About 10 years ago, I wrote my first customer case study – and it was love at first write.
I found case study writing perfectly suited to my background, skills and interests.
But I know not everyone loves this type of copywriting as much as I do.
If you can relish the great aspects and don’t mind a few drawbacks, you just might be cut out for case study writing:
You like journalism-style writing/storytelling
Do you get energized about writing compelling stories? Customer case studies and success stories follow journalism style more than just about any other style of copywriting (except article writing).
That means written without a lot of spin or corporate speak, with an emphasis on customer quotes. It’s about recounting true experiences in truly interesting ways.
You have a knack for interviewing
Every customer story requires at least one to two interviews, if not more. You interview internal folks for background and then customers to collect details of their experiences.
The best case study writers know how to ask questions that elicit the desired response, and can respond dynamically during interviews with follow-up questions that go deeper – all while making interview subjects feel at ease.
You enjoy working mostly virtually
Whether you freelance or work for a company, you’ll be working virtually much of the time. Even if your client or company is local to you, chances are, their customers are not.
You’ll need to be on the phone for much of the information gathering.
You can deal with project delays
Customer case studies aren’t like other projects – because they involve customers. With a brochure, white paper or web copy, a company can start whenever they are ready.
Getting case studies done depends on customers’ availability and responsiveness, and that can take a while! So, they don’t necessarily happen when you expect or want them to. Sometimes you have to wait…
You aren’t afraid to write about technology
Customer stories are becoming more and more mainstream. Companies outside the technology industry are adding them to their marketing.
But much of the work is still for technology product and service providers. You don’t always need to understand HOW a product works, but you do need to understand the benefits of technology products (a big difference).
You have a working environment without noise or interruptions
This one can be tough, I know. I’m home-based and have a big German shepherd that likes to let me know when any postal/UPS carrier, neighbor or squirrel passes by.
BUT when I’m on a call with clients or their customers, she’s outside or tucked away. My clients know that I’m interacting by phone, conducting and recording interviews, and expect nothing less than a quiet, professional environment.
Their customers often assume I’m in the company’s offices. When I’m on a call with customers, I know I need to get the information without interruption because it can be hard to reach the customer again.
That’s my list.
Case study writers out there, speak up. What would you add?
I adore airports.
Sure, they're big, busy and the source of a lot of stress and frustration at times. But they're also endlessly interesting.
I got a firsthand, daily view during three summer stints in high school and college as a passenger services aid ("wheelchair girl") at the massive Dallas/Ft. Worth airport.
Among people coming and going from every direction in the world, there were tearful family reunions, health emergencies, celebrities, weather scares, and all the usual yelling that delays induce. The drama never stopped.
That's why I'm excited to hear about a new airport storytelling project at London's Heathrow.
It's a risky, uncontrolled approach to capturing customer stories. Heathrow has hired a writer, a successful author, to spend a week in the airport collecting passenger stories.
The catch: The writer asked to be able to write about whatever he sees.
The stories will go into a book published next month, to be handed out to passengers.
It's an interesting approach. Instead of controlled customer stories to enhance public perception, the airport is pulling back the curtain to let the stories be told as they may. Pretty bold!
I still feel like the airport has veto power over what's published. They hired the writer after all.
What do you think? Smart PR move or too risky?
Customer case studies play several roles - credibility, education, and last but not least, validation.
Prospects need to see the specific value that a product or service delivered. Ideally, that's measurable.
But for a case study to be effective with the intended audience, you have to present metrics in a way that matters to them.
1. First, identify what metrics mean the most to your prospects. Ask some of your current customers.
Once you understand this, craft your interview questions to elicit these specific metrics. Ask before-and-after questions to help customers measure improvements.
2. Decide how to present metrics
Dollar amounts do not carry the same value for all prospects. For example, an annual cost-savings of $30,000 is likely very significant for a small business. But those numbers probably don't impress a midsize to larger organization.
If you're trying to keep case studies versatile for multiple audiences, then it makes sense to represent return on investment (ROI) data in more universal terms.
Instead of $30,000 in annual savings, instead we could say the company reduced its staffing costs by 15 percent.
3. Negotiate with customers
You may have a specific way that you'd like to represent ROI, but your customer isn't comfortable with that. Discuss with the featured customer how they are willing to show their results. That might be in dollar amounts, in percentages or in factors of (twice as, one-third of...).
As with many aspects of a customer case study, it's all about balancing the information you need to deliver to your audience with what your customer is willing to share.
Every year, Bike to Work Day - where I live - takes place at the end of June. This year, it's this Wednesday.
And every year, the local newspaper covers the event. Same event, year after year. So, how does the newspaper make it interesting and different to readers?
It's all about the angle, or slant, of their stories on the topic.
This year, the local paper decided to focus on three "extreme commuters," people who bike as many as 25 miles each way every day to work. The story highlights who they are and why they do it.
I wouldn't have read a staid story about numbers of participants or locations of breakfast stations, but I did read this interesting twist on the annual event. Like any good stories, it also put people behind the facts.
It's just one example of the power of a story angle.
Pick an Angle
Customer case studies and success stories are just the same. For any story you create, you have to choose the angle that will maximize the mileage, whether that's for lead gen, sales or PR, or all.
As you create a diverse mix of case studies to support your goals, pursue a variety of angles.
For example, I manage case studies for a software company where the benefits include regulatory compliance, network security and internal IT efficiency. The best angle for each story is where the goal and the customer's experience meet in the middle.
In developing each case study, here's how to ID your angle:
- Who's your audience and what do they care about? Or, what are their "pains?"
- What angles are most compelling to your audience?
- What is the featured customer's actual experience/results?
- How do you plan to use the story and what angles are most effective for those purposes?
Considering these factors, pinpoint your ideal angle and emphasize it throughout - from the headline to the sidebar call-out to the main benefit the customer experienced.
If you're making full use of a customer's success story, you're telling that story in multiple places - case studies, success stories, press releases, videos, webinars, white papers, and more.
Most likely, more than one person is involved in creating content with the customer's story. If you're not careful, the customer will be asked the same questions again and again.
That's why it's critical to approach the customer in an organized way with the goal of minimizing the customer's time. Ideally, that means one "power" interview to get all the details you need.
Right now, I'm working on a case study project where the customer will also be featured in a white paper. Instead of two separate interviews, the white paper writer and I are teaming up for a single interview to collect all the information we need for our respective projects.
The alternative - two separate interviews in a single week, with duplicate questions - would likely be very annoying for the customer.
To take best practices a step further, retain the raw transcript, audio or video for any future uses of the customer's story to ensure you don't need to engage more of the customer's time unless absolutely necessary.
In short, always make sure you're gathering the customer's story with an eye toward broader usage. When possible, knock it out with one power interview.
For other ways to keep customers happy during the case study process, check out Michele Linn's great recent post, Handle with Care: 10 Tips on Interacting with Case Study Customers.