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In recent articles in this space, I’ve been examining factors that are important to a white paper’s success, and common mistakes that often sabotage that success. Another of those important factors is the effectiveness of the white paper’s presentation.

Seventy-one percent of technology buyers surveyed by KnowledgeStorm and MarketingSherpa said “quality of presentation” was a “very important” or “extremely important” factor in their evaluation of technology information. Interestingly, only 50% of the technology marketers in that survey felt the quality of presentation in their own materials was “very good” or “excellent” (Figure 1). [i]

Poor design or a lack of good illustrations can put readers off and lower the perceived value of your white paper. These errors make your white paper less interesting, less scannable, and harder to read.

Two ways NOT to design a white paper

Poorly designed white papers most often come in one of two forms:  the “Wall of Gray”, and the “Marketing Slick”.

The “wall of gray” is characterized by narrow margins, pages dense with text, minimal white space, and very little that adds visual interest (few illustrations, text boxes, etc.). In short, it looks like a legal brief: intimidating and boring.

At the other extreme, the “marketing slick” white paper has the look of a brochure. Wide graphic expanses and stock photography dominate. Text is confined to a small portion of each page. The illustrations – often featuring smiling business people around a conference table, or serious, scientific types in lab coats – are chosen primarily to convey feeling rather than useful information.

The “marketing slick” is the ad agency’s way of turning two pages of marketing copy into an eight-page document they choose to call a white paper. And it’s a sure way to turn off an engineer or other technical information-seeker. As Bob Bly, author of The White Paper Marketing Handbook, says:

“Engineers look down on advertising and advertising people, for the most part… Don’t use slick graphics that immediately identify a brochure or spec sheet as advertising. The engineer will be quick to reject such material as ‘fluff’.” [ii]

Poor design and a lack of good illustrations are frequent problems in tech industry white papers. In a survey of our own, for example, a whopping 70.8% of the white papers I looked at suffered noticeably from poor design (65.4%) or a dearth of helpful illustrations (30.3%), in most cases both. [iii]

Classic White Paper Design

The remedy is classic white paper design, coupled with a generous supply of meaningful illustrations.

Classic white paper design is an elegant middle ground between the “wall of gray” and the “marketing slick”. It features:

  • Wide margins. Especially on one side of the page to leave room for pull quotes
  • Narrow columns of text for easy reading
  • Lots of white space breaking text into manageable sections, creating a reader-friendly appearance
  • Plenty of emphasized text elements that grab the attention of scanners and provide visual interest for readers, including:
    • Headlines
    • Subheads
    • Bullets
    • Pull quotes
    • Sidebars
  • Plenty of informative illustrations

Good illustrations with informative captions are an important part of effective white paper design. Illustrations add visual interest, breaking up the “wall of gray” and making your white paper look more inviting to readers.

Illustrations are also much more memorable than text. Graphs and charts replace a lot of words and are easier to understand.

Don’t forget the captions

And the captions are just as important as the illustrations themselves. Besides helping readers fully understand the illustrations, effective captions capture the attention of scanners, building their interest and drawing them into your white paper.

Plus, captions get high readership. “Studies show…captions get twice the readership of body copy.” says Bly.[ii] Advertising legend David Ogilvy agrees: “Captions should appear under all your photographs,” he writes.  “Twice as many people read them as read body copy.” [iv]

Together, good design and good illustrations enhance the readability and scannability of your white paper. This is extremely important to today’s primary audience for white papers: busy business executives. This group has an extreme need for information, but almost no time to gather it.

A professional copywriter with white paper knowledge will plan for these design considerations. He’ll provide suggestions for illustrations and include the necessary text elements – including captions – that will make your white paper visually appealing to technology purchasing decision-makers and influencers.

Take-Away Points

Seventy-one percent (71%) of technology buyers surveyed said “quality of presentation” was very important or extremely important in their evaluation of technology information. [i]

Poor design and a lack of good illustrations are frequent problems in tech industry white papers, with 65.4% suffering from poor design and 30.3% lacking helpful illustrations. [iii]

The remedy for poor presentation is classic white paper design – an elegant middle ground between the “wall of gray” and the “marketing slick” – coupled with a generous supply of meaningful, captioned illustrations.

Next Steps

This month’s article is the fourth of a series of excerpts from CopyEngineer’s newly updated special report, 10 Common Mistakes that Kill White Paper ROI: How to Avoid Them and Generate More Leads. To get your free copy of the report, click here.

Need expert help with planning and developing a new white paper for your company? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at I’ll be happy to schedule a call and discuss your project with you.



[i] Connecting Through Content Survey, Issue 1: How Technology Marketers Meet Buyers’ Appetite for Content, KnowledgeStorm/MarketingSherpa, March 2007.

[ii] Bly, Robert W., The White Paper Marketing Handbook, Thomson, 2006.

[iii] Cole, John, 10 Mistakes that Kill White Paper ROI: How to Avoid Them and Generate More Leads (Revised Edition), CopyEngineer, September 2018.

[iv] Ogilvy, David, Ogilvy on Advertising, Crown Publishers, 1983.


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