The media loves case studies because they make great stories: they include a challenge, a "hero" that solves the challenge, and have a happy ending.
"There are a lot of trade publications that have case study opportunities," says Casey Hibbard, President of Compelling Cases. But getting a client to agree to let you write a case study about your work with them, "That can be an issue."
That's because companies often don't approach clients in an organized fashion, says Promise Phelon, Principal, Phelon Consulting Services, whose clients include HP, Adobe, Oracle and Intel.
"A lot of times, the company doesn't have any customer reference program in place," Phelon says. "They don't have anything that says, 'Now that you've become really successful, we want to write about you.'"
We talked with Hibbard and Phelon on how to conceive, write, and pitch stories on your company's success stories.Getting clients' permission to write about them
Unfortunately, a "no" from some clients can't be argued. "Especially if it's a large organization and they have a policy that they don't do case studies -- maybe because if they do it for everyone who asks they spend too much time -- you're just stuck," Hibbard says.
In that case, you can do a blind case study in which you don't mention the client's name. Or, you can find a company willing to go on the record. Here's how:
a. Implement a formal customer reference program
When PR, sales, and marketing team members all approach a client separately, looking for success stories, the client is far less likely to be open to working with you, because they imagine -- correctly -- that you're unorganized.
A successful customer reference program enables you work with internal teams to decide what clients you're going to talk to next and how you'll use their success stories. Ideally, a good program does three things, according to Phelon:
--tactically helps sales achieve their objectives
--lets executives see it not just as a success story factory but as something that increases the impact of marketing
--gives you the insight and organization to talk to stakeholders and say, "What customers are we going to talk to next?"
On the other hand, says Phelon: "A short-sighted program says, 'Oh, we have 45 customers. Let's call them all.'"
b. What's in it for the client?
Don't approach the client as a supplicant. Remember that a case study is a joint marketing/PR opportunity.
When approaching clients, "I often use words like, 'We'd like to feature you as a success story,'" says Hibbard.
You can also ask potential clients to agree to go on the record before they've even signed on with you, saying something like, "We're committed to your success, and if we can meet these three objectives, we'd like to go public about our success together."
A key to that, says Phelon: Understand what it means to your client to be successful. "If you're going to [write a case study], you need happy clients who have achieved success with your offering. So nailing down what they consider successful is important."
c. Assure them it won't take much time
Time is usually the main hurdle, says Hibbard. Let them know that it will take about an hour or less on the phone to interview them.
d. Inform them on how you'll use it
Clients feel better when they know just how you'll be using the case study: online, in your newsletter, for publicity in third-party publications, etc.
It also helps to show them samples of previous case studies you've done.
e. Get approval from the right people
"The person using your product or service probably doesn't have the final say," says Hibbard. Unfortunately often that person doesn't know they don't have this authority - and may give permission that's later rescinded putting egg on everyone's faces.
So, make sure your contact's supervisor and corporate communications department has given the go-ahead.
If you are pitching the story to major media, they will rewrite it and require a client-interview. Be forewarned that corporate communications hate this -- they lose control of a story when it gets into a reporter's hands. (Many say "Can we see the story before you publish it?" Answer, "No, that's not how journalism works.")
Client-side corporate communications may only approve case studies for marketing purposes (to be posted on your site and included in your promo materials) where they can control the final edit.
f. Are you willing to discount your services?
Companies sometimes ask for a discount on their next implementation, Hibbard warns, so you need to decide how far you're willing to go for that client, or if you'd prefer to move ahead with another.
Phelon takes a different approach, suggesting that you get rid of incentive programs altogether. It takes away from the credibility of the reference, some believe, and typical incentives (points, discounts, T-shirts) have little value these days, she says.Case study writing tips
Big note: Writing a case study that the press will pick up is different than writing one for sales or to post on your Web site.
You'll include the same elements: a challenge or problem, a solution or action, and results. But the angle and style is different. Five specific tips:
Tip #1. Write about the relationship
How do you write a case study that avoids being sales-y? "I recently met with four CFO's at telco's and asked them about that," Phelon says. "One of them said the best case study he ever read was one that talked about a customer of a big company who had a major networking problem over the holidays."
The study focused not on how they fixed the problem, but how the company and vendor rebuilt the relationship after the problem.
"ROI is important, but it doesn't always necessarily belong," Phelon says. "Companies aren't buying a lot of new technology right now, and what they're buying, they're a lot more skeptical about."
People know there are going to be problems with enterprise technologies, so a case study that focuses on how those problems were solved feels more genuine to readers and keeps the study from being too sales-focused.
"It's about the lessons learned and how things fell apart and how they got rebuilt and how that one guy named Hugh who worked in the back room is helping XYZ Software become a better company," Phelon says.
Tip #2. Tell a good story
"Just like any journalism piece, it's important to tell a story," says Hibbard. "I really get into who the organization is and what are some of their issues and challenges." She spends about five minutes of a 30 minute interview on the challenge.
"I want to know the ramifications of this problem, how much it was costing you, how much time were you losing, were your customers unhappy because you weren't able to service them. You can't just say, 'We were unorganized.'"
Hibbard then asks how they learned about the product or solution, how many others they looked at, and why they ultimately chose it.
Then she asks for concrete examples: "Can you give me an example of where the software was particularly beneficial or where it allowed you to do something you weren't able to do before?"
Tip #3. Let the quotes tell the story
Look for the most interesting quotes by asking specific questions.
Don't ask, for example, "What were the results?" Instead, ask, "How did you feel about the results?"
Tip #4. Include loads of details on the exact steps taken to solve the problems
Your case study will be more compelling if you outline the practical steps you took. Readers won't be interested in reading, "Using our software, we cleaned their email list and reduced bounce rates."
They want to know how you cleaned the list: what did you look for, how did you identify bad addresses, did you test the bad addresses again to ensure they really were bad…?
Tip #5. Gotta have results
Many so-called case studies we see posted on vendor and agency sites are really nothing more than "a client hired us/used our tech" stories with no results whatsoever.
The results are the heart of the story for the media. In fact, the results will probably wind up being in the headline. A generic "we are very satisfied" quote is not a result, just as "Client satisfied by solution" is not a compelling headline. Pitching case studies to the media
Good news: pitching a case study works the same way you'd pitch a story idea or press release. If you're telling a compelling, useful story without jargon or sales speak, it's likely to get picked up.
Make sure your case study is targeted at the same audience the publication reaches, and make sure the publication does indeed publish case studies. Then email editors with your pitch.
Three more hints on getting picked up by the media:
Hint #1. Make sure your client is willing to talk
Your case study almost certainly will not be published as is. The media outlet will likely want to interview your client. Right up front, let the editor know that your client is available for an interview, and include their contact information in addition to yours.
If the client works for a company with more than $100 million in sales, chances are their corporate PR department also has to approve the interview. Don't take the individual exec's word that it's OK. Check with their PR department too and spare the media nasty surprises. (That reporter may never trust you again.)
Case studies where you can't reveal a client's specific company (ie. "A major pharmaceutical") won't fly. Don't bother pitching them.
Hint #2. Offer an exclusive
If you can share exciting results with an editor, and can guarantee that nobody else will have those results for a certain period of time (usually until after the cover date of their next available issue), you've baited and sunk the hook.
Major publications won't consider a case study that's been pitched to other media. Second and third tier publications are often not as picky.
The last thing you want to do in your pitch is to brag that so-and-so has already run the story. If you've gotten ink from competiting press, top journalists are less interested in the story. They need exclusives to look good to their bosses.
On the other hand, you can pitch a published case study hotlink to the blogging and email newsletter community. These folks are often looking for items to write summaries of and link to. They vastly prefer to link to the story in a media outlet than to a self-publised story at your site.
Hint #3. Pitch with a precis first
If you're targeting top national publications, the journalists are highly unlikely to run your case study as is. So don't hurt your chances of getting attention by forcing a journalist to wade through a case study you've already written. The more words in your pitch, the less likely it is to be read.
Instead pitch via email with a brief description of the results, challenge, and topic. Your pitch should be no longer than two paragraphs.
Don't waste attention on long descriptions of the technology or company business model. Instead, cut straight to the drama -- company X did something that resulted in Y. Useful links related to this article:
Compelling Cases http://www.compelling-cases.com/
Phelon Consulting Services http://www.phelonconsulting.com/
Note: Want to get a MarketingSherpa Case Study written about you or a client? We do *not* publish pre-written articles (all our case studies are researched and written in-house). However, our editors are open to idea pitches for possible exclusives. Contact AHolland@marketingsherpa.com