Show, don’t tell.
The classic writer’s maxim is very relevant to marketing as well.
Don’t just tell potential customers you’re the “world’s leading…” or “Uber of…” Show them how you have helped similar customers.
You can write case studies to show your company’s value. To help you do that, read on for advice about how to show your company’s results in a way that will get customers to want to work with your brand.
This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.
I was recently asked for a case study blueprint. I can understand why. MarketingSherpa has published a LOT of case studies. Right now you can browse 1,681 free marketing and business case studies from MarketingSherpa.
But the case studies I write for MarketingSherpa are just one type of case study. Before working here, I wrote case studies for software companies to use in their marketing. Those were self-promotional with the main goal of selling the product, very different than MarketingSherpa’s editorial case studies that aim to help you do your job better.
Since I’m constantly on the hunt for case studies to publish on MarketingSherpa, and constantly pitched by PR reps and marketers, I’ve learned how the term case study can be interpreted very differently. I’ve been pitched everything from a three-sentence “case study” that included results of “we did great and the client was pleased!” to a 30-slide PDF that included several screenshots of analytics.
In this article, I’ll share tips to help you create several different types of marketing case studies. But first, a quick look at what marketing case studies are and why we should use them.
I can’t say for sure the origin of the term case study, but I believe it stems from academia. Medical schools taught case studies of patients so med students could understand how to behave in certain situations. Harvard Business School is well-known for taking a case study approach to education, where the professor lays out a scenario and students discuss and debate what choices should have been made in that situation along with what actually did occur. And according to the Wikipedia entry for case study (lazy research I know), “as early as 1870 at Harvard Law School, Christopher Langdell departed from the traditional lecture-and-notes approach to teaching contract law and began using cases pled before courts as the basis for class discussions.”
Regardless of its origin, when we discuss case studies in a marketing context, we are talking about a different beast entirely. We are not trying to foster lively debate amongst our customers. We want to show a specific case where a customer was successful with our products or services.
Humans are pack animals. Whether we like it or not, we are heavily influenced by our fellow humans (admit it, how many times in the past month have you decided to wear or forego a mask based on what those around you were doing instead of your own coldly logical and analytical assessment of the risk inherent in the situation?)
For this reason, when a customer reads (and believes) that another person or group of people they identify with found success with a product, they believe they can find similar success.
In addition, marketing is filled with puffery. You can pull up the homepages of three competitors’ products and discover that they all claim to be the leading solution in their industry (and are, of course, scalable and reliable as well).
Case studies give brands the opportunity to not just tell potential customers how wonderful your products or services are, but actually show them.
You can create anonymous case studies – talk about the type of company or overall industry. In some situations, this may be your only option. You simply do not have clients who are willing to put their name to the information you publicly share. Perhaps the info is too much of a competitive advantage for them. Also, the bigger the company is, the harder it tends to be to get them to agree to public case studies.
However, naming the actual company and individuals involved in the case study brings much more credibility and humanity to the story. It gives potential customers someone to identify with. It also gives them someone to reach out to and get more info about what it is really like to buy from your company. So, this goes without saying, but make sure everything you share in the case study is absolutely accurate.
You can find customer case studies by building a close relationship with the people in your organization who handle sales, implementations, integrations, consulting, professional services and the like. Let them know what you’re looking for. If your company doesn’t tend to have a direct, long-term relationship with the customer (instead of an on-going service relationship perhaps your customers just make a one-time purchase), you can put out a general call through email newsletters, social media, and even advertising channels. Offer an incentive (like a gift card or free products) if they are willing to share their story.
From my experience, a great place to gather customer case studies and stories is at your company’s conference. If you’re looking for a more complex story, make sure you ask beforehand if they are interested in participating in a case study. You can capture the story through an interview in person at your event, perhaps while buying them lunch or dinner. While I used to have a trusty reporter’s notebook and digital audio recorder, now you likely carry a recorder every place you go without thinking about it – your phone.
You can also get some stories by setting up a video interview booth on the expo floor. You may be able to get simple case study videos while also finding interesting stories you can follow up on later. Again, make sure you have their permission before sharing anything publicly.
Another way to get the ball rolling on collecting case studies is by convincing clients to enter awards. Kelly Vizzini, CMO, DataSynapse created a list of the various awards clients might be able to win for outstanding technology and advancements and encouraged them to enter to try to win (from How to Fix Your Marketing Messaging to Nip Common Sales Objections in the Bud).
Once you have the story lined up, here is a guide to creating a range of different case studies.
This case study is a means to an end. You want to grab attention. Or you want to set up a proof point for why the audience should believe everything you are about to say.
A simple format is usually all you need here, as the focus of the overall content is not on the case study itself:
For example, in 150 Experiments on the Call-to-Action: Six psychological conditions that hinder our results, Flint McGlaughlin, CEO and Managing Director, MECLABS Institute focuses on key takeaways to help marketer improve their results (MECLABS is the parent organization of MarketingSherpa).
When case studies are presented in the video, they are meant only to show examples not to tell the entire story of the case study. So McGlaughlin first presents a simple “From this” “To this.”
Creative Sample #1: Quick case study example from video presentation
And then shows the results.
Creative Sample #2: Results for quick case study presentation in video
Sometimes the entire piece of audio/visual content is about the case study because you are interviewing the customer. An interview is a great way for potential customers to hear from someone they can identify with. Here are some questions that might help your interview (these are obviously very general and you should customize them to your situation):
Ultimately though, a good interview isn’t just – ask a question, get an answer, wait a beat, ask the next question. Always listen closely to what the interviewee is saying to see if you can build on it with your next question, or an entirely new question that dives deeper into the topic.
Remember though, the viewer doesn’t care about your product. And they don’t even care about the person you are interviewing. They care about themselves. So while you want the product to look good, make sure the interview includes transferable principles that help the viewer. That is why they watch.
Transferable principles that help potential customers in a similar industry (especially if you take an industry-based approach to your marketing), but even some transferable principles that apply to a larger audience who may came across the interview as well.
Here’s an example of a case study interview I conducted at a live event – Making Your Customer the Hero: How a construction software company increased revenue 53% by doing the opposite of what feels right.
You can tell a case study through an interview in a video.
Or, you can go one step further, and essentially make a mini-documentary about the case study. With the right creative talent, this can be an extremely compelling way to share the story.
As a guide, you could follow the five-part dramatic structure typical of movies and other storytelling:
If you’re looking for a blueprint to tell your story using the above structure, you might want to borrow from some elements of the hero’s journey (also known as the monomyth), a common storytelling template. Here are some elements of the hero’s journey, and how you can use them:
Please note – don’t think of your product as the hero in the hero’s journey. The customer is always the hero. The product is the supernatural aid that helps the hero achieve success.
As John Barth said, “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story. Hamlet could be told from Polonius's point of view and called The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.”
If your case study is truly successful, your potential customers see themselves in the protagonist. Your product is a supporting character, the means to an end that helps them achieve that heroism.
This is true even if the case study is limited to a quick testimonial in the overall narrative. When I interviewed Ken Kerry, Co-founder, Script to Screen, about Hoover’s DRTV campaign, he said a good testimonial shows “the entire story told by an individual in context to their experience – that’s when a potential customer can really see what another person has gone through as well [as] be able to relate that experience to their own situation. It’s when there is contextual relevance in a story that the authentic nature of the comment exudes empathy and relatability” (see Quick Case Study #6 in Marketing Strategy: 5 successful (and 1 failed) strategic approaches to everyday marketing challenges).
Here is an example of a narrative video case study from MECLABS. Note that there are two different videos, each told from a different perspective, to heighten the viewer’s ability to empathize with the protagonist.
Written case studies on a landing page or in a PDF behind a form are a very popular way to attract customers. Early in the funnel, be careful not to sell the product too hard. Again, keep the focus on customer success and what similar potential customers can learn from that success. This focus on educating potential customers will increase the likelihood they will want to read and share the case study.
Some sections you might want to include:
When digital marketing agency EWR Digital added case studies to a landing page aimed at local business clients, the conversion rate increased more than 200%. “Case studies are a very powerful form of storytelling because they show instead of tell,” said Matt Bertram, CEO & SEO Strategist, EWR Digital. “If your audience can identify with the main character, the challenge and the objective, you can take them on a journey that engages them both rationally and emotionally” (See Quick Case Study #3 in Maximizing Perceived Value: 3 quick case studies about leveraging storytelling in marketing).
Where you are going to use the case study in the customer journey affect how you write it.
As I just mentioned, early in the customer journey the focus should be more on helping potential customers overcome pain points and achieve goals, even if they never use your product. This is an effective way to generate inbound leads.
But later in the funnel – for lead nurturing or perhaps in discussions with sales reps – the case study can be used to address key questions the potential customer may have about your product and overcome common objections. This case study is much more of a direct sales pitch.
The best blueprint for these case studies comes from sitting down with your sales reps and understanding these key customer questions and objections or reading win/loss reports if your organization has a competitive sales office that creates them.
Here’s an example I made up for electric vehicle (EV) fleet software. A case study could be targeted to a specific question, or multiple questions:
If you work in a particularly technical industry – for example, software – you may want to write separate case studies for the business side and the technical side of the organization.
This can help you overcome what I call the Software is Magic Fallacy.
Some case studies from software (and other technical companies) follow a far-too-simple blueprint:
It’s never that easy.
Anyone who has worked in the industry knows that many tech projects fail. And even the ones that do succeed require integration, inspiration, and plenty of perspiration from the tech team (with a big helping hand from the services or implementation team at your company, which you can show in the case study).
To get a strong blueprint for technical case studies, sit down with tech sales reps and again, understand the most common objections and questions they are hearing from potential customers. It often makes sense to break these into industry-specific case studies because, for example, the healthcare industry may have very different technical needs, regulations, and systems than the tourism industry.
Even better, go on some actual sales calls. Kelly Harman, Vice President of Marketing, Carousel Industries says every marketing team member should go on a call at least once a quarter, and they should also go on sales call at each phase of the sales cycle: introduction, demonstration, closing, etc. (from Sales-Marketing Alignment: 8 tactics from a marketer who has worn both hats).
Technical case studies can also take the form of a white paper. Here is a tip when it comes to the title of that white paper. When the topic is so complex that more words are required, successful titles break the information down using colons and subtitles. For example, in the category of CRM, where white papers tend to use case studies and have long titles, 70% of the top 10 white papers used a colon, compared to only 30% of the bottom 10 (from How to Title Your White Papers to Generate More Downloads From Best Prospects).
When I worked in the software industry, I didn’t only write case studies to help with marketing. The companies I worked with had globally distributed salesforces numbering in the thousands, and internal case studies were crucial for sales enablement.
An internal case study is necessary because you need to take a very different angle from the external case study. Again, serve your audience. In this case, sales reps. The sales enablement case study shouldn’t be focused on the customer success (they’ll already have that from your external marketing case studies); the focus is on how the sales team closed the deal. In this case, the sales reps are the heroes.
A blueprint for an internal case study could include topics like:
Don’t overlook that last bullet point. Sales reps are not quota-carrying robots. Bringing humanity and emotion to their job shows that you understand them, empathize with them, and can help tap deep into their motivation.
I once worked with a company that had untraditional quarters, and their third quarter closed on October 31st. When I wrote the case study on one sale, I included how the sales rep was negotiating calls while taking her kids trick-or-treating. It brought humanity to a story instead of offering just a rote recitation of steps in a sales methodology.
Today, I get pitched endlessly by PR reps and marketers hoping to see their case study published in MarketingSherpa. And I am thankful for those pitches. That is, after all, how we find the case studies to bring you week after week.
The vast majority of these case studies are never published (at least, not by us) – I have never done a thorough data analysis but I think we have a lower acceptance rate than Harvard’s 4.6%.
Many marketers treat a journalism case study like a marketing case study.
If you are looking for true editorial coverage, your case study must be educational in nature. And it must be helpful and compelling.
“Just like any journalism piece, it's important to tell a story,” said Casey Hibbard, President, Compelling Cases. “I really get into who the organization is and what are some of their issues and challenges” (from Get Trade Press to Carry Case Studies About You & Your Clients: 13 Tips).
Best advice I can give is to read articles from the publications you are trying to get into, and then tailor your pitches specifically to those publications based on what they write about. Which is why I always include links to previous articles in our queries.
Show, don’t tell.
Also, it’s not about you…it’s about the reader. How can your information help the reader? If the answer is “by buying our product” or even “using our free service” then what you have is an advertisement, not an article.
Ultimately though, there are many, many ways business professionals can spend their time. Why should they invest time in reading your story on MarketingSherpa or in another publication? Why is that more valuable to them than anything else they can be doing with their precious time? The pitches that get chosen for publication are the ones that have a strong answer to this question.
Marketing Case Studies on MarketingSherpa – 1,681 and counting…
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