How to Create Attention Grabbing White Papers in 5 Essential Steps

White papers can be great lead generation and sales support tools when properly constructed with purpose, impactful design and digestible content. But sadly, many technology companies publish white papers that miss the mark and fail to engage readers. Today’s executive decision makers are busy. They don’t have time to sift through text-intensive white papers in search of a few great nuggets of information. Boring, unformatted or overtly marketing-focused white papers will collect dust while hampering the sales cycle and negatively impacting your brand.

To make sure your white papers work for you, and not against you, follow these 5 essential steps.

Step 1: Define the Purpose. Before you write a single word, define the, “Who, What, When and Why?” of your white paper. The answers to these questions will help keep the paper on target and the content interesting.

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What problem is your reader trying to solve?
  • When in the sales cycle will the paper be used?
  • Why should the reader spend his/her valuable time reading your paper?

For more tips on writing with purpose, read, “Sales Collateral Success Tips: 4 Questions to Ask Before You Write

Step 2: Build the Outline. I know plenty of writers that skip this step, but you are more likely to stray off course or be repetitive without the outline as a guide. An outline forces you to think logically about how to best present the information before you invest time in writing. That said, an outline should be fluid. Make adjustments as needed to eliminate issues or incorporate new ideas that arise in subsequent steps.

Step 3: Give it an Attention Grabbing Title. The title is one of the most important determining factors for whether your paper is read or passed by in the search for better content. A seemingly endless number of books, blogs and articles are dedicated to the mechanics of writing effective titles. If you are unfamiliar with these resources, you may want to search out some of them or view my post on the topic, Get More White Paper Downloads with a Great Title.” Otherwise, here’s some basic tips:

  • Focus on what’s in it for the reader.
  • Be specific.
  • Balance relevance with creativity.
  • Be succinct.

Step 4: Create an Impactful Design. In the old days (as in 5 years ago), the writer wrote the paper and then the graphic designer formatted the content and added a few graphical elements to make the piece visually impactful.  The written word ruled supreme and the layout was just the icing on the cake.  Today, this is no longer the case. With increasing job demands, constant disruptions and less time to do more, I think it is fair to assume that nobody actually reads any more – well at least not until they are convinced that the read will be worth their time. Within as little as 5 seconds, your prospective buyer will decide whether to read your paper or move on to the next task. Stack the odds in your favor by contemplating the design first. Aim to teach your reader something useful in 2 minutes or less, and make sure the design helps you accomplish this goal. Headings, call out boxes, tables, diagrams and imagery can help make your paper visually interesting and quickly demonstrate value. For each section of your paper, define what graphical queues will help tell your story before you write.

Step 5: Make the Content Digestible. When writing content, understand that your reader will probably not read your paper from start to finish in the first pass. “Reading” for most has become a 3 step process. Step 1) Skim the entire paper in search of interesting information. If the information presented is engaging, move on to Step 2) Review sections which stand out as potentially useful. Finally, if value is derived, move to Step 3) Read the entire paper.  Support the 3 Steps process by avoiding text-heavy papers. Instead offer the reader relevant section headings, bulleted lists or tables and section summaries that can be easily consumed when skimming.

Feeding Social: A Collaborative Effort

Companies everywhere are trying to harness the amplification and audience-building powers of social media. As social business gets more entrenched, companies are on the hot seat to consistently generate standout content that informs, engages and nurtures the learning (and buying) cycle. This has led to a dramatic rise in investments in content marketing.

To win the time and attention of its target audience, content must be informative and educational. To create great content, companies must build a culture of content and dismantle job role knowledge siloes in favor of collaboration to discover and build an arsenal of content that actually helps customers with their challenges.

According to the Content Marketing Institute’s B2B Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends 2015 report, B2B businesses are turning to the following social media channels to gain traction:


Those surveyed reported the following rates of social network effectiveness for each channel:

A Cluttered Content World 

Chase McMichael from Infinigraph shares what happens in a typical Internet minute now:


It can be overwhelming when you consider the amount of noise that your content will compete against to win the time and attention of your prospective customer. In this piece about essentials of successful content, KISSMetrics talks about how content must supply answers to customer questions. Content that answers the questions your prospects are typing into search engines is an important dimension, but you can also take this further based on internal company investigation.

You can start by asking your sales team, “What are the questions that prospects and customers ask you?” And, “Are there common, recurring challenges for the industries or types of businesses we serve?” Work within your company to find and articulate the patterns because they provide important clues to what kind of content will be worth curating and sharing, as well as creating. Once published and shared, content that educates, like a company blog post, can have a long digital life as it works to attract visitors and search engines to your site.

Harvesting the Knowledge Wealth Within

Experts exist in every part of your company and have much to contribute, but it’s often up to the content strategist to help them realize they are the keepers of such great information. John Bell talks about a number of great strategies you can use to encourage your internal experts to be part of the collaboration process. When developing and nurturing internal thought leadership, it’s important to find ways to motivate your internal voices. Empower them to share articles and information they would normally only share within their department or with a few potential customers.

Here are some questions you can ask colleagues to discover which forms of content your company should be investing in:

  • In your sales calls with customers or prospective customers, what are the most common topics of discussion? Sometimes you can find informative content on these hot topics on your company web site, but other times it will need to be created.
  • What resources or tools do you send to prospects to help educate them about how the company offering can help solve the challenges they face? Research from the Corporate Executive Board Company shows B2B buyers are 57% of the way through the purchase cycle before they actually pick up the phone to talk with sales. Sales tools can be repurposed into content for your web site.
  • Do you ever send 3rd party materials (like analyst reports or industry studies) to add context and information that helps customers navigate the solution marketplace? If the answer is yes, you should link to these and reference them in content you develop.
  • What sorts of materials do customers tell you are the most helpful? Are there specific formats they prefer or find easiest to digest (for example, white papers, short videos or infographics)? Where, why and how your customers spend their time and what they use to make decisions should guide your content strategy.

Product Management

  • Who are the experts in the industry whose work you follow? Why do you follow them? What is important and relevant about their work and ideas? What others find inspiring may also help your target customers.
  • Do these experts bring up topics that engage you to write a rebuttal or respond with a different or opposite perspective? What moves you to take part in a debate may also be important to your customers. This is a clue that you should use to keep a pulse on these industry hot buttons. The instincts of experienced professionals are invaluable!


  • Are customer questions being recorded? Common questions may be turned into useful marketing content for the company—for example webinars, white papers or blog posts.

Good content begins with taking stock of the wealth of information you have within. Employees are a company’s most precious asset—value them and invite them in to collaborate, be recognized and share what they know. The content you create will demonstrate their value and keep interest in your company high because its value is readily available on social channels.