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In this article we cover a couple of forms of more technical content. As a content creator, the kinds of content covered in this series of articles are relatively easy to create from a marketing standpoint. If you can do some basic research, put your thoughts together in a logical manner, apply a little creativity and maybe add some graphics, you will come out in fairly good shape. Such is not the case with the two forms of content discussed in this article: white papers and case studies.
Despite white papers and case studies being two distinctly different kinds of content, we have combined them in a single article because they both require the same kind of highly technical analytical thinking. The concepts you learn here are considered advanced concepts for content creators. As such, not all content writers are capable of producing high-quality white papers and case studies. Please do not let that discourage you from trying though.
The most important thing for you to take away from this article is a fundamental understanding of what these two forms of content are and what they are designed to accomplish. You might then try to write your own white papers and case studies only to discover that you don’t have the necessary skills. That’s okay. There may be other members of your team who would make excellent white paper and case study writers even though they cannot write a blog post or informational article to save their lives.
What are White Papers and Case Studies?
Throughout this article, each of the main headings will be divided into two subheadings to account for both white papers and case studies. We will start with the explanation of the white paper.
There are several definitions of ‘white paper’ due to the many different uses of this medium. For example, there are government white papers and business white papers. Though they perform different functions, they also share some similarities. For our purposes, we want to know about business white papers. To that end, the BusinessDictionary offers two very good definitions:
- A concise report that informs readers about a complex issue, often used to convey an organisation’s philosophy and persuade potential customers.
- A marketing tool in the form of information on the technology underlying a complex product or system and how it will benefit the customer.
In the simplest possible terms, a white paper is a report that explains a given topic in detail. For business purposes, it is used to educate readers about an organisation’s position on a given matter which, on most occasions, also includes proposed solutions.
In a previous article in this series we mentioned the fictional Acme Home Security Company. Let’s say that this company wanted to address the question of whether wireless home security is superior to its wired counterpart. They could do so with a white paper.
That white paper would explain both options, the pros and cons of each, and if there is any data to suggest either option as being superior. The white paper would include the Acme Home Security Company’s best solution for customers.
A case study is decidedly different in that it is not intended to explain a complex issue or present an organisation’s position on a given topic. Rather, the case study is intended to demonstrate that the organisation publishing it is a competent authority in its industry.
Let’s say the Acme Home Security Company wants to demonstrate that its latest wireless home security and automation package is an effective solution for the average homeowner. The marketing department may construct a case study around one particular customer who had a positive experience after installing a wireless system.
Case studies essentially prove the worthiness of an organisation’s proposals or solutions based on real-life cases that offer actual, tangible data. Like white papers, there are different kinds of case studies used for different purposes. We are interested in business case studies that demonstrate a company’s services or products as being adequate to meet the customer’s needs.
What is the Purpose of a White Paper or Case Study?
One of the distinct differences of white papers and case studies, as compared to the other forms of content you have already learned about, is found in the purpose. That purpose can be summed up in a single word: authority.
There may be SEO benefits derived from publishing white papers, but these are incidental in nature. Understand that there are very good reasons for writing a white paper that may never be published online. As such, that white paper would offer no SEO benefits whatsoever.
The primary purpose of the white paper is to establish an organisation’s authority on a particular topic. Authority is very important in the business world because it largely determines the impression customers have of an organisation. If a customer views your company as an authority in its chosen sector, those customers are more likely to look to your organisation when they need your product or services.
A white paper establishes authority by going through a particular topic in detail. This will be discussed later in the style section, relating particularly to format and the required elements that make up a legitimate white paper.
The case study’s primary purpose is also establishing authority. However, the organisation wants to establish that authority for an entirely different purpose. Where white paper authority is intended to boost an organisation’s reputation, case study authority is intended to convince potential customers to take positive action on the solution provided. In other words, you want customers to utilise your organisation’s solutions rather than those of a competitor.
In terms of publishing, case studies are frequently published online. However, they do not have to be. There are some organisations that limit their case studies to print publications so as to not harm SEO results. Case studies can be incorrectly deemed by search engine algorithms as too sales-oriented, even if they are not.
Whether your company publishes case studies online or not is a matter of preference. You might try both online and print publication just to see how it goes. Both mediums might work well.
What Style Should be Used in a White Paper or Case Study?
The style and format of white papers and case studies is where writing this form of content gets complicated. In a general sense, we accept that both white papers and case studies are more technical forms of writing that address readers with facts, figures, and other similar data. We generally accept that both kinds of content should be presented in a serious and straightforward manner. Having said that, there is plenty of room for variation.
A seasoned writer will consider his/her target audience before beginning to write. Why? Because the target audience will set the tone for the white paper or case study. A writer might address a target audience of business executives with one tone yet use a completely different tone to speak to a group of tradespeople.
We talked about knowing and understanding your audience in the article here. It might be good to go and read that piece before continuing with this article. The target audience is critical to determining the tone and style of both white papers and case studies.
A white paper is generally going to be a document written in a more formal style. It is also one that will present ideas in a logical, step-by-step process that leads the reader to a certain conclusion. This step-by-step process cannot be over emphasised. If a writer cannot lead a reader through a logical progression of steps from start to finish, it will be almost impossible for the reader to reach the right conclusion.
Writers new to white papers might want to think about creating an outline before actually beginning to write. An outline, arranged as a series of bullet points, helps the writer to establish a logical flow of thought. Once that flow has been established, the writer can expand on the bullet points as needed.
Every white paper should include the following elements, at minimum:
- An introduction to the problem, opportunity, or topic being discussed;
- Proof that the problem or opportunity exists, or that the topic needs to be addressed;
- Additional problems, opportunities, or topics similar to the one being addressed;
- A basic solution (for problems or opportunities) or an official position (in the case of a specific topic); and
- An appropriate solution (for problems or opportunities) or conclusion (in the case of a specific topic).
Experienced white paper writers use the solution component as a marketing message. Sometimes marketing has to be subtle; other times it can be more overt. In either case, the goal is for the reader to come away convinced that:
- the writer knows what he or she is talking about; and
- the writer’s company or organisation is an authority on that particular topic.
The following also need to be considered:
- Length – There is no hard and fast rule about the length of the white paper. Generally speaking, you will probably not get away with fewer than 1,000 words on any topic with any depth to it. However, still focus on brevity. White papers should be as clear, concise, and compact as possible. Do not create a rambling piece of literature just to take up space or add words. If you can make your case in 1,000 words, do so.
- External Data – Including data sourced from external resources adds a tremendous amount of power and authority to a white paper. It shows that other individuals or organisations agree with the suppositions being proposed in the paper. Be sure to provide links or other means of reference to any external data.
- Formatting – White paper formatting follows the same rules that apply to blog posts and informational articles. Limit paragraphs to a few sentences, use headings and subheadings to separate thoughts, and make use of bullets and numbered lists where appropriate.
- Graphics – Graphics are not necessary for creating effective white papers, but they can be helpful in some circumstances. Charts and graphs can be especially helpful for presenting complicated data.
- Industry Jargon – The use of industry jargon is acceptable in white papers that are written from a business-to-business (B2B) perspective. However, it is still necessary to make sure that what you write actually says something. Meaningless industry jargon is not going to help you make your case.
Case studies are also generally accepted as being more formal documents. Nevertheless, the level of formality required depends heavily on the audience. You might be extremely formal writing a B2B case study but less formal with a B2C (business-to-consumer) study.
Regardless of the tone, case studies should be as brief as possible while still fully making the case that your organisation is the only logical solution provider. Some case studies can be presented in as few as 500 words. That’s fine. Don’t be verbose simply for its own sake.
There are two basic formats for case studies: formal and informal. Every formal case study should contain the following elements presented in the following order:
- A title (to give the reader a quick understanding of what the case study details);
- A brief introduction of the company publishing the case study;
- A brief introduction of the client being served;
- A description of the challenge issued by the client;
- A detailed description of the solution provided;
- A detailed description of the benefits of that solution;
- A verdict (i.e., a decision as to whether the solution worked or not); and
- A customer quote (if the customer is willing to supply one).
Informal case studies should contain the following elements presented in the following order:
- A title;
- A brief customer profile including information about industry, location, employees, and website data (arranged as bullet points);
- The need or challenge posed by the customer;
- The solution offered by the company;
- The benefits of that solution;
- A comparison of the company’s solutions against competitors’ solutions;
- The verdict; and
- A customer quote.
Under both formats, the writer should explain how the company solution was implemented. This does not need to be a long-winded explanation, but it does need to be detailed enough to demonstrate that the solution was appropriate to the need.
A Word about Customer Quotes
Customer quotes are not absolutely critical for case studies. However, they are incredibly helpful. A customer willing to give a positive quote is essentially giving an endorsement to both the company and its solutions. There is no better way to establish authority than this. So when you’re writing case studies, ask your customers if you can quote them. Those that agree might also be willing to provide direct references as well.
A Word about Real Cases
The last thing to touch on in this article is the genuineness of case studies. Unfortunately, there are online marketers and SEO companies that encourage the creation of a fake case studies. These are studies in which either all or most of the information is made up. Writing fake case studies is never a good idea. All your case studies should be real.
First and foremost, case study readers are smart people with an innate ability to spot a fake. They can tell when a writer does not have genuine, first-hand knowledge of the case at hand. Do you want readers to conclude that a case study you presented is not real?
Second, what happens if customers do reach that conclusion? Your reputation as well as that of your organisation will be instantly compromised. Quite frankly, it is not worth the risk. If an organisation does not have enough experience under its belt to create legitimate case studies based on experiences with real customers, then this is one medium they should avoid for the time being. Let them first build their business and then revisit case studies later.
Here are the other articles in this series: