstein quote:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend Fifty Five minutes thinking about the problem and Five minutes thinking about solutions.”

We apply this rule to all the work we do. The more you plan and prepare the easier it will be for you to write your whitepaper in the long run. Presuming it’s you who’s going to write the white paper, don’t worry about spending a few hours or even a few days reading up around your topic. Not all technology marketers are tech experts, so really getting to grips with the product, the jargon that surrounds it and understanding the industry you’re selling to is vital.

Some of the tools we use include:

  • Buzzsumo – a great tool for finding popular content
  • Google Trends – discover what’s popular
  • Microsoft by the numbers – especially useful for Microsoft partners, back your research up with cold hard facts
  • Radicati – loads of fascinating facts about the Internet
  • Wikidata – Wikipedia’s central store of structured data
  • Also remember government data sources and reports by major tech analysts

Once you’ve collected all your notes and research, you’re now ready to do the most important part of the whitepaper: the synopsis. Take a breather, grab a cup of coffee and get prepared.

Step 4: The synopsis

Whenever we write a white paper, we normally spend as much time researching and writing our synopses (yep, that’s the plural) as we spend writing the actual paper itself.  Why the obsession? Because planning is everything! We work with clients around the world, so it’s essential that they can see an outline of the document before we actually write it, and ensure we’re all ‘on the same page’. But even if your head of product is two desks away, a synopsis is still essential. It helps you focus your thoughts and, when well-constructed, will make the actual writing of the white paper very easy.

The synopsis is all about structuring your ideas. So, how should you do that? We’ve provided a synopsis template at the end of this post. But if that feels too formal just make a basic set of notes instead. Everything helps.

Structure

All white papers conform to the following structure (although minor variations are OK):

  • Introduction
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Conclusion/Call to action

There’s no ‘hard and fast’ rule about how long each of these sections should be. However, we tend to recommend the Problem and Solution should each take up a third of the report, with the final third dedicated to Introduction and Conclusion

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Consider the following statement: “95% of white papers include statistics”. I just made that figure up. Nonetheless, it sounds impressive. Statistics are an incredibly powerful tool because they simplify reality, and people like things simple.

While we’re not condoning the misuse of data, bear in mind that statistics are powerful as a form of proof. If you can introduce graphs and data into your white paper, you introduce additional levels of proof and legitimacy. A shortcut to supporting the ‘Problem’ section of your white paper is to source statistical proof of your argument (see some of the links above for examples of statistical sources).

how to write a white paper

You should always ensure your statistics come from a respectable source such as industry analysts, research from independent organisations and government agencies.

Case studies and ‘break out boxes’

Besides statistics, people love a story. Since Aesop told his Fables, people have been using stories to demonstrate more complex ideas and values.

We love stories because they trigger the emotional part of our brain; we can empathise with characters in stories and feel as if we were in their place. Remember that even in B2B buying, a lot of decisions are made with emotion, not cold hard consideration of the facts. You should, therefore, include a compelling story or case study in your white paper.

Other forms of legitimacy

You’ll be amazed to know that Woody Allen regularly reads Fifty Five and Five’s blog. He says it’s great! Quotes from recognized industry leaders or a foreword by a respected analyst firm will add tons of weight to your whitepaper. Why’s this? Because we’re social animals. Have you ever looked up restaurant reviews on Google? Been swayed by a slating comment on Amazon? Or bought a tube of toothpaste because a popstar used it? When we’re faced with indecision, we almost instantly turn to others for guidance.

If you can include any form of endorsement at all in your report, it will take on a whole new level of significance among your readers.

Step 5: Get it signed off

This is, in many ways, the most crucial stage on mastering how to write a white paper. Circulate your synopsis with colleagues, ask for their feedback and make sure you’ve got the tone right. If any changes need to be made, breathe a sigh of relief – it could’ve been a lot worse if you’d just dived into the writing, only to discover you’d got the wrong end of the stick.

Step 6: Start writing, Tolstoy

Now, I’m not saying this is the easy bit, but if you’ve completed all the previous steps, the whitepaper should ‘write itself’. Of course, it’s still going to take time and effort, so here are a couple of tips to make it a little less painful:

  • Give yourself targets and break the writing up into reasonable chunks. For example, set yourself a goal to complete section 1 by lunch. This makes it all feel a little more manageable and less like one long slog. Try out something like PomodoroTime, an app that helps you manage your day
  • Listen to music! There’s nothing like plugging the earphones in and bashing out a thousand words to your favourite playlist.
  • Lost for words? I swear by Spotify.
  • Don’t keep it all locked up inside! If you’ve got writers block, there’s nothing like taking five minutes to talk your ideas through with colleagues. There’s no shame in getting a different perspective.
  • Go for a walk. Yep, that’s right! Get out the office, get away from the computer screen.
  • Learn from Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway strictly wrote a maximum of 500 words every morning before spending the rest of the day drinking Caribbean rum. Consider this if nothing else helps.
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Len Williams

Len Williams

Len was the first full time writer to join the company, and speaks three languages (four if you include 'Microsoft').

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