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How to Write White Papers Your Audience Will Love

Kim Brebach - Wednesday, September 30, 2020

How to Write White Papers Your Audience Will Love

Decision makers are more short of time than ever. That's why your White Papers must be sharper than ever. If they're long or boring, they'll be tossed out faster than a MacDonald's wrapper. Here are our rules for creating White Papers that move minds, and are kept and shared.   

1. The 3-30-3 Rule

This simple rule says: after a reader opens a document, you have 3 seconds to convince her to read more. Then you have 30 seconds to show her that she’ll learn something of real value. Once that's done, you have 3 minutes to say what you want to say. That’s the secret sauce, pure and simple.

2. Start with a great headline

That’s crucial when you have just 3 seconds to catch someone’s attention. Most people are wary of White Papers, even when they’re useful, because they’re so often boring and tedious or turn into infomercials halfway through. That’s why I used the word ‘love’ in the headline for this post: it’s a positive word, and it connects with the reader's emotions (a faster channel than the brain).

3. Tell them what you’re going to tell them

The best way to use that 30 seconds in the 3-30-3 rule is with a punchy summary that makes clear what the paper is about, and why it’s essential reading for your target audience. A strong, arresting quote from an authoritative source in the opening paragraph will help get the reader’s attention. Oh, and the content must keep the promise you made in the headline, or you’ll lose the reader.

4. Be direct and show your passion

During the 3 minutes, you can still lose readers if you don’t engage, inform and entertain them. Remember, you’re telling your readers a story, and a good story has pace, direction and purpose. Good stories keep the reader turning the pages, keen to find out what happens next.

Don’t be afraid to show passion for your subject, and don’t be afraid to be provocative or to ask the tough questions. Don’t take safe positions, challenge conventional wisdom instead. If you’ve nothing new to add to the debate, your readers will leave you for someone who does. More detail in  3 Reasons why Great Content Must be Disruptive.

5. Follow these rules

White papers must help solve problems, inform and educate, not promote your wares – they’re NOT brochureware.

White papers must be well researched and referenced to be valued by readers. The more useful insights you share, the more valued your papers will be.

WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? That’s what your readers are asking while they’re reading your content. It pays to remember that.

It’s not about you. It’s about your readers and the challenges in their industries, the issues that keep them awake at night. The best white papers are written from their perspective, about their concerns, in their language. 

6. Format for speed reading

Today’s information deluge has made busy people skim and skip-read most of the time. It’s called ‘power browsing’, and we have to format our content to suit the habits of our readers. That means

  •  Using headings and subheadings that clearly convey the key message of a section
  •  Using short paragraphs and short sections, and lots of interesting subheadings
  •  Using call-out boxes in a sidebar for strong quotes that make crucial points
  •  Highlighting key paragraphs so they stand out from the rest
  •  Using great graphics, charts, images and illustrations to break the monotony.

Please don’t go overboard with these ideas or you’ll put your readers off. We’re trying to make the road smooth for them, not throw rocks and spiked chains into their paths.

7. Target your content with care

Most marketers produce generic white papers, and use the old spray-and-pray style of distribution. That tends to produce pretty poor download rates, 1 to 2% if you're lucky. You can achieve download rates that are 5 to 10 times higher when you segment your database carefully and tailor your content to the needs of specific recipients. CFOs want to see ROI, CIOs want reliable, low maintenance solutions, and business managers want bigger profits. Same content, change of key words and emphasis.

Summing Up

Your content competes with a torrent of material from other sources. To make sure that it doesn’t get swept away in the deluge, your content has to be strong enough to swim – sometimes against the current. The rest is the art of presentation and story-telling.


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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