White papers: Objective, Yet Opinionated

Financial writer-editor Susan Weiner discusses the key characteristics of white paper in this guest post. Her previous guest post for the ASPBE Blog was “LinkedIn Groups Help Blog Posts Soar.”

White papers are a great tool for business publications. White papers can entice audience members to register for access to your website. You can sell them as special reports. You can even benefit from other people’s white papers by offering advertisers the option to post their white papers on a “sponsored” section of your site or to distribute them through your email lists. However, many different kinds of writing are labeled “white papers.” My curiosity prompted me to conduct a survey on white paper’s essential characteristics. I discuss some of the survey’s results below.

Three characteristics of white papers stood out in responses to my white paper survey. The characteristics most rated “very important” were

  • Are factual – 82%
  • Offers “thought leadership” – 67%
  • Poses a problem and describes how to solve it – 39%

In addition, these were the only three characteristics for which no one checked “does not apply.”

To explain what these three characteristics mean to respondents, I’ll share some responses to my open-ended question, “For you, what is the most important characteristic of a white paper?”

1.  Factual.

For me, “factual” means based on facts and relatively objective, although the facts in a white paper should be mustered in support of an argument.

Here are some related quotes on white papers’ most important characteristics.

  • Intellectual honesty
  • “Actual education instead of attempting… to sell a product:
  • “Unlike blog posts and small articles, a white paper should be a somewhat seminal, all-encompassing piece on a topic. It should look at the topic from multiple viewpoints and should be an all-in-one resource on the topic.”

2.  Thought leadership

“Thought leadership” is a tough term to define. I think it should involve uncovering new information or new solutions to problems. At a minimum, I believe, a white paper should present a distinct opinion of point of view.

One respondent said a white paper should provide “real insight into an important area of my work.” Another said, “It must contain an original idea or perspective.”

3.  Problem/solution

For me, it’s critical that a white paper pose and solve a problem faced by readers. I emphasize this because it gives the audience a reason to care about the white paper.

Some respondents mentioned solutions in their comments. For example, one said that white papers should “Take a topic critical to the audience we support and define it. Show why it matters. Issue, at a minimum, a soft call to action for addressing the issue.”

Note on the survey

This survey was conducted in January-February 2011. Responses were solicited through my LinkedIn Groups, Twitter, and my monthly e-newsletter. As a result, many responses may come from marketers, writers, and financial professionals. I plan to post more survey results on my Investment Writing blog.

Do you agree?

Do my survey results fit with YOUR thoughts about white papers?

Susan B. Weiner, CFA, writes and edits articles, white papers, investment commentary, web pages, and other communications for leading investment and wealth management firms as well as financial trade publications. She will moderate and speak on a panel about “Writing White Papers” at the2011 annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.


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