How to Write a Whitepaper 101: A Step-by-Step Guide

by Ceillie Clark-Keane in March 9th, 2021

Your content marketing strategy needs to contain a variety of assets, that's just a fact. It allows your organization to reach more users in different mediums or on different platforms, which helps you expand your audience and build more brand awareness. That means when you’re planning content, you should be thinking of blogs, videos, courses, and, of course, whitepapers.

Whitepapers in particular are an exceptional marketing tool for lead generation and nurturing prospects into customers. That's because whitepapers establish your organization as a trusted, authoritative figure in the industry. 

But how do you write a great whitepaper that provides value to your audience and generates tons of leads for your business? That’s what we’re covering in this guide today.

Let’s get started.

What are whitepapers?

A whitepaper is a written report or guide that breaks down a topic, including any relevant problems and the best possible solutions. It’s also an important marketing tool.

Before you begin to write a whitepaper, you need to understand this as a marketing asset. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, a whitepaper is written by an organization for current and/or prospective customers. The nature of the whitepaper is persuasive, and the goal for this kind of content is to influence a targeted audience during the decision-making process. 

whitepaper example

In terms of production, whitepapers are long-form documents that often require an extensive time investment. Before you begin writing this content, make sure it is the best asset for your organization. You don’t want to sink that much time into a piece of content that isn’t going to work for your business—that’s why writing an awesome whitepaper is so important.  Let's talk about how to do that.

How to write an effective, informative whitepaper

Now, let's jump into our step-by-step guide to writing a whitepaper that works for your business.

1. Choose the right topic for your whitepaper

Okay, you’ve confirmed that you want to produce a whitepaper and start generating leads. Choosing the right topic is important, because you need it to appeal to your audience enough for them to trade contact information. 

Here are the things you need to do in order to determine the best topic:

  • Determine who is going to read your whitepaper. This should be the target audience you wish to nurture into customers. Remember, that doesn’t necessarily mean all the emails in your database or even all of the leads in a certain stage. This is a scenario where using your buyer personas is helpful for setting a specific target audience.
  • Identify the problems your reader needs solved. Once you understand your audience, you can set your organization up as the best solution for their issues. What are they struggling with that you business is an expert in? What would motivate them to download a whitepaper? 
  • Align your products/services with your readers’ problems. Your whitepaper shouldn’t hard-sell your offering to your client. You need to provide real value in order to compel users to trade contact info. But your topic should still align with your offering. For example, if your marketing agency manages paid social ads, you can write a whitepaper on developing a successful organic social media content calendar. Related so you’re still an authority, but not a hard sell.
  • Check your top blog posts and emails. Taking a look at what your audience is already engaging with is a great way to figure out what they’d likely engage with as a whitepaper. So check out your traffic and pay attention to the topics and title of your top blog posts. And drill down on any emails your sending to see what subject lines and offers have the highest open rates.

2. Write a solid whitepaper outline 

I’m always a proponent of prewriting, including talking through ideas, jotting down notes, and, of course, taking the time to write an outline. This is especially important when you’re writing whitepapers.

Whitepapers are often incredibly long documents. And because this type of content is formal and in-depth, it requires a number of sections, a clear order, and supporting resources—but more on that next.  

Here are the elements I’d recommend starting with in your whitepaper outline:

  • Working title: Like any good headline, this should be attention-grabbing and communicate the topic. Because you’re still working on the whitepaper, though, I wouldn’t call it final just yet.
  • Introduction: This is where you introduce the points you will expand on later, so include a list of the key topics here. If you know of an anecdote you’re using or the reason you’re writing the whitepaper, jot this down here. Otherwise, this one is okay to leave light. You'll fill it in later. 
  • Section headings: This is a small headline for each of the points mentioned in the introduction. What are you planning on covering in each section? Why is it important to your reader? What resources or examples will you use in each? Taking the time to include the description of what you’re writing about, why it matters, and how you’ll support this section will help make writing speedier.
  • Lists: If you know that your sections will include bulleted or numbered lists, be sure to make note of this in your outline.
  • Sidebars & images: These additional elements provide validity to the piece and offer you a place to add more information that may not be appropriate to include in a paragraph. For example, if you know you’re talking about an example A/B test from your own, you might want to include an image of the test and a data table displaying the results. 
  • Conclusion: This should summarize your key takeaways, and it should point your reader to any next steps, including a call to action.

3. Do your research

Bottom line: All good whitepapers are research-based documents.

If you want to establish your organization as an authority and receive trust from your target audience, you need to base your claims and strategies that you share in your whitepaper on research or experience.

If you have the time and resources, you can complete your own in-depth research or share your own strategy and the results. These are the best options, because you’ll be providing the best value to your audience.

For example, we recently released our Startup Marketing Report with insights and data based on a survey we conducted, and we also have a whitepaper sharing our own SEO strategy that led to 500% growth in traffic.

No time for research or examples? No problem. You can use the following sources for most industries: 

You can also try searching for [industry] + [research firm] on Google. This is good for avoiding unintentionally linking to your competitors, or even just other industry brands, in your whitepapers, which you don’t want to do.

4. Pay attention to your tone

If you’re working in marketing, you know how important tone is. In order to make your branding memorable, your voice should be consistent throughout your marketing materials. Your tone, however, should change depending on the medium. 

Consider social media. Your brand’s tweets might not sound like your blog posts. That’s because your tone is different here. Lighter, more playful, 100% more likely to include emoji.

tweet example from Unstack with emoji

Your tone should also be slightly different in your whitepapers. These are longer-form pieces of content that will be more in-depth and research heavy. When you’re diving that deep into a topic, for instance, a light, playful tone with emoji and quips and every sentence is way too much.

Whether you want to stay formal and authoritative or keep it casual but professional is up to you and your team. Just be sure to spend some time paying attention to your tone and how it works, and make sure when you stick to one you’re doing it intentionally.

5. Edit your work

Editing your content is so important. Big mistakes in structure or make a piece of writing less useful or confusing for your audience. Little mistakes like misspelled words or comma errors can be distracting or, worse, diminish the authority of your brand.

Your whitepaper also has higher stakes—it’s not like a blog post where you can make a quick edit if you catch a mistake later on. Once you whitepaper is published, it’s hard to make revisions. 

So after you write your whitepaper, walk away from it for a day. Then return and read through it as if you are the intended audience. If you have anyone else on your content team, have them read through. If not, ask other members in your organization to read it, as well. You are looking for both content value first and then grammatical errors or typos second. Your content must be clear, factual, and provide value. That is just as important as providing a whitepaper is free from grammar errors.  

6. Follow through with promotion

I know, I know—this is technically part of the writing process. But a whitepaper isn’t a journal entry or a to-list. It’s no good to you or your business if you’re not sharing it.

So once you have your final draft edited, it’s time to get started on promoting your whitepaper. Afterall, your hardwork is not going to suddenly just appear in your audience’s lap. Before you can promote your whitepaper, however, you must have a place for it to live online. You can host your whitepaper on a dedicated landing page, blog post, resource library, or a combination of all three. And for Unstack customers, you can also gate any page to easily create a whitepaper with just a few clicks.

Once your whitepaper is live and ready to go, you should consider what channels you will use to promote it. Your email list should be one of the first channels you turn to. You can set up a dedicated email campaign, and you can even include a small link to the whitepaper in future newsletters or updates. You should also share widely on social, and include CTAs throughout your website. 

Remember, this is not a marketing asset that you produce and only promote once. This significant time and resources you invested into this whitepaper so you’ll want to promote in multiple channels multiple times. For more steps on creating a whitepaper marketing strategy, check out our full guide here.

Write better whitepapers today

You can use these tips to write stronger, more effective whitepapers that are great for attracting leads and growing your marketing funnel. Be sure to pay attention to which whitepapers perform best—that will help you keep improving your content even more! 

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