How to Define Your White Paper Audience

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Understanding who your white paper audience is, and why, when and how they read a white paper, can help you create a more successful document.

The goal of the white paper writer should be to appeal to as many different types of readers as possible, knowing that each reader may be at a different stage in the sales cycle.  Read through the four questions below to get to know your audience:

1. Who reads white papers?
White papers are read by almost anyone contemplating the purchase of a relatively new, complex, or high-priced product or service for their business.  This leaves white paper writers with a pretty wide scope of potential readers, all with varying titles, roles, budgets, business goals and purchasing power.

Most commonly white paper readers  fall into the following categories:

-Corporate executives (decision-makers)
-Finance executives (financial recommenders)
-IT managers and staff (technical recommenders)
-Line-of-business managers (managers)
– User representatives (users)
-In-house supporters of the purchase (“champions”)

In larger companies, all these people may sit together on a selection committee that makes a collective decision. In smaller firms, some people may wear several of these hats and meet informally to discuss their purchase. Readers will routinely pass good white papers up and down the chain of command, to both their managers and their staff. White papers are especially well-read by IT managers. One survey showed that they read a median of 30 white papers a year, with some reading more than 50 a year… that’s one every week!

2. Why do people read white papers?
White paper readers are seeking useful information to help them understand an issue or solve a problem. This often involves learning about the business benefits or technical details of a product or service they are considering buying. A survey of IT managers by and Bitpipe (now TechTarget) showed that they read white papers for the following reasons:

-Stay on top of new trends (76%)
-Get information about products and vendors (69%)
-Compare products (50%)
-Help justify buying decisions (42%)
-Develop a short list of qualified vendors (33%)

White papers used to be aimed strictly at IT professionals. Today, many less technical people are involved in big buying decisions. These people are seeking plain-language explanations with clear business benefits, backed up by convincing facts and arguments.

3. When do people read white papers?
People tend to read white papers when they:

-Dream of a way around a pressing problem
-Wonder if anything could solve their problem
-Look for something to satisfy their wish-list
-Research a possible purchase
-Make up a short list of qualified vendors.

Executives at the IT portal KnowledgeStorm encourage clients to think of a technology sale in four phases.

1. Vision: a business person is imagining how to solve a problem. At that point, a high-level white paper focused on business benefits can help them visualize the possibilities of using a certain offering.

2. Planning: a prospect is trying to map a set of functional requirements to a certain product. That’s when a more detailed, technical white paper can help them understand how a given solution would work in their environment.

3. Evaluation: a prospect is actively looking at a set of products from a short list of vendors. The need for white papers has pretty much passed. An Evaluator’s Guide for a complex product might be helpful at this point. But more often, prospects want the reassurance of seeing case studies from other customers.

4. Acquisition: a customer is actually purchasing and installing a product. They may need added information to help them do so, but it’s more accurate to call this “documentation” rather than a white paper. After all, the white paper has already played its role and the sale has already been made. Everything from this point on is after-sales support.

4. How do people read white papers?
These days almost everyone has more to read, more to remember and more to do than they can possibly get to. For example, one study showed that the typical manager has more than 50 hours of work sitting on their desk. They’re not exactly waiting for another document to add to the pile.

No one reads white papers for fun; they read them for work. So most people who read white papers do not read the same way they might read a novel, paying attention to every sentence. Instead,they tend to skim, scan and skip… especially if they’re reading off the screen. Don’t you?

This means that white papers must be carefully written and designed for business readers with limited time and attention. A wall of grey text is not likely to engage today’s white paper reader. White papers need to use visual breakers like sidebars, callouts, headings, lines, boxes, bullets and graphics to focus the attention of scanners and skimmers. These visuals need to point out the key messages of the document in a way that’s easy for today’s busy readers to follow.

Good news: There is now an entire book devoted to this subject. See Jonathan Kantor’s excellent title “Crafting White Paper 2.0: Designing Information for Today’s Time and Attention Challenged Business Reader.”


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