Communications Strategy: 5 Best Practices for Writing White Papers
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Communications Strategy: 5 Best Practices for Writing White Papers

August 1, 2019

Zoë Billington Kathleen Marker, PhD

How to turn your market research into a white paper your customers and employees can’t stop talking about.

Two professional women working on a white paper

Data should act as the backbone of any communications campaign, but it’s ultimately what you do with it that will determine if your findings will have a lasting impact. While there are many ways to design information so that it sticks, white papers are an especially compelling option to make market research easily digestible. Internal white papers are a great tool for socializing research within an organization, while public white papers can help you position your brand as an expert and drive leads.

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to writing a white paper, so we’ve compiled a list of best practices that hold true regardless of the topic or audience you’re writing for:

1. Know your audience

The audience of a large-scale internal research study is often different from that of a public white paper. When crafting a white paper around important findings, be sure to have an idea of who will consume the paper and why. Knowing your audience will influence the framing and the content that should be included. For example, consider whether it’s a company-wide white paper that would be of interest to all roles, or an external paper serving as a foundation for future research experts in the category.

Tip: If your audience is the general public, you’ll want to avoid any jargon and keep the findings broad rather than deep. If you know a smaller external subset may read the work, you can aim for more nuanced examples and targeted information. If your white paper is for an internal audience, reference company objectives and values and explain how the white paper’s contents fit in with or promote them.

Kelton Case Study: RFP creation is a common job responsibility, but best practices for writing them vary depending on the author’s intended audience. When Kelton created our “How to Write a Great Market Research RFP” white paper, we had a specific target audience in mind: professionals writing RFPs for market research projects. This allowed us to craft a white paper using industry-specific insight and tips for even for more actionable recommendations. To date, it’s one of our best pieces of lead gen content!

2. Don’t feel like you need to say everything at once

Through conversations with clients, we’ve seen that agreeing on the scope of a white paper tends to be the most important and complex decision to make. Long-term research studies produce an overwhelming amount of data, and as a result, prioritization is key. It’s necessary to decide on the most important or widely applicable findings to ensure that the paper isn’t too dense.

It’s also crucial for clients to identify what findings they are comfortable with making public and what needs to be kept internal so that they don’t show all their cards to external audiences.

If needed, you can produce a series of papers based around a single study.  This ensures that each paper is easy enough to digest, while also enticing readers to actively look out for more content from your company — thus driving constant, rather than one-off, engagement.

Tip: We’ve written white papers in the past that focus on only a handful of slides from a 70-plus-page research deck. While this type of ultra curation might seem extreme, it allows us to provide a digestible amount of the most interesting information and ensures the most important takeaways stick.

Kelton Case Study: This principle is especially important when using a white paper to highlight a case study. In this piece about Kelton’s customer segmentation work, we managed to distill a large-scale global engagement (and accompanying final report) down to a single spread. The result? We were able to share enough about the project to give our external readers a clear idea of the challenge and results of the project — and why they should care in relation to their own projects — while keeping internal, client-specific insights confidential.

3. Choose the right visuals

The age of text-heavy white papers is long gone — today, beautiful design and visual storytelling are necessary elements for consumption. When reviewing the data points that will go in your white paper, select about a third of all key findings and plan to include complementary visuals that will bring these points to life. This is especially important for more complex points, relationships, and models. If you’re not sure where to start, color-coding and icon-coding always go a long way in making more complex white papers easy to navigate and digest.

Tip: Visuals that were included in a presentation deck can be a great starting point for creating visuals for a white paper — especially if they were already well-received by internal audiences.

Kelton Case Study: When Ultimate Software tapped Kelton to conduct a study on HR technology buyers’ attitudes towards their chosen HR software providers, the results were striking. For instance, a whopping 85% of HR decision makers were found to have regretted their purchase. Given such noteworthy stats, it was imperative that the resulting white paper present the numbers in an engaging way — which is why we chose an infographic-style approach. By presenting the study’s key findings in a visual manner, we were able to ensure they stood out.

4. Tell people what they’re going to learn at first glance

White papers can vary in length from a few pages to upwards of twenty or more. To show consideration for readers and the ranging needs and interests of your audiences, it’s important to keep section titles clear. For longer papers, include a table of contents and summary of each section to make skipping to the most relevant sections easy.

Tip: Bold titling and numbered sections or topics can ease the navigation process and ensure your readers are staying connected to the story.

Kelton Case Study: As a company founded by former journalists, Kelton brings a unique perspective to this industry — and always loves to share where that perspective comes from. But we also know that, ultimately, you want to know how that perspective is going to help your bottom line. That’s why we wrote a white paper called “10 Lessons from Journalism: How to Use Storytelling for Business.” Its title immediately tells you, “Here are our findings and their benefit to you.” Then, within the paper, each of the lessons is clearly labeled and color coded — with a straightforward summary at the end — to make the paper easily navigable.

5. Don’t fear collaboration

White papers don’t just present research findings; they also provide a window into the point of view of the organization that chose to commission a particular study. Quality white papers make the values and goals of that organization clear, illustrating both through research outcomes. Ultimately, though, the organization knows its own values best. Therefore, both the client and research teams must work closely together to marry the voices of the organization and the insights generated by the study. During the planning phases of your project, be sure to build in ample time for feedback and discussion throughout the writing process.

Tip: Assign the client sections of the white paper to make their own, given their internal knowledge of objectives. For instance, they might write: “As part of our company mission to show understanding for our consumers’ daily lives, we set out to complete a study on empathy and what our consumers think about it.”

Kelton Case Study: We collaborated with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to conduct an ethnographic study designed to closely examine the daily social/emotional experiences of teachers. We then took the insights we learned and collaborated with HMH to produce a white paper that examined teaching in a high-tech, high-touch world.

Looking for more examples of effective white papers? You can check out more of our work here.

Zoë Billington

Associate Director, Qualitative Research

As an Associate Director, Research & Strategy, Zoë gets to put her innate love for people-watching and storytelling to work every day. In her role, she both moderates qualitative research and...

Kathleen Marker, PhD

Vice President, Qualitative Research

As Vice President of Qualitative Research, Kathleen focuses on capturing consumer insights to inform future business decisions. She relishes opportunities to speak with people about a wide range of...

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