At the graphic design software startup I work for, we have a small marketing team and no sales team. We have ambitious goals and we’re growing rapidly. As you can imagine, that means we’re under a lot of pressure to create content that connects with and expands our audience.
One crucial part of our lead generation strategy is producing long-form content like white papers, ebooks, and webinars. It’s helped us build our audience, and attracted some prestigious partners like Hubspot and SurveyMonkey.
That said, it’s a big challenge for many already time-strapped startups and entrepreneurs to constantly come up with unique, exciting content. And in a recent survey we ran, 34.8% of marketers said that their biggest struggle was to produce visual content consistently. That’s especially true if you lack basic design know-how.
In this post, we’ll focus on one particularly powerful type of long-form content that has a proven track record in generating leads, but requires less work and design expertise than some other lead magnets—white papers.
Business.com found that over 50% of respondents (all advertisers) said that white papers were a “valuable” or “extremely valuable” source of leads.
I’ll show you how to put white papers to good use, how to turn content that already performs well into a white paper, and how to leverage white papers into partnerships that help scale your business.
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What Is a White Paper?
People ask me that question all the time. Is it a report? An ebook?
A white paper is an in-depth report that explains a business concept or gives a solution to a business problem.
It provides persuasive evidence as to why its explanation or solution merits attention. It usually includes new research or case studies. In short, it offers expertise backed up by research and robust references.
A white paper usually tackles a complex concept or problem, which is why its longer format works. It’s usually at least six pages and formatted as an 8.5 x 11” portrait orientation PDF.
A white paper typically has the following structure:
- Cover Page
- Executive Summary: Define the problem and summarize your solutions.
- Problem Definition: Further define the problem and provide background information, as needed.
- Solution Details: Include case studies and customer testimonials to support your arguments.
- Benefits: This is a great place to include charts and other data visualizations to support your claims. Discuss ROI, speed of implementation and anything else your potential customers would care about.
- Summary: Include the main selling points of your solution. Since some readers will directly skip to this section, give it extra attention.
- Call to Action: Tell readers what you want them to do next. Don’t just drop an email address to contact or website to visit. Include an offer: a free trial version or assessment, for example.
Don’t worry if you’re not a designer. I’ll give you some easy white paper design tips later in this post.
Why Would I Want to Create a White Paper?
White papers help educate stakeholders, clients, or top-of-funnel traffic. They build trust with your audience and establish credibility, since they position you as an authority (and provide evidence of use cases where your solutions worked).
White papers are also great for lead generation. You can require anyone who downloads them to sign up for a newsletter or take another action.
And since people who download white papers are usually further along in their buying cycle (actively looking to buy a product or service like yours, instead of passively interested), leads generated from whitepapers are more likely to convert to paying customers.
That said, banging out any old white paper is not going to get you the results you want. Your white paper should be both visually interesting and provide valuable insight to hook leads and get them invested in your company.
Let’s start with providing valuable content and we’ll return to the design part later.
How to Find a Topic for Your White Paper
1. Identify Your Top-Performing Content
Creating a white paper from scratch takes an incredible amount of time to research, draft, edit, publish, and promote. It’s also tough to come up with a brand new idea that your audience is sure to love.
That’s why, in general, content marketers love repurposing content—whether it’s for a white paper or otherwise. According to a study by Curata, 29% of leading marketers regularly reuse and repurpose their existing content.
So here’s your strategy: look through your blog posts from the past year and find the content that your audience loves.
How do you do this? Turn to your trusty friend Google Analytics, if it’s set up on your site. Look for posts that generate a lot of social shares, traffic, and conversions. If Google Analytics isn’t an option, try out a tool like Buzzsumo. Enter your domain in their Content Research tool and see what generated the most engagement across platforms.
Their “Most Shared” report tells you what content gained traction on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest, and will help you determine where you should ultimately share your white paper. For example, here’s the most engaging content from Venngage over the past year:
Our poster ideas blog post got tons of engagement on Pinterest, while our report design blog post comes in second place thanks to 2.1K Facebook engagements.
2. Research What Your Audience Struggles With
Are you new to entrepreneurship and low on existing content? Or perhaps your content isn’t performing overly well? It’s time to start from the beginning and find a new topic for your white paper by researching what your audience struggles with. This will also help guide how you might expand existing content.
First off, you can’t research your audience’s struggles if you don’t even know who your audience is. Again, a good place to start is Google Analytics. Track your site data and find out the demographics of your audience.
Another strategy is to look at the data from one of your high-performing email campaigns. Open a list of who clicked a link in the campaign.
Export a list of their names and email addresses, then add columns for:
- Job Title
- Subject line of the email they clicked
Then, install the Chrome extension Sales Navigator for Gmail. Type one of your email addresses into Gmail and you’ll see rich data from that person’s LinkedIn profile.
Here’s an example from when my boss searched for herself:
Fill in the data in your spreadsheet. You should try to get data for at least 100 people. Now, you should have a much better idea of who your target audience is.
Online Forums and Groups
To truly understand what your audience is struggling with, you need to find them online, tap into their conversations and pay attention to key phrases or words they commonly use so you can include it in your white paper.
- Twitter chats: Brian Fanzo is a great resource if you want to find a calendar of weekly Twitter chats. Hootsuite has a good primer on Twitter chats, too.
- LinkedIn Groups
This strategy is easiest if you’ve already identified a topic you want to run with.
For example, if I’ve identified that our blog post on “letterhead templates” is getting the most traffic by looking at Google Analytics, I can search Quora and other forums for this keyword to figure out people’s pain points around this topic and common phrases they use.
I’ll then copy and paste this information into a document, so I can include it in my white paper copy (and figure out what topics to focus on). Here’s an example of research I pulled directly from Quora on this topic. I’ve highlighted the juiciest bits:
At Venngage, we regularly email and host user calls with our top users to identify different buyer personas (motivations and preferences of our top customer segments) and figure out what problems they’re facing and to offer customized solutions.
Here’s an example of an email our success team recently sent to Business plan users:
Try sending a similar email to your list to get insight into their top challenges. Include a link to a short survey, if you want specific feedback.
Another strategy we use is to search our customer service chat program, Helpscout, by job (“marketer”) or topic (“business reports”) to find common pain points and goals of our customers, as well as specific language they use.
Let’s say your customers bring up creating presentations again and again in their customer service chats, your one-on-one calls etc. There are some great free and paid tools you can use to find specific topics that address that pain point:
- Answer the Public: This free tool lets you put in a keyword like “presentation” and get topics like “how to make presentations Steve Jobs.”
- Keywords Everywhere: This free Chrome extension works within Google. It shows keyword volume for your search (presentation has 550,000 volume in the US) and related keywords ranked by keyword volume that can help spark content ideas (“business presentation templates”).
- Ahrefs: We use this paid tool in house at Venngage. Its Keywords Explorer tool is especially useful because it shows if there’s a high amount of competition for a particular keyword and how many backlinks the blog post hosting your white paper will need to rank for this keyword.
Now that you’ve identified your topic (and hopefully pre-existing content you can reuse), it’s time to create your white paper.
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How to Repurpose Your Existing Content into a White Paper
A successful white paper won’t just be a rehash of an old blog post. Your research should’ve helped you decide where you need to expand the post and what the focus should be.
And, like with other long-form content, such as ebooks and presentations, design is hugely important.
Of course, you may not be able to afford to hire a designer to create a template for you. Though you can certainly turn to options like 99Designs, Upwork, and Fiverr to hire an affordable designer.
Or, you can turn to a pre-made white paper design so you’re not starting from scratch. White paper templates abound online—some free, some not—and a simple Google search will yield plenty of possibilities.
Once you have a template, here are some tips for making your white paper stand out:
1. Create an Engaging Cover Page
Your cover page should give your reader a solid idea of what to expect, and encourage them to read further.
A good way to do this is to use photos, icons, or illustrations. This example uses icons to preview the steps in this “captivating” content marketing process:
It also has a compelling title that uses two headline must-haves: a number and emotional language (“captivating”). If you need help writing good headlines that convert, I can’t recommend Brian Dean’s guide to copywriting enough.
2. Highlight Key Takeaways Right Away
Include takeaways on your second page to ensure readers want to dive in deeper to your white paper for specifics. Use a contrasting color for any subheadings you want to draw the reader’s eye to.
In this example, they use orange:
In fact, use bright colors for any text or chart you want the reader to pay attention to.
You can also try highlighting quotes using a bigger font, just like you see done in magazines and newspapers. Put this quote in your contrasting color. Or put it inside a colored text box, instead. Both examples are used in this white paper:
Here’s a little design secret: The key to making a white paper readable and engaging is visual variation. Using different sizes of headers, mixing in data visualization and photos and using icons as bullet points are all ways to break up your text and make your white paper more approachable.
3. Visualize Data Using Charts and Pictograms
Visuals, like charts and pictograms, are the perfect way to summarize the most exciting parts of your white paper’s content. And by exciting, I mean answers to key questions your audience frequently discusses online and searches for on Google.
Visuals are a great addition to white papers because they’re easy to digest, they make an impact and the options are pretty much endless.
They’re also a great way to breathe new life into any content you’re repurposing and make your white paper easy to understand and any data more engaging.
Finally, visuals provide great tidbits to pull out to promote your white paper via social media, blog posts, email newsletters, webinars, etc. And it’s something easy you can send to any partners on your white paper project so they can ramp up their own promotion engines.
If you’re repurposing top-performing content, let’s assume that your audience is responding to it because it’s full of valuable information. List what’s most interesting or unique in your content and create visuals from these tidbits.
Each point could be a standalone graphic, or you could combine them into the ultimate infographic, just like we turned the content from our “How To Make an Infographic in 5 Steps” blog post into an infographic on the very same topic (how meta).
Here’s an example of a white paper that makes extensive use of charts:
How do you choose the right chart for your white paper? It’s going to depend a lot on the type of data you have. Here are some suggestions:
- A line graph to show revenue growth over time
- Bar charts to show many categories (see example above)
- Donut charts to show two proportions (see example above) or pie charts to show a few proportions (fewer is better)
- A pictogram (or icon chart) to visualize statistical data (see below for an example)
Our blog post on how to choose the right chart for your data is the be all and end all resource for those new to data visualization.
Where to Publish White Papers and How to Drive Traffic to Them
1. Via a New Blog Post
At Venngage, we increased our entire site’s traffic by 400% in one year. Most of this was fueled by organic search to our blog. So, clearly we’ve been doing something right when it comes to producing blog content that’s SEO friendly.
Foundr’s SEO plan for new startups is a good place to begin if you’re new to creating content that’s optimized for organic search.
For starters, you’ll want to produce a blog post that’s sole purpose is to promote your white paper. It’s the simplest way to publish your white paper, but it can also be incredibly effective.
Here’s a hot tip to make sure you get eyeballs on your blog post: aggressively build backlinks to your blog post.
Here at Venngage, we regularly do this by conducting outreach. We use Ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool to search by keyword for similar blog content. We only look for content published in the last year with a domain authority (DA) rating from Moz of 40 or higher.
We then export this list and have our VA populate the list with email addresses. Here’s a typical template:
Then, we send out a mass mailing to these contacts using Mailshake. We always schedule at least two follow up emails, five days apart.
I get up to 14 backlinks a week using this strategy. My secret sauce:
- I have a winning template that makes me sound like a human.
- I use “Re: <Contact’s Blog Post Title>” as my subject, as it’s a recognizable and not salesy at all.
- I always tell contacts exactly where they can link to my post when they reply that they’re interested. I suggest existing anchor text or a natural place they can include anchor text. Or I suggest an alternative blog post, if they don’t want to link in the post I cited. This makes it much easier for them to add a link.
(FYI, Summer replied back that she was interested in my offer within three hours.)
Of course, you are going to want to gate your white paper and use it as an opt-in offer, so you can convert readers into leads. The easiest way is to make sure to embed a (short!) form in your blog post where readers can enter their names and email addresses. The white paper then downloads automatically or is emailed to them, or both.
You could send your blog readers to a dedicated white paper landing page that hosts the form. At Venngage, we use Instapage to make these types of white paper landing pages. Foundr’s guide to landing page copywriting will help make sure your copy converts.
Unbounce does a very nice job with this white paper landing page:
It’s focused, with nowhere to click except the CTA, and stresses that the eBook will provide what the reader would most want: conversion strategies.
Or, you could use a tool like OptinMonster to embed an email capture form directly within your blog post. You can also use their tool to add an exit popup to your dedicated blog post (or any relevant post or page), inviting readers to download in exchange for an email address. This eliminates the need for a separate signup, though a dedicated landing page may work better to convert leads if you’re directing readers there from multiple sources, like social media.
You will really want to use this tactic if you’re partnering with another company to make and/or promote the white paper so you get to share in the lead generation goodness. This topic is covered in the next section.
2. Partner with Similar Brands to Get Leads
One of the best (and cheapest) ways to promote your white paper and convert more leads is to partner with a brand whose customer base would also be interested in your product. Partnerships are a powerful content distribution tool.
But choosing your partner depends on more than their customer base or how many newsletter subscribers they have. To illustrate this, I’ll give you a couple of case studies.
One of Venngage’s most successful brand partnerships was with Hubspot. We created a brand style guide together that was available to download from our respective websites.
Hubspot promoted the offer to their substantial newsletter list and on their social media channels. This partnership generated about 2,500 leads for Venngage. We translated the style guide into French and Spanish, as well, which generated a further 1,500 leads.
Once we had a partnership in place with Hubspot, other companies were significantly more interested in working with us as well.
We also partnered with GoToWebinar to develop a webinar and ebook on how to design an outstanding webinar in 2019. The number of resulting leads were significantly less, but the leads we did get converted into paying customers at a higher rate.
What’s the lesson from this? Some partnerships work well for exposure and to leverage new partnerships down the road. Others are great to drive leads that convert. And to do that, you want to make sure that your white paper’s topic is directly attractive to your partner’s audience.
A webinar design guide may be relevant to only a portion of one company’s audience. But for GoToWebinar’s customers, who really need to know how to design engaging webinars, our offer was extremely attractive.
When choosing a partner to promote your white paper, consider what your current marketing goals are.
Another takeaway: consider translating your white paper into other languages (if your product is available in various markets) to really maximize your reach, without too much extra work.
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White papers can be an incredibly powerful lead generation tactic for your startup or small business. That said, you need to make sure:
- The topic of your white paper directly addresses one of your audience’s key pain points
- You’re repurposing existing high-performing content whenever possible to cut down on time and effort
- You use online tools to design your white paper to make it stand out from the competition’s.
- To partner with another startup on creating and/or promoting the white paper, if possible, that can bring in qualified leads.
Do you create long-form content as part of your marketing strategy? What are your top struggles when it comes to creating content—long-form or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below.