Two Ways To Make Your Case Studies Stand Out

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Earlier this month, Michael Brenner published a great post at the Marketing Insider Group blog describing how to create compelling customer case studies. Michael offered several valuable suggestions including:

  • Make case studies "relatable" to potential buyers
  • Include sufficient detail to make case studies feel real
  • Tell the complete story (including challenges encountered and how they were addressed)
  • Demonstrate clear results using real numbers
  • Include customer quotes and testimonials
  • Use compelling visuals 
Customer case studies have long been a staple of the B2B content marketing mix. In the latest content marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 61% of the B2B respondents said they are using case studies in their content marketing programs.

However, recent research suggests that the value potential buyers ascribe to case studies has declined. For example, in the 2021 Content Preferences Survey by Demand Gen Report, 35% of the surveyed business buyers identified case studies as one of the most valuable types of content they use when researching potential purchases. That was down from 72% in the 2016 edition of the survey.

Michael Brenner described several ways to improve the quality of customer case studies, and I agree with most everything he wrote. In fact, I discussed some of the same points in a short guide to creating effective case studies that I wrote several years ago. But there are two additional steps that B2B marketers need to take to make their case studies really stand out.

Make the Customer the Hero

I'm frequently asked by clients to review their customer case studies, and unfortunately, what I see far too often is self-promotional "brochureware" disguised as a case study.

The mistake many companies make is to cast themselves, rather than their customer, as the hero of their case studies. The story line of many case studies resembles an old silent movie where the villain ties a helpless damsel (the customer) to railroad tracks, and the hero (the selling company) rides in at the last minute to rescue the damsel in distress from an oncoming train.

A good case study will lead readers to identify with the customer. You want readers to vicariously experience the pain the customer was feeling and the success the customer achieved. In essence, you want readers to finish the case study believing they can achieve comparable success. When you make your company the hero of your case studies, you're asking readers to identify with your company, not the customer.

An outstanding case study will be written from the customer's perspective. It will tell the customer's story and describe what the customer was able to accomplish with, of course, help from your solution. So when you're preparing a case study, you can give your company a strong supporting role, but always let your customer be the star.

Solve the Case Study "Data Problem"

Most potential buyers turn to case studies to help them evaluate potential solutions and validate their purchase decisions. Therefore, a case study needs to contain sufficient detail to describe the customer's business situation and challenges, the experience the customer had with your company's product or service, and the results the customer obtained.

One of the most powerful ways to add persuasive detail to a case study is to include quantitative data when describing the customer's problem or challenge and the results the customer produced by implementing your company's solution. The problem is, this type of data can be difficult to obtain, particularly when a case study isn't prepared until several months after the customer buys and begins using your solution.

When that happens, the marketer developing the case study must construct (or reconstruct) the needed data. Having gone through this process on many occasions, I can attest that it's not an easy or quick task. In addition, it usually requires substantial help from the customer, and you are asking for help when the customer's time and attention has moved on to other pressing issues.

Because of these difficulties, case study developers are often forced to fall back on generic descriptions that simply don't have the impact of real numbers.

While many kinds of B2B companies use case studies in their marketing efforts, they are most frequently used by companies that offer expensive and/or complex products or services, or solutions that will require the buyer to make significant changes in some aspect(s) of their business operations. These are high consideration purchases, and case studies function as a form of "social proof" for potential buyers.

In many cases, these types of companies will acquire new customers at a relatively slow pace, and that can enable marketers to engage in some advance planning that will make it easier to create more compelling case studies. Here are three steps marketers can take to reduce or eliminate the case study "data problem."

Identify Likely Candidates - Meet with your sales team regularly to review recently closed deals and identify new customers that may be good subjects for case studies. A new customer can be a good case study candidate because of the customer's identity (large, well-known companies are always nice) or because the customer will potentially reap outsized benefits by implementing your solution.

Leverage ROI Estimates - Many companies that offer expensive and/or complex solutions create ROI estimates as part of the sales process. When these estimates are well done, they will usually capture a significant about of data about the customer's existing business problem or challenge. So, once you've identified the new customers that look like promising case study candidates, sit down with relevant members of your sales team and review any ROI estimates that were prepared for the customer.

Monitor Customer Success - Identify the quantitative metrics that will best capture the benefits that a new customer is likely to derive by implementing your solution, and begin tracking those metrics at the beginning of the customer relationship. If your company has a "customer success" function, you probably have the mechanisms in place to gather most of this data. Helping customers reap the maximum benefits from your solution is important for reasons that go far beyond creating case studies. So even if you don't have a formal, dedicated customer success function, you still need a process for monitoring how customers are benefiting from your solution.


Image courtesy of Animated Heaven via Flickr (Public Domain).

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