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A white paper is a term used to describe several different types of reports. Most commonly, it describes a report made by a governmental agency endorsing a specific policy. These are usually heavily referenced documents that explain research or arguments on a specific issue and then lay out a plan of action. When used by the government, it may be a precursor to passing or creating a new law.
In some countries, before a white paper is written, the government produces what is called a green paper. The green paper is a less persuasive attempt to lay out specific issues that might lead to a vote, to the creation of a bill, or to discussion on an important issue. Unlike the white paper, the green paper usually does not have the intent to persuade, but instead tends to cover the issues in a more complex way, so that all sides of a topic are given full treatment. It might look at different tactics to handle a situation or problem and give evidence regarding the effectiveness of these plans, or it may simply sum up all of the previous arguments for a subject of importance.
Once the green paper has been reviewed, a white paper may then be written to suggest or detail a chosen plan of action. This report is used to persuade, in many cases. The arguments from the green paper that support the chosen plan are used to help move along the issue of creating a new law or persuading people to vote in a specific way.
The white paper can also be a marketing document meant to influence people’s opinions about an emerging technology, new chemicals or medications, or a new gadget. This second definition could be called a sales tactic in disguise. Though the paper may read like a scientific report with lots of references and some high-toned language, it usually is meant to generate interest in a product or to promote investment or sales of a product. It takes skill to craft a document of this type because it is most successful when it doesn’t sound like a sales pitch.
The more historical use of the term refers to government produced documents and reports. Yet today, the corporate or marketing white paper report is much more common. In fact, producing one for the purpose of marketing is now a common marketing tool, meant to draw investors or create sales.
One of the famous writings on how to write this type of report is an easily accessed essay by Michael Stelzner, How to Write a White Paper — A White Paper on White Papers. He focuses on the successful elements of the marketing document, which include outlining a problem, evaluating the historical background of a problem, offering generic concepts that might pose a solution and the benefits, and then finally introducing the unique solution to the problem, or in other words writing about the product or idea that will solve the problem.
The white paper is an effective document when carefully crafted, either by a government or by a company. Some freelance writers specialize in creating these reports and there are also agencies that may draft them for companies. In some cases, the success of a product, concept or potential law hinges on how effective and convincing a writer makes the report.
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