How to write, format and use a white paper

Many companies often avoid producing white papers because of their lengthy word count, depth of research, and strict structure. After all, why would a potential customer want to read a report when they can engage with your brand on social media instead?

Well, here’s the surprising thing: according to B2B content marketers, white papers are the second-most valuable type of content for turning prospects into buyers, ranking higher than video, webinars, and (you guessed it) social media posts.

More than 50 percent of respondents even said white papers are a “valuable” or “extremely valuable” lead generation tool.

Want to achieve the same success in your business? Within this guide, you’ll learn how to write and use white papers in your content marketing strategy.

What is a white paper?

A white paper is a 3-10 page report generally formatted as PDFs and used before a sale and which aims to educate, inform, and persuade readers, often for commercial reasons. They include heavily researched data, statistics, charts, illustrations, and references.

According to Gordon Graham, author of White Papers for Dummies, the recommended word count for a white paper is 3,000 to 5,000 words

White paper provides useful information for business people seeking to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision

What are white papers used for?

If you operate a business offering products or services and wish to attract leads and turn them into sales, then you need a white paper.

White papers can be used to:

  • Introduce your new product or service
  • Explain how a particular product or service works
  • Provide an in-depth look at industry trends
  • Explore a customer’s pain point and how this can be solved by your product or service

How to write a white paper

Writing a white paper is quite challenging as it requires more research, preparation, and deeper subject matter knowledge than any other type of content.

A white paper is a complex in-depth technical piece of content, that should be:

  • Written in a formal and professional style
  • Persuasive and authoritative
  • Easy to read and interesting to follow
  • Provide in-depth insights
  • Researched based and data-backed
  • Singular focused, descriptive, and detailed orientated

Referring to Lindsay Kolowich Cox from HubSpot a good white paper should respect the following guidelines:

  • The Length: not be less than six pages (including illustrations, charts, and references)
  • The Structure: should includea title, a table of contents, a short executive summary, an introduction, several pages educating about the problem, several pages hypothesizing a solution, and a conclusion.
  • Density: Denser than an ebook.
  • Format: PDF in portrait orientation (8.5″ by 11″).
  • Style: Professional, serious, well-written, and well-edited.

Let’s go through the most important steps for writing your white paper:

Step 1. Clearly define your business area of expertise

Your area of expertise is a very specific subject you or your business knows a lot about due to the first-hand experience. For example, if you’re a graphic design company specializing in branding for non-profits, then this would be your area of expertise.

To discover your area of expertise, ask yourself:

  • What parts of your job are you most passionate about?
  • What specific tasks allow your talents, skills, and insightto shine the most?
  • What subject do you know more about than the average person?
  • What have you spent years learning to do, whether at university, college, or through hands-on experience in a working environment?
  • What sets your company apart when compared to others working within your industry?

Step 2. Identify your audience’s pain points

When thinking about creating a white paper, you must identify who your target reader is. Think about these attributes: 

  • Age
  • Profession
  • Income
  • Location
  • Interests

And ask yourself questions such as:

  • What are their pain points?
  • Are they looking for a solution? If so, what sort of solution?
  • At which stage of the buyer’s journey are they at? Are they still researching how to overcome their pain point, or have they discovered your product or service but need more encouragement to commit to making the purchase?
  • Where does your target reader spend time online? What are their favorite social media platforms, forums, or online communities?

Step 3. Choose the right topic

The next step is to understand what you will be writing about.

Knowing that white papers are highly authoritative pieces of content based upon your expertise and knowledge, make sure:

  • To choose a topic you really are an expert about
  • To choose something your target audience is really interested in
  • That not too much has already been written about

To help you identify an engaging white paper topic, you must always put your customer’s needs and interests first, therefore don’t hesitate to reach out to your sales department or customer service and find what your customers are asking about, or what they need help with.

Step 4. Clearly define the solution you offer

Remember how you identified your target reader’s pain points in Step 2? Now it’s time to ask yourself: what can you do or offer that will solve this reader’s problems or make their lives better?

Once you’ve clearly defined the solution you offer, you’ll want to validate this solution with data to back-up your claims and encourage the reader’s trust.

The best sources for finding this relevant data include:

  • Research your company has already undertaken about the product or service (i.e. surveys, polls, feedback).
  • Industry research reports from trusted sources such as Forrester and Gartner. You can also find relevant industry research reports by searching [YOUR INDUSTRY] + [research firm] on Google.
  • Reliable statistic resources such as Reference CenterGoogle News, and Google Scholar.

Step 5. Perform keyword research

Keywords are the words or phrases your target customer will be typing into Google, which are relevant to your white paper’s topic.

When performing keyword research, you’ll want to find:

  • Primary head keywords: The main 1-2 keyword(s) for which you want to rank. These best define what your content is about.
  • Secondary long-tail keywords: These words or phrases play a supporting role to the primary keyword but are still related to your content and the search terms you want to rank for. Secondary keywords usually contain less search volume when compared to primary keywords.
  • Related questions: These are the questions searchers are typing into Google about your topic. These signal your target reader’s pain points, goals, or information they need to know before making a purchasing decision. Answer the Public is a great tool for this.

Step 6. Analyze your competitors content strategy

Perform a Google search or use SEO tools such as SEMRush to determine which other white papers, web pages, or blog posts you’ll be competing with, based on your keywords.

Then, use the same tools to perform an SEO analysis on these websites, which will reveal information such as:

  • Other keywords they rank for
  • How much traffic the website or web page receives
  • Other websites linking to their content (backlinks)
  • Resources they reference or link to (outbound links)

This not only lets you know what you’re up against but gives you additional keyword ideas, resources, and websites to potentially market your own white paper to.

Additional resources:

Step 7. Write your table of contents

Your table of contents acts as a very brief outline of your entire white paper. It should include the following:

  • Introduction: This should state the problem your white paper intends to solve, summarize the key points you will cover, and explain the benefits of reading your white paper.
  • Sections: These are the headings in your white paper, each addressing a different area of your topic.
  • Sub-headings: These are the supporting points within each section.
  • Conclusion: This should wrap-up the key insights and takeaways of your white paper, as well as include a call-to-action.
  • References: These are the information sources you used when researching and/or referenced within your white paper.

Step 8. Communicate with your content writer

Either you have an in-house copywriter, or you can hire one.

When it’s time to approach your content writer about completing your white paper, you’ll want to ask the following questions to ensure you’re both on the same page:

  • What are your rates for a project of this type and length?
  • How long will it take you to complete the first draft of this project? When can I expect the second draft?
  • Approximately how long do revisions take?
  • Have you written about this topic before?
  • Have you written a white paper before? If so, can I see examples?
  • What are your terms and conditions?

Step 9. Provide a brief writing outline

Your content writer will also need to be supplied with a brief writing outline so they can flesh-out the project. This should include the following:

  • Title
  • Description of project
  • Target reader
  • Desired tone
  • Required length (in total and length of each individual section)
  • Goal of project
  • About the company / who is the author
  • Table of contents
  • Sections / headings and sub-headings
  • Problem statement
  • Solution
  • Conclusion

Step 10. Provide SEO writing instructions

You’ll also want your content writer to embrace SEO practices when writing the white paper. This boosts its chances of being ranked highly for related search terms, increasing the number of readers (and potential customers) you receive.

Provide the writer with your keyword research and ask them to naturally include the primary and secondary keywords throughout the content, including in the:

  • Title
  • Headings
  • Sub-headings
  • Body text

Step 11. Provide the list of resources to cite

Remember when you put together your references and sources? Provide your writer with this list so they can use them throughout the writing process to back up any claims and strengthen your company’s position as a trusted authority on the topic.

Step 12. Get the draft proofread

Once the writer has returned their final draft of your white paper, it’s time to get it to proofread to ensure there are absolutely no errors. While you can do this yourself, we recommend hiring a freelance proofreader to double-check its spelling, grammar, and accuracy. 

Step 13. Get the white paper SEO optimized

Although the white paper has been written with relevant keywords in mind, you’ll still need to tick some tasks off your checklist to ensure it’s completely SEO optimized upon publishing. These include:

  • Get an SEO friendly URL (short and straight-to-the-point) that includes the primary keyword
  • Use the primary keyword in the page title (H1) and at least one sub-heading (H2)
  • Use primary and secondary keywords in the title tag , meta description, and image alt tag
  • Use Schema markup for more relevancy
  • Add relevant inbound links from/to other pages on your blog or website
  • Add relevant outbound links to trusted resources and sources

Dos and don’ts when creating a white paper

  • Put your customer’s needs and interests first when choosing a topic
  • Use your company’s branding throughout the white paper where possible, including logo, color scheme, and fonts
  • Promote your white paper as much as possible and include effective calls-to-action to encourage readers
  • Include your contact and copyright information in the footer of each page
  • Outsource work such as writing, design, SEO optimization, and proof reading to freelance professionals
  • Use “salesy” language or use your white paper as a sales pitch
  • Write a white paper in excess of ten pages. Keep it succinct to avoid turning readers away
  • Give your white paper away without getting your reader’s details (preferably name and email address). You can use this valuable information for lead generation

White paper format

White papers follow a standard document format including:

  1. A title
  2. The abstract
  3. A problem statement
  4. The solution
  5. A conclusion
  6. The references

#1. The title

Your white paper’s title is extremely important. After all, when readers are browsing search engines or white paper collections, it’s the first thing they read.

Ensure your title:

  • Includes your primary SEO keyword
  • Highlights the benefit to your reader: Why should they care? What do they have to gain from reading it?
  • Arouse readers’ curiosity with a question, promise, or bold statement
  • Doesn’t come across as being too “salesy” or click-bait-like
  • Isn’t too lengthy: break long titles down into a title and sub-title
  • Sets a realistic expectation for the reader: your white paper needs to deliver what the title promises
  • Doesn’t use technical language or jargon

#2. The abstract

The abstract is a brief summary of your white paper’s topic helping your readers understand if they found the right document that answers their needs and solves their main pain points.

#3. Problem statement

The problem statement specifies the problems or issues your white paper seeks to address ensuring that all your readers know what the problem is.

#4. The solution

This is the crucial stage of your white paper where the solution is presented and developed.

#5. The conclusion

The conclusion must simply summarize your white paper findings and might include useful recommendations based on the problem and solution offered

#6. The References

As you have learned earlier within this guide during your preparation phase, you have researched and collected a list of reputable references from which you have pulled data, statistics, illustrations, or charts that you will use to back up any claims you make. It’s important to cite and link to all those references.

White paper design

White papers also need to be visually appealing, If you neglect your white paper design, you make a big mistake.

Your white paper must stand out by its content but also by its design, therefore it’s advisable to get help from a professional graphic designer. If you have one in-house then you are set otherwise, your best option is to outsource one.

White papers can include several visual elements going from charts, graphs, icons, a sidebar, or social sharing buttons to name a few. For maximum impact, they all must be visually captivating, and obviously aligned to your branding.

As a good practice make sure to:

  • Use your company’s branding throughout the white paper where possible, including logo, color scheme, and fonts
  • Include effective calls-to-action to encourage readers
  • Include your contact and copyright information in the footer of each page

White paper distribution

When it comes down to content such as white papers, you can’t pretend to just publish it and wait for the traffic to come in. To be successful with content marketing, you must be proactive with content distribution.

There are plenty of ways to distribute your white paper to ensure it’s constantly reaching your target audience and being put in front of fresh eyes.

Among others, you can consider:

Content repurposing

These include reproducing the white paper as:

  • a podcast or video series
  • a presentation (i.e. a webinar) with slides and a voiceover
  • a series of email newsletters
  • blog post series or guest post 


Submit your paper to syndication sites to expose it to communities, such as CampaignLiveFind White Papers, and Retail Wire.

Email marketing

Create opportunities for backlinks by emailing every source or reference in your white paper and informing them that you have mentioned them. Let them know if they like the content and find it useful for their readers, they are welcome to share it.

Introduce your white paper to your competitor’s backlinks (from Step 10). Email them explaining you saw their article and have published an exhaustive white paper on exactly the same topic, which you’re happy to share the link to for them to review the content. If they like the content and find it valuable for their audience, then you can suggest that they provide a backlink to it. 

Take advantage of any authoritative websites linking to your competitor’s broken links. Inform them that they have a broken link within their content and suggest that if they like your white paper, they can link to yours instead. 

Lead generation

Give your prospects the opportunity to download the white paper in PDF format in exchange for their email address so you can retarget them with custom email marketing campaigns. 


Run targeted Google Ad campaigns, as well as on your target reader’s most-used social media platforms.

Forum marketing

Answer questions related to your topic on Quora or other forums where your target readers visit. Establish yourself as an authority and include a link to your white paper in your profile.


White papers are one of the most valuable types of content for converting prospects into customers. They’re even considered to be more effective than video, webinars, and social media posts. 

You see, white papers are a great way to establish your company’s expertise, address a pain point experienced by your target customers, and present your product or service as the solution – all in a professional and educational way.  

The lead generation doesn’t just end there either. The beauty of an effective white paper is that it can be both marketed and re-purposed into the future, whether as a blog post, email newsletter, podcast, webinar, or video series. This allows you to increase engagement, reach a wider range of your ideal audience, and boost your white paper success ten-fold.

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