A white paper is an authoritative report or guide helping readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. White papers are used in two main spheres: government and business-to-business marketing. They may be considered as grey literature.
The term "white paper" originated in government, and many point to the Churchill White Paper of 1922 as the earliest well-known example under this name. White Papers are a "... tool of participatory democracy ... not [an] unalterable policy commitment". "White Papers have tried to perform the dual role of presenting firm government policies while at the same time inviting opinions upon them."
In Canada, a white paper "is considered to be a policy document, approved by Cabinet, tabled in the House of Commons and made available to the general public". The "provision of policy information through the use of white and green papers can help to create an awareness of policy issues among parliamentarians and the public and to encourage an exchange of information and analysis. They can also serve as educational techniques".
"White Papers are used as a means of presenting government policy preferences prior to the introduction of legislation"; as such, the "publication of a White Paper serves to test the climate of public opinion regarding a controversial policy issue and enables the government to gauge its probable impact".
By contrast, green papers, which are issued much more frequently, are more open ended. Also known as consultation documents, green papers may merely propose a strategy to be implemented in the details of other legislation or they may set out proposals on which the government wishes to obtain public views and opinion.
In business-to-business (B2B) marketing
Since the early 1990s, the term "white paper" has been applied to documents used as marketing or sales tools in business. These white papers are long-form content designed to promote the products or services from a specific company. As a marketing tool, these papers use selected facts and logical arguments to build a case favorable to the company sponsoring the document. B2B white papers are often used to generate sales leads, establish thought leadership, make a business case, or inform and persuade prospective customers, channel partners, journalists, analysts, or investors. In digital marketing, white papers are often referred to as a form of content marketing. Many of these white papers argue that one particular technology, product or method is superior for solving a specific business problem. They may also present research findings, list a set of questions or tips about a certain business issue, or highlight a particular product or service from a vendor.
There are, essentially, three main types of commercial white papers:
- Backgrounder: Describes the technical or business benefits of a certain vendor's offering, either a product, service, or methodology. This type of white paper is best used to supplement a product launch, argue a business case, or support a technical evaluation at the bottom of the sales funnel.
- Numbered list: Presents a set of tips, questions, or points about a certain business issue. This type is best used to get attention with new or provocative views, or cast aspersions on competitors, especially by using FUD.
- Problem/solution: Recommends a new, improved solution to a nagging business problem. This type is best used to generate leads at the top of the sales funnel, build mind share, or inform and persuade stakeholders.
While a numbered list may be combined with either other type, it is not workable to combine the detailed product information of a backgrounder with the industry-wide perspective of a problem/solution white paper.
- Michael A. Stelzner, Learn all about white papers. WhitePaperSource Publishing, 2008.
- Doerr, Audrey D. The Role of White Papers. In: Doern, G.B. and Peter Aucoin. The Structures of Policy-making in Canada. Toronto, MacMillan, 1971. pp. 179-203.
- Pemberton, John E. Government Green Papers. Library World 71:49 Aug. 1969.
- Doerr, Audrey D. The Role of White Papers in the Policy-making Process: the Experience of the Government of Canada. 1973. Thesis (Ph.D) - Carleton University. 1. 56
- Doerr, Audrey D. The Machinery of Government. Toronto, Methuen, 1981. p. 153.
- Chapin, Henry and Denis Deneau. Citizen involvement in Public Policy-making: Access and the Policy-making Process. Ottawa, Canadian Council on Social Development, 1978. p. 33.
- Kantor, Jonathan (2009). Crafting White Paper 2.0: Designing Information for Today's Time and Attention Challenged Business Reader. Denver, Colorado: Lulu Publishing. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-557-16324-3.
- Graham, Gordon (2010). How to Pick the Perfect Flavor for Your Next White Paper. ThatWhitePaperGuy. p. 15.
- Graham, Gordon (2013). White Papers For Dummies. New York: Wiley. p. 366. ISBN 978-1-118-49692-3.
- Stelzner, Michael (2006). Writing White Papers: How to capture readers and keep them engaged. Poway, California: WhitePaperSource Publishing. p. 214. ISBN 978-0-9777169-3-7.
- Bly, Robert W. (2006). The White Paper Marketing Handbook. Florence, Kentucky: South-Western Educational Publishing. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-324-30082-6.
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