Hybrid White Papers: Dos and Don’ts for Mixing the Three Archetypes

January 8, 2014 by

In last month's article, we looked at the three types of white papers identified by Gordon Graham in his new book, White Papers for Dummies. In case you missed it, the three archetypes are (1) the backgrounder, (2) the numbered list, and (3) the problem/solution. {1}

Graham likens each of these archetypes to a popular ice cream flavor: vanilla (backgrounder), strawberry (numbered list), and chocolate (problem/solution). And just like when you build a double-dip ice cream cone, Graham says combining multiple flavors in a single white paper can create a more satisfying experience. You just have to be careful about which flavors you combine, to make sure the tastes don't clash.

So today, we'll examine when you might want to combine archetypes to create a hybrid white paper, which archetype combinations work, and which combinations don't.

When to Use a Hybrid White Paper

As we discussed last time, the different white paper archetypes work best for different goals, different audiences, and in different phases of the sales cycle.

But what if you have more than one goal for your white paper? What if you have two goals which are equally important, but not enough budget to create a separate white paper for each?

That can be a good time to consider a hybrid white paper. By combining the strengths of different white paper archetypes, you can appeal to multiple audiences and achieve multiple goals.

Four Possible Archetype Combinations

From the three white paper archetypes, it's mathematically possible to create four different hybrid combinations – three combining two of the archetypes, and a fourth that combines all three.

Graham asserts – and I fully agree with him – that two of of these combinations can work well. But the other two just make a mess. A big, ROI-sucking mess.
We'll look first at the two combinations that work. Then we'll look at why the others don't.

Effective Hybrid #1: Backgrounder + Numbered List

As I just mentioned, when you have two, equally important goals for a white paper project, but budget for only one white paper, a hybrid white paper may allow you to achieve both goals. Let's look at two examples.

For the first one, let's say you need to support an upcoming product launch. But you also need to do something to attract more attention to your company. If you read last month's article on the three white paper archetypes, you know that the best type of white paper for a product launch is the backgrounder. And you know that the best type of white paper for attracting attention is the numbered list. So how can you combine these two styles to achieve both goals?

In this case, Graham suggests creating a numbered list white paper that focuses on what to look for in the type of solution you're launching – a white paper with a title like:

5 Must-Have Capabilities for Your Next Aircraft Wiring Tester

– or –

6 Things to Look for when Choosing a Databus Interface Solution

By describing the specific strengths of your product and how they deliver desirable benefits, such a white paper will support your product launch. And by positioning those strengths as "must-haves" in your solution class, you'll also be taking a provocative stand that can grab your prospects' attention and put you on their radar screen.

So, the first hybrid combination that works well is the Backgrounder + Numbered List. Note that this hybrid is best aimed at more technical audiences in the middle to later stages of the buying process.

Effective Hybrid #2: Problem/Solution + Numbered List

Now let's look at an example in the earlier stages of the buying cycle.

Say you want a white paper that will generate leads for your sales team. But you also want to raise your company's profile among long-term prospects – those with no immediate need for your solution. This is where the second effective white paper hybrid – the Problem/Solution + Numbered List – comes in handy.

This second hybrid is essentially a numbered list focusing on several dimensions of a major industry problem. Like the standard problem/solution – the best format for generating leads – this hybrid addresses a burning industry problem and makes a case that your solution to that problem is the best available. But thanks to the numbered list format, it also breaks down both the problem and the solution into bite-size chunks. This makes your white paper more attractive to prospects for whom the problem is not yet a priority.

By transforming your problem/solution white paper into a numbered list, you broaden its appeal. By reaching out to a wider audience, you end up raising your company's profile.

This Problem/Solution + Numbered List format also works well when a major industry problem is, in reality, a series of problems. My latest special report, 10 Common Mistakes That Kill White Paper ROI, is an example of such a white paper. The main problem – what my prospect wants solved – is white papers that don't deliver sufficient ROI. But that big problem is often caused by one or more of several, little-known, small problems, none of which really warrants its own white paper.

Two Combinations that Don't Work

The two combinations that are not effective, Graham says, are:

  • Back-grounder + Problem/Solution
  • Back-grounder + Problem/Solution + Numbered List

I agree with him. And we'll look at why these combinations don't work in just a moment. But I also think this is where Graham's ice cream metaphor breaks down a bit. I'd like to propose a different one.

If we look at the two combinations that normally fail, you'll notice that each contains both the backgrounder and the problem/solution. Looking back at the two combinations that can be successful, we see that neither combines these two archetypes.

So, as a memory aid, Graham offers the following rule of thumb:

"Just keep the vanilla away from the chocolate. Neither flavor mixes well with the other, even if some strawberry is in the mix."

Now, I don't know about you, but as someone who grew up eating Neapolitan ice cream, Good Humor bars, and vanilla ice cream with Hershey's Syrup, I find this part of Graham's analogy a bit hard to swallow. I mean, really, who believes chocolate and vanilla don't go together?

A Better Metaphor for White Paper Archetypes

Like I said, I think I've come up with a better analogy.

I think of the three white paper archetypes as akin to blood types.

Remember back in school, in health or science class, when you learned about human blood types? I'm sure you remember the four types:

  • Type A
  • Type B
  • Type AB
  • Type O

You probably also remember that Type O, the most common, is called the "universal recipient," because those with Type O blood can receive transfusions of any blood type. And Type AB blood is referred to as the "universal donor," because Type AB can be given to any person, regardless of their own blood type. You'll also recall that Type A blood cannot be given to Type B individuals, and vice versa.

So I like to think of the problem/solution white paper as Type A, the backgrounder as Type B, and the numbered list as Type AB, because the numbered list can be used to give a "transfusion" to the other two types. Thus, my rule of thumb is:

Type A blood (the problem/solution) and Type B blood (the backgrounder) can't be mixed. But Type AB blood (the numbered list) can be added to either Type A or Type B.

Why Backgrounder + Problem/Solution Combinations Fail

So, why can't you mix the backgrounder with the problem/solution?

Basically, it's because their best audiences are too far apart.

As you'll recall from last time, the problem/solution appeals primarily to executives who are looking to solve a business problem. They're early in the sales cycle, still trying to understand their problem, and not yet ready to consider specific solutions. They're not really interested in the technical details of your product at this point.

The backgrounder, in contrast, is better aimed at a technical audience toward the end of the sales cycle. Members of this audience already understand the problem. What they need is to evaluate and compare specific solutions. They need those technical details.

When you try to combine a backgrounder with a problem/solution in the same white paper, you're giving each of these very different audiences too much of what they don't want, and possibly not enough of what they need. And that usually goes over badly with both of them.

Take-Away Points

  1. Hybrid (combination) white papers can work well when you have two complimentary goals.
  2. Use the Back-grounder + Numbered List hybrid when you want to both (1) support a product launch and (2) attract attention to your company.
  3. Use the Problem/Solution + Numbered List hybrid when you want to both (1) generate leads and (2) raise your company's profile.
  4. Don't try to mix the problem/solution (Type A) and backgrounder (Type B) formats; they appeal to very different audiences.
  5. The numbered list (Type AB) can be combined with either of the other two types.

Next Steps...

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


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


  1. Gordon Graham

    John, thank you for such a thoughtful contribution to the literature on white papers!

    I think you really nailed the key reasons why some mixes work and others don't. It's all about matching the right content to the right audience to meet your goals.

    By the way, I quite agree: in the real world, Neapolitan and vanilla + chocolate ice cream go together beautifully. Your blood type metaphor is quite apt... just a little less "appetizing"!

    Keep up the great work.

  2. […] white papers. Specifically, we looked at the three principal white paper archetypes, and the best hybrid combinations of the […]

  3. […] white paper, or a numbered list with a problem-solving focus. (See this article, and this one, for more information on different types of white […]

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