White Paper 101: A 4 step process, with examples

White Paper 101: A 4 step process, with examples

7 minute read

White Paper 101: A 4 step process, with examples

7 minute read

White Paper 101: A 4 step process, with examples

Afoma Umesi

GatherContent Contributor, Writer

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In content marketing, the purpose of a white paper is to engage and persuade potential customers to become qualified leads. The white paper is a sales tool, one that adds to a brand’s consistency and reach. And, as opposed to a typical long-form blog article, in the hands of a good content strategist, white papers often revolve around research and statistics to provide a definitive, fact-driven case on a given topic.

If done correctly, this “show, not tell” approach to building trust and demonstrating industry expertise can become a powerful addition to your lead generation toolkit. So, before diving in, you must understand how basic white paper formats differ and study different white paper examples to see these format fundamentals in action.

The 3 main white paper formats

Despite the variety of topics and industries they cover, most white papers fall into one of three content formats: Numbered Lists, “Backgrounders,” and Problem/Solution white papers.

Each is more or less suited to specific marketing use cases, meaning the white paper format you choose is as vital as the particular topic you’ll go on to cover.

White paper formats: The Numbered List

Our brains love structure and finding patterns in the environment around us. We’re hard-wired to respond to patterns, as they help us learn and inform our decision-making. So, it’s no fluke that numbered lists are a powerful form of white paper design.

A numbered list approach enables an author to tame complicated, abstract topics and frame them in an orderly, cognitively-digestible approach. This makes the Numbered List format especially useful when the white paper needs to serve as a topical primer for an audience.

As explained by “That White Paper Guy” Gordon Graham, this format can tame a seemingly random topic through its sequential approach alone.

And, for white paper creators, the Numbered List is, arguably, the quickest and easiest type of white paper to create.

Use the Numbered List format if:

  • You need to make a complex topic understandable and approachable to those less familiar with it (Example: “The 5 Essential Principles of Marketing Automation”)
  • Specific use cases involve constraints where other, long-form formats aren’t ideal and readability is most important (like content overwhelmingly consumed on mobile devices)
  • You aren’t sure where the target audience is in the content marketing funnel and want to capture a potential lead no matter where they may be in the buyer’s journey

Numbered List white paper example:

Mastering the pivot: a new white paper from Deloitte and Slack

In this 2020 collaboration between Deloitte and Slack, the numbered list format gets a clever spin, positioned as three acts that, together, support the overall topic of the white paper.

Image text reads: Mastering the Pivot. Using network analysis to intentionally architect collaboration.
This title from Deloitte and Slack shows how to get from Point A to Point B.

In addition to the advantages of the format we covered above, this 3-act approach pays off the main theme of the piece–that “mastering the pivot” requires an organization to transform. And transformation necessitates going from Point A (Act 1) to B (Act 3).

Learn more: Find some additional types of white paper examples.

White paper formats: The Backgrounder

The “backgrounder” is another white paper format discussed by Gordon Graham. Unlike the punchy, uber-scannable numbered list, the backgrounder (sometimes referred to as a technical white paper) dives deeply into crucial features and benefits or aims to stand as the premier resource on unfamiliar technology or concepts.

Due to being inherently information/text-heavy, this form of branded content is typically leveraged lower in the content marketing funnel. But, if the goal in writing is to position a brand, product, or business as the pre-eminent thought leader on a topic, backgrounders may also work higher up in the funnel.

Use the Backgrounder format if:

  • Your audience needs to persuade stakeholders that your product or offering is worth the investment
  • Your audience needs the maximum amount of detail possible in order to make a decision
  • You have access to the product teams and product information needed to write at length as an authority on the white paper topic
  • Valuable context needed for a product or feature launch is not readily available or known to your audience

Backgrounder white paper example:

Demystifying MACH Architecture in a Composable World

This backgrounder from Digital Experience Composition solution Uniform is an excellent example of how authoritative white papers need not reach George R.R. Martin word counts.

Image text reads: Demystifying MACH architecture in a composable world. Adopting a composable approach to digital experiences
This Backgrounder white paper focuses on the details of MACH architecture.

Clocking in at only eight pages (including its cover page), Uniform’s approach is thorough and comprehensive.

The white paper includes:

  • A topical overview on monolith platforms
  • A primer on the background of microservices API-first cloud-based and headless (MACH) architectures
  • A concise sidebar touching in Jamstack, an alternative solution
  • Details on the limiting factors of monolith platforms
  • Guidance on when to leave monolith platforms behind
  • And a detailed introduction to Uniform’s own Maturity Model for MACH Integration

It’s a lot. But, again, that’s the point of the backgrounder white paper format–to provide the potential lead everything they need to know, precisely when all that know-how is needed.

White paper formats: Problem/Solution

Finally, the problem/solution white paper format is popular because it allows the author to focus on their audience's known pain points (or related paint points). In doing so, the author can empathize with their audience while illustrating how bad things might get if said problem remains unsolved.

Then, as a form of evidence-based-success story, the author can shift to demonstrating how their product, business, or brand is the only solution worth considering.

And, if the problem and solution are consistent by nature, the ensuing white paper can enjoy a longer shelf-life than other more topical forms of content.

Use the Problem/Solution format if:

  • The desired audience is problem aware but is still researching how they might solve the problem on their own
  • The stakes at hand are both significant and quantifiable
  • The brand/product/service the author is writing on behalf of makes for an honest and compelling solution that fits the specific business needs of the audience
  • Case studies (i.e., proprietary facts or statistics) are available to serve as evidence within these success stories

Problem/Solution white paper example:

Apple: Building a Trusted Ecosystem for Millions of Apps

This problem/solution example from 2021 shows how a narrative approach can serve an entirely different white paper format.

Screenshot of a visual from the apple white paper. Two figures sit on a bench looking worriedly at a smartphone while a burglar character peeks out from the bushes. The image text reads, At the park, the copy-cat filter app John had sideloaded threatens to delete all of his photos unless he pays up.
This Problem/Solution example from Apple showcases how a white paper can tell an emotional story.

In this case, the format unrolls through a series of mishaps made by a main character, John. While all the problems and solutions roll up to the same theme (the value of Apple’s efforts to build a secure app ecosystem), these issues are personalized.

And, by doing so, their real-world impacts are much more tangible to those who may not appreciate the technical complexities at play beneath them.

Putting examples into practice: Tips for starting your own white paper

One significant advantage of choosing a type of white paper before you begin writing? You've already taken a big step toward completing your outline. That, and you'll be able to focus on more actual examples of your chosen type of white paper and provide additional examples of how to structure your own.

In addition to the specific aspects of your type, most white papers contain the following:

A title page

Screenshot of three white paper title pages. All three have intriguing professional designs and interesting titles. The white papers are from Deloitte, Uniform, and Apple.
The title page is the first element of any white paper.

Your title page is your first opportunity to catch your reader's attention by telling them what your white paper will cover and what they can expect to learn. The title for your white paper will likely reflect what type of white paper it is. For example, if it's a Problem/Solution white paper, your title will tell the reader what the problem is and how your organization solved it.

A formal introduction


Screenshot of Deloitte/Slack white paper, showing their brief introduction that is about a paragraph long.
Source: Deloitte/Slack - Mastering the Pivot: Using Network Analysis to Intentionally Architect Collaboration

If the title is an opportunity to tell your reader what this white paper is about, the formal introduction allows you to dive a little deeper. The introduction should detail an issue or problem (potentially complemented by an abstract). Like an abstract in a scientific study, this introduction can function as a summary, making the reader curious to learn more.

A well-researched background

Screenshot of pages from the Apple white paper, showing several sections including timelines, fun facts, and the history of the design of the iPhone.
Source: Apple - Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps

Here's where the full deep dive comes in. The body of your white paper should delve into the topic's background. Cover important context, the industry's history, your organization's inner workings, and the full scope of the problem you're addressing.

A solution


Screenshot of Uniform white paper showing their Maturity Model for Integration
Source: Uniform - Demystifying MACH Architecture In a Composable World

Ideally, your solution is one only you or your business can provide. The solution is the core of the white paper—it's unique information that showcases the value of your business.

A formal conclusion

Screenshot of the end of the Deloitte/Slack white paper, showing the conclusion as well as a Let's Talk section with contact information and Acknowledgements.
Source: Deloitte/Slack - Mastering the Pivot: Using Network Analysis to Intentionally Architect Collaboration

Like the introduction, this conclusion summarizes everything the reader has learned by reading this white paper. But this time, point the reader toward a desired marketing or sales action. Feel free to lead up to a CTA that prompts your reader to engage with you further.

Good to Know: Want some additional tactics on how to make the most of your white paper? Check out Content types: How to use them to your advantage.

References, citations, and links to sources

Screenshot of sources listed at the end of Apple's Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps white paper
Source: Apple - Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps

Include a thorough accounting of all the resources you've included in your white paper. Not only is this a satisfying way to make all that research feel worthwhile, but your readers will appreciate knowing you did your homework. Plus, if they're so inclined, they can easily use your list of resources as a jumping-off point for further reading.

Remember: Never leave your readers wondering what to do next

As with any form of effective content writing, the ultimate goal of any format of white paper is to drive conversions. This is worth keeping in mind because getting a white paper right can be a time-consuming process. It's also worth keeping in mind because long-form content like white papers rely more heavily on your internal content process and protocols.

That's why, in addition to mastering your own approach to white paper formats and execution, make sure your ability to stay organized and execute is in top form. For more help here, take a peek at what Gather Content can do for you.

In content marketing, the purpose of a white paper is to engage and persuade potential customers to become qualified leads. The white paper is a sales tool, one that adds to a brand’s consistency and reach. And, as opposed to a typical long-form blog article, in the hands of a good content strategist, white papers often revolve around research and statistics to provide a definitive, fact-driven case on a given topic.

If done correctly, this “show, not tell” approach to building trust and demonstrating industry expertise can become a powerful addition to your lead generation toolkit. So, before diving in, you must understand how basic white paper formats differ and study different white paper examples to see these format fundamentals in action.

The 3 main white paper formats

Despite the variety of topics and industries they cover, most white papers fall into one of three content formats: Numbered Lists, “Backgrounders,” and Problem/Solution white papers.

Each is more or less suited to specific marketing use cases, meaning the white paper format you choose is as vital as the particular topic you’ll go on to cover.

White paper formats: The Numbered List

Our brains love structure and finding patterns in the environment around us. We’re hard-wired to respond to patterns, as they help us learn and inform our decision-making. So, it’s no fluke that numbered lists are a powerful form of white paper design.

A numbered list approach enables an author to tame complicated, abstract topics and frame them in an orderly, cognitively-digestible approach. This makes the Numbered List format especially useful when the white paper needs to serve as a topical primer for an audience.

As explained by “That White Paper Guy” Gordon Graham, this format can tame a seemingly random topic through its sequential approach alone.

And, for white paper creators, the Numbered List is, arguably, the quickest and easiest type of white paper to create.

Use the Numbered List format if:

  • You need to make a complex topic understandable and approachable to those less familiar with it (Example: “The 5 Essential Principles of Marketing Automation”)
  • Specific use cases involve constraints where other, long-form formats aren’t ideal and readability is most important (like content overwhelmingly consumed on mobile devices)
  • You aren’t sure where the target audience is in the content marketing funnel and want to capture a potential lead no matter where they may be in the buyer’s journey

Numbered List white paper example:

Mastering the pivot: a new white paper from Deloitte and Slack

In this 2020 collaboration between Deloitte and Slack, the numbered list format gets a clever spin, positioned as three acts that, together, support the overall topic of the white paper.

Image text reads: Mastering the Pivot. Using network analysis to intentionally architect collaboration.
This title from Deloitte and Slack shows how to get from Point A to Point B.

In addition to the advantages of the format we covered above, this 3-act approach pays off the main theme of the piece–that “mastering the pivot” requires an organization to transform. And transformation necessitates going from Point A (Act 1) to B (Act 3).

Learn more: Find some additional types of white paper examples.

White paper formats: The Backgrounder

The “backgrounder” is another white paper format discussed by Gordon Graham. Unlike the punchy, uber-scannable numbered list, the backgrounder (sometimes referred to as a technical white paper) dives deeply into crucial features and benefits or aims to stand as the premier resource on unfamiliar technology or concepts.

Due to being inherently information/text-heavy, this form of branded content is typically leveraged lower in the content marketing funnel. But, if the goal in writing is to position a brand, product, or business as the pre-eminent thought leader on a topic, backgrounders may also work higher up in the funnel.

Use the Backgrounder format if:

  • Your audience needs to persuade stakeholders that your product or offering is worth the investment
  • Your audience needs the maximum amount of detail possible in order to make a decision
  • You have access to the product teams and product information needed to write at length as an authority on the white paper topic
  • Valuable context needed for a product or feature launch is not readily available or known to your audience

Backgrounder white paper example:

Demystifying MACH Architecture in a Composable World

This backgrounder from Digital Experience Composition solution Uniform is an excellent example of how authoritative white papers need not reach George R.R. Martin word counts.

Image text reads: Demystifying MACH architecture in a composable world. Adopting a composable approach to digital experiences
This Backgrounder white paper focuses on the details of MACH architecture.

Clocking in at only eight pages (including its cover page), Uniform’s approach is thorough and comprehensive.

The white paper includes:

  • A topical overview on monolith platforms
  • A primer on the background of microservices API-first cloud-based and headless (MACH) architectures
  • A concise sidebar touching in Jamstack, an alternative solution
  • Details on the limiting factors of monolith platforms
  • Guidance on when to leave monolith platforms behind
  • And a detailed introduction to Uniform’s own Maturity Model for MACH Integration

It’s a lot. But, again, that’s the point of the backgrounder white paper format–to provide the potential lead everything they need to know, precisely when all that know-how is needed.

White paper formats: Problem/Solution

Finally, the problem/solution white paper format is popular because it allows the author to focus on their audience's known pain points (or related paint points). In doing so, the author can empathize with their audience while illustrating how bad things might get if said problem remains unsolved.

Then, as a form of evidence-based-success story, the author can shift to demonstrating how their product, business, or brand is the only solution worth considering.

And, if the problem and solution are consistent by nature, the ensuing white paper can enjoy a longer shelf-life than other more topical forms of content.

Use the Problem/Solution format if:

  • The desired audience is problem aware but is still researching how they might solve the problem on their own
  • The stakes at hand are both significant and quantifiable
  • The brand/product/service the author is writing on behalf of makes for an honest and compelling solution that fits the specific business needs of the audience
  • Case studies (i.e., proprietary facts or statistics) are available to serve as evidence within these success stories

Problem/Solution white paper example:

Apple: Building a Trusted Ecosystem for Millions of Apps

This problem/solution example from 2021 shows how a narrative approach can serve an entirely different white paper format.

Screenshot of a visual from the apple white paper. Two figures sit on a bench looking worriedly at a smartphone while a burglar character peeks out from the bushes. The image text reads, At the park, the copy-cat filter app John had sideloaded threatens to delete all of his photos unless he pays up.
This Problem/Solution example from Apple showcases how a white paper can tell an emotional story.

In this case, the format unrolls through a series of mishaps made by a main character, John. While all the problems and solutions roll up to the same theme (the value of Apple’s efforts to build a secure app ecosystem), these issues are personalized.

And, by doing so, their real-world impacts are much more tangible to those who may not appreciate the technical complexities at play beneath them.

Putting examples into practice: Tips for starting your own white paper

One significant advantage of choosing a type of white paper before you begin writing? You've already taken a big step toward completing your outline. That, and you'll be able to focus on more actual examples of your chosen type of white paper and provide additional examples of how to structure your own.

In addition to the specific aspects of your type, most white papers contain the following:

A title page

Screenshot of three white paper title pages. All three have intriguing professional designs and interesting titles. The white papers are from Deloitte, Uniform, and Apple.
The title page is the first element of any white paper.

Your title page is your first opportunity to catch your reader's attention by telling them what your white paper will cover and what they can expect to learn. The title for your white paper will likely reflect what type of white paper it is. For example, if it's a Problem/Solution white paper, your title will tell the reader what the problem is and how your organization solved it.

A formal introduction


Screenshot of Deloitte/Slack white paper, showing their brief introduction that is about a paragraph long.
Source: Deloitte/Slack - Mastering the Pivot: Using Network Analysis to Intentionally Architect Collaboration

If the title is an opportunity to tell your reader what this white paper is about, the formal introduction allows you to dive a little deeper. The introduction should detail an issue or problem (potentially complemented by an abstract). Like an abstract in a scientific study, this introduction can function as a summary, making the reader curious to learn more.

A well-researched background

Screenshot of pages from the Apple white paper, showing several sections including timelines, fun facts, and the history of the design of the iPhone.
Source: Apple - Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps

Here's where the full deep dive comes in. The body of your white paper should delve into the topic's background. Cover important context, the industry's history, your organization's inner workings, and the full scope of the problem you're addressing.

A solution


Screenshot of Uniform white paper showing their Maturity Model for Integration
Source: Uniform - Demystifying MACH Architecture In a Composable World

Ideally, your solution is one only you or your business can provide. The solution is the core of the white paper—it's unique information that showcases the value of your business.

A formal conclusion

Screenshot of the end of the Deloitte/Slack white paper, showing the conclusion as well as a Let's Talk section with contact information and Acknowledgements.
Source: Deloitte/Slack - Mastering the Pivot: Using Network Analysis to Intentionally Architect Collaboration

Like the introduction, this conclusion summarizes everything the reader has learned by reading this white paper. But this time, point the reader toward a desired marketing or sales action. Feel free to lead up to a CTA that prompts your reader to engage with you further.

Good to Know: Want some additional tactics on how to make the most of your white paper? Check out Content types: How to use them to your advantage.

References, citations, and links to sources

Screenshot of sources listed at the end of Apple's Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps white paper
Source: Apple - Building a Trusted Resource for Millions of Apps

Include a thorough accounting of all the resources you've included in your white paper. Not only is this a satisfying way to make all that research feel worthwhile, but your readers will appreciate knowing you did your homework. Plus, if they're so inclined, they can easily use your list of resources as a jumping-off point for further reading.

Remember: Never leave your readers wondering what to do next

As with any form of effective content writing, the ultimate goal of any format of white paper is to drive conversions. This is worth keeping in mind because getting a white paper right can be a time-consuming process. It's also worth keeping in mind because long-form content like white papers rely more heavily on your internal content process and protocols.

That's why, in addition to mastering your own approach to white paper formats and execution, make sure your ability to stay organized and execute is in top form. For more help here, take a peek at what Gather Content can do for you.

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