Is a White Paper considered copywriting… or not?

A few months ago, during a coaching call, one of my students said about White Papers…

“But that’s not copywriting!” And I said, “Oh, but yes… it is!”

Over the years I’ve seen much confusion over White Papers and their role in the marketing process, among new copywriters.

So this post is meant to clear up some of that confusion and set the record straight.

I believe some of the confusion started back in the early days of the Internet. As memory serves, (and by his own recounting), copywriter Mike Stelzner was in panic mode when a recession hit and he found himself with a family to support and no money coming in.

But he had an idea. If he wrote a White Paper on how to write White Papers, that might bring in some leads, since… well… that’s the job of a White Paper.

He knew that, of course, because he had written White Papers.

Back in those days the Internet was not as littered as it is today and the early adopters like Mike Stelzner cleaned up.

So a lot of people bought Mike’s guide on how to write White Papers, including me (even though I was not clueless… I had written White Papers for clients myself).

But many of Mike’s buyers had never written a White Paper before, and because of that, they thought that Mike’s way of writing White Papers was the only way to write a White Paper. And many also thought that if you write White Papers, that’s all you do is write White Papers.

Well, here’s the reality.

There are many ways to write White Papers. It depends on the niche you’re writing for, and what you think will do the job, as copywriter.

Mike’s guide was excellent. But it was just one way. I know this because I’ve written successful White Papers myself for large companies in the technology and financial niches. And I’ve guided the creation of hundreds of White Papers targeting Marketing Directors. Very few look like Mike’s.

So Mike supplied his view of a well done White Paper, and indeed he did a great job of showing how it could be done to best advantage. He greatly influenced the copywriters of that day.

Then one day Mike saw an opportunity in the “new” social media and went on to create Social Media Examiner and copywriter Gordon Graham stepped into White Paper guru status with his new White Paper for Dummies book. Of course, it promotes Gordon‘s brand of best practices for White Papers.

So that’s a little history on White Paper influencers since the Internet entered the picture.

And during this time I have found myself often correcting (or modifying), the perceptions of my copywriting students on the subject of White Papers.

The biggest misconception I find is that White Papers are not really “copywriting.” With this new wave called “content,” White Papers have lost some of their power with a simple name change. Here’s how I see it:

White Papers are “content” if you don’t expect them to get a direct lead.
If you do expect a White Paper to get a direct lead then it is direct marketing copywriting.

Here’s what I think throws copywriters off: The tone of a White Paper is closer to “journalist” than “carnival barker” because the target audience is business and not consumers. Somehow new copywriters think that a “soft sell” is not copywriting.

Yet the work that goes into a White Paper is very strategic. To create a successful White Paper, the copywriter needs to know deeply and truly the pain of a target audience. From there, it could take days to come up with the best possible title… and make no mistake… it’s the title that brings the lead.

A White Paper writer needs to have a deep understanding of the product, which is sometimes complex. They need to overcome potential objections, work with psychology, and influence decision-makers who viciously guard their time.

Notable, however, is the Call to Action. In a White Paper it’s incredibly subtle. And here’s why. The paper itself is so damn convincing — or should be — that you don’t need to beat the reader about the head in order to get a positive impression that opens them up to the next step in the sales process.

Yes… the job of a White Paper is enormous and in the space of lead-generation, should be seen as King. And the copywriter who wrote it should be equally revered, and White Paper pricing reveals that they are!

So the take home on this is… White Papers are direct response copywriting and deserve more respect than some of today’s copywriters give them.

The second thing I want to say about White Papers is something I’ve wanted to say for a long time, and that is that you can be a White Paper writer… or you can do it all.

What I mean by that is that in my copywriting career, I would write the whole campaign. Clients would come to me and say, “I need more leads.” And we would plan a campaign. But I would always look at their bait piece — their White Paper — with a very critical eye.

After all… it’s the offer — the White Paper — that brings in the leads, right? And if I’m to do a better job of bringing in the leads, I need to assess the White Paper.

Most of the time the client’s White Paper was weak. They didn’t do enough research to understand their prospect’s pain. Or they jumped on the latest marketing trend as a topic, without considering its relevance. Or they paid $10,000 or $20,000 to Forrester® Research to write a paper just to get the prestigious name into their marketing.

My point is that I have never come to the copywriting business as a “White Paper” writer. I have always come to the business as “direct response copywriter” who can get leads or sales.

And therefore I get all the business. I get the concepting… the sales letter… the landing page… the postcard… the direct mail package… the emails, the autoresponder… and I get the White Paper.

What I want you to know is that if you feel you are most comfortable as a journalistic writer, then you might do best as a “White Paper” writer, like Mike or Gordon.

But you don’t have to become a “White Paper” writer in order to write White Papers. You can specialize in lead-generation if you like writing White Papers, and scoop up all of the other work that comes with it.

Got an opinion? Disagree with anything I say? Or can you add to the narrative? If so, please comment!

© 2016 Chris Marlow, All Rights Reserved

P.S. — In the Marlow Marketing Method™ for Copywriters Client Acquisition Course, which is located in the S.S. Treasure Hunt membership site for fast-moving copywriters, there is detailed instructions on how to write a White Paper that lands clients… plus examples of winning work done by other copywriters who came before!

About Chris Marlow

The original copywriter's coach, Chris Marlow has worked with copywriters since 2003. Her acclaimed Marlow Marketing Method™ Client Acquisition Course has produced hundreds of successful copywriters. Chris' S.S. Treasure Hunt membership site not only houses this course but four more on the subjects of Copywriting, Advanced Copywriting, Productivity, and Closing Clients. The S.S. Treasure Hunt also contains the world's only statistical pricing database for about 100 copywriting jobs. Chris has put together this resource to give copywriters everything they need to succeed — and nothing they don't. Chris is committed to helping copywriters focus on what's important, saving them from the time- and money-wasting Bright Shiny Object Syndrome so prevalent on the Internet.

16 Responses to Is a White Paper considered copywriting… or not?

  1. Damon February 1, 2016 at 11:01 pm #

    A very timely post as I just finished writing a sample white paper to post on my website as a showcase of how I can write. I’m entering a new industry (renewable energy) and area (B2B) so I want to be sure I get it right.

    Thanks for all the good comments from other posters too.

    I already revised the initial title of my white paper based on some of the insights here! 🙂

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

      I love it Damon… after all, this is what it’s all about… sharing and everyone benefiting by it! Thank you so much for letting me know the post was of value to you.

  2. Chris February 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

    I think this sentence sums it up: “The tone of your title/headline must fit the personality, interests, and culture of your target audience.”

    And your daughter’s experience is not a surprise to me. Clients would come and say, “We want more leads, we want better leads.” And I would look at their offer… the White Paper they were using, and I would say “If you want me to get you better results you need to also give me a white paper assignment because the one you’re using is way off.”

    Yes, they’d spent thousands with Forrester or Jupiter… such a waste. One was even “renting” a white paper for $2,000 per month! I almost fell off my chair. It was a 3-page white paper on email. I can’t remember who they were renting it from.

    And not to say anything bad about Forrester or Jupiter, (I think Jupiter is no more) just that so often I think there wasn’t enough work done to find the biggest pain point.

    That was then and this is now… such may not be the case any more because we can easily research now… it used to be so expensive (I have been on numerous focus groups hiding behind dark windows LOL).

    As to your manual… it would be nice if you got royalties for something THAT long lived!

  3. Clarke Echols February 1, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    The tone of your title/headline must fit the personality, interests, and culture of your target audience. “Lies, Lies, Lies” works for the small investor who’s fed up with the crooked thieves running the Nasdaq, and found in major stock brokerages (like the one who lied to me and convinced me to buy stocks in a company that they knew was headed for bankruptcy — that and some other market problems cost me $350,000 out of my retirement, wiping me out).

    But if you’re trying to sell mission-critical software to a company dependent on 1000% reliable Internet communications, that won’t work.

    But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful and effective in your headline, AND IN YOUR INTRODUCTORY EXECUTIVE SUMMARY.

    I created a special report for a finacial company targeting lawyers. A green-eyed wolf is crouched down, staring straight at you from a cover page composed of vivid colors.

    Bright yellow background. Main text hard black. Headline/title highlights in red and blue. Company logo across the bottom with the tag line “A Voice of Integrity In A World Driven By Greed”

    The headline is “…BEWARE! [bright red] A Wolf… Lurking In the Shadows… Wants A Piece of YOU [italics]– And He’ll Get It [larger point size] If You Don’t Pay Attention To These (start blue)Top 3 Secrets(end blue)…” [Omitted text identifies the audience and the service, so I’ve left that out.

    It was longer than anticipated, but I developed the piece, working with the CEO and President of the company. It wasn’t what the CEO had intended and anticipated, but at the end, he said, “This thing scares me to death!” Then weng on to say, “My biggest fear is you might have knocked this completely out of the ball park, and we have to test it!”

    I haven’t heard about the test results, and need to follow up. I’m tempted to try a modification, but the front cover definitely grabs undivided attention. And that’s what you’re looking for, regardless of audience.

    How much drama you put in the cover and title/headline varies. But if it involves millions of dollars (as this does), it’s no time to be Casper Milquetoast.

    Marketing to engineers is different. And lawyers present a problem: They think they know it all, as do many engineers.

    Example: I’m an engineer. One day, in frustration, my wife confronted me with, “Why do you have to be right *all the time*?!” She wasn’t impressed when I said, “I don’t. I just am.”

    In 5-1/2 months we’ll have been married 50 years. And she still likes me for reasons some may not comprehend. 🙂

    The big thing is to remember you’re not talking to an audience. You are ALWAYS talking to A PERSON — not a group of persons. Just ONE. Get conversational, and clearly DEMONSTRATE you understand their world, their problems, their frustrations, then get down and straight with them about their life, and the problem the want to solve, then show them how they can solve it using what you offer.

    That applies to financial junk mail selling investment newsletters, and it applies to C-suite executives facing business problems, engineers facing system reliability problems, and software engineers trying to track down software bugs, just as it applies to a company considering purchasing new capital equipment or mission-critical computing capabilities.

    And if you think you’re a hot-shot writer but don’t understand that stuff, you’ll have someone like my daughter (who is a database admninistrator assigned to keeping misson-critical database systems up and running in a very large insurance company) when she saw a white paper written for IT professionals needing rock-solid software for their mission critical operations.

    When she saw that paper and read the first paragraph, she said, “Whoever wrote this thing had absolutely no clue what they were talking about.” The producer was a marketing agency “specializing” in white papers, and boasting more than 25 years of real-world experience. The client paid $5,000 for the work.

    I think NOBODY proof-read it, including the writer. The agency, when looking for writers said to qualify, you had to have a degree in English or Journalism, and had to submit 3 white papers you had written yourself, not as a team project.

    I haven’t been in an English class in college since the end of my freshman year in 1962. That’s nearly 53 years ago. And that’s the ONLY English class I ever took in college. But I’ve owned my own businesses for nearly 50 years, on top of 30 years as an engineer and senior writer at Hewlett-Packard where for four years I was responsible for the system reference manual (by myself — no help) for HP’s flagship Unix product, HP-UX. The last edition I produced for HP-UX 9.0 was 3000 pages in 3 volumes.

    People don’t ask me how many white papers I’ve written. They wouldn’t dare. But that’s because I set things up so they don’t feel the need. Compare 8 pages on a white paper with 3000 pages of a manual that took 4 semis to haul the first press run down the Interstate to the warehouse for distribution. 15,000 copies.

    Or for fun, go to Amazon and look for the book “The Ultimate Guide to the Vi and Ex Text Editors” by Hewlett-Packard, then read the comments. I wrote it. In 1987. How many computer manuals survive 27 years in the market, and are still actively purchased?

    Quit trying to be “creative”. That’s nonsense from advertising agencies and professors. People don’t care about your “brand” or your “image”. The want the answer to ONE QUESTION: Do you understand me, what my problem is, how I can solve it, and can you help me fix it?

    That’s what built Hewlett-Packard into a very successful business until the co-founders retired and Wall Street took over control of the company. That happens to be when I retired, and why. I was tired of being replaced by 10 people who couldn’t make deadlines, when I did the job for years and was NEVER behind schedule.

    I have a bit of fun sometimes when someone asks about my experience. I simply tell them, “I was a senior writer more than 10 years before my great-grandkids were even born.”

    If you’re going to stay sane, keep your sense of humor, and don’t obsess about words that don’t matter, and don’t listen to college professors who haven’t worked in the real world of BUSINESS (and that does not include marketing or advertising agencies).

    That’s based on my experience knowing enough people with MBAs to see where the
    big holes are in their education that they don’t even recognize.


  4. Bob Paroski February 1, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    My first thoughts here are that a white paper is viewed differently by traditional B2B copywriters and Direct Response Copywriters.

    In the B2B world, white papers are designed to tell you more about a product or service and thus content is critical. In the B2B copywriter’s mind a white paper is not deigned to get a lead. It’s designed to give a lead more information on a product or service.

    In the Direct Response world getting leads are critical and any means to get those leads are critical. Any way to get leads is copywriting and one way to get them is through a white paper.

    So I think the intent of the writer is the key to determine the purpose of the white paper. Is it to give a lead the information they want on a product or service or is it to get leads? the intent will show clearly in how the white paper is written.

    A white paper written for content or to generate leads will use the same material. It’s the words the writer uses in the white paper which determines its true intent. Compounding the problem here is most white papers are written for the B2B world and the language use in a white paper to generate leads has to be more subtle than that used in a traditional direct response piece ( sales letter, website, email, etc.)

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 11:35 am #

      Yes, I think i said something similar in another reply but you put it much better. Intent. Nice. So being a hard core direct response copywriter, it’s in my blood to turn a Wp into a sales piece and work it hard. So I’m beginning to see that there are different flavors, and mine will always be direct response oriented. However, let me just ask… how hard do you work on the title of a white paper? I daresay that every title one would see has hard core direct response copywriting behind it!

  5. Jonathan Dune February 1, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    G’day Chris – Good post and all good questions.

    “White papers” may be looked at as advertorials. Since advertorials are designed specifically with direct response in mind as in creating a lead or selling a product or service they are definitely direct response copywriting.

    Just as with the Millennials assuming that online is the only medium of delivery with websites, emails, digital mobile phone apps and that the tried-and-true methods that have worked for the last century and more do not work anymore… they are sadly mistaken again.

    And all the so-called “content” is just another fancy name for copy and rarely if ever is that copy direct response copywriting. You cannot just dress up words in a fancy new name in an attempt to create a new category.

    The true essence of marketing is to provide benefit to the reader, prospect, customer or client. And all of us are doing this day in and day out. Marketing is NOT a separate category but your number one job. And marketing is NOT selling. Copywriting is selling with words. Advertising is selling with words and images.

    Salesmanship with words is the main function of copywriting. And white papers do just that.

    A white paper is just another medium of delivery.

    There, that clears all that up.

    ~ Jonathan Dune

    Direct Response Marketing Consultant | Copywriter
    (over 40 years assembling profit producing copy)
    Two Comma Copy Pty Ltd
    (Assembed in Sydney… and sometimes at my office in La Jolla, California in the States)

    P.S. Not to brag, but to let you know… Back in 1983, after almost 12 successive days of one-on-one sessions my personal mentor Eugene Schwartz he said to me,”You can never have too many contacts in the industry”(…as he was introducing me to John Caples at a surprise personal lunch. By the way, that lunch and the conversation lasted for almost 3 hours.)

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for weighing in. I think I’m seeing a trend that those who see themselves as direct response copywriter see white papers from a direct response perspective, while those who see themselves as “content” writers see WPs from a “content” point of view. I am in agreement with you… if it sells, it’s direct response copywriting. That said, I do believe that meeting objections and having and offer and a CTA does separate “content” from direct response copywriting. For instance, when I go through my coaching intake process and look at a copywriter’s past work, if it does not have a strong CTA, then I can’t accept them into my marketing course but instead advise them to take (mine, or another’s) direct response copywriting course. Blog posts, articles, stuff written just for SEO purposes… to me this is “content.”

  6. Clarke Echols February 1, 2016 at 10:10 am #

    So typical of writers to get all hung up on trivial questions and then get into arguments before they’ve even defined the words they use.

    I suggest a visit to your friend Google. Type a search phrase “define copy”. Then when you get 295,000,000 results like I did, click on the second result containing the link to

    That will get you a page from Merriam-Webster’s dictionairy site that will give you a useful answer:
    Simple Definition of copy

    : something that is or looks exactly or almost exactly like something else : a version of something that is identical or almost identical to the original

    : one of the many books, magazines, albums, DVDs, etc., that are exactly the same and are produced to be sold or given to the public

    : written information that is to be published in a newspaper, magazine, etc

    Going to my printed copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

    Copywriter: A writer of advertising or publicity copy.

    White papers are white papers, not “gray” papers. The term is well established and has been since before World War II in British Parliament. It has been in use in the high-tech electronics industry when I was writing technical white papers for what are now called “IT professionals” back in the early 1980s — over 30 years ago.

    Due to misuse and abuse of the term, even by big companies like Hewlett-Packard (before they got too big and picked a serious disease called stupid — mainly because of marketers who have never been customers of big technological companies and don’t even know what customers are ) decided two pages printed on a single sheet of 8-1/2 by 11-inch paper is a “white paper”, some writers (as documented by Gordon Graham) now call them other useful terms, such as executive guide, special report, and other ***USEFUL*** names that are plain english, and not some creative nut’s invention in order to look cute or creative.

    White papers are used in B2B and other serious fields, so use language that makes sense to your audience.

    And quit obsessing about silly names like “gray paper” just for the sake of being different. You’re in the COMMUNICATION business. That means transferring useful knowledge to an audience who needs to know what you need to tell them. It is not illegal to use clear, ordinary, conversational language.

    Clear enough?

    And that’s my cranky-curmudgeon rant for today. Now we’ll see if Chris tosses me out of here. 🙂

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 10:49 am #

      You’re always good for an opinion Clarke… and add to the conversation. I will say that I advise my students to use the term “Free Report” instead if their intended target works in the B2C world.

  7. Dan February 1, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    Hey Chris –

    Having experience with both the “copy” and “content” crowds, the “content” crowd gets upset the minute there’s any talk about sales. I think the perception there, and this was my own for a time (though no longer), was if you had this big mass of information, that would make you appear authoritative and get more business.

    But as a “copy” person now, the truth is as you say: white papers are designed to get leads. However, they have a more subtle method of persuasion.

    In truth, in my opinion, white papers can qualify as both. But they should always be designed to be persuasive, as should anything you consider either “copy” or “content.”

    It’s a long, interesting debate. In the end, businesses care about leads and sales. So, whether somebody calls it “content” or “copy,” that’s what I design all my writing to do.

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 10:45 am #

      Point well made Dan… that White Papers can be both copy and content. I’d not argue with that. Although I remain baffled by why content writers see such a distinction. I do agree that a strong CTA makes the difference AND I will say that in my opinion, content does not usually seek to overcome objections. But that’s another post!

  8. Gordon Graham February 1, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    Great post, Chris, on this ongoing debate!

    I agree with much of what you’re saying. And sure, any “gated” white paper does generate leads… but isn’t it the PROMOTIONS for that content that actually get the lead: the e-mails, the Tweets, the landing page?

    Those are the true direct-response parts of the campaign. The white paper is the fulfilment piece for the campaign.

    The CTA in most white papers is to find out more, to attend a webinar, to download a trial version, anything to take the next step along the customer journey.

    Chris, you clearly have the experience and the finesse to work on every element of a campaign, including a white paper. But in my experience, most copywriters have trouble shifting gears to do a research-based white paper.

    That’s because they have several direct-response lessons to unlearn.

    In a white paper, you’re NOT supposed to sell the sizzle, you’re NOT supposed to appeal to emotions, you’re NOT supposed to ask for the order. It’s a different type of document that takes a different approach.

    Of course, all that can be learned. And I’m still learning. For example, my recent post on this same topic of copywriting vs content writing generated a stir, including multiple comments from Bob Bly…

    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 10:42 am #

      I was hoping to hear from you Gordon! And I’m not surprised to see the differing opinions on whether a White Paper is copywriting or not… I would say that perhaps there are White Papers and then there are White Papers?

      I have always seen the White Paper as the “offer.” And to me, an offer is direct marketing. But I also have to say that in my experience — and you have me way beat in the White paper department — I do encourage the use of emotion in my student’s White Papers. We work very hard on that… I often tell them that the title of their White Paper is the most important copy they will write in a campaign that uses a White Paper as a bait piece.

      Having worked in and with direct response agencies for at least a decade, it was the most common offer we created for our lead-gen campaigns. What I think I see here are two “flavors” of White Paper, depending on what you’re selling and to whom. For instance, your flavor might be more restrained if you are used to selling million dollar software systems to IT pros and CEOs. But I am selling copywriting services to Marketing Directors and so I can be more “direct response” oriented. Your thoughts?

  9. Peter T. Britton February 1, 2016 at 8:13 am #


    Recently, I saw an item that stated that “White Papers” are – if done by the book – are not really copywriting, as they often lack that “sales” element…or a CTA.

    This article went on to define what you and I write as a white paper should be (more correctly) called a Grey paper.

    I like that term, and I use it a lot now. (It also gives me a good conversation point when talking to prospective clients: “I write grey!”


    • Chris February 1, 2016 at 8:24 am #

      Hi Peter, I had not heard that term before… ha! And yes, it does not have a CTA, but if it gets a lead, then it’s done a direct marketing job. I should mention that for 13 years my coaching students have put enormous effort into writing white papers to get leads for their copywriting business. We really drill down on the emotion aspect… what is it that is a major pain for the prospective client, that only a copywriter can supply? Perhaps we overcompensated on finding the pain to make up for the lack of a traditional CTA… LOL!

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