Customer case studies have been a core part of the B2B content marketing mix for years. In the latest content marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs, 61% of the B2B respondents said they are using case studies in their content marketing program.
But recent research also indicates that the value business buyers ascribe to case studies has declined. For example, in the 2022 Content Preferences Survey by Demand Gen Report, 40% 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% of the respondents in the 2016 edition of the survey.
There are, I would argue, two main reasons for this decline. First, buyer expectations for all types of content have risen sharply in recent years, and case studies haven’t kept pace with these rising expectations. I’m frequently asked by clients to evaluate their customer case studies, and many of those I’ve recently reviewed look much like the case studies I was reviewing ten or fifteen years ago.
The perceived value of case studies has also declined because business buyers have become more skeptical of all forms of vendor-produced content, and in many business sectors, they now have easy access to information they perceive to be more objective.
Building Better Case Studies
It’s clear, therefore, that many B2B companies need to improve the quality of the customer case studies they create. A recent episode of Marketing Prof’s Marketing Smarts podcast contains several valuable suggestions for making case studies more compelling and effective.
This episode features Bob Wiesner, a partner at the Artemis Partnership and the author of Winning Is Better: The Journey to New Business Success. Artemis Partnership is a business development consulting firm, and Bob Wiesner has consulted on several billion dollars worth of business development projects in the advertising, audit, management consulting, law, pharmaceuticals, high tech and investment banking spaces.
In the podcast, Wiesner emphasized that a good case study is a story. He said, “Like any good story, they should have a plot, they should have a problem, a challenge, they should have a method for resolving it, they should have an outcome, they should have heroes and even villains.”
Wiesner then discussed a four-step process for building stronger B2B case studies.
Step 1 – The starting point of a good case study is a clear articulation of the problem the customer was facing or the opportunity the customer wanted or needed to exploit. It’s important to describe the problem or opportunity in some detail. How difficult or complex was it? What was the context it was occurring in? The objective is to describe the problem or opportunity in a way that a reader in a similar type of company can relate to it.
Step 2 – Describe the insights that your organization possesses that enabled you to understand the customer’s problem or opportunity and design the right solution.
Step 3 – Describe the solution you provided to the customer. What did you do that solved the problem or took advantage of the opportunity?
Step 4 – Describe the actual business results or outcomes your solution produced for the customer in quantitative terms. In other words, use actual customer data to describe the results. Acquiring this type of data will be much easier if you and the customer agree on how the success of your solution will be measured at the beginning of the project.
The Marketing Profs podcast contains valuable information, and I encourage you to listen to the podcast and/or read the accompanying transcript. However, I disagree somewhat with one of Wiesner’s points.
In the second step of Wiesner’s case study development process, he argues that companies should describe their expertise. He said, “What you want to do instead is write a case study that says we understood the nature of this villain, of this problem in this way, we had this wisdom, this insight, this experience. We were able to apply that insight to the problem so that we (and only we) could actually find the right solution to it.”
In my view, this isn’t the right approach in most circumstances. The mistake many companies make when creating case studies is to cast themselves, rather than their customer, as the “hero” of their case studies.
The story line of many case studies resembles the plot of 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.
An effective case study will lead readers to identify with the customer. You want readers to vicariously experience the pain the customer was feeling – which Wiesner also advocates – and with the success the customer achieved. In essence, you want readers to finish the case study believing they can achieve similar success. When you make your company the hero of your case studies, you’re asking readers to identify with your company, not with the customer.
An outstanding case study will speak 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.
One final word about case studies. When I began preparing case studies for clients two decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that case studies should be short, usually no more than 1-2 pages. But most buyers want to use case studies to validate their purchase decision. And this means that a case study needs to include enough detail to describe the customer’s business situation and experience with your product or service in a meaningful way.
So, B2B marketers should ignore the old rules about case study length. A case study should be as long as it needs to be to tell the customer’s story in a compelling way.
Image courtesy of Jernej Furman via Flickr (CC).