What is a White Paper?

With low production costs, no inventory and higher price points, white papers are key product strategy

People ask me all the time what makes a great digital white paper, special report, guidebook or handbook… depending on what they call them. (Note: If you are new to download publishing, do some split tests to discover which label—white paper, special report, handbook or guidebook—your consumers prefer… let them vote with their wallets in a clean A/B/C/D test…. you will likely be surprised by the results.)

What should the covers look like? How should the page layout be designed? How long should it be? Is there a template to follow? How should it be written?

For B2C online publishers, my answer has always been the Johns Hopkins White Papers, now owned by Scientific American.

These white papers are in-depth special reports on major medical disorders such as coronary heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. In addition to providing thorough background information on risk factors, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment options, each one is updated annually to include new reviews of the latest, most significant research studies and clinical breakthroughs.

Edited by experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and written in clear, non-technical language, these white papers help people become experts on the medical conditions that concern them most. 

Their data says these white papers offer results, too, albeit they need to run another survey:

According to the results of a survey taken of White Paper subscribers during the fall of 2010, 65 percent of respondents said they purchased a White Paper to manage a particular disease or condition. Consequently, 53 percent said they had made changes to their lifestyle because of what they had read. Nearly 20 percent said they had seen a doctor for a specific medical concern. Twenty-one percent said they had started or stopped taking a supplement; 25 percent asked their doctor about making a change to their medication; and 20 percent had a diagnostic or screening test. Six percent underwent surgery.

University Health Publishing (UHP) was very successfully selling white papers before the advent of the commercial Internet. For nearly 25 years it provided millions of readers worldwide with a variety of print and subscription-based products in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.

UHP mastered the art of selling white papers when the only feasible method of marketing and distribution was the U.S. Postal Service. Since 1984, Johns Hopkins White Papers, now Scientific American white papers, have been sold to consumers via direct mail, never in bookstores.

A good white paper is an adult education product designed for a motivated learner who is looking for a thorough, well researched, in-depth answer to a specific question or concern. In the case of UHP, the consumer’s question is usually about a specific condition and how to live with it.

UHP Founder Rodney Friedman’s dream had always been for someone who was experiencing pain in his chest at 3 a.m. to be able to go online and download one of the white papers when he needed it most. With the launch of the Johns Hopkins Health Alerts website, UHP could, for the first time, sell downloadable information products to consumers on demand.

What is a white paper?

First, at 60–80 pages, on average, they are the perfect length. They are long enough to be in-depth and credible on a single topic, while remaining much shorter than a book. Ideally, white papers are 24,000 to 32,000 words vs. 70,000 to 90,000 words for a bookstore book.

Second, depending on the topic, they can be heavily illustrated with line drawings, charts and tables — all designed to enhance understanding.

Third, the graphic design and layout is clean, stark and pristine with an “academic” feel. A white paper is — wait for it — white. It’s not four-color, not flashy, not overly designed. At some primal level of consciousness, its austere “look and feel” adds to a white paper’s authority. The medium never overwhelms the message.

Fourth, in order to be consumer-friendly, the finished document is designed to be printed on 8½” x 11” paper. In a digital age, many consumers want to be able to buy a white paper, download it immediately, and print it out on their own computer printer. Our research shows that at 60-80 pages, most consumers — regardless of age — choose to print them out rather than read them on a computer screen.

Consumers prefer holding the physical copy of the white paper to read and perhaps to mark up with pen or pencil. At the same time, they appreciate that the PDF file is saved to their computer hard drive for reprinting, if necessary.

Smart publishers, such as Amazon, Scientific America and Mequoda, also maintain a digital library for their customers. So, if a customer’s hard drive fails, the white paper is retrievable from the publisher’s digital archive.

Fifth, consider the price point. A white paper isn’t a book. It’s more specialized and focused on a niche topic that justifies a higher price. If a consumer title, a white paper generally sells for $20 – $50. In the B2B market, white paper prices generally begin at $97 and can be as much as $1,500.

Conclusion: If you want to model a Mequoda best practice for white papers, invest $20 or $30 in a Scientific American White Paper. Nobody does it better! And no, we’re not affiliates, just big fans.

This post was originally published in 2009 and is updated frequently.

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