Has the White Paper Outlived Its Purpose?

The venerable white paper is under attack. Is it time to do away with it altogether or does it need a makeover to bring it up to date with the way we now consume information? Before deciding, let’s examine its original purpose.

White paper as thought leadership

Although people often criticize the term “thought leadership” as pretentious, we think the term fits to describe why white papers exist. Their main purpose is to demonstrate that you (you as a company or you as an individual) understand the forces at play in your industry, that you have a unique perspective that engages your reader, and that you have something of value to help influence new thinking. Your perspective is often backed up by original research or statistics from external sources.

A white paper helps the author to move from being a subject-matter expert who knows something to becoming a trusted advisor who is known for knowing something. And it helps a company position itself as a trusted authority. People want to do business with the acknowledged leaders in their field.

"As a thought leader you will want to craft messages that work towards four outcomes: Relevant: It meets a need and solves a problem. Thorough: It has depth of meaning that stands on its own. Elegant: It is captured in a way that is simple and clean. Unique: It adds insights or value in new ways."

The Thought Leaders Practice by Matt Church, with Peter Cook & Scott Stein

Matt Church: What is a Thought Leader?

Types of white paper

There are numerous types of white papers a business might publish.

  • One type is primarily an informational vehicle. White papers don’t focus on product features or convey your marketing message but instead address the challenges facing your industry and the solutions you envision.

  • Another type of white paper might review the policy and regulatory environment in which your company operates, preferably adding your unique perspective.

  • A variation is to shed light on a subject that affects us all. For example, our company has recently prepared material on “Artificial Intelligence and Ethics.” The goal is to explore the issues without hammering away at one point of view.

  • Another type we’ve been involved with is to report on an original piece of research that has the potential to expose new trends and to shape new thinking.

These are just a few examples. What they all have in common is that they serve to showcase your in-depth knowledge in your given domain. Your readers look to you as an authoritative source of solutions to the problems and issues they face.

“The contents of your white paper should serve to showcase your in-depth knowledge and position you as the obvious authority in your field.”

The purpose of a white paper

A recent report published by Foleon titled: How to Write and Format a White Paper summarizes the purpose of a white paper in the following way:

"White papers enable you to build trust among your audience. They show readers that you're reliable, experienced, and adept in a given domain. When potential customers search for information to help them understand a problem or opportunity they're facing, and you provide them with a quality white paper that helps, they'll turn to you again in the future.

This perception of authority can al
so serve to boost sales in an organization. More than half the respondents to the Eccolo Media B2B Technology Content Survey reported having read a white paper before making a buying decision. Buyers prefer to purchase from vendors they trust and see as experts in their field.

Finally, white papers are extremely useful for lead generation. The 2017 Content Preferences Survey from Demand Gen found that more than three-fourths of survey respondents were willing to exchange personal information for a white paper—more than for eBooks, case studies, analyst reports, podcasts, or infographics.

Emphasizing value is the key to a great white paper that will get shared and widely read. Your readers should come away having learned something useful and with the impression that you're a reliable source of expert information. Generating this kind of reputation will lead to greater business success as buyers are more likely to purchase from companies they trust."

What do you think? Has the purpose changed?

We hope you agree that the purpose of the white paper is still very relevant. We want to be careful that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's time for that makeover we mentioned!

In the next section, we'll explore what's not working with white papers in the digital age.