White papers are simple to understand when you pick your favorite flavor

A couple of weeks ago I attended a presentation on white papers at AWAI’s B2B Intensive Copywriting Workshop, in Chicago.

Gordon Graham, also known as “That White Paper Guy” has written over 200 white papers. I was pleased with how he simplified the process of planning and writing white papers. He explained that there are only three types of white papers; the backgrounder, the numbered list and the problem/solution.

In his book White Papers for Dummies, Graham further illustrates his point by comparing those three types of white papers to the three most popular flavors of ice cream.

The “vanilla” backgrounder: Vanilla ice cream is predictable and straightforward. There are many people (like my husband and son) who order it every time, and there are many situations (like when you’re trying to dress up warm apple pie) where vanilla ice cream is the only choice.

A backgrounder is a factual description of a product or service. The structure is straightforward. It should be about eight pages. You introduce the offering, explain the features and benefits, and then introduce the company.

The best time to use a backgrounder is when you are addressing prospects who are at the bottom of the sales cycle, when decision makers are trying to evaluate several vendors on a shortlist, and they need straightforward facts. Other good times to use a backgrounder are during a product launch or to promote an offering by a recognized leader in the field.

Strawberry – the fresh and lively numbered list: I have to admit it. I am completely addicted to reading articles that are in the form of numbered lists. When I see a number in the title, I assume that the piece will be easy and fun to read.

Numbered lists are clearly popular in magazines and social media. They also work well in white papers for the same reasons: readers are interested in getting some tips that they can use right away, want to discover a fresh perspective or a new way of doing things.

Here are three situations where numbered lists work well:

1)   When you want to attract attention with a provocative way of looking at an issue that your prospects face. “Don’t be provocative just for the sake of being provocative,” wrote Graham. “Each of your items should make a real point that can help your target reader understand an issue, solve a problem or make a decision.

2)   When you want to help your prospects remember you when they’re in the middle of the sales funnel.

3)   When you want to undermine your competition by casting FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Using a numbered list you can raise concerns about another vendor’s solution, uncover flaws and question the claims made by competing companies. “If FUD is distasteful to you, don’t use it,” wrote Graham. “But be aware that your competitors may not feel the same way.”

The problem/solution white paper is as rich and satisfying as chocolate: Chocolate is complex, mood-altering, and long lasting. So is a problem/solution white paper.

Here is Graham’s definition of a problem/solution white paper: “A persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to present a new solution to a serious problem that afflicts many companies in a given industry.”

This type of white paper is the most effective method for gaining leads, positioning a vendor as a respected expert, and creating a defining a new market space.

Using compelling arguments, credible facts and solid research, a problem/solution white paper will begin by describing a serious problem, discuss the drawbacks of every other possible solution, and will subtly position the offering as the best possible solution.

In contrast to a backgrounder, a problem/solution will only mention the product or the solution at the end of the document. The problem/solution white paper will not include details about the features and benefits of the solution; because this type of lead is meant to attract buyers at the start of the sales process, it is crucial that it doesn’t come off as a sales pitch. When done right, a meaty and informative problem/solution white paper will position the sponsor company as a trusted advisor.


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