The 3 Types of White Papers and When to Use Each One

December 11, 2013 by

I want to share something with you from a great book I've been reading.

The book is White Papers for Dummies, released this summer by Gordon Graham (also known as "That White Paper Guy"). In it, I found the best discussion I've ever read on different types of white papers and when to use each. It even made me change my mind about what qualifies as a white paper today.

Graham has written nearly 200 white papers for companies large and small, including Google, Rackspace and Oracle. And in reviewing his portfolio and other successful white papers he'd read, he found they all could be grouped into three categories or species – Graham calls them "flavors" – and hybrid combinations of those species. The three species are:

  • The Backgrounder
  • The Numbered List
  • The Problem/Solution

We'll look at the typical characteristics of each one, their advantages and disadvantages, and the objectives to which each is best suited.

1. The Backgrounder

The backgrounder – also called an "evaluator's guide" or "product briefing" – is the oldest type of white paper. They were originally internal documents rather than marketing collateral, used to explain new, unfamiliar or misunderstood technologies to technical audiences.

Graham likens the backgrounder to vanilla ice cream: plain, straightforward and reliable. Normally, its purpose is to explain the key features, functions and benefits of a single product or service, and to do so in greater detail than is generally found in brochures, data sheets or web copy.

And of course, they are still used to explain new, unfamiliar or misunderstood technologies to technical audiences. Only now, they do so as marketing collateral rather than as internal documents.

When to use a backgrounder

Backgrounders are best used for the following tasks:

  • Supporting a technical evaluation
  • Supporting a product launch
  • Promoting an undisputed leader

The final stages of the buying process are where a backgrounder really shines. Backgrounders provide technical evaluators with the solid information they need to make a recommendation to management. Not having a backgrounder available at this stage can lead to being dropped from a buyer's short list.

Backgrounders can also be used to provide in-depth product information to analysts, journalists, bloggers, channel partners and your own sales staff in support of a product launch.

And finally, if your company is the undisputed leader in your industry – a household name like IBM, Intel or Microsoft – the backgrounder may be the only type of white paper you need. If customers in your market habitually check to see what you have to offer before making a purchasing decision, a backgrounder can help make sure your offering makes it to their short list.

Personally, as a lead-generation specialist, I had come to view backgrounders as outdated. Most business buyers seek out white papers early in the buying process, when they aren't yet ready for detailed product information. But when it comes to closing a sale or supporting a product launch, a backgrounder can be just the thing.

Advantages of the backgrounder

Easy to research. Backgrounders are the easiest of all white papers to research. That's because all the sources you need – SMEs, product documentation, etc. –  are right at hand, within your company. You won't need to spend much time doing external research when preparing a backgrounder.

Easy to write. Backgrounders are also easy to write, because they normally have a very simple, straightforward structure, namely:

  • Introduce the product and what it does
  • List the key features
  • Explain how those features benefit the prospect
  • Call to action (e.g., call to speak to a sales rep)

Disadvantages of the backgrounder

Short-lived. One big drawback of the backgrounder is its short shelf life. As soon as the product is upgraded or modified in any way, the backgrounder must be modified as well. If changes to the product are significant, the backgrounder may have to be completely re-written.

Not good for generating leads. When prospects are seeking solutions to nagging problems, where do they start? Most turn to Google, don't they? And what terms are they most likely to search on? A product or company name? Probably not. So a backgrounder focused on your product or service is not likely to turn up in their search results.

And even if it does, most prospects won't download it at this point. Executives at white paper syndication services like TechTarget indicate that a product or company name in a white paper title tends to slash download rates by 25 to 50 percent. The reason? Prospects aren't interested in your solution at this point. They're still trying to understand their problem.

2. The Numbered List

Perhaps the most popular species of white paper is the numbered list. Organized around a list of points pertaining to a certain issue, they lure prospects with the promise of an easy, yet informative read. Depending on the content, they may also be called tip sheets,Q&A lists, or simply, list-based articles.

The numbered list is easily recognized by the presence of a number in the title, as in:

  • 5 Questions to Ask Before Purchasing an Automatic Wiring Tester
  • 6 Things You Need to Know About Powering Wearable Technology
  • 7 Best Practices for Better Requirements Traceability
  • 8 Tips for Streamlining Agile Development

When prospects see that number, they know the information will be presented in bite-sized chunks that will be easy to swallow and digest. Graham compares the numbered list to strawberry ice cream: light, lively and refreshing.

When to use a numbered list

According to Graham, the best times to use a numbered list are when you want to:

  • Get attention with provocative views
  • Nurture prospects already in your sales funnel
  • Cast fear, uncertainty or doubt (FUD) on your competitors

As such, a numbered list white paper can be used in any phase of the sales cycle.

"One fun way to use a numbered list is to come up with a new, slightly racy, or provocative twist on some issue," says Graham. "As your list is picked up, retweeted, and commented on, it can attract a lot of attention that your company never had before."{1} Numbered lists can generate a lot of leads this way.

They're also great for nurturing leads through the middle of your sales funnel. Since numbered lists promise a quick, easy, informative read, they make great offers in company newsletters and emails to your house list – keeping those leads warm until they're ready to buy.

And once those prospects reach the bottom of your funnel and are comparing products, a numbered list of "questions to ask," "things you need to know" or "hidden dangers" can help cast fear and doubt on you competitor's offerings.

Advantages of the numbered list

Easiest to write. The modular format of the numbered list makes it the easiest of all white papers to write. Just brainstorm your list of points, pair the list down to the most relevant (3 to 9 points work best), and discuss each in turn. You need to provide proof, but you don't need to go as deep into the details as you do in a backgrounder or problem/solution. And since you can use a numbered list in any phase of the buying process, it's ideal when you need to create a white paper in a hurry.

Fastest to read. Numbered lists are generally the shortest of all white papers. Their structure is simple and easy to scan. And since they're modular, readers can pick and choose the points that are relevant to them.

Easiest to re-purpose. Numbered lists are extremely popular with industry journals, portals and blogs. Why? Because readers love them. Since numbered lists tend to be concise, there's generally less work involved to prepare them for use in other publications. Just be sure to include a link where readers can download the complete white paper.

Disadvantages of the numbered list

Most superficial. A numbered list won't provide the detail found in a backgrounder or the depth of understanding found in a problem/solution white paper. This is not the type of white paper to use if you really want to convince prospects that your offering is exactly what they need.

Easiest to dismiss. The shorter length and lighter level of detail of the numbered list – the very things that make it attraactive to busy business readers – can also diminish its credibility.. If your readers sense there is too little substance behind your assertions, this lighthearted approach can backfire on you.

Perceived to be overused. Because they're so popular, B2B readers see a lot of numbered lists. This often results in backlash. Posts with titles like "6 Reasons to Stop Writing Numbered Lists" abound on industry blogs. The best way to fight this perception is with a title that promises an interesting and informative read… and content that delivers on that promise.

3. The Problem/Solution

When content marketing gurus call white papers "the king of content," they're usually referring to the problem/solution species. Graham likens this flavor of white paper to chocolate ice cream: rich, complex and satisfying.

Also called a special report, executive briefing, market overview or "modern" white paper, the problem/solution is, in Graham's words, "a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to convince readers that one particular solution is the best currently available for a serious problem that affects many companies in a given industry."{1} It seeks to thoroughly examine a nagging industry problem, and make a convincing argument for a specific solution – usually a relatively new one.

When to use a problem/solution

When you're targeting executives who are looking for ways to solve problems affecting the profitability their company, or business buyers who don't want to make a mistake in choosing a complicated, expensive business product, the problem/solution species is usually your best white paper option. Use it when you want to:

  • Generate leads
  • Educate salespeople and channel partners on the idea behind your offering
  • Shape the opinions of analysts, journalists and bloggers in your industry
  • Redefine a market space
  • Build mindshare

In short, when you're breaking new ground, the problem/solution white paper is your best tool.

Advantages of the problem/solution

Generates the most leads. As mentioned earlier, when business executives seek out white papers, they're looking for a solution to a problem, not product information. Since the title of your problem/solution white paper focuses on that problem, it will attract the most downloads.

Longest shelf life. A problem/solution white paper should address your solution in mostly generic terms. Because of that, it doesn't become dated as your offering evolves, the way a backgrounder does. And since it contains solid problem-solving information, readers tend hang onto it longer, and share it more frequently than they would a numbered list.

Best investment. While the problem/solution white paper is the most costly to develop, it also generates by far the most leads, and therefore, the lowest cost per lead of the three species. And since buyers tend to refer to them throughout the buying process and share them with colleagues – according too findings from Eccolo Media's annual B2B Technology Collateral Survey{2} – they allso have the greatest influence on sales.

Disadvantages of the problem/solution

Hardest to create. The problem/solution has the most complex structure of the three white paper species. And since you need to create an open and shut case for your solution, it requires more extensive research and more proof than the others.

Slowest to create. Because of its complexity, the problem/solution format generally requires more interviews and a longer review cycle, making it also the slowest to create. You must make allowances for SME availability when planning and scheduling a problem/solution white paper.

Take-Away Points

1. The three principal species of white paper are:

a. The backgrounder

b. The numbered list

c. The problem solution

2. The backgrounder is best targeted at prospects at the bottom of the sales funnel.

3. The numbered list is best employed for nurturing leads and getting attention.

4. The problem/solution works best for generating leads and influencing executives and business buyers.

-Next Steps...

Need some help pulling together a new white paper? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at


{1} Graham, Gordon, White Papers for Dummies, John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

{2} Eccolo Media 2010 B2B Technology Collateral Survey Report,


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