What Message Does Your White Paper Style Send?

The term white paper means different things to different people. Webster's refers to a white paper as an authoritative report, which might be the most applicable definition to the business world. Businesses often create white papers to present their view on particular problems or issues, along with the best way to address those issues. Sounds simple enough, but there are actually subtle or not so subtle differences between what some people term a white paper is or is not. More importantly, those differences affect the type of message your white paper conveys.

Objective White Papers

Some white paper purists live by the rule that a white paper must maintain a neutral position that presents completely objective statements, guidance and advice. In other words, the view from this camp is that when a business creates a white paper, they shouldn’t make claims about how their solutions or services address the issues discussed in that paper.

While some might struggle to see the value in investing in the creation of neutral content that doesn’t promote their own offerings, a growing number of businesses have come to recognize that white papers of this type provide a great marketing vehicle to expand their presence as thought leaders. Such thought leadership marketing tools can become important aspects of an organization’s overall marketing strategy.

Rolf Jester, VP and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner, refers to this as “The practice of giving some useful information or advice so as to create awareness of the value that you can deliver. It can favourably position you in the perception of senior executives, create differentiation and stimulate demand for your products or services.” (Show, Don’t Tell: Getting Started with Thought Leadership Marketing by Rolf Jester).

Solution Oriented White Papers

While thought leadership continues to prove itself as a critical aspect of marketing strategies, it doesn’t mean that organizations should never tout their own services and solutions. You do your customers a disservice if you can’t provide them cogent marketing collateral that describes how your solutions or services address the challenges they face. You need to be able to not only show your customers that you understand their pain, but that you have the ability to address that pain and make their life easier.

While some might prefer to categorize this type of collateral under names such as solution papers, solution briefs, technical briefs, or some other name besides white paper, what you call it doesn't really matter. What matters is that you need well thought-out messaging that clearly and convincingly communicates how you are best positioned to address your customers’ needs. Not only can a paper of this type be a great leave-behind for your sales people, but it’s crucial for those potential customers that visit your web page and simply want more details about what you really have to offer.

Such solution-oriented papers need to be crafted with the target audience in mind. For those who will be closely involved in the usage or implementation of the offering this might mean longer, more detailed papers that provide the ins and outs of how the offering works. For executive-level decision makers it likely requires a shorter, high-level proof-point styled brief.

Hybrid White Papers

Hybrid white papers can be an effective way to promote thought leadership, while making it clear how your offerings can best serve your customers’ needs. They give you the flexibility to be as objective or as solution-oriented as you want. One popular type of hybrid white paper remains completely objective throughout the entire paper until the last one or two paragraphs. Those final paragraphs give you the opportunity to present at a very high level how you address the issues discussed in the paper. This provides a nice way to flex your thought leadership muscles, while only giving brief mention to your capabilities. It also has the effect of implying that your business can deliver on most, if not all that the paper discussed.

Another hybrid white paper type objectively discusses the best approaches to solving customer issues, while providing honest insight on how your offerings compare to the competition in delivering on those approaches. This style of hybrid white paper works well if your offerings actually have significant advantages or differentiators over the competition. These white papers become even more effective when you have independent research or analyst studies that verify your position and claims.

It’s fine if you prefer objective, solution-oriented, hybrid or a mix of all the different white paper styles. Each of the different white paper types can serve as effective marketing tools depending on how and what message you want to convey to your customers. It really comes down to the fact that before you commission the creation of any piece of marketing collateral, you need to first understand the needs of your target audience, the optimal way to address those needs, and then decide how the piece to be written will best fit into your overall marketing strategy.

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