Whitepapers have become immensely popular in the B2B world. As content marketing gains traction, there’s an increased focus on longer form content – most prominently eBooks and whitepapers. Sixty-one percent of B2B brands utilize whitepapers as part of their content marketing strategy.

Just about everybody wants them.

Just about everybody says they’re important.

Just about everybody in marketing says they can deliver them for their clients.

And just about everybody means something different when they say “whitepaper.”

So, what is a whitepaper, and just as importantly, what isn’t it?

Whitepapers have been around for almost 100 years, apparently emanating from British government as an in-depth memo on a policy issue. Different organizations use them in different ways, but let’s take a look at what a whitepaper is not:  A whitepaper is not a wordy sales brochure – something’s that too salesy is not going to resonate with the audience; it won’t be credible. Think of a Harvard Business Review article.

(Important note – some people will disagree with this. The definition of a whitepaper is very broad in some people’s minds; so if you want to disagree with this narrower definition, feel free. But generally speaking, you’re writing something that isn’t flogging your product or service.)

Let’s start with the point where we should always start – the audience. Who reads whitepapers? After all, if nobody actually reads them, what good are they? A well done whitepaper is way too much work for no one to read it. But they are read – generally by people looking to educate themselves on a particular topic, whether they’re investigating an emerging concept, contemplating a significant purchase, or trying to stay informed on a particularly complex topic. In other words, businesspeople trying to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Here are the key characteristics of a whitepaper:

Authoritative

A whitepaper must use logic to stake out a unique position in order to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or do their jobs better. This can include explaining a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

Well-researched and fact-based

Whether based upon primary or secondary research, a whitepaper should not be based purely in opinion; a whitepaper based upon primary and secondary research will be far more valuable to the audience.  It should appeal more to logic through irrefutable facts and statistics and iron-clad logic.

In-depth

The whitepaper should explore a given topic, no matter how narrow, in its totality. Generally speaking, the whitepaper should be between 2-thousand and 3-thousand words. Some whitepapers can be much longer, but now we’re starting to wonder why you can’t write more concisely, or didn’t sign a contract to publish a book.

Well-written

Of course.