If you’re the type of person who thinks whitepapers are just thinly-veiled sales tools then you’re exactly the type of person who needs to read this.

Whitepapers can be a fantastic tool for marketers but they’re suffering from a perception problem. Their purpose is often misunderstood because use of the word ‘whitepaper’ has become so vague. Regularly used as a catch-all term for any kind of sales and marketing documents, it has come to mean anything from advisory papers to product guides and more.

This has diluted their perceived value. The whitepaper in its original sense however, is a classic marketing tool with great power to influence. When produced in the right way, they can bring key issues into sharp focus and present the best way for the intended reader to move forward.

Now I’m not saying that people are using the term wrong (I’m not the word police) but to understand the purpose of a whitepaper in its purest form, it’s worth looking at the origins of the word itself.

What is a whitepaper?

First used by the British Parliament, the term ‘whitepaper’ referred to a document which took a meaningful look at a divisive political situation and presented a potential solution.

The earliest known example is a report produced by Winston Churchill, which analysed simmering tensions between Arab and Jewish people in the Palestinian state. This paper preceded an international resolution, outlined by the British Mandate for Palestine, which was signed by the League of Nations in 1922.

These parliamentary whitepapers still exist today, and they have become a key tool in the armoury of politicians in the UK, and further afield, as they make an argument for change.

An effective method of persuasion

Being such an effective method of persuasion, it’s little wonder that 20th century marketers took note and copied the approach.

There is one notable difference between the approach taken by politicians and marketers, however. Whereas political whitepapers are usually preceded by a ‘green paper’ – a consultative document that aims to prompt helpful debate around the subject matter – the marketing counterpart tends to skip this step.

Instead of first engaging in an initial thought-provoking discussion, too many marketing whitepapers go straight to the solution, without first examining and creating an understanding of the problem. This is where the perception problem begins.

Rather than being seen as document that is genuinely attempting to tackle a problem, which the intended reader may relate to, they have come to be viewed as nothing more than a sales ploy. This is frustrating, as whitepapers can play a vital role in raising important industry issues, starting conversations and influencing debate.

Credibility is crucial

To be influential however, it is essential to be credible. A whitepaper needs to show that the subject matter has been thoroughly investigated first. The author should at least be able to reference the latest industry research or include commentary from a respected industry insider. Ideally, they will include original research or new contributions from independent experts. These third-party perspectives will provide that welcome boost of credibility.

If this is done well, the paper has a much better chance of connecting with the intended reader. It will help demonstrate an understanding of the challenges they face and enable them to empathise with the subject matter. When you consider that a whitepaper’s primary task should be to solve the readers problem, it’s amazing that so many seem to skip this step.

A true appreciation of the subject matter will also help an author talk with a greater sense of authority, but that is not the main benefit. If the reader feels that the author really understands their issues or difficulties, it helps create an essential element of trust that what they are reading is correct, honest and helpful. And this will leave them far more willing to listen to the proposed solution.

We are now living in an age where every company with a website is a publisher, so it’s becoming incredibly important when organisations are desperately seeking to differentiate themselves that they don’t ignore the persuasive power of the whitepaper.

These magnificent marketing tools not only form a talking point but also offer an excellent reference point for lead generation across various channels, whether that be the media, social networks or email. To be truly influential though, they must be credible and hold value for the intended reader.


By Paul Maher, content director at Fourth Day PR

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