The proof is in the numbers.
If you ask companies what’s most important in their customer case studies, 9 out of 10 would likely say measurable results.
But drawing metrics out of customers can be agonizing. You ask a question. The customer hems and haws and doesn’t provide a concrete answer. You ask it a different way. No go.
What’s a case study writer to do?
Find Your Inner Sleuth
I’ve been tapping into my inner sleuth lately. Perhaps it’s all the mystery and pirate-themed books I’ve been reading recently with my toddler, but I find the treasure hunt for alternatives to customer-provided measurable results can actually be fun.
In the absence of customer-supplied results, you have to look for other data points that tie into the story you’re telling. Your best source: the featured customer’s web site.
The customer’s website may reveal insightful details about revenue and profit growth, changes in market share, growth of company divisions, customer satisfaction ratings, and more.
IF you can tie any of the metrics publicly displayed on a customer’s website with your story, then you’ve got a metric you can drop in.
Let’s look at a couple of examples…
An Italian Public Aerospace Company
The featured customer – an Italian aerospace company – needs information about industries and global regions in order to plan strategically as it grows beyond Italy and Europe.
The website indicates that "55% of its revenue now comes from outside Italy." Great stat because my client provides information to help this company make decisions about new geographic markets.
While it’s not a result that we can tie exclusively to work with my client, it does indicate that the customer is moving toward its goal of being a global company.
A French Automotive Supplier
For a recent case study, the featured customer is a leader in automotive innovation, something that my client assists with.
We didn’t have a direct measurable result, but the company was recognized for the first time in an important ranking of the top 100 global innovators. Very cool. It’s a strong data point to support the story’s theme.
Where to Hunt
Where do you find this information? Search customer websites for information such as…
• Revenue growth
• Profit growth
• Changes in market share
What if the featured customer is not a public company and doesn’t share financial information publicly?
Look at other indicators of progress such as releasing new products, opening new locations, moving into new markets or winning awards. Find numbers when you can and resort to qualitative information when you have to.
Be creative, be resourceful, and you’ll get a more hard-hitting case study.
My eyesight isn't as good as it used to be.
But I must not be the only one who’s drawn to larger text.
Case studies, and most marketing content, are going BIG.
From the images to the text, everything has gone way up in pixels and font points.
I'm not a web usability expert, but I'm guessing this trend is because larger is more readable.
I did a random web search for case studies and nearly every site I saw had big, bold images and text.
Whether it's the customer success home page on a company's site...
Or the landing page for an individual case study...
Or the actual PDF of a case study...
…it's all super-sized.
NOT More Words
By larger, I don't mean case studies are longer than ever before. They're just bigger in every way. Each piece, whether text or graphics, has been enlarged.
Word count may be the same, but today's case studies are often spread across two pages instead of one, or four pages instead of two.
I think the expanding formats also reflect that most people consume content electronically. Keeping a case study at two pages isn't as important anymore since companies are not (usually) printing hundreds for handouts. People read and share them mostly online.
Check out some examples below. Click on each image to see the pages at their actual scale.
Big body copy:
Big pull quotes:
Big scrolling story teaser:
Organizations are also more creative in their presentation. They put thought into how they organize their stories on the main case studies page, how they present the teaser web summary and the way they lay out a single case study.
Apparently readers want us to go big.
Do you like the larger format? What are your favorite case study examples?
Let's suppose, for a moment, that you're in the market for a new car.
You probably don't just get up in the morning, head to a dealership, drive one and buy.
Before that, you might spend months - or even years - thinking about what type of car you would like. You look at other cars on the road, you notice car ads, talk with friends, and you go online to learn more about specific makes and models.
Then you head to the automaker's website and notice they have a link for customer success stories. (Toyota does this nicely.)
You follow the link to see the customer stories and...thud.
The door's locked. You can't go any further without providing your name, email and perhaps 5-10 other bits of information about yourself.
It sounds ridiculous when you think about having to provide your information in exchange for seeing customer stories during a major consumer purchase. Then why is it so rampant in business-to-business marketing?
Put Out the Welcome Mat
Organizations invest heavily in getting people to come to their websites and stay. Then they do something that causes a good percentage to stop right where they are and go no further.
In the name of collecting leads, we're interrupting the sales process and likely ticking off prospects in the process.
Last week I set out, as I occasionally do, to find examples of great customer case studies online. I followed link after link looking for examples of best practices in case studies today.
And site after site I got stopped on the threshold – unable to access content without first filling out a registration form. Not with just a few fields, but 5-10. 10 fields!
I imagine a big door a la Wizard of Oz where a little munchkin appears through a small window and asks, “Who’s there? What do you want?” In the story, Dorothy and her friends have traveled far on their journey to Oz and this is definitely not what they dreamed of.
In their journeys of seeking new solutions and service providers, prospects also don’t expect or want to arrive at a locked door - especially for content that markets a vendor's solution.
The Sales Process Has Changed
A VP of sales at a software company told me recently that prospects call them, ready to talk, after doing their own research. They raise their hands when they're ready. That’s the reality of the sales process today, with many of the things we buy.
For major purchases in the B2B world, marketing content helps buyers in their journeys (the sales funnel) by drawing them in with valuable insight and resources.
A couple of years ago, a small software company shared stats with me regarding case study consumption. After requiring registration for case studies, the company experimented by removing the required registration.
The results were pretty shocking. In just one week, the company reported that downloads of its case studies were three times higher than the previous four months combined!
When you interrupt the natural flow of a prospect’s research, you’re taking control of the sales process at a time when buyers may not be ready to give it up. Not to mention, it's frustrating for buyers.
If you’re just looking at case study consumption, buyers most often look at them in the middle of the sales process when they’re understanding their problems better, identifying solutions and looking at vendors. Many of them are not ready to begin engaging with a sales contact yet.
The problem doesn’t just apply to case studies. White papers are notoriously put behind gates. But most prospects want to review white papers at the start of the sales cycle. They certainly aren’t ready for discussions with specific vendors yet.
Content marketers, if you knew something was preventing your content from being seen, wouldn’t you want to change it?
I understand the need to generate leads, but find other ways and make them fit the way your buyers want to buy. Offer webinars, demos and other opportunities for folks to show interest when they’re ready.
Otherwise, prospects might as well turn on their heels, head back down the road and find another place that’s more welcoming – like a competitor.
Companies, do you make your case studies freely available? If not, then why not?
The written case study still reigns.
I realize that I’m not the most unbiased authority on the supremacy of the written customer case study. I earn my living writing case studies and teach other writers to do the same.
But a recently released survey from Eccolo Media backs me up.
Eccolo Media surveyed more than 500 B2B technology buyers about the types of content they consume, when, and the value of it in their purchase decisions. This year's Eccolo Media 2014 B2B Technology Content Survey Report revealed that more buyers prefer customer case studies in a written format than in other forms. They also like the traditional narrative format over shorter formats.
"In general, buyers overwhelmingly prefer traditional written case studies to those presented as audio, video, one-page summaries, or Microsoft PowerPoint slides," the report states (page 9 sidebar).
It goes on to say...
"Small business buyers show a slight preference for one-page summaries when compared with mid-market and enterprise respondents, but even they prefer traditional written case studies over other formats."
That's good news for companies because high-quality video case studies can be expensive and usually require more logistics to pull off. And it's excellent news for writers looking to help companies create their customer stories.
Eccolo also revealed...
- Case studies are in the top three most consumed types of content. White papers again took the lead this year, followed by product brochures/data sheets. Detailed technology guides/implementation scenarios were tied with case studies in the #3 spot.
- In questions about the influence of case studies in the sales process, case studies were the second most influential type of content, behind white papers. Forty-eight percent said case studies are very or extremely influential. White papers and case studies even beat the old product brochure/data sheet!
- 56% of enterprise-level buyers used case studies to evaluate a purchase in the last six months. Twenty-three percent of small business buyers used them.
When are they used in the sales cycle?
- 22% first reviewed case studies during the pre-sales phase when they were not aware of their problems
- 35% reviewed them first during initial sales
- 32% during mid sales
- 11% during final sales
What else do buyers think?
- 71% of buyers consume vendor content on a mobile device. Short, digestible, easy-to-read formats aid in mobile consumption. (Perhaps create more than one version of a case study for easier mobile reading.)
- 62% receive vendor content via social channels. Oddly, Facebook is the top social media channel where buyers receive vendor content but respondents named LinkedIn the "most likely to consume" channel.
- 68% often or very often click links embedded in content for more information.
Whether you’re planning your company’s case study efforts for 2014 or you’re a writer assisting organizations with creating impactful content, check out the survey. It’s packed with valuable insight.
By Casey Hibbard
Before I started writing about technology as a business reporter, I had zero technical background. The closest I'd come to technology was a high school computer science class that I'd barely passed.
But this was different. I was writing about technology in layman's terms, not about the bits and bytes behind it. Still, I eased my way in slowly, like getting into a cold swimming pool.
Turns out, I should have jumped in, but it took time to build confidence that I could, in fact, write about technology. Pretty soon, I was the newspaper's tech columnist.
Now as a freelance marketing writer, 90 percent of my clients for customer case studies are technology companies.
So if you're going to write customer case studies, do you need to be technical? And if so, how technical?
Where’s the Work?
First, there is a market for case studies with companies/clients that are not technical. I recently wrote about what the freelance pie looks like in my December 2013 Tip of the Month.
A big piece of the pie is with tech companies, but a sizable part is not. There's a load of organizations that need to tell their stories through the examples of their happy customers: business-to-business (B2B) companies, business-to-consumer (B2C) organizations, nonprofits and more.
But if you open up your market to tech companies as well, you're nearly doubling the potential pool of clients. Don't be too quick to decide this market isn't for you. I've written for many tech companies over the years and the level of technical depth required varies widely. It comes down to the audience and subject matter.
Here are a few examples to help you sort through the types of technology projects out there...
1. Technology case studies where the audience is NOT technical - I've written quite a few case studies for customer relationship management (CRM) software where the end users are typically sales, marketing and customer service folks. As software, it is a technology product, but the audience doesn't really want to know about the technology. Readers want to know how another customer solves the same problems they are facing.
For these and similar clients, I found I didn't really need much technical knowledge at all. I needed to understand some product and industry lingo, but that was pretty simple.
2. Technology case studies where the audience is technical but it's still not that complex - Probably most of my work falls into this category. It's a technology product and the audience is technical, or it’s made up of business decision-makers AND technical people.
As an example, I've written many, many customer success stories on help desk/IT support software. The software is used by IT people within organizations to support employees or customers with resolving technical issues. It's just an application that IT people use to log an issue and keep track of it. In this case, I need to understand, again, problems and how the software solves them. But I don't need to know how the software works, the code behind it. I definitely need to know some industry lingo.
3. Technology for a super technical audience - This is the toughest and where I sometimes have to say, “no.” I have a few clients where the subject matter is fairly technical and the audience is VERY technical. For example, one client provides business intelligence software that other software companies embed in their products. Because of that, the audience needs to know quite a bit about the technology aspects of deployment, integration, compatibility, etc.
I take on these types of projects with careful consideration to ensure I will be able to interview and write effectively.
These are just three examples of types of tech projects. To evaluate a prospective client’s technology depth, here are a few steps:
• Review product/service information on the company's website and pay particular attention to previous case studies.
• Ask your contact who the audience is and what types of information prospects need to know.
• Ask your contact how technical the case studies should be. Perhaps the client only wants to focus on business results and leave more technical information for datasheets and white papers.
Every client is different. Take your time and scope it out. Don't assume you're not the right writer for a gig without conducting a little research.
But if you do decide to pass, don't beat yourself up about it. I have certainly referred potential clients to other writers when the subject matter wasn't a fit. Move on and focus on finding clients that are a better fit.
What's your experience of writing/not writing for tech clients?