A few years ago, high on the belief in the power of customer success stories, I set out to create some of my own.
I’d already created hundreds of case studies for others, so why wouldn’t I create my own to show the value of working with me?
The “why not?” became immediately apparent when, during phone interviews, I unexpectedly felt uncomfortable asking my own clients about their experiences with me.
Sure, I was inquiring about their positive experiences, but still, it was strange for both of us. And I believe they were less forthcoming with quotes and information than they would have been if I’d partnered with a writer friend to do this for me.
I might as well have said, “Tell me how great I am!” No one likes to be a part of that.
I went on and wrote the case studies, but vowed never to interview my own customers again.
Get Some Distance
Case studies are not objective pieces of journalism. They are clearly produced by a vendor to showcase a positive experience.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t engage a neutral party to interview and write your case studies. A third party adds a critical measure of distance between the vendor and the customer, and encourages the customer to open up and share in a way they wouldn’t with someone they are closer to.
Many of us are more willing to pay for the chance to tell a therapist more intimate information than we would tell our closest friends.
And in the case of case studies, giving and receiving praise directly makes some of us shift in our seats.
Get Over Hang Ups
I understand why many organizations – and often those closest to the customer – interview their own customers:
1. They know the customer’s background and the solutions being featured.
2. They want to protect valued relationships.
3. Third parties cost more than using internal resources.
I get all those reasons, but believe the value that third-party interviews provide outweighs them. Someone else can learn the customer’s background and subject matter well enough to interview and write about them. Client relationship “owners” can still sit on customer interviews if they really choose, but customers open up more if they don’t. It’s just 30-60 minutes of time, and reps can be part of the rest of the process.
It’s true that a third party costs more than using internal resources for interviews, but the payoff is usually in more candid interviews. At a minimum, get a marketing contact within the company to conduct interviews – not sales or account reps.
So back away from your customers – at least when it comes to conducting case study interviews!
It's 9 a.m. and your sales rep is preparing for a big meeting with a hot prospect in two hours. The rep is building a PowerPoint with all the key differentiators about your company.
What examples can she share of current customer successes?
Although she's got a good written customer case study that fits the prospect's situation, she needs a slide to represent it.
In most cases, the sales rep has to stop and craft a slide with the key points – and many do. I’ve seen multiple examples of such slides, quickly created by the sales rep.
But slides created individually by reps don’t always follow a consistent format, and they aren’t available as common assets for all reps to use.
Instead, make it easy for your sales reps. Include ready-to-go slides in their toolkit of sales support assets.
Then, they can simply grab a slide that fits the prospect they're approaching.
What to Include
On your summary slide, include...
• Your branding
• An engaging, results-oriented headline
• The featured customer's logo
• 8 to 10 short bullets that cover Challenge, Solution and Results
• A customer quote, if there's space
Tip: Make this slide creation nearly turnkey by including the same bullets in the sidebar summary that are on the written case study or in the web summary, and then copy and paste them into your slide.
Voila! You have your slide ready for the rep to grab for that 11 a.m. meeting.
Here's an example:
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?