Creating Effective White Papers

White papers can be very effective communications tools, particularly for organizations that develop and sell complex systems and solutions.  Here are my thoughts on how to formulate an informative and effective paper, based on more than a decade of experience in creating papers for corporate clients.


As with just about any complicated project, a good white paper begins with careful planning.  Most of the papers I write are planned and managed by agency or corporate specialists, but I can offer some thoughts on the formulation of a successful paper. 

Initial planning should address how the paper will be structured, produced and ultimately used.  The plan should establish the paper’s length (five to 10 pages is typical), graphic design, basic structure and content (see below), and the need for charts, illustrations or other elements.  The plan should identify key internal or external sources of information for the document, and lay out the schedule, budget and process for advancing and completing the project.  

Organizations make use of white papers in a number of ways.  Papers can be posted to a corporate website, included in sales collateral packages, or sent in response to inquiries from prospects or customers.  Papers can also be handed out at client meetings or used at conferences, speeches or other industry events. 

Early planning should also address the precise target audience for the paper. Do we hope to reach a broad OEM readership, for example, or only specific technology development groups within Tier I telecoms?  Will prospective readers be primarily executive business decision makers, a more technical audience, or both?  The best papers are carefully tuned to the background and expectations of the anticipated readership. 

White papers can help organizations achieve a number of strategic goals.  When formulated correctly, a white paper can be used to identify sector-specific challenges, to explain technology-oriented systems or pathways, and to address questions or objections relating to the proposed solution. An authoritative paper can establish industry credibility for a company or for a specific executive, and can be used to position the organization as a thought-leader in a particular segment or technology.


Tone is one of the most important and often misunderstood aspects of a good white paper.

The most effective white papers offer the reader true insight into a particular business or technical topic.  By delivering measurable value to the reader – in the form of research, ideas and information not available from other sources – a good white paper is an ideal forum to establish credibility for a company and to position its principles as innovators and industry leaders.

For this reason, my philosophy is that most white papers should adopt an objective, academic tone.  Papers can describe and even champion company-specific solutions, but should do so in language that is subtle and understated, and that avoids a direct sales pitch or brand-building images.  In fact, business-oriented papers are sometimes called “grey papers” because they utilize an academic tone and format to describe and recommend specific proprietary solutions. 

There is a time and place to wave the company flag.  Your white paper is not that place. 


Here’s my take on how a good paper can be organized and structured.  Most business-oriented papers include a brief executive summary to give busy readers an overview of the topic … and to entice them to read the full document. 

Many papers begin with a section that identifies the relevant trends and realities that define the topic at hand.  This critical section may focus on the challenges facing the reader, such as competitive or technological pressures, and on the opportunities available to them.  When possible, a paper should make use of authoritative research, external references and quantitative metrics to support those observations.

Once the trends section has “teed up” the topic, the paper can delve into the solution or approach being advocated by the author.  As noted in my thoughts on “tone”, the solution section of a paper can describe what are essentially proprietary products or approaches, but astute authors do so by using objective, academic phrasing and by avoiding blatant sales and branding language. 

Having established the need and presented a solution, the third major component of a good paper should describe the results or benefits that can be achieved by following the recommended course.  Quantitative metrics that demonstrate measurable costs, productivity or business gains are best.  Brief customer case studies can drive home the real-world advantages of the proposed technology or solution.  Again, results-oriented information should be presented in objective, brand-free language that preserves the style and credibility of the white paper format. 

It is appropriate to include some company-specific information in a white paper, and this is most effectively done by inserting a short, carefully-worded company description near the end of the document.  Other elements may include author biographies, research references or links to additional industry or company information sources. 


A well-organized process can reduce the time and cost of producing a white paper, and can definitely help create a more informative and usable document.

Gathering the information needed for a paper can seem to be a daunting challenge, but it does not have to be.  Most papers are based on the knowledge and experience of Subject Matter Experts such as executives, product specialists or engineers.  In my experience, much of the content for a compelling paper can be found on the hard drives of a well-organized SME, often in the form of PowerPoint presentations, project scope documents, RFQs and similar materials.  Higher level messaging and other details can then be gathered during well-planned telephone or in-person interviews with the SMEs. 

By knowing what questions to ask, and knowing where to look for existing nuggets of information, a well-prepared writer can measurably reduce the time (and money) needed to research and produce a corporate white paper.

Once the available information has been gathered, a “fat” outline should be created summarizing the central message of the proposed paper, establishing the flow of the storyline, and describing the sub-topics, illustrations and any other content to be contained in the final document.  An outline takes a bit of time to formulate and review, but in my experience, a good outline is a key step towards the creation of a successful paper.  A good outline creates an approved consensus on the overall approach and detailed content of the paper.  It can help identify weak spots in research or basic arguments.  When an outline is well crafted, reviewed and approved by key stakeholders, it can vastly reduce the chance of problems or delays in the production of a company white paper.

Once these preliminary steps have been completed, it should take between five to 10 working days to write the first full draft of a business or technical white paper. 

A couple of thoughts on the revision cycle for a white paper:  Editing is a natural part of any writing project, and can be especially important in the production of a technical- or business-oriented white paper.  The project team (and your writer) should plan for several cycles of review and revision as the paper is refined.  A rigorous approach to the earlier steps in this process – including carefully planning, solid research and a detailed outline – can and should reduce back-end revisions.


Some of the world’s most successful companies use white papers as powerful components in their overall communications toolset, and they can be particularly helpful in the marketing of major capital systems.  Visit the websites of great technology and industrial leaders, and you’ll find papers that explain and advocate technologies, evolutionary pathways and business models.

A well-formulated paper will attract and enlighten executive decision makers.  And hopefully, help nudge those C-level readers a bit farther through the sales cycle.

 Jon Kemp