How would you describe a white paper? What is its purpose, voice, and length? How promotional should it be?

I find there are nearly as many different answers to these questions as there are people to ask. And yet, there are a few qualities that a majority of marketers, including experienced white paper users and writers, use to describe them:

  • An in-depth discussion on a specific topic
  • Authoritative and fact-based
  • Informative and useful, not sales-y

On the flip side, a white paper is not:

  • A sales pitch (e.g., not a product brochure or fact sheet)
  • A customer success story (that would be a case study)
  • Documentation or technical support for a product or service

A well-crafted white paper can help you demonstrate your company’s expertise and establish them as a trusted resource for customers and prospects.

White papers can take a number of different approaches, which makes them an adaptable tool for different types of subjects. For example, a white paper may use one of these approaches:

  • Background, trends, and challenges for a topic
  • Comparison of different approaches, tools, or techniques
  • Discussion of a new technology or service (often a problem/solution approach)

Wondering how long a white paper should be? They are often cited by page count, but more information is needed when you are planning your white paper. In general, white papers range from 2,000 to 5,000 words. Then there are figures, tables, sidebars, and perhaps other elements you may want to include that affect the final page count.

To give you a reference point, this science education white paper is 2,000 words, not including the bios or references list. It also has nine images of various sizes, and three sidebars with short quotes or key points in large, attention-grabbing print. The final designed document is eight pages in length.

It is important to keep these considerations top-of-mind when planning, writing, and designing each white paper. Also be sure to get this information to your resources, such as writers and designers, so they can be focused and provide you with good input.