Case Studies: Nine tips for leveraging customer success stories

I’ve been intrigued for some time with the changes in the rhetorical landscape since the advent of social media – in particular, the growing irrelevance of Expertise as a tool in argumentation.

Marketers have long sought to establish themselves and their product offerings by presenting themselves as reliable experts in their fields, who can provide credible advice to prospective clients who have difficult or risky decisions to make. This is one of the core objectives of a Content Marketing program – to get a buyer’s attention by offering expert perspective (content) in the hope of influencing the ultimate decision.

The trouble is, to a growing extent, people have stopped trusting experts. For this, I believe we can lay responsibility at the feet of operatives in the world of electoral politics, where everyone and everything is for sale and everyone knows it. The cynicism that takes root naturally in a Fox News world is pervasive in commercial markets as well. Your competitor’s expert is just as credible as yours. Your competitor’s data is interchangeable in the buyer’s mind with yours – even if they appear to prove diametrically opposed “facts.” Your competitor’s Klout score is just as high as yours. And the buyer has already tuned out both of your appeals to authority and is no better informed than she was when you both started wooing her.

So what is the Golden Fleece of Content Marketing? In my opinion, it’s a form of content that predates not only the Content Marketing discipline but the advent of the internet, probably by at least 75 years: The old fashioned Case Study.

A case study is a narrative that validates the mission of the company and its effectiveness in execution. A case study typically tells the story of a relationship between the organization and a partner or client, in which a problem or opportunity arises, the parties come together to devise a solution, and value is achieved. Or, it may describe a company’s capabilities from the perspective of multiple clients. Either way, a case study helps the new, prospective customer to understand what a successful relationship with your organization will look like.

Why would a case study be any more credible than an expert endorsement? Because the assumption is that pretty nearly anyone can pay a third party expert to say positive things, but there is something in a case study that can’t be faked. A business executive at a client company is willing to publicly stake his or her reputation, and that of the firm, on an endorsement describing an experience with a vendor. Such an endorsement can be verified easily. And the endorser is willing to run the risk that the relationship described will morph later into a humiliating failure – a non-zero possibility in any business relationship.

This is why case studies are hard to get. Even for highly effective organizations, convincing a customer to go on the record about the value of the offering can be difficult, logistically and politically. But the validation inherent in a customer endorsement is irreplaceable. People who tune out experts or social media “Likes” will pay attention to stories – especially the relevant experiences of their peers.

So, with that preamble, here’s a brief Q&A on success with case studies:

1. How do I get my clients to say yes to case studies? The short answer is, there is no short answer. The customer has a host of obvious reasons to hesitate – becoming personally associated with what evolves into a failure can be career-ending. This can be the case even when the project’s champion will not be quoted. On the plus side, becoming personally associated with a conspicuous success can make a career. If you are confident in the project’s success, make the case.

There is nothing unethical in offering the client company something tangible in exchange for cooperation in a case study – in fact, it is common practice – as long as the offer is made to the client company and not personally to the project champion. An example would be a discount on the price or an extension on the maintenance contract, in exchange for a commitment in advance to develop the case study once specific milestones are achieved. (Personal gifts or favors to the project sponsor should not be considered; the client company probably has standards of ethical business conduct that would rule out such considerations.)

2. Should we contract out the writing? I’m in favor, for obvious reasons – I write case studies. But there is objective support for this position. For most marketing teams, this kind of writing is not the core competency of anyone on staff, nor is it the best use of staff time.

3. Should a case study be written by a journalist? Sure, as long as you are not kidding yourself that this kind of writing is journalism. This is a selling document, and no one who sees your corporate logo on it will be fooled into thinking otherwise. Still, it is appropriate to have someone with journalism training do this kind of writing, for reasons of efficiency. If the individual has ever had a job in the field, you can assume he or she is an effective writer who is trained and accustomed to working to deadlines. Deadlines matter. And a journalist is unlikely to burden the piece with fluffy, adjective-heavy language. An effective case study tends to stick to the facts.

4. How long should a case study be? It’s an open question, but a good guideline for a piece describing a discrete project or implementation for a single customer, including graphics, would be three to four pages, or around 1200 words. A piece describing several experiences may run significantly longer.

5. Should the piece use quotes? If possible – quotes humanize the story, and as suggested earlier, what makes the story credible is the human connection, the potential for a shared experience.

6. How long should a case study take to produce? It depends on your process. If you have assigned an effective writer, the most time-consuming element will not be the interviewing or the drafting of the content, but the review and approval cycle – yours, internally, and the customer’s. Even under the best circumstances, the full approval cycle may take several weeks.

7. What should the final case study look like? Case studies typically are published either as web content or in .PDF format. Graphics or photographs are desirable but not essential. A useful presentation technique is to highlight a strong quote or passage, pulling it out of the text and setting it in a large, bold typeface, and then embedding it as a “callout” in the text, as you would a chart or photo. The piece should incorporate some graphical sophistication – businesslike, serious, with a hint of whimsy if that is in the nature of your branding, as long as it does not detract from the impression that the document is intended to convey objectively useful information, albeit in a branded context.

8. How should you serve up the case study to your content consumers? Case studies are suitable for all standard delivery mechanisms – as handouts in hard copy at live events, pulled from your web site, or pushed via links in social media or email marketing. As with any other collateral, timing matters – a case study establishes credibility for your offering, often versus a competitor’s, and that rarely is your first challenge. It is worth analyzing your sales process in depth to determine when the right moment or moments to present the case study are.

The ideal context is at an advanced stage of the sale, when stakeholders are beginning to ask themselves (a) whether your entire class of solution makes sense for their specific challenge, and (b) whether your offering is the right choice among competing alternatives. It is at those moments when your prospect is most likely to identify with the customer described in the case study, and to see your joint success as relevant evidence that they will have a similar experience with you.

9. To gate or not to gate? Content gating – offering content through a web link that requires the requester to provide personal information before receiving a download – is becoming controversial. It is common practice for lead gathering through online content, but requesters often resent the imposition. I’m inclined to agree. A case study packs a powerful rhetorical punch. It is not, by nature, a tool for lead generation. You want it in the hands of your potential buyers, and I don’t believe it makes sense to create any friction in the process of providing it. No gates.

Think you have a prospective partner for a case study? Contact Peter Dorfman to talk about the writing and production process.

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