The term ‘White Paper’ (sometimes stylized as ‘Whitepaper’) originally described legislative documents released by the government. Literally printed on sheets of white paper, these were persuasive accounts of political positions and would be a way for the government to respond to current events and voice a stance.
In the digital age, white papers are much more commonly utilized in the marketing industry, where they function as a valuable content offering in many B2B businesses marketing campaigns.
As with their original use, however, they provide a sleek and professional platform to deliver a stance on an industry issue while increasing brand awareness.
However, the digital age brought with it ever-shorter attention spans, leaving many to wonder: how long should a white paper be? Typically, a white paper should be between 2,500 – 4,000 words. But are there exceptions to this? In this article, I will take a look at the ideal length for a white paper, along with what makes for a good example of the document overall.
Guide to B2B SaaS Marketing
What is the Point?
At its broadest, a white paper can be defined as a business document to help the reader solve a problem, decide what to do next, or answer their question. Generally, it’s structured around describing a pain point and providing the solution, in persuasive and authoritative language.
Readers resort to white papers for a trustworthy and in-depth analysis of an issue in their field. Unlike blog posts, in which folksy vernacular can sometimes be charmingly woven into the brand’s voice, white papers’ do best when they maintain the tone of reportage. The goal of a white paper is to educate and win over your readers through facts and information, demonstrating the company’s thought leadership. That means a good white paper should not be a product pitch – an important fact to remember when asking how long should a white paper be.
White Papers as Gated Content
White papers are often used as a form of gated content in inbound marketing strategies. Often, accessing a white paper requires readers to submit their email addresses, which allows marketers to then add them to mailing lists for the future.
For potential customers who may not be ready to purchase yet, trading their email for a value-rich document is a much easier deal than jumping straight to purchase, and allows them to judge your knowledge and business acumen without added pressure. This is why white papers can be pivotal to nurturing leads and converting them to customers.
They are also an excellent way to generate brand awareness, as the format is eminently shareable in a professional setting, and generally feels more committal than a blog post.
Different Types of White Papers
There are usually three main types of white paper:
This type of white paper will describe the technical details of a business’s offering, be that a product or service. This format’s value comes mainly from increasing the intelligibility of complex technical information – which is particularly important in the B2B tech space.
The Numbered List
This is exactly what it says on the tin – a list of facts, stats, points, or questions about a current issue faced by the business industry. By formatting information under headings and bullet points, these white papers are very easy to digest. This format is great for getting out a piece quickly on a key issue, which can be useful for reinforcing your positioning as a thought leader. Not to mention, this format is tailored to shorter attention spans.
This format will outline a specific pain point faced by customers, and describe a fact-based solution to that problem, based on a new and improved technology/service. This is the format that is most widely associated with the term ‘white paper’ and is best for establishing credibility and thought leadership.
What Makes a Good White Paper?
For a white paper to be effective, the writer must balance exploring the problem thoroughly enough to be trustworthy, but not at such length the audience loses interest. That said, it should provide value throughout, as white papers aren’t always read in full – although understanding how long should a white paper be can help to manage readability.
Therefore, your white paper needs to be designed so it doesn’t need to be read to the very end in order to be an effective resource that positions you as a thought leader.
The keyword for a great white paper is clarity. Your readers will download the white paper wanting concrete information. You need to provide that, alongside enough references to other reliable sources to provide legitimacy.
Don't Forget Design
Great white papers are also peppered with infographics or other analytical images, breaking up the information into digestible sections and lending a sense of polish. This is also important for accessibility as it’s likely your white paper may be read on a phone or tablet, and you want to avoid presenting an off-putting ‘wall of text’ on these devices.
Lastly, while the piece should a precise, composed tone similar to that of a research paper, it should also voice enough of a stance to add something to the conversation. For an example of what we mean, see our recent white paper on B2B SaaS Marketing.
How Long Should a White Paper Be?
The absolute shortest one should be is about 2,000 words. Anything below that and you’ll risk underwhelming your reader, not to mention struggling to explore anything in real depth.
But ideally, we advise between 2,500 and 4,000 words, going up to 5,000 when truly justified. Any longer than that, and you’ll be asking for a significant amount of the readers’ time.
Remember, the white paper is a factual, research-based document, whose main selling point is clarity. You want to provide an abundance of knowledge in as succinct a way as possible.
Hopefully, this post has illuminated not only how long should a white paper be, but also why it is an excellent tool in your content marketing arsenal. A great white paper will inspire confidence in readers, can be used to drive conversions and add value to outbound and paid advertising, and depending on the topic, can be used as an evergreen piece of thought leadership.
A great white paper, however, takes effort to assemble. Simply putting a thinly disguised sales pitch in this format is not only useless, but it’s also actively harmful. Readers expect white papers to be well-researched, fact-driven and cogent. If you don’t have time to assemble this on your own, fear not – it’s what agencies like Nituno excel at.
Our marketing experts can provide you with a range of thoroughly researched content with great SEO, including white papers. Nituno also used outbound marketing, paid advertising, and video to turbo-charge our clients’ growth, so we understand the bigger picture. If you’d like to upgrade your content marketing, get in touch with us today.