Case Studies 101
Your customers are your greatest asset – their stories are the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal. When they tell the world how they benefit from your products and services, people listen. Case studies can intrigue, inform, inspire, and ultimately convert.
But what goes into a case study? How do you find the right customer? What’s the best format? Here are some case study basics to get you started.
Find the right customer
Everybody loves a good story. When you’re looking for a customer to profile, seek out intriguing stories of transformation and success. If possible, find customers that were able to change the way they do business for the better, or customers that significantly improved their lives using your product or service.
Stories should be relatable to a target audience. Find customers in your largest or most successful verticals. If you can, pick people with large social networks or influencers that’ll catch some attention. Smaller or unknown customers can have intriguing stories, but big names will draw more readers.
Should you offer a discount to customers who agree to do a case study?
That’s up to you. In most cases it’s good business to give customers some swag (branded gifts from your company) when the case study is completed. Other discounts or deals are at your discretion.
Pick your format
Long-form written, short-form or video? There are many ways to tell a great customer story and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Think about your audience and what they’d like. If you’re selling to busy entrepreneurs, then short-form written pieces or quick video clips may be best. If your sales process is long and involved, an information-rich, long-form written case study may be just what you need.
Also think about your own in-house expertise and the cost of production. Video case studies can cost thousands to produce while a written case study can be penned for much less. If you‘ve got a writer in house, good. If not, hire one. A poorly written (or poorly produced) case study takes as much time to construct as a good one, but won’t garner the same results. And – a poor case study is a waste of your customer’s good will.
Here are a few common formats:
Short-form written—A quick case study that concisely tells your customer’s story and lists concrete results. Typically published online as a blog post or within a “customers” section on your company website.
Long-form written—A longer, detail-rich case study that includes multiple sources, quotes, and details about business metrics. Typically published as a printable PDF and made available via a download button on your site or distributed among your sales team as collateral.
Short-form video—Short (1-minute or less) video of your customer telling their story and describing their success. Short videos can be as simple as your customer addressing the camera in a well-lit room, or footage of your customer at work with a clear voiceover.
Long-form video—A longer (5-minutes or more) case study that includes footage of your customers at work, multiple subjects and even motion graphics.
Ask the right questions
All case studies should cover the basics:
- Who your customer is,
- What they do,
- How they do it, and
- How they’ve been successful using your product or service.
When formulating your questions, remember the basics of journalism: Who, what, when, where and why. Also be sure to ask for concrete results and metrics, such as:
- What giant painful problem did they solve?
- How much time did your customer save?
- How much money?
- What were they able to accomplish using your product or service?
- What did they accomplish that could not have been done any other way?
- What are the before-and-after numbers?
Get lots of details and don’t be afraid to ask your questions more than once to get clear answers. Ask permission to record the interview, so you can focus on having a great conversation – not on taking good notes.
Tell the story
Case study stories can have many twists and turns, but all are told in three main acts:
Challenge—What challenges were your customer facing? How did those challenges affect them? What did they try to do to overcome them?
Solution—Your product or service. Tell the reader/watcher how your product/service solved the problems outlined above.
Results—The concrete business (or personal) results of using your product or service. Details and business metrics should be included here.
Remember to get permission from your customers to publish. Find a standard legal release form that gives you permission to publish and distribute your customer’s story how you see fit. It may sound like a lot to ask from your customer, but remember that you’re offering free press for them and their business.
You can have the greatest case studies ever written, but they won’t help your business if nobody reads them. Promotion is key to any successful case study strategy. Promote your stories via social media, in customer email newsletters, at business conferences – any way you can. Let your sales people know about them, especially if they’re selling into the same vertical.
It helps to have influential customers who are able and willing to spread the word for you. If your case study subject has a large following, ask them to Tweet a link to their story to all their friends and colleagues.
You can also promote your case studies through your PR contacts. Send your case study to a list of industry publications that may be interested. They could request an interview with your customer, to tell the story their own way, or they might publish it just as you send it to them. Even if they don’t republish your story, those trade industry editors may share the stories in their own networks.
Once you’ve published and promoted your case study, take the time to reuse it.
- Break it up into smaller sections to be used on other parts of your website.
- Pull quotes for one-line testimonials; use them on your website and in eBooks, or in presentations.
- Condense it to a one-page story that can be distributed at trade shows or at sales meetings.
Get creative. Your customers’ stories can be told over and over again and used in multiple circumstances.
You’ve put a lot of time, energy, effort and money into telling their stories. Make sure they’re effective marketing materials for your business.
It also helps to make sure you are using this materials in the correct stage of your content plan. Check out Act-On’s 4 Step Content Plan Guide, to see where you can effectively use case studies in your content strategy.