How to create a thought leadership white paper


Controversial marketing professor and writer, Mark Ritson, has once again stirred up a bit of controversy by describing content marketing as ‘nothing new’. I have no idea why it’s controversial as that’s self-evidently true. I was putting white papers online back in the 90s. In those days we called it Thought Leadership.

What’s so great about thought leadership?

Thought leadership is, I accept, a jargon phrase for a simple concept: using your insight and research to:

  • educate your client base and add to the wider industry knowledge
  • position your organisation as an innovative, knowledgeable firm rather than an also ran
  • differentiate you from your competition

In some service industries, your intellectual output is the key way of standing out from the crowd.

But the idea of putting thoughts down on paper is incredibly daunting for some people. Often I’ll put this down to false modesty or a lack of confidence. But in reality, most of us know far more about our professions than we appreciate – and our clients are keen to hear more.

If, however, you still have concerns why not get your clients to help you?

Producing a thought leadership white paper – A step-by-step guide

  1. Identify a subject area that’s of interest to your clients and worthy of investigation. Ask some of your closest clients what might be of interest to them. Ideally, it will be a topic or issue you can help with.
  2. Do some research on what’s already available, either as background, or to help you find an angle no one else has explored before.
  3. Create a survey using something like SurveyMonkey or (my favourite at the moment) Qualtrics to gather qualitative data on the subject. Although shorter is normally better, I’ve created surveys which have taken ten to fifteen minutes to complete and had a great response rate. Include some demographic data but don’t go over the top.
  4. Include text fields that allow people to expand on their answers as this will add colour to your findings.
  5. Create a shorter list of questions you can use in face-to-face or Skype / telephone interviews, ideally from well-known names in the industry or from people you’d like to do business with. An interview is a good way of establishing a positive relationship but this is not the place to try to make a sale.
  6. Invite any relevant contacts on your database, LinkedIn contacts etc to complete the survey. If you don’t have the numbers for a decent sample, you might consider buying a list but don’t anticipate a huge response. An incentive can help increase response rates – I find a donation to a relevant charity goes down well.
  7. Conduct the Skype/telephone/face-to-face interviews using a voice recorder so you don’t have to worry about making notes. You’re looking for stories, case studies and quotable quotes from industry figures here. Consider getting the interviews transcribed. It’ll cost a bit but will save you hours.
  8. Bring the quantitative and qualitative data together into a report with your own interpretation and analysis. Use the quantitative data as the backbone of the report and the quotes to add colour and illustrate your points.
  9. If you want to dig deep into the data – and you have sufficient responses – cut the data by demographics. Do people of different age, gender, positions and sectors have differing views? Why might that be?
  10. Draw out some key lessons summarising your findings and giving advice to your readers about how to address the challenge under discussion.
  11. Make sure you get any quotes signed off by the contributors. You’ve worked hard to build the relationship so don’t risk hacking them off now.
  12. Get the report – and particularly any graphs and charts – professionally designed and saved as a PDF. If you can afford it, get some printed copies done too.
  13. Put the report on your website for download – ideally as gated content for new visitors but direct access for others. See the forthcoming blog Promoting Your White Paper for more details.

If this sounds like a lot of hard work… well frankly it can be… but it will be worth it. And if you’d like to outsource the pain and just reap the rewards, get in touch to find how we can help.