In my household, we’re having a newspaper war.
At least once a week, a kerfuffle breaks out over a particularly engaging article in one of the publications we regularly consume. We’re not debating the content of the article. We’re fighting over who had it last and where that person left it.
With a 3-year-old sharing the house with us, it’s rare to finish a feature story in one sitting. And when we return, there’s a chance the article is no longer there. It may have started at the kitchen table, but could now be anywhere in the house.
“Where’s the article on that missing hiker? I was reading it,” one of us might say. The other replies, “No, I was reading it and haven’t finished it.”
We’re hiding and hoarding the LONG stories.
In this age of the “declining attention span,” people still read longer stories. And not just in printed material. The e-book industry was valued at $1.3 billion in 2013.
Business people are no different
But what about in the business world? Will busy business people – on a mission to solve their challenges – read marketing content if it’s more than a page? If it’s four pages?
They certainly do. White papers, typically 4-8 pages, consistently take the top honor for most desired content in the annual Eccolo Media survey and in many others.
Here’s the thing. People need a LOT of information to make a decision. If someone is going to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on buying a product or service, then they assuredly need plenty of information to support the decision.
Demand Gen Report’s 2014 B2B Buyer Behavior Survey revealed that more than half of B2B buyers consume 2-4 pieces of information before making a decision, and 30 percent consume 5-7 pieces. More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents agreed that the number of sources used to research and evaluate a purchase has increased over the past year.
In this age of content marketing, they want content.
What about customer case studies?
Among my clients and peers, the debate is whether buyers will read longer customer case studies.
I firmly believe they will, and not just because I’m a case study writer.
Eccolo’s survey says…”In general, buyers overwhelmingly prefer traditional written case studies to those presented as audio, video, one-page summaries, or Microsoft PowerPoint slides.”
Still, customer case studies seem to be getting shorter – down to a few paragraphs – because companies believe that buyers don’t want longer stories.
But there’s a reason why case studies have become a marketing staple in many industries. Testimonials are not enough.
What do buyers need to make a decision?
The challenge with abbreviating our customer success stories is this: We may be leaving out what buyers need to make decisions.
Think about it this way…When was the last time you made a major purchase decision? What information did you need?
A couple of weeks ago, I bought the Varidesk, a desk-topper that allows me to raise my keyboard and monitor higher so that I can STAND when working, whenever I want.
I posted the photo on Facebook and Twitter and immediately began getting questions from friends. Why did you choose the desk-topper over a desk that rises? How did you choose this version over the other Varidesk versions? How much time do you spend standing each day?
They wanted to know how I made my decision and what my experience was.
The same goes for buyers of B2B products and services, as well as consumer purchases. How did you pick your financial adviser or childcare provider?
Fitting it all in
The reason why customer case studies are in the top three consumed types of marketing collateral, on the Eccolo survey, is that they go beyond the sound bite to accomplish three things:
Create credibility – A real company is successful with the vendor’s products and services.
Educate – They show why the customer chose the solution, how it works in their environment, how it solves challenges, and what the customer and vendor did to make it a success.
Validate – A case study shows that real customers are seeing real results.
It’s hard to achieve all that in a 300-word summary. That size of customer success story usually covers the challenge and results, but leaves out most of the middle: how it was achieved.
It’s like seeing a magic show. The rabbit comes out of the hat, but we’re all left wondering how the magic happened.
An article by Joshua Steimle in Forbes highlights the power of a single, compelling case study, and suggests we think about the question a different way. If I were making this decision, what would I want to know?
Short or long: Be compelling
What’s the common thread between the stories my husband and I fight over and those that B2B buyers consume? They’re compelling. They tell stories. They’re skimmable and formatted for easy reading.
Long or short, a case study won’t get read if it’s not interesting for the reader. The risk is losing engagement with buyers whose attention we have caught.
Keep it about the customer’s journey and not filled with product description, which buyers can find in many other places.
Yet what works for one company may not work for another. Marketers need to look at what brings in leads, website traffic and sales.
What are buyers consuming on your website, or in the lead-up to a purchase?
They may not be able to finish your case study or white paper in one sitting. But if it’s good, they’ll bookmark it and come back to it.
And now, I’m off to find that story I started in Sunday’s New York Times.
When we want to stock our kitchen, our family shops at three different grocery stores. We visit one store for seafood and organics, another for the kind of tortellini my son likes, and another for our favorite brand of salsa.
High maintenance? Probably. We want what we want. But at times it’s exhausting. It’s more stops of the car and more items on the to-do list – and more time out of the day.
That’s why one-stop shopping has become such a marketing buzzword. We’re all looking for every opportunity to cut steps in our daily lives, while still getting what we need.
The business world is no different. If you’re a copywriter, your clients are busy business owners and marketing folks who are looking for time-savers.
Copywriters can help. Consider how you can deliver one-stop shopping for your clients. That doesn't necessarily mean writing all the marketing materials they need. After all, some of us bring expertise in specific niches (i.e. case studies).
Instead, consider handling more of the process for your clients. For example, I help many of my clients with design and project management. Adding these aspects means I take care of pretty much the entire project and deliver a ready-to-use marketing piece.
Want to be more of a one-stop shop copywriter? Here’s your playbook:
Add Design Services
Most clients publish case studies on their websites AND need an attractive PDF version for printing and distributing via email.
Even large clients or those with in-house designers may need occasional outside help. Clients who choose to engage my help with design fall into two categories:
• Organizations that have designers they work with – in house or contractors – but choose to have me coordinate the entire project to keep things simple.
• Organizations without designers that appreciate not having to find yet another vendor.
Find the right designer – Maybe you have writing AND design skills. If so, awesome. You’re already a one-stop shop. If not, partner with a designer. Choose a designer with work samples that match the type of clients you have. Some have a more whimsical, illustrative look while others are more corporate. A tech company would likely want a different look than a wellness coach. Consider working with a couple of designers to fit the various clients you have.
Ask about turnaround time – What’s the designer’s typical turnaround time? You want to ensure that the person is responsive when you need them. Also, have them let you know whenever they’re going to be out of the office so you can plan for that.
Ask about files – One of my clients likes to have copies of the InDesign (or other) files just in case they want to make changes themselves in the future or change vendors.
Equip the designer – Get your client’s logo, typefaces, color schemes and preferences to the designer, along with other sample marketing materials or the client’s website URL so that the designer can match the look of the client’s other materials.
Create a template – Engage the designer to create the template for case studies (or other collateral), and then to place each case study into the template. I price these separately: a one-time fee for template creation and then each layout.
Proof designs – Review layouts to ensure typos have not crept in.
Send one bill – Create a single invoice for writing and design. Add a little mark-up over what you pay the designer to account for your time in guiding the designer and shuttling versions back and forth.
Add Project Management
With multiple interviews and customer review cycles, case study projects demand more project management than other types of writing assignments. Save your clients all that legwork by handling the pieces.
For case studies, add the following to your writing and editing:
• Schedule and conduct all interviews
• Record interviews and provide transcripts (if requested)
• Manage review and signoff with the featured customer
• Collect graphics such as logos and photos
When you deliver writing, design and project management, it means fewer invoices for clients to process, fewer emails and fewer tasks on their lists. Also, by boosting your value to them, you can charge higher fees as you become the preferred, one-stop provider.
During a workshop I attended in LA last spring on oral storytelling, we discussed the elements that signal the beginning of a story.
A story sets us in a time, a place and with a subject.
• “It was Christmas 2012 and we were sitting at the dinner table when all of sudden…”
• "Wright Mechanics deployed SuperSolution in the spring of 2014..."
It’s back to journalism 101 with who, what, when and where.
Now I more readily notice story around me and am more mindful in trying to weave those pieces into my customer case studies to keep readers engaged.
But there’s a challenge with the “time” in customer case studies. Specific dates – particularly years – can age a case study unnecessarily. If you talk about a customer deploying a solution in 2014, by 2016 it sounds like old news.
I want my clients to be able to use a case study for as long as the information is still relevant and not worry that four numbers will make the story sound outdated. Saying that the customer switched to a solution in a specific year makes the story less evergreen.
So how do you put a time marker in case studies without dating them? Let’s look at several examples of phrases pulled from real customer case studies and even business school case studies.
• “Just after sunrise on a cool September day, a parade of ambulances began carefully carrying more than 100 patients…”
• “When the system went live on election day, it detected and stopped more than 150,000 potential attacks occurring every second.”
• “It was one week after James Browder’s sixth board meeting as CEO of Aegis Systems Corp. (Aegis)…As Browder sat at his desk, pen and notepad before him, he reflected on his deteriorating relationships with outside directors and the events that had led to these circumstances.”
• “When researching her most recent novel…”
• “When the woman visited the clinic, she complained of difficulty breathing.”
These examples all have time or event markers to aid the story, but not specific dates.
As you write case studies, look for opportunities to put in time markers for more compelling storytelling.
What are your favorite examples of telling stories – with “non-date” time stamps?
"We have tons of happy customers. How do we decide which ones to feature in case studies?"
When it comes to customer case studies – and business in general – too many happy customers is a great problem to have.
After all, having satisfied customers is the first and most important ingredient for creating strong case studies.
But how do you decide which customers to feature?
These 6 steps will help you narrow your pool of candidates and get started:
1. Choose the products and services you need customer stories for.
Maybe you need case studies across all your solutions, or just a few. Perhaps a competitor is introducing a product and you want to show your edge. Or maybe you have a product or service with a number of new capabilities not represented in current case studies.
These might be the first targets for case studies. The goal: have several strong case studies for every solution you offer. Or, you can include multiple solutions in a single case study in cases where customers use several.
2. Define your top TYPES of target prospects.
Quite simply, what types of customers do you want more of? Small, midsize, large? Retail, financial, technology, government, education, etc.? In the Americas, Asia or Europe? Maybe it’s a mix of all of the above. Decide what “boxes” you need to fill across your various offerings.
Your customer case studies should mirror the type of customer relationships that you're looking for. Like attracts like. Look among your current base of satisfied customers for perfect examples of customers you're trying to bring on.
3. Time it right.
If you pursue a case study with a customer too early in the relationship, they may not have strong results yet. If you wait too long, they may not remember what life was like before you came along, or be able to measure before-and-after results.
For each solution you want to feature, when do customers usually see results? How long does it take? That's the perfect time to ask them about a case study.
4. Assess the strength of results.
If measurable results are important to you – and they are for most organizations – then you don't want to get too far down the path with a customer case study and THEN discover the customer doesn’t have strong results to share.
Plan a short prequalification call with a customer to explore the types of results/benefits they have experienced so far.
Also consider building in ways to assess customer results throughout the relationship. It's not just a good idea for a case study, but also for your company to understand exactly what benefits customers experience – and when. Ask customers a set of questions that gather metrics early in the relationship and again every quarter or a couple of times a year to understand the impact. That way, you can easily spot stellar results.
Even better, try to get metrics BEFORE the customer deploys your solution so you can compare later on just how much the solution has made a difference.
5. Get the green light.
By now, you should have a more refined list of customers to approach. When you feel good about a candidate, move forward to get the customer's permission to be featured. Make it clear how much time the interview process will take, what's involved and how the resulting story will be used.
Ask who will need to approve the story once it's drafted. Get that person's buy-in or don’t start your case study project. All too often I've seen the interviewee agree to move forward, only for the story to be shot down by the customer's legal or PR team after it’s 95 percent done.
6. Choose your interviewees.
Finally, decide who to interview. Who are you trying to reach at each prospect company? An executive? A business unit manager? Or both? Decide what titles you’re targeting at prospect companies. Then try to interview those same titles within happy customer companies.
C-level people respect other C-level people, and likewise for business unit managers or front-line users. If multiple people will consume the case study, interview a couple of key contacts. One person may have made the decision to buy the solution and another uses it day in, day out.
Once you’ve narrowed your pool and recruited customers to be featured, get going while customers are still happy, willing and able to share their stories.
There are times when, magically, customer quotes are exactly what you dreamed they would be. The featured customer delivers glowing, colorful, emotive comments that speak to the exact challenges that the audience is facing and provide the much-desired validation that the vendor wants in the case study.
Then there are all those other times, when the quotes are not the exact fodder you wanted for the perfect story that’s in your head.
Fortunately, you do, in fact, have some control over the quotes you collect from customers. The rest depends on the person you’re interviewing.
How do you cue up perfect quotes for your case study?
Here's a best-practices playbook on getting effective quotes in customer case studies:
1. Interview the right people
This matters for so many reasons. Ideally, you want to quote someone in a business role/title similar to the audience for your case study so the reader automatically feels peer-to-peer respect.
If the CIO is your target audience, quote the CIO or similar executive-level person from your customer company. Always quote the highest-level person you can.
BUT what if the CIO can only speak to part of your story and a technology manager has more insight into usage and results? Then interview the manager but grab one quote from the CIO. You need both the detailed perspective and the credibility of the high-level quote.
2. Ask the right questions
To a certain extent, the personality of the person you interview drives the content of the comments. But you can ask questions that encourage your subjects to frame their responses in certain ways.
Ask open-ended questions that help them share details and emotion...
• What did your day look like before [the solution]?
• How has your job changed with [the solution]?
• Tell me about a time when you knew that things had changed for the better.
• How did it make you feel when you saw that incidents had decreased [or whatever benefit is relevant in your story]?
3. Get Challenge-Decision-Results Quotes
At a minimum, try for these three types of quotes:
• The Challenge - Something that describes the pain or challenge the customer experienced before
• The Decision - Why did the customer choose the solution?
• The Results - What is the number-one result the customer has experienced?
Feel free to quote more, but at least hit these points.
4. Don't make up quotes
Made-up quotes sound, well, made-up. Actual customer comments are way more interesting and authentic.
But it's a common practice to do this in marketing and PR. We don't want to bug the customer and they just want something to approve. So at times we write case studies based on interviews with the internal account teams, rather than customers, and hence, have no customer quotes.
Try to get something directly from the customer, either from live interviews or by inserting a question directed at the customer right into the draft that you deliver. If you need to know why the customer chose the vendor, insert the question in the draft: "Why specifically did you choose to work with [vendor name]?"
5. Don't over-edit
In customer case studies, we have the freedom to "doctor" customer quotes, but don't give them such a full makeover that they are unrecognizable to the customer.
Customers appreciate it when we make them sound good but I've seen customers get a little uncomfortable when we market-ese the quotes too much.
What can you do?
• You might put two sentences together that were not said consecutively (most customers don't notice.)
• You can eliminate repetitive or extra words
• You can add the vendor's product/company name
Just don't change the meaning of the quote.
6. Create quotes that stand alone
One of the awesome things about customer case studies is that it is content that's approved by the customer. That means that, if you want to pull quotes out of the story for other marketing materials, you can do so.
But the quotes should still sound complete when they are seen on their own. They should also have the vendor's name or product name in there so that the audience knows what the quote is referring to.
A quote that looks like this…
“No other database in the company provides that information…”
might be changed to…
“No other database in the company provides the information that [product name] does."
Strive for as many of these tips as you can and you'll do your part in capturing strong quotes. The rest is up to the customer!
What are your tips for better customer quotes?