The Elements You’ll Need for Effective White Paper Design

By now just about everyone has heard of the well worn marketing phrase “The 3 Second Rule”, that represents the amount of time that a web visitor will devote to your website before they will either be engaged by your design and content, or leave it to go somewhere else.

Is there a 3 second rule for white papers? I think so, but usually most readers will give it a little more time, about 30 seconds.

While an all-text white paper may be important to the technical whitepaper reader that just wants “the facts”, it does little for the online and Social Media savvy business reader. A far more effective whitepaper format is the application of visual elements and graphics such as colorful graphics, illustrations, and highly engaging text elements to engage today’s Social Media oriented reader.

Certainly, creating a graphically-oriented white paper increases the time, and development costs as compared to your garden-variety, all-text white paper. But if your primary goal is to generate leads from your white paper, you must understand how visual elements are changing today’s reader, and adapt your white paper content strategy accordingly. The use of visual elements such as the ones I mentioned, breaks up an otherwise boring text presentation and makes your overall whitepaper much more engaging, which increases reader affinity and ultimately business leads.

As I tell my clients, if your white paper doesn’t get read, then all the time and money that was spent in creating an all-text white paper has been wasted.

In an effort to help white paper marketers generate better design for their white papers that will quickly grab reader attention and generate business leads, here are some design tips that can improve reader engagement:

1. Professional “Clean” Design – “Clean” is a term that’s hard to define but clear when you see it. When you see annual reports from large Fortune 1000 companies, the impression is that the content inside of the white paper will be professional and straightforward. The goal with design is not to be flashy or ‘avant-garde’, but rather to grab reader through a professional look and feel that stands out from an otherwise plain ‘text-oriented’ white paper.

Look to your client’s presentations, website, and brochures to select elements that can be used in your white paper design. Colors, fonts, shaded pull quotes, and page design elements such as lines and boxes can provide you with page layout design tips. The goal is to design a white paper that fits into their internal marketing library, and not something that looks like it was developed by an outsider. If none exists, ask your client for a white paper design example they find appealing from an online source.

2. Targeted Illustrations – The images chosen for the cover and internal content should accurately reflect the audience for the white paper as a way to build greater reader affinity. For example, if your target readers are enterprise business executives, then the images you choose should represent that audience. If the content is more technical, choose images that reflect that as well, such as an IT server environment, IT professionals, or collaborative settings with technical users.

3. Eye Catching Text Elements – Graphics are not the only element to engage readers. Text elements such as larger or colorful fonts for titles and subtitles, sidebar callouts, pull quotes and shaded text boxes for bottom-line statements can also engage readers just as much as graphics. By adding visual text elements, there is a greater chance that your reader will take notice and you can improve the probability that they will understand your key, bottom-line business advantage message. This is an essential component of an effective lead generation campaign.

Here’s another perspective: As reader attention becomes shorter as the result of frequent exposure to short formats such as text messages, email, and short, brief social media content, white paper design will become a more important way to quickly grab reader attention and deliver essential business messages.

Without it, today’s short attention reader may not read a significant portion of your white paper, or may not read it at all!

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    2 Responses to “The Elements You’ll Need for Effective White Paper Design”
    1. “The images chosen for the cover and internal content should accurately reflect the audience for the white paper.” I wonder if my graphic designer already knows this, or if I should tell her?

      Anything that can make that top page more eye catching is great advice in my book. Thanks.

    2. Hi John – If your designer has created professional business deliverables, this should be a concept he/she should be familiar with. Each business may choose different images to appeal to their target audience. For example, one of my clients wanted a more diverse set of images including minority and female executives. As part of a writer’s responsibility interviewing SMEs, you should know your target audience and have a good idea which images should be used in the design phase.

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