Just about everyone who has surfed the net in recent times will have come across something called a white paper. Exactly what white papers are and the purposes that they are created for have changed over time to such an extent that there is now considerable confusion and conflicting ideas regarding the nature and classification of the various types of white paper.
We are going to identify those elements that are common to nearly all white papers as well as those elements that set some white papers apart from the rest of the run-of-the-mill variations.
Types of White Papers
As consumers of white papers it is important to realize that many white papers are created with considerable bias in that they may discuss various aspects of a topic in such a way as to present information that is favorable to whoever is sponsoring them (commissioned the development of the white paper in the first place).
White papers can be presented in many different styles and formats. Generally the author of the white paper will choose a style and format that best reflects the methods used in generating any data cited as reference or support for the objectives of individual white papers. This may involve the deliberate omission of information deemed to be “competitive” in nature.
For example; any given white paper may not mention a competitor’s product unless the white paper’s sponsor’s product can be shown to be superior in some way. The methods used by AMD and Intel to highlight their product’s performance capabilities in comparison with those of the other’s product.
White Paper Generic Reports
Over the years white papers have generally tended to be presented in the report format. The reason for this was that the report format is particularly suited to that category of white papers created specifically to provide information or advice to the reader. The type of information or advice served up in this manner has varied considerably over the years.
With this generic report type of white paper, you generally find that the first heading after the title will usually be along the lines of “abstract”. The following passage(s) will outline a scenario and the rest of the document will continue to develop this theme and present the information that the creators of the white paper want to pass on to you.
There also tends to be a section at the very end of this type of white paper entitled “conclusions” which as you no doubt have guessed summarizes the information presented earlier in the white paper. In many instances the last section of the conclusions section generally makes a recommendation such as why the white paper’s sponsor’s product is the best choice.
The difference between the generic report white paper and those white papers used specifically as a marketing tool lies in the general style in which each is presented as well as the manner in which the information contained within them is structured and presented. The marketing tool white paper will generally mention the sponsor’s product continually throughout and considerably more times than the generic report white paper does.
White Paper Authoritative Reports
The authoritative report type of white paper has much in common with the generic report white paper but places considerably more emphasis upon the information it presents as opposed to any specific or generic product information.
Educating the Reader – One weighty objective of many authoritative report white papers is to educate the reader. In the case of corporate backed and produced white papers, this usually means to educate the company’s customers. It also serves to collect leads for a company.
The manner in which it is structured means that the authoritative report can present a very powerful argument designed to help people make decisions. No prizes for guessing what decision the authors of this type of white paper want the reader to make. The decision wanted is for the reader to buy their products.
Some of the very early white papers were very informative. Many were “sponsored” by corporations that initially allowed the authors usually researchers, to provide most of the direction and input. This was not very different from the way things worked prior to the advent of the PC. Companies funded certain research projects and the findings became publically available.
It was of most benefit if a company could entice a well-respected academic to do the research and produce a high quality acclaimed report. In order to avoid embarrassment many companies selected the projects and researchers based around topics, which they the corporate sponsor had absolutely no involvement. This way there was no possibility of the works they sponsored coming back to bite them.
Today we see the authoritative report style of white paper presented with a liberal dose of propaganda. This is counter-productive because most readers will simply tune out and move onto something else. No sale made here. A paper about storage devices sponsored by Hewlett Packard will tell us all about the wonders of some HP product. It will not tell us about the alternatives.
Something that these folk seem to have forgotten is that while their latest and greatest new storage server is a wonderful thing many of us would like some information about other types of storage. HP could tell us about their external storage array but no. only the $150,000 blade center gets a mention.
Organization-Oriented White Papers
This class of white paper often focuses upon an organization’s internal issues. Organizational policy is the most common topic in this group of white papers. Sometimes this means procedural information, proposed action(s) or other material relevant to a specific topic of current concern.
White Papers as a Marketing Tool
There are no prizes for guessing what this category of white paper is intended to produce. The “spin” doctors have taken over and the term “white paper” has now changed to refer to documents that unashamedly highlight the benefits of specific technologies and products.
They really are little more than promotional literature more or less in the same promo formats that we have come to know over the years. The difference is that now they carry the title white paper. This form of white paper is nearly exclusively a form of marketing communications designed to promote a specific company’s solutions or products as it relates to the issue or topic examined.
Censorship – One should never lose sight of the fact that these documents will spotlight information that is favorable to the company authoring or sponsoring the white paper while minimizing (or omitting) information that may be deemed to be potentially “negative” in nature to the company, its products and/or technologies.
Masked White Paper Reports
Here we have another category of documentation that presents labeled either as a white paper or as an exclusive report. In reality, both are purely marketing hype. I think you may have seen the odd “exclusive secret report” or the “35 page report exposing the shocking truth” or maybe this one “underground secrets exposed”.
This group of supposed reports and white papers are nothing more than the painful marketing blurb that most of us can live without. I have checked a few of these ones out and have come to the conclusion that if the person producing the report had used 10 point font the entire 35 page report suddenly becomes a little over two pages. I; like so many others, tend to find it very hard to give this type of activity any credit what so ever.