I’m sorry to tell you this, but your marketing has a credibility problem.
You’re not the only business facing this challenge. Potential customers distrust nearly all marketing. Why? When promoting ourselves, we usually make a lot of promises, and prospects don’t know whether we’re living up to those promises. For that, they need objective, outside opinions.
Think about it this way: when you’re planning a special-occasion meal out, do you trust the restaurant’s claim that they serve the best steak in town? Or do you ask around among your family and friends, and do your homework on Yelp to learn about the experiences others have had at the restaurant? The more expensive the meal (and the more important the occasion) the more likely you are to dig for objective viewpoints.
That’s why prospects considering your products and services need to hear the stories of your happiest customers. And I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t just use customer case studies, you should lead with those customer stories. A few organizations do just that.
Here are several companies dedicating the most valuable space on their websites – the home page – to showcasing customer stories.
It doesn’t get better than this. Microsoft featured two bug scientists on Microsoft.com: “Kristie and Jessica of The Bug Chicks – two entomologists dedicated to teaching kids all about insects, spiders, and other arthropods.”
Microsoft is continuously changing its home page content, so this story – which ran a few days ago – has been replaced by others.
This billion-dollar, global communications company last week featured a series of healthcare customer stories as the marquee content right on the home page.
Dramatic image, no? And way more engaging than some boilerplate product description. This is not an interior page on Adobe’s site; this is what you see when you go right to Adobe.com (as of go-live with this post). Here we see Deadpool from a new Marvel Comics feature film, cut using Adobe Creative Cloud.
Honorable Mention – Stories below the Fold
While very few sites run a customer story as the top feature, a number of companies still include customers on the home page. The following are admirable examples of showcasing customers “below the fold” but still on valuable first-page real estate.
What’s the Payoff?
It’s no small decision choosing what to run on the company’s home page, with many types of messages and content vying for that spot. I have heard from at least one organization that making case studies more visible does increase traffic to case studies, naturally. But does it increase leads and sales? Only these organizations know their backend stats. If these bottom-line focused companies continue this practice, then it’s likely beneficial for them.
Feature a Range of Customers
How do you feature customer stories on the home page? Today’s websites run screenwide lead images, and many organizations struggle with how to fill that space. Instead of a stock image, choose an image from your customer’s actual environment.
Be sure to showcase diverse customers; rotate stories across vertical industries, geographies, solutions featured and sizes of customers.
Your Customer’s Story = Your Story
As I rummaged around online for examples such as these (and had fun doing it), I found that nearly every site kicks off with marketing language and information about its products or vision. Many start with Our Story, which usually recounts the history and mission.
Customers are your stars, your heroes on the ground. Why not lead with your customer ambassadors? They are what prospects believe most.
A few years ago, I delightfully observed as a client started a customer advocacy program. What’s that, you might ask? It’s an effort to go beyond one-off case studies and reference calls to engage with customers who are willing to serve as advocates for your products and services in a variety of ways.
The new program didn’t disappoint: My client grew named customer case studies by 50%, customer participation in speaking engagements to 164% of goal, and customer participation in media interviews by 650%.
To clarify, these are all outcomes where the happy customer went on record – publicly – to share the story about their success. Impressive.
Why Your Business Needs an Advocacy Program
If you follow this space, then you probably already know that satisfied customers – willing to talk about their experiences – are one of your greatest marketing assets. They’re way more believable than your marketing promises.
But ideally, a customer’s praise isn’t limited to a single case study. Today, savvy organizations are pursuing “customer advocacy” (what used to be called customer referencing).
Customer (or brand) advocates are five times more valuable than average customers because they spend more on your products. And they do even more: they willingly promote your products to others. And those recommendations carry a lot of weight.
Advocates are two to three times more effective than non-advocates in persuading people to make a purchase, and that’s good news for your business. A good advocacy program has a distinct effect on your company’s bottom line: a 12% increase in advocacy yields a 2x increase in revenue growth rate.*
How Advocates Engage with Your Business
Advocates might support your organization by speaking one-one-one with prospects, starring in videos, presenting at industry conferences or webinars, speaking to the media, joining an advisory board, or sharing their stories for awards programs.
If you simply ask for a single advocacy activity, you limit the relationship’s potential. I’ve seen individual contacts at customer organizations richly rewarded in their OWN organizations and industries with promotions and accolades after the exposure gained from presenting at conferences, participating in case studies and videos, speaking to the media and/or participating in industry awards - all facilitated by a vendor's advocacy program.
Starting Your Advocacy Program
But if you’re a smaller organization, how do you begin the first steps of customer advocacy with no dedicated budget?
For answers, I turned to Barbara Thomas of Creative Tactics. Barbara has spent years working in customer advocacy and is the author of the forthcoming book, Advocate Marketing: Strategies for Building Buzz, Leveraging Customer Satisfaction and Creating Relationships.
“If you want more than the occasional one-off case study or want a list of go-to customers for references to support your sales, then you want an advocate marketing program,” she says. “With zero to little budget as a small organization, you can start a sustainable advocate marketing program that will help create extraordinary content. All you need is a surveying tool, Excel spreadsheet or CRM, and about 8 hours periodically from an organized staffer to work on the project.”
Here are Barbara’s tips to move forward on your advocate marketing effort:
1. Plan – Brainstorm with sales, product marketing/management, IT and the web site manager and other relevant team members to determine what information is already captured about customers and what processes can be automated easily.
2. Run customer surveys – Surveys can help identify customers that might be promoters and then advocates, and possibly even elicit some content, such as testimonials.
“The results of your survey should provide you with several customer testimonials ready to be shared publicly, a list of reference customers, and a list of content marketing candidates willing to engage in various valued activities for your organization,” Barbara says.
From this point, you can estimate the budget or resources to ask for to secure the new content from your pool of respondents.
3. Create communications – You’ll want a few tools and templates such as follow-up notes, thank-you and engagement emails, voice mail scripts, and FAQs for internal staff and customers about advocacy opportunities.
“Make the communication as personal as possible, but still in a cookie-cutter format,” Barbara says. “I know that concept is an oxymoron but inserting data fields helps to personalize and is easy to do.”
4. Organize it – While there are very cool tools nowadays for organizing customer advocates, you can begin with your CRM application or Excel.
5. Measure results – Lastly, if you want more resources for your program, you have to show the outcome. Your first step is likely measuring quantity. What were your goals in terms of advocacy activity? Did you generate more of it – more videos, case studies, calls, event attendance and more?
Social media and web traffic stats make it easier to measure the impressions that advocacy content generated. What traffic can you tie to advocacy-related posts?
For the more advanced, the next step would be tying activity to leads, sales and revenue, which even more sophisticated programs struggle to do.
If all this sounds overwhelming, simply start at the beginning and take it step by step. It’s what numerous organizations have done, many of which now have funded advocacy programs.
When it comes to customer case studies, there is a worst-case scenario. You can spend a healthy sum and 1-2 days’ worth of work crafting a beautiful tale of a customer’s positive experience with a product or service.
Then, slam. The project hits a brick wall when it reaches the customer. Case study approval can take weeks, or months. Or worse, the customer declines to approve it at all.
Nearly all seasoned marketers and case study writers have a horror-story of this sort to share. But fortunately, the instance of this happening is declining. Here’s why:
• Better prep on the front end
• Fewer hurdles on the back end
Better Prep on the Front End
Surprises are lovely, such as an unexpected visit from a friend or flowers from a loved one.
But customers usually don’t like surprises in the form of a case study that hardly anyone knew was in the works. The customer contact you interviewed may have agreed and participated in the process, yet he or she may not have the authority to consent to use the story.
Often, a higher-level manager, or legal or PR person within the company, must give the green light to participate. If those folks don’t know the case study is coming, and SURPRISE, there it is, then you’re hurting your chances of getting approval.
Instead, when you ask for permission to feature a customer, go beyond the interviewee. Find out who will ultimately need to give their blessing. These folks like to be consulted and possibly even involved in the interviews and messaging early on.
If everyone expects the case study, you’re being collaborative and upping the possibility of approval.
Fewer Hurdles on the Back End
Fifteen years ago, the average legal release form for a case study was 2-3 pages long and filled with legalese such as herewith, indemnify and duly executed. Customers regularly pushed back on wording, or rejected them altogether - killing the project.
Today, like long-distance calling costs, the average legal release is a fraction of what it used to be. And in fact, for most organizations, it’s no longer a form, but some simply worded email text.
What a difference it has made. Asking customers to provide consent to use a case study via email has dramatically shortened the approval process. Anecdotally, not scientifically, it’s probably cut approval times by 75 percent in my experience.
Not having a legal document that needs an actual signature means that the case study (usually) bypasses the inbox of a legal professional altogether. Instead, it’s more likely to go to a manager or PR person, the latter of which really wants to say yes to positive PR for the organization.
What to Put in Your Email Text
Companies using email approvals today follow these best practices…
1. Keep it short – 2-3 paragraphs at most.
2. State the type of material it is (case study), and how it will be used in broad terms (“in electronic or paper format”).
3. Include the approval text in the body of the email and attach the case study draft for approval.
4. Ask the customer to reply indicating agreement with the text, “I agree.”
The approach above is one I see used in increasingly more organizations today, with success – even in global, public companies. Week after week, I see this method proven.
A little prep work and simple processes will help your case studies sail over approval hurdles.
By some cruel twist of fate, I have a restricted diet. No dairy for me, and right now, no wheat. So I have to find alternatives, and often those alternatives are lesser-than versions of favorite meals.
I can have a hamburger, but only without the cheese and bun. You can't really call that a hamburger, can you? I can eat cake, but it tastes odd without conventional flour – and there's no icing!
It's just not the same. I'm left feeling disappointed and unsatisfied.
That's exactly how you may be leaving your prospects when you produce customer case studies without a key ingredient - interviewing the customer.
In a customer case study, the customer interview is, in fact, the icing on the cake - it adds essential flavor, texture and the experience the customer expects.
Why Customer Interviews are a Pain
I get it, it's easier, and sometimes necessary, to create customer stories without customer interviews for a variety of reasons:
(A) The case study will be unnamed anyway, so you're not involving the customer
(B) You don't want to bother the customer with an interview so you source it from internal account reps' knowledge
(C) You're in a hurry to get it done for an event or other need, and an interview and approval will take too long
(D) The customer said no to being featured and/or interviewed
(E) All of the above
So you move forward with a customer story that fills the need, but likely doesn't maximize your message.
Why Your Case Study Needs Customer Interviews
If your prospects take the time to read or view a case study, give them their money's worth. Here's where you may be letting them down...
1. The “before” story: It’s important to highlight the specific “before” experience a customer had, so you can contrast it with the current, better reality. This helps prospects also associate and say, yes, that’s a challenge we’re having too! While account managers may have some insight into this, the rich detail about pains and challenges, and the juicy quotes, can only really come from the customer.
2. The “why”: Why did another customer choose to work with a certain vendor, over other options? Peel back the lid on how others have made decisions, which helps prospects make the decision as well. This has been shown to be one of the most insightful parts of a customer case study.
3. Areas of impact: You may know some of the details about specific outcomes for the customer, but you probably can't name all of them. Countless times, I've gone into customer interviews expecting them to list certain benefits, but in fact, they stress other benefits altogether, or have a much longer list than what the account rep mentioned before the call. If we had relied on internal information only, the story would have carried a fraction of the power.
But what if your situation is A, B, C, D or E from the list up top?
You do your best, but I can tell you from experience that relationships help. During and after delivery and deployment of your products and services, maintain close ties to the customer. With your happiest and most successful customers, establish a mutually beneficial arrangement. The customer can participate in customer reference activities, such as case studies, in exchange for things they value, such as positive publicity for the company’s or individual’s efforts, networking with peers, or the chance to showcase their best practices at events.
It’s literally, a case by case basis on what will motivate a customer to participate and be interviewed for a case study. Find it and speak to that.
It also doesn’t hurt to stress that it will only take 30-60 minutes of a customer’s time – total.
Ultimately, you can't read the customer's mind. For the sake of creating the most meaningful stories for your marketing, don't try! Instead, draw out rich, first-hand information directly from customers. Your prospects will appreciate that additional icing to the story.
At age 16, I walked into my small town's local newspaper and asked if I could write for them. The owner had no staff writers, and she agreed to turn me loose on a story.
I wrote about a local business and went on to write about many more. At the time, I regularly studied good writing, in school and in everything I read.
Twenty-six years later, I still write about businesses, now as a case study copywriter. But while I have been working IN writing, I haven't always worked ON my writing.
Daily writing is only part of improving as a writer. You also need conscious effort and external influences - worthy examples and honest peer feedback - to move forward.
It's just in the past couple of years that I have started working on my writing again. I study how news and feature stories are written. I analyze other copywriting. And I'm taking a writing class this fall.
I also took the step of getting feedback on the occasional case study from a seasoned magazine and book author - and my writing immediately improved. How? I learned I was leaving out a big ingredient that would make my writing more interesting: details.
Mental Pics for Readers
Over the past year, I've written 20 or so success stories on copywriters trained by American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI). In showing the evolution of their writing careers, I discovered countless opportunities for detail.
Instead of saying, "She's been writing since she was a child," I learned to say, "She started writing horse stories in her Hello Kitty notebook in third grade."
I could say, "She did odd jobs to make ends meet," or "She organized shoes at Macy's and spun Blizzards at Dairy Queen."
See how detail takes a statement from "telling" to crafting a picture for the reader?
What about Tech Case Studies?
In case studies about technology, adding detail doesn't mean more technical detail. Leave those in Tech Specs boxes on the website or in data sheets, not within a narrative. Keep a customer case study focused on the customer's experience.
In a tech case study, adding detail looks something like this:
“It took marketing teams days or weeks to pull all the data they needed for a campaign.”
Instead of this...
“Marketing teams were slow to get campaigns out the door.”
“The school upgraded its entire computer lab for one-third the cost it would have spent on traditional PCs.”
Instead of this...
The school upgraded its computer lab for significantly less cost compared to traditional PCs.”
In a recent case study I wrote for a large B2B company, I included numerous details about the featured customer, a sports stadium:
- How many people packed the stadium for its biggest-ever event
- The number of photographers and journalists in attendance
- How slow Internet previously forced journalists to go inside to transmit their photos and stories
- How much VIP guests paid for their tickets
- Who won the game!
It's in the details that stories fully form and remain in readers' minds.
What details can you add to your writing - today?