Mommy, what does a white paper look like?
In addition to teaching others how to create, write and design white papers, the white-paper gurus do white papers too—and their white papers look very different from one another, with Jonathan Kantor’s being much more graphical than those of Michael Stelzner.
It’s possible to be too glitzy, and too slick, says Gordon Graham.
But all three agree that most white papers don’t have nearly enough graphical elements.
Here’s a design checklist for a good white paper:
- Subheads break up copy and give readers multiple entry points.
- Pull-quotes help even scanners get the gist of the report.
- White space.
- Bullet points.
- Short paragraphs.
- Scholar’s margins let readers make notes in the margin, useful for a white paper that gets passed among a number of decision-makers.
- Reader-friendly charts and graphs.
In an increasingly distracted world, “you can’t expect the reader to sit and read eight pages of text,” Kantor concludes.
He breaks down typical white-paper readership into three stages: a few seconds, in which the reader scans to see whether the report is worth a second look; a few minutes, during which the reader reads some of the report and gathers its gist; and a third phase, an indefinite period of time that Kantor calls “as needed,” to review the white paper and pass it around.
Whatever the white paper looks like, its design must serve all three of those readership needs, Kantor says.
“I’m happy if they read one page,” Graham says. Realism rules.
Other tricks for getting your paper read
According to Gordon Graham, white paper producers should consider:
- Keeping the name of the product out of the title. Graham says the research shows that if the product’s name appears in the title, “downloads plummet 50% or more.” Nobody wants to read about your product. They want a solution to their problem.
- Not calling a white paper a white paper. To make his reports more reader friendly, Graham often labels his products with less weighty terms, like “Executive briefing,” “special report,” “Five things to know about …” or “How to avoid …”
- Launch it as if it were a new product. Publicize it to your sales force, then do a press release, send a notice to all your sales prospects, post about it in industry forums—whatever you’d do to launch a new product, do to promote your white paper. “You can get it into the hands of a heck of a lot of people,” Graham says.