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a case study for as long as the information is still relevant and not worry that four numbers will make the story sound outdated.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?
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?