Annual reports, spreadsheets, business growth plans, objective worksheets, and….white papers? This term, coming up more often in conversation seems to have the corner on the new business term of the year. But what do we really know about the white paper? And where does it fit into business today? Is it simply a new device that has been strong-armed into the existing arsenal of business documents, or an actual relevant and useful piece of the puzzle in current business practice and growth?
First things first: White Paper or Whitepaper. After asking around, writing it out, and yes, extensive Googling, I’ll settle this right here: White Paper. Akin to to floor plan or floorplan (it’s floor plan!), white papers seem to go back and forth. But whatever you choose, one word, two, it’s still a nod to the same thing.
So why have we suddenly heard an onslaught of this type of business document? I’ll admit, a year ago I had never heard of this term ‘white paper’, and when it came up in a meeting, I was nodding along like it had been a staple in my repertoire all along. But fast forward out of that meeting and I was scrambling to figure out what it was and why I’d never heard of it. Turns out the white paper has been around for quite some time, and most businesses have a slew of them. In subsequent meetings I’ve overheard clients who use them and love them, as well as the clients that say something to the effect of “oh, yes, well, we need to get some of those.” Regardless, the white paper is here, has been here, and looks like it is settling in for the long haul.
Current Business Practice
So now that the important question of one word or two is out of the way, what do we use a white paper for? I started by going back to my old friends Google and Wikipedia:
Wikipedia: A white paper is an authoritative report or guide helping readers to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.
Based on what I’ve done for clients, I categorize white papers into a few different buckets:
- The longer-than-a-note-shorter-than-an-annual-report paper (market findings)
- The modern day instructional guide
- The ‘About Our Business’ in a nutshell guide
- Process documents
- Shameless spotlight on a product, service or company handout
All of these categories have been around longer than the white paper, but that label ‘white paper’ allows a business to group all of these disparate categories together and separate them from older annual reports and traditional business papers.
Another defining characteristic of these white papers is their tendency to be both business facing and consumer facing. Where some of the traditional business documents spend their life circulating within the walls of a business, white papers break out and become the proverbial swinging door of a business, with one face to the client and the other to the business. Their purpose helps both. Take for example, a Process document white paper. This document helps a business define how they work, what value they add and the differentiating factors of their business. It also goes out to a client and becomes a crucial piece in winning business.
It’s All Visual
Let’s make things interesting and throw in the word ‘visual’. We know that white papers are useful. What could make them even better? A visual white paper. As big data, infographics and information visualization have practically exploded across business channels, the visual white paper gives us one more avenue to explore. We’ve all seen an annual report. The classic annual report is enough to make even the most stoic among us to want to scratch our eyes out. Who wants to look at a dry reading of the numbers? Turn now to a visual annual report or market research white paper, and the data starts to actually tell a story that is interesting, relevant, and most importantly, stays with the reader much longer than a traditional report would.
The growth of infographics has directly influenced the growth of the visual white paper. As more people see and want the value of an infographic, they are now turning a discerning eye towards their dusty business papers and ultimately demanding more from them. As designers, this is where we step in to revitalize the information and bring it up to date with visualizations that go far beyond your typical bar graph.
Visual White Paper: Buzz Word or Newcomer?
Now that we’ve established that the white paper has a place next to the other business document greats, I’m going to take the politically correct way out and say that the visual white paper is a little bit of both buzz word and newcomer. It is a a newcomer because although the traditional white paper has been around since first coined in the 1990′s, the visual aspect is now gaining traction in a new way to handle the onslaught of market research, stronger business competition and growth of social media. It is also a buzz word, because where before one might say “A market research document” now is visual white paper, similar to how Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn can all be lumped into ‘social media’.
Buzz word or newcomer, the visual white paper brings a whole new level of meaning and value to a business. And I won’t tell if you call it a whitepaper.