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At the risk of dating myself, I remember when digital publishing first came on the scene in the early 1990s. Before this, layout, typesetting and pagination were done manually by cutting with Exacto knives and pasting with glue. I can still remember watching typesetters follow this tedious and exacting process.

When I first saw a full-color newsletter layout on a designer’s computer screen, I was blown away. Before long, the old manual pagination process had gone the way of the dinosaurs as the age of digital publishing was ushered in.

Digital Opens New Doors

Digital publishing and the internet, which followed soon after, made it easier for businesses to create and distribute all kinds of marketing materials. For example, it completely revolutionized newsletter publishing, which is the industry I worked in during the first decade of my career.

It also helped transform whitepapers from what were essentially technical journals into effective marketing tools. Enterprise software developers and other technology businesses had long used whitepapers to educate users about their products. But with the advent of digital publishing and the internet, any business could easily create and distribute whitepapers on any topic they wanted to talk about with customers and prospects.

Today, whitepapers and eBooks have become one of the main arrows in the marketing quiver. Six out of 10 B2B marketers say that whitepapers are one of the most effective forms of content used in their marketing programs and seven out of 10 B2B buyers say they use whitepapers to research their purchase decisions, according to the Content Marketing Institute.

Choosing Your Topic

The first step in creating an effective whitepaper or eBook is choosing the right topic. This starts with clarifying your goals for creating the publication in the first place. For most businesses, whitepapers and eBooks serve to educate customers and prospects about certain aspects of the industry and position the company as a subject matter expert.

I have written whitepapers and eBooks on a wide range of topics for clients over the years. These include deposit reengineering for a bank consulting firm, wealth and legacy planning for a financial advisory firm, home equity loans for a lending intermediary, and brand positioning and messaging for a management consulting firm. Each publication’s topic was carefully chosen based on its potential interest to clients and prospects and the business’ expertise in the subject matter.

Once a whitepaper or eBook has been created, it can be distributed in several different ways — again, depending on the business’ objectives. A common strategy is to offer the publication as a “gated” digital download in exchange for the reader’s basic contact information, as my client Ascension does on their eBook collection page.

Whitepaper and eBook Writing Tips

Here are 7 tips to help you create great whitepapers and eBooks:

  1. Choose the right length. There’s not a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to whitepaper and eBook length. My colleague Gordon Graham, aka That Whitepaper Guy, recommends a minimum of 5 to 6 pages, or 2,500 words. I generally don’t recommend more than 4,000 words or so for a marketing whitepaper or eBook — any more than this is probably overkill and a waste of time and money.
  2. Be selective in what you include. For many topics, the challenge isn’t locating enough information to write a whitepaper or eBook. It’s sorting through the virtually unlimited information that’s out there to find what’s most useful to your readers. Narrowing your topic helps you narrow your research focus and information. Leave out lots of extraneous details and interesting but irrelevant information that readers can easily find elsewhere.
  3. Write an intriguing, attention-grabbing title. This applies to any content you create, whether it’s a whitepaper, eBook, article, blog or newsletter. If your headline doesn’t capture your audience’s attention and draw them into your content, you’ve wasted your time and money … period.
  4. Write the copy in “chunks.” Not everybody is going to read an entire 2,500 word-plus whitepaper or eBook, so you should write and design yours so it can easily be read in sections, or chunks. Include plenty of subheads, bulleted and numbered lists, callouts and sidebars to break things up and make it easy for readers to skim the copy and read whatever interests them.
  5. Include charts and graphs where appropriate. These are another good way to break up the copy and make it easy to read. They can be especially useful when trying to communicate complex messages and ideas. Just be sure your charts and graphs are relevant to the text and say something that’s meaningful and interesting.
  6. Incorporate case studies and examples. These can help bring your subject to life by illustrating how real-life people and businesses are putting the principles you talk about into practice. It’s a bonus if you can describe how a satisfied client is using your products or services to cut costs, save time or achieve some other strategic goal.
  7. Don’t forget the call to action. What do you want individuals to do after they’ve finished reading your whitepaper or eBook? People who have downloaded this kind of content are usually at an early stage of the sales cycle so asking for the sale outright might not be the best approach, especially if it’s a complex product or service. Instead, you might suggest that they visit your website, call or email you to schedule an appointment, sign up for a newsletter or webinar, or download additional content.