It’s vitally important to know the raison d’être of a white paper before you (or your company) decides to opt for one. That said, this article should be read in conjunction with the one that follows it, viz., what benefits one can expect to have from having a white paper authored. This article precedes that, however.
Wikipedia defines a white paper as
an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.
As with most definitions found on Wikipedia, this one is accurate, concise, and precise. I couldn’t have phrased it better. Let’s base our brief and quick article here by breaking up this definition into its constituent parts.
A white paper:
- Is an authoritative report or guide. This means that in the glut of content that we are inundated with, a white paper stands apart from all others in terms of sheer authority. It is always credentialed, and has all the required studies and research papers cited with proper references. In far fewer words, it is has all the due authority conferred upon it by virtue of being called a white paper. In fact, it wouldn’t be called a white paper if it weren’t authoritative in the first place.
- Informs the reader. The sole reason of existence for a white paper is to inform the reader. That’s the only reason, and that’s all there is to it, which is to inform. And inform it does. A white paper doesn’t talk of specific product features, it doesn’t run down the issuing entity’s competition; and it most certainly doesn’t sell. The whole point is that the reader should come away at the end of the exercise with a feeling of having being apprised on the subject matter being discussed in the white paper.
- Is concise. Paraphrasing the well-known proverb, brevity is the soul of not just wit, but also of just about any topic that is important enough to require careful consideration. A white paper author should be very economical in its use of words. There is a two-fold reason for this. Firstly, the person reading the white paper is not an everyday joe or jane; he or she is a knowledgeable professional (think, CTO or CEO); and on a complementary note, the reader too expects the white paper to match a certain level of expertise presumed of them. Secondly, the reader is pressed for time. They wouldn’t be reading the white paper if they had time on hand, would they? Think of a white paper as an executive summary on a subject matter.
- Informs about a complex issue. The whole point of somebody picking up a white paper is that they want or need to understand a complex industry issue or technology. That said, I would ask you also look at the next section where I talk of a couple of other points not covered in this definition.
- Presents the issuer’s philosophy on the subject matter. A very subtle point, this effectively means that there is some amount of cultural zeitgeist that goes into the white paper. This certainly should not be taken to mean that the issuer of the white paper has a license to promote personal viewpoints, or surreptitiously and deliberately convey biases. It’s just an indication that, willy-nilly, there is bound to be some amount of industry ethos incorporated into the white paper. In that sense, the word “issuer” here is not restricted to the entity per se that is issuing the white paper; rather, it refers to the industry’s take on the subject.
- Has a specific purpose. Which is to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. The whole point of the white paper is to have the reader take a course of action based on definite and authoritative information. To reiterate, this should not be construed to mean that the issuer can become “salesy.” Rather, the entire motivation of issuing a white paper is that the reader becomes educated about the matter at hand so that they are in a better position to take the desired course of action. The question, therefore, arises: how does the issuing entity benefit from their investment in the white paper? You may want to read the subsequent article on the benefits of white papers to learn more about this.
A couple of things more to keep in mind about white papers. These are my own.
- A white paper always presents a neutral perspective. Always bear in mind that the reason for having a white paper authored is that it informs. Consequently, the white paper needs to be both non-partisan and non-product-specific. There can be no “salesy” kind of talk of any kind in the white paper.
- A white paper may mention specific products or services. This may seem to be contradicting the previous point; however, it is inevitable that the white paper also have mention of existing solutions in the market. This also entails that the author of the white paper maintain a completely neutral perspective. Sometimes this may involve describing competitor products in a favorable light, and may also have to highlight lack of particular features in one’s own product. It is therefore imperative that the issuing entity hire an external white paper writer who can maintain a neutral viewpoint at all times, and has no incentive or a conflict of interest in the matter.
- The tone has to be right. Harking back to one of the points in the previous section, the reader has a certain level of presumed expertise, and they would be expected to know their stuff. A white paper, therefore, informs about a complex industry issue without adopting a condescending tone. If the white paper talks only in jargon, it will hardly have served its stated purpose. On the other hand, if it attempts to be too simplistic, it may annoy the reader, which may end up isolating them. Maintaining the correct tone is therefore paramount.