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The Cure for “Backward” White Papers

by | May 12, 2011 | B2B Copywriting, Collateral, Lead Generation, White Papers | 0 comments

White papers continue to be one of the most potent tools in technology marketing. In Eccolo Media’s latest survey on B2B technology collateral, for example, tech buyers ranked white papers as the most influential of all media – for the third year in a row.

But in a recent blog post1, white paper marketing expert Jonathan Kantor pointed out that, “While white papers remain a popular tool, many marketers have yet to achieve their lead-generation goals when their campaigns are deployed.”


Kantor argues the reason is “poor first impressions” – they fail to quickly grab the interest of today’s time- and attention-challenged business executives. And while I don’t disagree – on the contrary, I recommend you take a look at his post – I believe there is a second, equally important reason why many technology white papers fail.

To put it simply: they’re written backwards.

What do I mean by “backwards”? Well, just that: They start where they should finish, and try to finish where they should have started. They begin by describing the marketer’s solution, then try to connect it to the customer’s problem.

In other words, they’re written from the point of view of the marketer, not the customer.

Why is this a problem? I’ll give you three reasons.

Three Reasons Why “Backward” White Papers Fail

First, it makes poor assumptions about the audience’s background. Jumping right into a discussion of a solution assumes the reader already has enough knowledge to understand the topic. This is usually not the case.

“The average reader doesn’t have the same level of knowledge on the topic that you have,” says Kantor. “Don’t assume they do when you write a white paper. In fact, assume they know nothing at all. Then write the paper from that perspective.”

Second, even if they have the requisite background, it’s a mistake to think prospects will immediately see the relevance of your solution to them. They might not know what their problem is, yet. Or even that they have one. You need to show them just what their problem is, before you propose a solution for it.

Remember, your reader is pressed for time. He has a hundred things competing for his attention. He wants to quickly dismiss anything that doesn’t apply to his situation and move on. If your white paper doesn’t immediately show the reader “what’s in it for him,” it’s going to get tossed in the trash.

Finally, starting with your solution is not rhetorically sound. It makes it difficult for you to make a strong argument.

Your offering may have several advantages. It may solve any number of problems. Starting from the solution, therefore, leaves you with too many possible directions to take. You can’t explore all of them adequately, and your argument will tend to jump back and forth. This makes your white paper both hard to write, and hard to follow.

A white paper’s power is based on logic, not emotion. It needs a logical flow – from familiar to unfamiliar, from general to specific – that leads the reader to the conclusion you want him to make. It should make an open-and-shut case for your offering as the best possible solution to the prospect’s problem. That’s hard to do if you start from a place that’s unfamiliar to him.

A far better approach is to start from your prospect’s problem. Make that problem the topic of your white paper. Work from there toward your solution.

A Simple, Four-Step Plan for Better White Papers

How do you do that? Here’s a simple, four-step plan for structuring your argument.

  1. Lay out the landscape for the reader. Describe the problem by breaking it down into its major parts. Provide some historical background, if applicable. Create urgency by showing the cost of not solving the problem.
  2. Set the stage for a new solution. Show how existing solutions fail to fully address the problem. Highlight any recent trends that are rendering these solutions obsolete.
  3. Introduce your new solution. Briefly describe it’s features and benefits. Differentiate it from existing solutions.
  4. Prove your new solution solves the problem best. Demonstrate how it effectively addresses each part of the problem that was described in Step 1.

This problem-solution approach yields a number of benefits.

The Benefits of a “Problem-First” Approach

First, it immediately grabs your prospect’s attention. The title of the white paper identifies the prospect by calling out the problem. Anyone who has that problem, or thinks they might, can immediately see your white paper’s the relevance to them. They don’t have to “put two and two together”.

Second, it makes the white paper easier to write. When it comes time to talk about your solution, you simply address the parts of the problem. The writing process becomes much more efficient.

Third, it makes the white paper easier to read. You start from a place that’s familiar to your reader, and provide context that makes your argument easier to follow. This also tends to streamline your review process.

Forth, it holds readers’ attention better than a solution-first approach. And not just because your white paper is easier to read. Once you’ve laid out the problem and its implications, your reader will want to find out how to solve it. He’ll stay with you.

And finally, it positions your company as a thought leader. If you start your white paper by immediately introducing your technology, you appear to your reader as just another vendor trying to sell him something. But if you start with a thorough exploration of the problem – show your prospect you understand what he’s up against – you demonstrate that you’ve designed your solution with the customer in mind. You come off as having the prospect’s best interest at heart.


Your white paper campaigns will only reach their lead-generation goals if your white papers grab and hold your prospects’ attention, and give them a favorable impression of your company. To do that, they need to start from a place that’s familiar to the prospect.

So, for your next white paper, don’t start with your solution. Start with the problem.

What if your solution solves more than one problem, and you only have budget for one white paper? Prioritize. Start with the biggest problem that affects the largest number of customers. More sales and better ROI will provide the budget for additional white papers.


Need someone to interview your SMEs and write that next white paper for you? Drop me an email at john@ Or call me at (+39) 011 569 4951.




1 Kantor, Jonathan, Why Many White Papers Fail to Achieve their Lead-Generation Goals, White Paper Pundit, April 2011.

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