White Paper Format: Fact or Fiction?

March 9, 2010
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White papers are still one of the most popular marketing tools for BI and high tech companies, among others. Proof positive is that I just finished my fifth white paper in almost as many weeks.

I find some long held beliefs about white papers very interesting. Like many opinions, some are held long past their expiration dates. For some, they want things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

I particularly find strong opinions around whether or not to include a table of contents and executive summary, and how long the white paper should be. Here are some considerations I think should help make an objective decision:

Table of contents – Personally, I’m not a big fan of using a ToC in white papers, unless they are very long (12 or more pages). Your goal is to get your reader reading right away and keep them reading. The ToC is yet one more distraction. Having said that, I think they are very helpful in longer papers. Readers can use them to quickly find sections they want to read again. Skimmers will use them to review the flow to get a quick understanding of where the topic is going

White papers are still one of the most popular marketing tools for BI and high tech companies, among others. Proof positive is that I just finished my fifth white paper in almost as many weeks.

I find some long held beliefs about white papers very interesting. Like many opinions, some are held long past their expiration dates. For some, they want things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

I particularly find strong opinions around whether or not to include a table of contents and executive summary, and how long the white paper should be. Here are some considerations I think should help make an objective decision:

Table of contents – Personally, I’m not a big fan of using a ToC in white papers, unless they are very long (12 or more pages). Your goal is to get your reader reading right away and keep them reading. The ToC is yet one more distraction. Having said that, I think they are very helpful in longer papers. Readers can use them to quickly find sections they want to read again. Skimmers will use them to review the flow to get a quick understanding of where the topic is going. Because of that, it’s important to use headers and subheads that alone, in the ToC, can tell the story.

Exec summary – Again, executive summaries are nice on longer papers. It can satisfy the skimmers who don’t need the full details but want to stay current with the topic. But the main reason you might want to include one is if you are hosting your paper with a syndicator or you have a number of white papers in the resources section of your website. If users find your title appealing, they can validate whether they should take the time reading the whole thing by reading the executive summary first. It’s a way of self-targeting and self-selecting.

Executive summaries should be written in a compelling way to entice your readers to want to learn more. Spend the most time on describing the problem (business or technical) that you will be addressing. Add interesting statistics and maybe throw in a small visual.

Length – There seems to be a trend toward shorter white papers. Whereas, it used to be standard that white papers were 10-12 pages. Now we’re seeing more papers in the 4-6 page range. I understand it. Busy executives have less time to read through a longer paper. But I also feel shorter papers may not do the topic justice and may not give the reader the information they need to help build their business case.

So, for thought leadership papers that describe new trends, strategies, and approaches, short papers are fine. But for solution papers, a longer format is generally required in order to thoroughly describe the problem, market drivers, high level, and detailed solution.

Curious what has worked for you, either as a reader or a marketer. What thoughts (and opinions) do you have?

…back to work, got more white papers to write!

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