Creating Effective White Papers That Ignite Action

The term “white paper” originated with the Churchill White Paper of 1922. The first white paper explained conflict in British-controlled Palestine and made recommendations on how to address it. It was called a white paper because of the color of the document’s cover, and it was much shorter than the government “blue book.”

Since the 1990s, white papers have been used as marketing and sales tools by businesses. An effective white paper is long form content that helps readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. It uses selected facts, research findings, and logical arguments to build a case. In business, white papers often build the case for a product. Among purpose-driven organizations, they are more likely to build the case for an idea.

What can a white paper do for your organization? It can leverage thought leadership and show expertise. It can help build relationships. It can inform and persuade prospective advocates, members, or donors.

“White papers are great tools for generating credibility. Customers respond better to informative write-ups than they do to blatant ads,” according to Contently. “The trick is to make sure your white paper is organized and well thought out so that you will create a natural and genuine interest in your services.”

What’s the different between an effective white paper and one that fails?

“Not all white papers are created equal. Scattershot ideas, poorly researched perspectives, white label third-party reports, rehashed promotional materials, and feature/function descriptions all give the white paper a bad name,” writes Roanne Neuwirth of the Content Marketing Institute. “There is so much competition for attention in the market place, those poorly conceived efforts will quickly consign your content to the garbage bin.”

White papers tend to conform to a classic format that presents a problem and its solution. As a purpose-driven organization, you likely already think about your work using that kind of structure, so finding an appropriate topic for a white paper may be easier than for other kinds of organizations. (A brief overview of the format of a white paper can be found here.)

Experts all advise that before writing a white paper, you outline it thoroughly. A good outline will allow you to work effectively with a team to complete the writing. The outline will eventually make writing your abstract (which you should do last) and your table of contents a breeze.

Your white paper should ignite action. So it should definitely include a call to action. Gordon Graham of says a good call to action should be short and specific. He says that it should come at the end of white paper and should not sound salesy. “Your call to action should ideally match the purpose and intended audience for your white paper. This is where your white paper planning comes in… Be imaginative, and come up with an easy next step.”

Reach out to your clients for your white paper. Have them collaborate and help to refine your ideas and point of view. “They will provide the voice of reason on the relevance of your ideas while offering peer insights and information that will strengthen the work in the eyes of your audience,” writes Neuwirth.

Writing an effective white paper requires an investment of time and effort. It necessitates research. Thus, once you’ve created one, you’ll also want to make sure that you market it well so it reaches your audience.

“A strategic way to ensure you get the most out of a white paper is to use the ‘Content Marketing Pyramid’ framework,” according to Michael Gerard at Curata. “This puts a white paper at the top of pyramid, with the content from the white paper atomized into more bite-sized assets such as eBooks, webinars, infographics, blog posts, bylines, tweets, and so on.”

“Don’t wait for the white paper to publish to go live with your landing page [where readers can download the white paper]. Rather, it’s good to publish your landing page about two weeks ahead of time,” says Mitt Ray at the Content Marketing Institute. Ray also suggests writing guest posts for other blogs related to the content of your white paper to raise awareness before you publish the white paper. He also suggests asking for reviews of the white paper.

Lastly, leverage analytics to find out how well your white paper is serving you. “You will want to know how many people downloaded your white paper and, ideally, how many times they opened it, how much time they spent reading it, and how many links they clicked on,” writes Mark Evans