Selling Research Reports and White Papers: The Best White Paper Format

Advice on selling research reports and how to write white papers that sell by using the best white paper format

How would you like to expand your product line with something that’s based on content you already have, increases your credibility in your niche, offers your customers immediate gratification, and will sell in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands … or even millions?

It almost sounds too good to be true, but selling white papers delivers all that and more. The white paper format – sometimes also known as a special report, management report, research report, handbook or guidebook – offers the opportunity for publishers to write a white paper and go in depth into a particular topic that’s of more interest to their audience than a two-page article would be in your core magazine or newsletter. The white paper format allows readers to download it instantly, and, importantly for some publishers, privately.

Take for example the white papers sold by Harvard Health Publications from Harvard Medical School. Our sources there tell us that the white paper format is a blockbuster for Harvard, and they’ve sold more white papers than just about any other publisher – some 2 million, at $18-$20 each.

White paper format for a profitable program

As we discussed in this post, “What is a white paper?,” there are key attributes of a common white paper format:

  • PDF file format
  • 8½” x 11” paper size
  • 60–80 pages pages
  • 24,000 to 32,000 words
  • modestly designed with lots of white space
  • professional look and feel
  • generous use of subheads, sidebars and bulleted lists

You can get a usable white paper template from many sources, such as, or by downloading a free or inexpensive white paper from a competitor. You can also get free white paper templates at tidyform.

Using plenty of subheads, sidebars, and bulleted lists will make your white paper reader-friendly. Harvard includes “FastFacts” and a glossary in their white papers, which help inform as well as allow the reader to skim.

Harvard gets the ideas for its white papers from readers of their other publications who request more information on certain topics, and from their editorial staff and Harvard Medical School faculty. While the program initially used the newsletter editorial staff to create the white papers, the white papers generate enough revenue to support their own dedicated staff. This staff also updates the white papers regularly, since health information can change rapidly.

Harvard uses multiple marketing channels to sell its white papers, including several million emails per month, social media to drive traffic, and third-party licensing offers. The most effective methods are inserts in their print newsletters and onsite landing pages, such as the page for The Sensitive Gut. These landing pages include a short sales letter and suggestions for related white papers. And when it comes to the inserts, people who have already paid a high price for a newsletter are already committed to Harvard’s products, and are easy to convert in selling an additional product at the lower price point of $18 or $20, depending on whether the buyer chooses a download or a print version.

Overall, Harvard currently has about 70 active titles, including Spanish editions, and having created some 80-100 over the years and retiring some as interest faded.

Writing your white papers

The successful white paper format includes a focused topic, such as hip replacement. Create a white paper outline of subtopics – perhaps causes, symptoms and treatment. Now you’re ready to create a table of contents, from which you can start writing. Don’t skip on the research! People are counting on you to provide in-depth information in about 60-80 pages, which is much more than the typical magazine or newsletter article, so you have to know your topic inside and out, and be able to back up your information with data points.

With practice, you’ll find that writing for the white paper format becomes easier. Usually you’ll find that one person on your editorial team will excel at this skill! And I believe it’s an important product line that can increase your revenues with only a modest increase in your editorial workload, at least until this product line really takes off.

Do you have any tips to add? Let’s discuss in the comments.


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