How To Structure A White Paper

Amy Brueckman    By under White Paper Marketing.

White papers are a great way to establish your company as a thought leader in your field and become recognized as a credible source. They're highly quotable and linkable for journalists on the lookout for statistics.

But they can also be incredibly dense. When writing a white paper, it's important to make the content engaging as possible, and adding graphs and images can help to break up the monotony of text box after text box. 

So, how should you go about tackling this beast? This month we asked the experts:

What is the best way to structure a white paper?

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Writing a strong white paper depends on the type of your product and the interests of your prospects. However, there are certainly some ground rules that we go by when writing white papers for clients. 

First, every image and chart should have a utility, not just to look pretty. Engineers and technicians reading your white paper are not looking for how pretty it is, they are looking for how this can help them advance their research or improve their production process. We recommend 2-3 images, each referenced in the text, and each with a caption. 

Second, ensure that every white paper has a clear call-to-action and purpose. The reason you're making this content is to build awareness and new leads, so make sure there is an obvious next step for readers to take. 

Nathan Fuller, Launch Team, Inc. 

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Once you've got over the hurdle of finalizing a whitepaper's text, the next step is making your whitepaper digestible.

Whitepapers are written in an academic - in other words, dry - style and range from anything between 1500 and 3000 words. Without decent and informative graphics, you'll lose readers' interest very quickly.

In my most recent white paper, there's a graphic on every page - some are simply the free icons installed in Microsoft Word!

Excel graphs are ideal for emphasizing data, as numbers on a screen don't always do justice. Also, tables are great for pros and cons lists. Lastly, pull out quotes push any important points.

In terms of layout, a contents page and an introduction signposting the chapters highlight what the reader will learn. Numbering pages alongside the page total, signals to the reader how long is left to finish the document. Research shows that when we know how long a piece of content takes to consume, the more likely we will finish it. 

Holly Callender, Pro-Sapien

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While visuals serve to draw the eye, your text and your information are the primary focus. Ultimately, people are reading your white paper to learn from you, so the statistics you report and the insights you draw from them need to stay front and center. 

Generally, we like to see a page that is 75% hard information (text, charts, graphs, etc.) and 25% compelling visual design. The graphics that take up a quarter of the white paper real estate can be anything from attractive header and footer graphics to the perfect photo ( stock or otherwise) that makes your point. I compare the practical information to a great meal, while the visuals are the garnish that makes it more appetizing. 

This 75/25 ratio ensures that the white paper is seriously beneficial and educational for your reader -- this is important especially if the reader had to pay or subscribe to your email list to access it.

Lee Dussinger, WebTek

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The white paper should be written in the language of the audience. If the audience is tech experts, then be sure to include plenty of tech-speak in words and visuals. If the audience is laypeople and the topic is technical, use plenty of data and information visualization. 

You might even consider making the white paper more of an infographic to help the audience grasp complex ideas more quickly. Not only will you help them understand your product or service more readily, but you'll also be subtly telling them that you will be easy to work with. 

Pro Tip: Blend your brand voice with the language of your audience. Don't use your industry jargon, use their descriptors and words. 

Marilyn Heywood Paige, Inciting Marketing

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You need to to keep a white paper readable. It's not a research paper or thesis, it's a pitch. Lose your reader and you're dead in the water. 

There are three top-level topics; issue, discussion, and recommendation. Alternately; What's wrong, Why It Matters it Matters and How to Fix It.  If there's more than one possible fix or recommendation make sure they are good, better, and best. There should not be a single word that does not hammer one of those points home. This isn't Proust, it's business.

Casey Raiford, Plex Solutions

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Whitepaper formatting in 2019 should follow a design that puts function before flashiness. A minimalist design approach keeps the reader's focus on your words and content. Flashy designs may have 'wowed' a couple of years ago, but now excessive animation can come across as gimmicky and cheap. 

We formatted our startup white paper in Google Docs, building upon one of their standard templates. It cost nothing and got great feedback from our target audience. Any visual should add new information rather than repeat information that was already conveyed in the text. One benefit from charts and graphs is that they're easily shareable -- we see people screenshot our growth chart from our white paper and share that as a single snippet.

Tyler Marx, 

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A white paper is a tricky thing to format. You have to find a balance between scholarly article, slideshow, and in-depth analytics report, all while maintaining a consistent tone and visual identity. 

The most effective breakdown in my experience is roughly 60% text, 15% images, and 25% graphs/data visualization. Note that I say images rather than visuals - the entire white paper needs to be formatted with a consistent visual identity, so things like section headers and noteworthy quotes can (and should) be presented in such a way that they could also be considered part of the visuals. 

Depending on your industry, you'll also want to modify the ratio of text to data visualization - certain topics lend themselves to more creative methods of presenting data, and an aesthetically pleasing graph is just as good as a picture in terms of counterbalancing the text in your white paper layout!

Eve Lyons-Berg, Aggregage

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The format of a white paper should be easy to follow for the reader, as well as easy to view on any device. It's important to include a contents page so readers can quickly identify the structure of the content, and jump to any specific areas they wish to review. 

Our team likes to include wide margins when formatting to make viewing slightly easier in mobile form, as well as include lots of white space for skim readers. Breaking up content with headlines and imagery also makes the content look more pleasing to the eye and keeps the reader interested - no one wants to encounter the dreaded wall of text!

Megan Meade, Software Path