How to write a white paper that inspires a year-long content strategy
When it comes to establishing one’s brand as an authority, few resources get the job done like a data-driven white paper.
Longer than your typical blog post and more in-depth than an ebook, a white paper is a well-researched piece of content designed to educate readers on a specific topic. It allows you to position your brand as an expert in your field and demonstrate you have a solution to your audience’s problems. And because marketers often gate white papers behind an email form, these reports can help support goals like lead generation and sales.
But with a little foresight, a white paper can do more than capture leads. It can also fuel an entire year’s worth of content and support teams across sales, customer success and even design. From developing social media content to webinars to workshops, there are a number of ways you can extend the life of your white paper.
In this article, we’ll walk you through how to write a white paper as well as how to turn those data and insights into new content for the entire year.
What makes a white paper valuable?
Traditionally, a white paper is defined as an informational document to promote a product or service and is used by marketing and sales to persuade buyers to purchase from one brand over another. In marketing, a white paper can be used to provide in-depth research on a particular subject (like the state of social marketing) and gives brands an opportunity to build credibility with their audience.
Consider this data-driven white paper example: the Sprout Social Index™. The Index™ is our annual 30+ page white paper filled with unique data based on consumer and marketer surveys. We look specifically at the state of social marketing, and offer insights on topics like consumer behaviors, marketers’ social goals and what differentiates one brand’s social presence from a competitor.
This is our ninth year of #trend forecasting with the Sprout Social Index: Social Media Trends for 2022 and Beyond
We surveyed over 1,000 U.S. consumers and 500 U.S. social marketers to understand how social has transformed.
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) May 17, 2022
It takes roughly three months and collaboration across marketing, design and sales for the Index™ to come to life. On the other hand, this blog post you’re reading took me about one week to complete. To illustrate how to plan and develop a white paper with legs beyond its initial launch, we’ll share how we create the Index™ and the various assets that come from our annual report.
Phase 1. Planning for success
Before diving into topic ideation, establish the goals and objectives you want to achieve with your white paper. Goals can include everything from raising brand awareness in your target audience to fueling new business acquisition by generating leads. And determine which key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to track your progress toward your goals, like net new users and content downloads. From there, develop a project plan with clear expectations around responsibilities and due dates, like when to expect a first draft or design assets for social promotion.
Once your goals and project plan are in place, then you can focus on narrowing your white paper to one specific topic. When in doubt, start by identifying your audience and brainstorming the different problems you can help them solve.
For the Sprout Social Index™, we look at a couple of factors to inform our direction:
- Our audience’s needs. Think about who is going to read your white paper and what problems they’re hoping to solve with the information provided. For the Index™, we know we’re speaking to social media marketers of all industries and experience levels, from solo practitioners to directors managing a team. So the data we offer needs to help our audience advance their careers, strengthen their strategies and sharpen their skill sets. We’ll consider things like top goals and challenges for social marketers, how social is viewed within an organization and what skills marketers hope to develop.
- The state of the industry. In addition to specific audience needs, we also look at what’s happening within the industry at large. Are there emerging trends our audience wants to understand? How are other brands responding to industry changes and what can readers learn from these examples? To ensure the Index™ is relevant for social marketers of all industries, we’ll look at big trends in the overall social marketing landscape like which platforms are most popular among consumers and what types of content generate the most engagement.
If you plan to use your white paper to inspire a year’s worth of content, take a moment to evaluate if the topic will be relevant a year from now. Timely data, while it can be extremely valuable as part of your content strategy, gives you less runway to develop content six, seven or eight months post launch. Additionally, you’ll need to have enough data to work with in the future. Keeping the topic broad enough will enable you to drill down into specific angles for future content.
Phase 2. Writing a white paper from start to finish
With a plan in place, it’s time to conduct your research, develop your white paper structure and deploy any surveys for data collection.
With the Index™, we use a platform like SurveyMonkey to conduct two different surveys: one for 1,000 consumers and one for 1,000 social marketers. We ask consumers questions like which social platforms they use the most and what actions can turn them off to a brand’s social presence. In the marketer survey, we ask them how they use social data, what their greatest challenges are and what factors influence their approach to social.
If you’re unsure how to analyze the data, try creating a separate Google Doc or spreadsheet to house your key findings, organized by question number. When reviewing the Index™ data, we look at things like:
- Responses to all questions without any filtering or comparisons
- Results when we narrow our focus to one particular subgroup (e.g. marketers at companies with only 1-50 employees)
- Responses that contradict our original hypothesis
- Contrasts between the two audiences (e.g. marketers versus consumers)
Remember: you won’t use every single data point in your actual report. Instead of tossing unused data to the side, consider using that information as inspiration for a future piece of content.
With your data in hand, it’s time to put pen to paper. Writing a white paper can take several days, or even weeks, and it’s helpful to start with a comprehensive outline to plan out the report flow. In the outline for the Index™, we include examples of the quantitative data to highlight and brand examples discovered during the research stage. Allocate about one week for outlining and drafting, which should include chart mockups of the data you plan to use.
For reviews, ask for feedback from your key stakeholders, including those who don’t work in content directly. Index™ feedback from our social team ensures we’re giving our target audience what they need while our PR team can recommend future storylines inspired by the report.
Phase 3. Bringing the data to life with creative
Another facet that distinguishes a white paper from a blog post is that white papers are often packaged as a designed PDF.
In addition to creating the PDF version of the Index™, our design team creates graphic assets and charts for use in content, on social and beyond. One of the reasons we ask our social team to review the final draft of the Index™ is to get feedback on which stats and insights will make for compelling graphics on social.
For example, one of the charts included in the Index™ talks about actions consumers take when they follow a brand on social..
Using the feedback from social, we identified one standout data point from this graph, and the design team turned it into a separate social graphic.
Fact: Fewer people are using hashtags for social discovery. Find out where consumers are turning their attention instead in this year's Sprout Social Index. https://t.co/YuWeXmiWBk pic.twitter.com/rcdzFDJNpx
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) May 18, 2020
Developing a unique design system and color palette for each white paper creates a consistent visual identity so every asset looks like it belongs to the Index™ campaign. This also gives designers the flexibility to create new assets like GIFs throughout the entire year because they have a wide range of colors and motifs to pull from.
With your report ready to launch, remember you still need to track your progress toward your goals. Tracking not only shows you if you’ve achieved your goals but also if you need to adjust your distribution strategy to make up for lost ground.
Phase 4. Giving your white paper longevity
So you’ve officially published the final white paper PDF and all of your design assets—congratulations! But just because you hit that publish button doesn’t mean the work behind the scenes suddenly stops.
To kick off the Index™, we publish different teaser posts for two different audiences: one for the social media manager and one for an executive. Both articles preview some of the salient data points and highlight how the report will address marketers’ challenges, ultimately encouraging readers to download the Index™.
50% of consumers say they’re most likely to use social media during a major personal milestone. Create messages that consider your audience’s future plans and show how your brand can help them get there. https://t.co/ov3g4vd8fg
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) May 5, 2020
To keep that momentum going, our social and creative teams collaborated to create the #DataDance, a series of short dance moves inspired by findings from the Index™. We encouraged our followers to both learn and share their own #DataDance with us on social.
How to #DataDance: a thread👇 pic.twitter.com/CfwlOJKDXR
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) May 4, 2020
We also created new content like webinars and articles with industry-specific benchmarks months after the publish date. We also repackaged the Index™ as part of a larger toolkit for marketers as they begin planning for 2021. Finally, we included data from the report in our Data in Action workshop for social marketers, five months after the Index™ launched.
Takeaway #1: Tell people about your product! #SproutDataInAction pic.twitter.com/BUWe7XhBf5
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) October 15, 2020
When you can repurpose the data and insights from your white paper, you stand to reach new audiences, reinforce your original argument and demonstrate your expertise in a particular topic.
Breathe new life into your white paper
White papers are not only a great resource for brands to establish their expertise and build authority with their audience, they also can inspire entirely new pieces of content post launch. By repurposing your report and turning it into new content, you can extend the longevity of your data and ensure your white paper continues to drive traffic for the entire year.
Looking for more inspiration for your content strategy? Check out what marketers and consumers say makes a brand’s social best in class and other content insights in the Sprout Social Index™ today.
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