One of today’s most effective marketing tools owes its existence to a century-old request from Winston Churchill.

In the early 1920s, while grappling with a tough policy issue related to the Middle East, Churchill asked for a paper detailing the implications of his proposed course of action. That document came to be known as a white paper. In the ensuing years, policymakers adopted the term for lengthy reports summarizing issues and offering recommendations.

What we call a white paper these days is normally a serious report that explores a complex issue to educate a particular audience. In a marketing context, a white paper is used to ensure the reader understands the issue well enough to make a decision. Typically, the paper presents the marketer’s product, service, or strategy as the logical solution for the issue.

If your company offers a product or service that’s complicated, innovative, or significantly different from what your competitors provide, creating a white paper may be one of the most effective ways to convince people that you’re the right choice for them.

Your customers and prospects are hungry for authoritative, well-organized information. Their time is limited, so they appreciate practical guidance that’s focused on their specific needs. And while they may brush off traditional advertising or sales pitches, studies conclude that nearly 80 percent of business-to-business decision-makers share white papers with their colleagues. That’s critical, because purchasing decisions typically involve several individuals.

When developing a white paper, don’t make it fancy. Most are simply set up to look like magazine articles with fewer pictures. Use straightforward headlines and paragraph headings to guide readers to the information they need. Instead of sprinkling your paper with beauty shots of your product, include relevant graphs or tables.

The biggest mistake companies make when creating white papers is designing them to be overtly promotional, writing a blatant series of arguments for purchasing the company’s product or service. That creates very little credibility among readers, who see right through the effort.

A far more effective and convincing approach is to focus on facts. Of course, you get to select which facts you’ll present. If your veeblefetzer uses the cross-cutting process to core radishes, rather than the spiral-coring method employed by 90 percent of your competitors, your white paper can focus on the many engineering advantages of cross-cutting.

While your product brochures might use a headline such as “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers,” that will repel someone looking for more objective information. Using something like “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production” or “Cross-cutting and spiral-coring: an engineering comparison” will suggest a more balanced approach.

How long should your white paper be? Long enough to cover the information. Typically, that works out to 6 to 8 pages, or between 1500 and 2000 words. Don’t try to stretch it out, because quality of content is far more important than quantity.

An effective structure is to begin with a short section describing your customers’ problem or challenge. This kind of opening builds a bond with the reader, as she sees that you have a solid understanding of the situation.

Next, the paper can explore the different types of solutions that have been developed in response to the problem or challenge. After a general discussion, examine the advantages and disadvantages of each of those solutions. Ideally, the product or service you offer will reflect the most advantageous approach.

Close with a brief section talking about your product or service, and end with an even briefer sketch of your company. While it’s tempting to get into a lengthy discourse about what makes your product or service superior, you’ll destroy the impression of objectivity you’ve tried to create. If the customer or prospect has a good understanding of the facts, along with the advantages and disadvantages of the various solutions, she’ll reach the right decision.

It’s tempting to assign the responsibility of creating white papers to your technical team, but that’s not always the best solution. Even people who can write well may not be able to articulate key messages in the most coherent, convincing ways.

That’s why many companies outsource the process to professional writers. In addition to creating a higher-quality product, outside writers must develop a thorough understanding before presenting it to the outside world, so they’ll ask questions you and your team may not have considered. Those are likely to be many of the same questions your prospective customers might ask, so they can help you shape the most impactful messages.