For some types of businesses, marketing can be more about providing clients and customers insight and help than about promotional advertising. For these types of businesses, large and small, sending out print or email newsletters can keep clients informed and can help them to call to discuss a potential project. Others have found that developing and distributing recurring documents that go more in-depth about a topic can help develop leads for new clients or establish the writer of such publications as a “thought leader” in their region or industry. Two of the most common types of these marketing-oriented documents are ebooks and white papers. While most people know what ebooks are, the term “white paper” is not as well known.

What is a White Paper?

According to Gordon Graham, author of Whitepapers for Dummies, a white paper is a “persuasive essay” that uses facts and logic to help business people understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.” Marketers have adopted the white paper format and approach to become a type of “content marketing” tool that both provides insight and understanding regarding a topic while building goodwill with potential or current clients.

In other words, the term white paper can mean many different things to different people.

  • It sorta sounds like it should be a professional or academic paper, but it’s not
  • It sorta sounds like it should be the definitive explanation of a topic or situation, but it’s not
  • It sorta sounds like it  should be peer-reviewed and vetted, but it’s not

Even though Winston Churchill drafted a famous document called a “white paper” in 1922, that use of the term, while certainly an “explainer,” is not the kind of white paper see today.

Ways white papers are used by marketers

These days, “white papers” are not issued by the research and development departments of big companies. They are issued by marketing departments. Today, “white papers” are especially seen in certain business-to-business niches where the audience is eager to learn as much as possible about products or trends that relate to someone’s profession.

In other words: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to write a white paper. You just need to be good at what you do and be able to explain to others what the future holds.

Even if such a white paper is sponsored or developed by a company, the professional audience brings with it enough knowledge to judge the helpfulness and neutrality of a white paper’s content.

If the company or individual issuing the paper merely creates a promotional brochure with lots of hype, they will be quickly dismissed as a good source of white papers.

However, if a company (you) provides helpful information in a white paper for someone considering purchasing a product, such customers will consider your white papers as a vital resource in the purchasing process. The knowledge you share can be the factor that separates you from the competition.

How can a small business use a white paper for marketing?

While some marketers suggest that white papers are always a “lead generation” tool (“in exchange for your email address, I’ll give you my white paper”), white papers can be effective tools all along the customer lifecycle.

Yes, as a lead generation tool, but also as an onboarding tool, a medium for helping users better understand how to accomplish an intended goal. White papers can be technical, even how-to, documents.

In other words, white papers can add value to your product

Using white papers in an industry thought-leader program

In the past, we have explained how becoming an opinion or thought-leader in an industry or niche requires nothing but having great knowledge and the ability to spend years writing, speaking and teaching about something important to the leaders of your industry. In other words, while you can use salesmanship and entertainment skills to succeed at many things, you can’t fake being smart.

And while speaking at industry events and having a great ghostwriter placing articles in trade publications will get you recognized, one of the best ways to get both appreciation and leadership credibility is to write white papers that help people understand your industry, even if they aren’t technically oriented. In other words, if you can write a white paper that is simple and easy to understand, you’ve become more of a thought leader than if you wrote a trade journal op-ed dense with industry buzz terms.


What is a Business Thought Leader and How to Become One

The 150-Year History of the Term ‘Small Business’

Until the end of the 19th century, there were few big businesses so the history of the term “small business” is less than 150 years. Today, no other phrase comes close to describing companies up to 500 employees.