White papers are one of the most effective tools in the digital marketing tool chest. They are valuable pieces of content that are used by B2B buyers to research and compare solutions. Their length, format, and style allow you to speak in more detail on a topic that is important, relevant, and useful to your audience.
Done well, white papers help you demonstrate thought-leadership and expertise so that potential customers trust you when they are ready to buy.
However, writing a strong white paper that people actually want to download and read is easier said than done. Too often, the potential success of a white paper is limited before the first sentence is even typed into.
Because the chosen topic is not a good fit for a white paper campaign.
In this article, we’ll explain what makes a good white paper topic and show how companies across industries can turn a list of good but incomplete ideas into a focused, specific, and useful white paper campaign.
This article is part of a series on white papers. If you want to learn more, download our very own white paper on white papers, [white paper title], and see how you can overcome five of the most common challenges companies face when developing a white paper campaign.
In our last article, we borrowed from HubSpot’s definition of a white paper, which they define as “a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution.”
Let’s look at that last part in more detail. A white paper should be on a specific topic, present a problem, and provide a solution.
But how can you narrow your focus to a specific topic?
First, you need to identify who you’re writing the paper for. Who is your audience? What questions are they asking? What’s holding them back from achieving their goals? And what knowledge or expertise do you have that can help them?
If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you may need to take a step back and define your buyer personas. A recent Content Marketing Institute report found that 77 percent of the most successful B2B marketers use personas, compared to only 36 percent of the least successful.
For companies with multiple products, markets, segments, or types of customers, focus your paper on one specific group. By grounding your paper in the needs of your reader, you can decide what fits and what should be left out. This also helps to take away some of the doubt or hesitation around what to talk about, because you have already done the work to find out what they are interested in.
Second, you need to align the paper with the strategic goals of your organization. Why do you want a white paper? What role will it play in your marketing? How does it fit with your strategy? What do you want the reader to do once they’ve downloaded and read it?
The topic of your white paper will look different depending on how it will be used. If, for example, you’re using your white paper to support a new product launch, you may decide to talk about the technologies and innovations underlying the new solution. If, instead, you want to generate leads in a specific vertical market, you may decide to focus on a key industry trend or a new approach to a common industry challenge.
Now that you’ve identified your audience and defined your campaign strategy, the next step is to brainstorm ideas and topics to cover in the white paper.
White papers, first and foremost, are educational and informative. They are not product documentation or sales pitches, and they should, as much as possible, refrain from promoting your business directly.
What matters is that your topic aligns with your audience and the strategic objectives of your business, without being self-serving or salesy.
If this sounds counterintuitive, remember that white papers are most often used early in the buyer’s journey. At this stage, your readers are doing research and are not necessarily ready to buy. While there is a time and place for more product-focused information, try to focus on helping your customer before promoting yourself.
As you brainstorm, you’ll undoubtedly come up with a list of great ideas that don’t necessarily fit with the campaign you’re running.
The good news is that you don’t have to throw good ideas away! Keep track of them and see if they’re better suited to other formats, such as a blog post, article, video, webinar, or social media post.
If you’re planning to run multiple white paper campaigns down the road, map each idea to a theme and start developing your next topics. As you go through this process a few times, you’ll start to build a full content calendar that addresses each of audiences, markets, or solutions, giving you a clear plan of what to do next.
White papers that try to be all things to all people end up as a jumbled mess of half-baked ideas, poorly explained concepts, and loosely connected themes that don’t fit together to tell a specific story.
While there is no such thing as a bad idea, not every good idea needs to end up in the paper. Good ideas forced into the document take the focus off the main point and distract the reader from the key takeaway. Similarly, new ideas that come up late in the process or after the drafts have already been approved can lead to delays and rework that disrupt the launch of the campaign.
A lack of focus risks leaving the reader more confused than when they started – not great if you’re trying to be seen as a thought-leader.
Before you dive into writing, choose a topic that is as specific as possible. Ensure you’re speaking directly to a key customer challenge, explaining the importance of a recent industry trend, or demonstrating a new and better approach to a common way of thinking.
From there, you’ll be well on your way to creating a white paper that your audience actually wants to read.
Planning your next white paper campaign and want to avoid the challenges that have limited the success of other companies? Download our recent white paper [Demystifying White Papers: How to get better content and generate more leads] to learn from our experiences writing dozens of white papers for companies of all sizes.