What Defines A White Paper?

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There no “rules” or universal standards for what makes a white paper, so many people use this label very carelessly. By my “classic” definition, a white paper contains useful information to help people understand some relatively new, complex or expensive offering they are considering buying for their business.

There are many other types of useful information, but I don’t consider them white papers. For example, marketing consultant Perry Marshall names 40+ types of documents that he considers to be white papers, including:

-Application guide
-Cheat sheet
-Installation guide
-Manual (?!)
-Optimizer
-Pocket guide
-Reference
-Troubleshooting guide
-Tutorial

But notice how many of these items are really documentation used after a purchase when installing, learning or troubleshooting a system. To my thinking, a white paper is strictly a pre-sales document used before a purchase. It’s not documentation or support, it’s sales and marketing.

Below are descriptions of brochures, case studies and press releases; the three most common documents  misconstrued as white papers. While brochures, case studies and press releases can work in tandem with a white paper, when you analyze these three documents, it becomes clear that they are NOT white papers and should not be promoted as such. Let’s take a look at the differences:

Brochures
White papers and brochures are almost complete opposites. Brochures are sales documents intended to create interest and desire. Brochures push “emotional buttons” such as fear, greed, envy or vanity. They are generally colorful, flashy and filled with promises and use the techniques of copywriting and advertising.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology.  White papers appeal more to logic through irrefutable facts, iron-clad logic, impeccable statistics and quotes from industry opinion-makers. They are generally plain-looking, not flashy and filled with facts. They use the techniques of rhetoric and plain English.

Some companies simply reformat a brochure and call the result a “white paper.” This is a dangerous waste of effort. Most readers become irritated when they discover that a vendor has done this. I have heard people urge vendors to make their white papers as flashy as brochures, but I don’t think this is a good strategy. A white paper should be much more dignified, substantial and informative than a brochure. Making it look like a sales piece is the kiss of death for a white paper.

Case Studies
White papers sometimes mention case studies for evidence of a vendor’s claims. But the two are quite different in form and content. Case studies are extended testimonials on how a product or service helped someone in the real world. They are typically between 500 and 1,500 words long, written in a journalistic style with many quotes from the actual customer. The classic format for a case study is Before/After, Then/Now, Problem/Solution: Before we had this terrible problem, then we found this fantastic product, and After we started using it, everything was sweetness and light.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology. They are generally 3,000 words or more, written in a somewhat academic style, with no direct quotes from the vendor’s representatives. A white paper may be told in the Problem/Solution format, but rarely in the Before/After format. White papers tend to be used earlier in the sales cycle, while case studies tend to be used later in the sales cycle to reassure a prospect that other buyers benefitted from the same approach they are considering.

Press Releases
Press releases are short, factual announcements of interest to a certain audience. This format has existed for perhaps 100 years. Until recently, press releases were used to influence media “gatekeepers” and gain publicity for their sponsor. The most effective press releases were recycled by journalists into printed articles. Today, press releases are available to anyone on the Web, without the need for any gatekeeper.

A contemporary press release must be highly factual. In fact, there are rules about what a public company can say in a press release. White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology. Modern white papers have existed for perhaps 50 years and the format has evolved quickly since the turn of the century. While a white paper is sponsored by a company—the same as a press release— white papers are generally much longer than press releases, with more room to present facts and develop arguments.

White papers are sometimes packaged with press releases as a “press kit.” And they are sometimes republished in trade magazines as articles. On the Web, white papers are available to almost everyone. There are no legal limits on what a company can say in a white paper. But it’s best to take a journalistic approach, backing up every assertion with statistics, facts and quotes from respected sources.

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