"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?
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?