The seven key elements of an effective B2B whitepaper

07 September 2015 Colin Bradbury

White Papers are authoritative, shareable pieces of content that build trust and credibility with potential customers. So what do you need to create a white paper that gets read and generates new business?

A good white paper, one that will become a long-lasting and valued reference point for customers, doesn’t happen by accident. Here are the seven key elements you need to get the most out of your next whitepaper.

1. A well-defined target audience

A whitepaper won’t be effective unless you have a clear idea of what you want it to achieve. Ask yourself which part of the marketing funnel you’re aiming at:

• Gathering leads at the top

• Nurturing leads already in it

• Supporting potential customers at the bottom

Whitepapers can do all of these things, but not simultaneously; you would need at least two different styles of whitepaper to cover all those bases.

Your top-of-the-funnel audience is likely to be at the executive level, looking to inform themselves on the major issues facing their business.

At the bottom-of-the-funnel, readers will be more technically oriented specialists who understand the problem and are comparing solutions from several different vendors.

2.The appropriate type of white paper

Defining your goals and likely audience will clarify the type of whitepaper required. All whitepapers have certain things in common, but the specific content will vary.

At the top of the funnel, the aim is to establish your company as an expert in the field, a trusted source of information and insight on a critical issue. Here, whitepapers are used to set the scene and suggest possible solutions to a pressing problem.

To build top-of-the-funnel credibility and pull in new leads choose a Problem/Solution style whitepaper. This will:

• Describe a problem in the context of the whole industry

• Identify the inadequaciies of existing solutions

• Propose a new solution

You could say that this type of white paper helps a customer understand an issue, solve a problem or make a decision. The fact that your company can provide that new solution is almost an afterthought, but all the more powerful for that.

This recent whitepaper from Kinaxis is a perfect example of the Problem/Solution format:


At the bottom of the funnel, where you’re addressing a more focused audience, you’ll need a Backgrounder style white paper.

The emphasis here is more on the product itself and you’ll be providing a more comprehensive, technical outline of capabilities to inform the choice between different vendors.

The key here is finding a middle way. A backgrounder needs to be more than a technical manual but should never go to the other extreme and become a sales brochure. You shouldn’t be shy of discussing product benefits as well as features, but do so through evidence rather than hype.

3. Credibility

If there’s one feature of whitepapers that sets them apart from many other types of marketing collateral, this is it. This is your chance to establish yourself as a trustworthy authority on a subject.

But beware. You have to be seen as a genuine expert in the field to establish credibility. So make sure the topic of the whitepaper is one on which your business has a right to claim thought leadership.

The other key ingredient of credibility is evidence. As we’ve said already, a whitepaper isn’t just a thinly disguised sales brochure so there’s no room for hype.

For the higher level problem/solution paper, much of the information is likely to be from reliable external sources – industry experts, academic studies, trade bodies etc. However, it could also come from a user survey conducted by the vendor. This has the benefit of being proprietary, which is great for encouraging readers to share the white paper with peers.

For the product focused backgrounder, more of the data will be from internal sources, but the credibility element remains critical. That means sticking to the facts about the features of the product. Any benefits cited must be clearly provable rather than marketing hyperbole.

4. Objectivity

Objectivity – in a marketing document? Ok, so we’re being a bit provocative here, maybe subtlety is a better word. Your goal is, of course, to persuade the reader that your solution is the best. But in a whitepaper there are some definite don’ts.

• Don’t trash by name competitors who offer different solutions

• Don’t lead off the part where you talk about the best solution by trumpeting the fact that it’s YOUR solution. The reader will discover that at the end

• Don’t overdo the corporate sales pitch, basically

Of course the reader has to be told that your company can provide the preferred solution, and there should be a gentle call to action. But you want the reader to come to the conclusion themselves so don’t yell at them through a megaphone.

Keep the 80/20 rule in mind: make 80% of the content educational, 20% promotional.

5. Provide relevance and value

White papers are time consuming and relatively expensive to produce, so you need to ensure the effort will be worthwhile. They also demand an investment of time from the reader, creating an implicit promise that in return there will be something of value.

To justify the exercise for both writer and reader, a white paper needs to address a widely acknowledged and recognised problem. If the issue is so esoteric that the audience affected by it is small, or of the issue is a relatively minor one (even if it affects a lot of companies), it probably doesn’t warrant a full-blown whitepaper.

One way to emphasise the relevance of your solution is to include a brief case study. What better way to validate the relevance of your product than showing that an industry peer has chosen and implemented your solution? And case studies provide a little variety as well.

6.Give it longevity

White papers are somewhat unique in that they can be used for years rather than months. A problem/solution white paper which addresses a significant issue and is backed with strong evidence can remain in your marketing armoury until that problem has been solved across the entire industry. And a backgrounder remains current as long as you continue to sell the featured solution.

Longevity is also boosted by a whitepaper’s ability to spawn other sorts of content, from blog posts to webinars. Each section of a whitepaper could be featured in a series of blog posts, for example, with links to the white paper itself.


All copy should follow the rules of good writing. But with a document that can run to 12 pages or more, a clear structure and a good flow is critical.

Busy people skim-read, so sidebars, pull-quotes and highlighting will help to get the message across to those looking for a quick sense of the main message of the paper.

Use graphics and tables to present important data rather than endless lists, while headers, sub-headers and bullet points, are essential to break up blocks of text.

An executive summary never goes amiss either and a good title is vital. A whitepaper may have academic credentials, but in the final analysis it’s a marketing document.

While a doctor might be compelled to read an academic paper on a new medical advance regardless of how badly it’s written, nobody HAS to read your case study. So make sure you have an effective headlines to draw readers in and an executive summary to entice them to commit more time to your document.

A good whitepaper is a series of balancing acts. It should be:

• Relevant without being hard sell

• Current but with a good shelf life

• Persuasive but based on facts and logic

• Readable but not flippant

Above all it should excite the reader. Not because of your use of racy adjectives or wacky design tricks but because you are presenting a compelling, fact-based argument on how you can solve a pressing problem and make their lives easier.