Beyond picking the best type of white paper to achieve your purpose and reach your target audience, you need an engaging topic. Likely, you already have some inkling of a good topic or perhaps a set of topics that you can develop into white papers. Identify your purpose, your audience, their sector, and begin from there.

White paper ideas

One thing to watch out for is picking an idea that’s either too big or too small. You want to focus on something you can cover in about 5 to 12 pages, depending on the type of white paper you’re writing.

For example, an idea that’s really too big for one white paper is “How Cities Can Solve Their Budget Crises,” which probably calls for congressional hearings and a report thousands of pages thick.

The flip side of this topic is one that’s just too small for a white paper, such as “How to Position Automated Parking Meters on City Streets.” This topic sounds more like a section from an installation manual or perhaps a blog post, probably not an idea that justifies putting together a six- to eight-page white paper.

Give white paper readers something new

A truly effective white paper helps readers gain a better overview of an issue, provides helpful insights on how to solve a problem, or gives useful pointers on how to make an important decision. You want to avoid any ideas that have already been done to death, covered repeatedly by sources such as trade magazines, industry associations, and other vendors.

You don’t want to rehash the same tired material as everyone else. No one gets excited about a white paper on the same topic as one they read two years ago. Even if prospects start reading your paper, if you don’t give them a fresh take on a topic or something new, useful, and educational, they’re bound to be disappointed.

The surest sign of a floundering marketing team is a “Me Too!” white paper on the same topic everyone else is writing about, a document that adds nothing to the literature and casts no new light on the issues. Some vendors are so uninspired that they steal white paper ideas from competitors. For people who take such a lazy approach, all their effort will likely come to naught.

You can quickly check how much has already been published in the same area by Googling a few phrases close to your working topic. In fact, doing so is a great way to get some preliminary research and find some initial sources that you may be able to quote in your white paper. Don’t wait until you’re in the formal research stage; do some web searches early on.

Get white paper ideas from prospects and clients

If you’re stuck for ideas, you can always turn to a ready source: anyone in your company who talks directly to prospects or clients. For most companies, that includes the sales force, channel partners, customer service, technical support, and possibly marketing.

Sit down with a few of these people and ask them some simple questions: What are the prospects and clients you deal with asking about? What are they curious about? What big problems are they grappling with? What do they need help with? Listen carefully to the answers, and you’ll hear some rich topics for possible white papers.

What’s more, this conversation doesn’t have to be a one-way street. If you have a customer advisory board, user group, focus group panel, or any other way of getting hold of some typical prospects or customers, try out some possible white paper topics on them.