Stating Your Case: Making Case Studies More Compelling
Humans are conditioned for storytelling. From origins of rock carvings and scribblings on caveman walls, stories have been used to educate and pass along history. Good marketers understand how the human brain’s natural reaction to stories can help build stronger, deeper connections with prospects. In fact, a study known as “Significant Objects” details just how powerful and persuasive the right story can be.
Storytelling in various forms has been used in B2B content marketing for decades now, and research shows that case studies are an often-used vehicle for conveying some of these stories. According to a 2018 report from Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 73% of B2B marketers are using case studies for content marketing purposes.
Case studies are gaining popularity with B2B marketers, especially as millennials join the ranks of decision makers across organizations (millennials have shown preference for shorter, more relatable content compared to other forms of traditional long-form research, such as white papers). However, recent research on the effectiveness of case studies paints a conflicting picture.
On one hand, in Demand Gen Report’s 2019 Content Preferences Survey (which classified case studies as “influencer content”), 95% of respondents said they prefer credible content from industry influencers, and case studies proved to be the most preferred type of such content, chosen by 47%.
On the other hand, TrustRadius research painted case studies in a less glowing light. The firm’s 2019 B2B buying disconnect research found case studies have lost effectiveness with buyers, with just more than one-fifth of tech buyers using vendor-produced case studies to inform their decisions. Case studies ultimately ranked 11th out of 15 options in trustworthiness.
Two quotes pulled from the open-ended portion of that survey give us quality insight into the mindset of buyers who are skeptical of case studies:
“Vendor provided case studies – these are hand-picked success stories / [we] preferred independent reviews.”
“Whitepapers and case studies are geared towards selling you the product so I don’t put a whole lot of weight on these.”
Thus, the challenge for marketers becomes clear: How do you take advantage of the storytelling power of case studies without drawing skepticism from prospects that the studies are little more than “brochureware?” How do you build credibility into your case studies and make them more persuasive?
The customer hero: As much as you may be inclined to make your product or service the hero of your case study – the hero of this story should be the customer (the case in your study). Too often, companies cast themselves as the hero, rushing to save the day with the perfect solution. This is an easy way to invoke skepticism from your audience. A good case study will make the reader identify with the customer, and that’s exactly what you want. Not only will the reader draw parallels and empathy for the customer’s perspective, it will make the prospect far less likely to feel like he’s reading an overt sales piece.
Ignore length: Don’t enter your case study development aiming to hit a certain page or word count. The story needs however long it needs to be effectively told. Trying to stretch the story to add length will weaken your supporting material. However, disregard the urge to keep it short if you need more details to fully and comprehensively tell the story.
For a buyer to use the case study in a way that validates purchase decisions, he or she needs enough detail to fully understand the customer’s situation, needs and experiences. There’s a common saying in barbecue that, “It’s ready when it’s ready.” Like that perfect brisket, a case study is ready when it’s ready. Some may take only a page or two; others may take 2000 words. Don’t concern your self with the length, but rather with expressing the full story.
Non-fiction storytelling: Most marketers are conditioned to avoid calling attention to limitations of the products or services they promote. It’s natural to accentuate the positives and minimize the negatives. But to prevent your case studies from taking on the appearance of an advertorial, don’t be afraid to admit some shortcomings. Yes, it’s a bitter pill, but there are ways to approach it that can even work in your favor.
For example, provide an opportunity for the (hero) customer to explain where the product or service didn’t quite accomplish something they envisioned. However, if you’ve done your customer service well, you can point out how your company and the customer worked, or are working, together to help improve that solution. In this approach, you may have exposed a shortcoming, but you also illustrated your dedication to constantly improving your product and putting the customer first.
If the only things your case customer has to say about your products and services are unequivocal adulations, it will certainly make the content feel coerced and less credible. A little transparency might feel awkward at first, but it makes your case study more realistic and persuasive.
Real names; real numbers; real results: There are some cases where clients, for their own reasons, will demand you not use their actual name in a case study. If possible, avoid this. Using “Company XYZ” just simply doesn’t pull the same weight as using a verifiable organization by name. Generic references reduce the credibility of the story.
Additionally, generic summations such as “really improved their sales in the first quarter after implementing our solution,” lack the punch that detail can provide. It’s far more powerful to say your solution “increased next quarter sales by 150%.”
Again, some organizations may be hesitant to provide such figures, but when used, qualified and quantified details dramatically increase the effectiveness of your case studies.
Also, populate your story with great quotes from the customer. After all, it’s their story, so let them use their own words to explain it. The key to great quotes is asking good questions during the interview and preparation phases. Sometimes you might need to dig a little deeper on a subject or push for a little more from an interview subject, but the resulting quotes can be a key selling point to another potential buyer.
Impact imagery: What makes a compelling magazine article even better? Great photos. It’s similar with case studies. While you aren’t necessarily out to entertain with this content, human brains naturally respond to images. Even if you aren’t dealing with products or services inherently photogenic, effective use of pictures or diagrams can enhance your story. Even if you’re using stock photos, careful consideration of color use and placement can make the read aesthetically pleasing – and people are generally far more likely to continue reading something that doesn’t turn them off visually.
The old saying encourages us to not judge a book by its cover – but we do. And the same can be said about your case study. While the visual elements may not sell products or services, they increase the likelihood the content draws eyes.
Get help: A well written case study isn’t the most difficult endeavor. However, it can sometimes be hard to give it the proper objectivity and design touch it needs to reach its potential. Content developers can help. Someone with an independent eye and perspective can help ensure your case study doesn’t stray too far toward the propaganda zone.
Content developers are also adept at interview techniques that can pull the most relevant and most impactful information from your case subjects – such as those great quotes mentioned previously. Don’t be afraid to get help telling the stories of how your customers have been positively impacted by your company. You have great stories to tell, so make them as great as they can be.