Airfoil clients increasingly are asking our help with the development of white papers and, in the process, have been broadening both their meaning and their application.  In the U.K., the term “white paper” signifies a policy document. (It follows a “green paper,” through which the government seeks public input on a potential policy.)  In America, a white paper usually is a report that businesses use to educate customers.  It often includes a point of view about the customer’s challenges and/or advice that results from research or simply the experience of the author. 

While conventional ideas of what a white paper should be may trigger glazing of the corneas, in a marketplace cluttered with ad campaigns, slogans and rapidly proliferating media outlets the white paper now has become exceptionally valuable to marketers. They’re using it as a way to cut through the chatter and develop a thought-leadership position for a company or business leader.  While industry white papers often have been focused on specific products, pain points and solutions, progressively they are being employed to enhance the reputation of individuals and organizations as “the experts” in the information-littered landscape of the competitive arena.

When executives can use their expertise and the research they’ve gathered to predict trends, to analyze causes and to prepare their potential customers for the next wave of challenges and opportunities, rather than merely to hawk a product, they elevate their standing in the eyes of their prospects.  White papers are becoming crucial vehicles to achieve this distinctive positioning.

For some time, institutions, government agencies and universities have employed white papers to offer insights into anticipated trends.  Today, businesses are realizing the benefits of using white papers not only to explain a product and its impact but also to establish a distinguishing stance and an awareness originating from an informed, novel perspective.

Info for your white paper
If you’re considering a white-paper campaign to establish your organization or executives as thought leaders in a particular business sector, consider gathering the following types of information to serve as a foundation for your insights:

  • Research gathered from sales and marketing staff interviews with customers
  • A more formal survey of the marketplace, which can be carried out relatively inexpensively via the Web
  • Information obtained from industry conferences
  • Round-table discussions among industry sources and/or customers, organized by your company to generate insight into current and upcoming challenges and opportunities
  • Analysis of trends that management can spot from its customer-relationship management database
  • Analysis of shifts in the reasons that prospects are approaching your organization for help
  • Conversations with other leaders in the field and with those who impact your business sector (e.g., legislators, regulators, industry analysts, trade associations)
  • Observations of editors and reporters who cover your industry

Once you’ve developed a forward-looking white paper, chances are that it will contain newsworthy material that can be distributed to both trade, business and consumer media through a news release.  The paper also can serve as the basis—and handout—for a seminar featuring your thought leader/author and attended by prospects.  Furthermore, the content of the white paper can be translated into an article, carrying the thought leader’s byline, that may be placed in key trade publications or serve as op-ed pieces for metropolitan newspapers.

For all the blandness of its reputation, the white paper can add considerable color to your marketing efforts and stature to your leadership.

—Steve Friedman