A case study is a marketing tool that can help businesses convince potential customers that their offering delivers results and has proven itself in the rough-and-tumble marketplace. Case studies are becoming more important as customers increasingly favor social media, mobile and other digital channels over in-person communications, says Robbe Hecht, a New York City marketing professional and Baruch College adjunct marketing professor who hosts the brandhackers meetup and business blog.
"People will physically see less of each other, so case studies become the authentic endorsement of the company through the eyes of the user customer," Hecht says.
What Makes a Good Case Study
You've probably seen a fair share of case studies from a variety of industries. But there's more to creating an effective case study than just presenting positive customer testimonials.
"Most companies construct their case studies with an inward focus, making their product or service the hero," says Lou Hoffman, founder of The Hoffman Agency communications consultancy in San Jose.
However, portraying the problem-plagued customer—and not the solution—as the hero of the tale can lead to effective case studies. In addition to a customer-centric narrative, case studies that include measurable metrics describing the success can help increase a case study's effectiveness. Ideally, a case study will convince a prospect that your business is more partner than vendor.
"Be specific and concrete," says Arthur Germain, principal at the Communication Strategy Group, a brand storytelling agency in Smithtown, New York. "Whenever possible, use actual numbers, including cost savings, revenue gains, sales growth, return on investment and total cost of ownership or lifetime value."
—Arthur Germain, principal, Communication Strategy Group
Germain also suggests portraying much more than just a single example of a problem and its solution in case studies. "A customer success story should showcase a relationship that brings mutual benefits," he says.
When crafting a case study, using language that fits the audience's knowledge level can be beneficial and reduce any barriers to understanding. It also helps to know who the case study's audience is. If the intended audience consists of a team drawn from different departments such as information systems and finance, consider defining function-specific terms on first reference.
"You should avoid sales language as well as your own internal company terminology," Germain adds.
Finding and Using Case Studies
Customer quotes naturally reside at the heart of any good case study, but not just any quote will do. "Good case studies have unique authentic quotes from customers, preferably in audio/video formats [and] in socially shareable formats," Hecht of brandhackers says.
And when it comes time to actually getting customer quotes, consider having a few options on hand in case a client does not want to appear in the case study.
"Often, even when a customer is thrilled with what they've achieved with your product or service, they may be reluctant to share data and financial metrics about their business for competitive reasons, thus weakening your case study," says John Reese, senior vice president of marketing for Irvine, California, SaaS firm Mavenlink.
Also, Reese adds, larger companies may have restrictions on how their brand names are used that can make it difficult to employ them in case studies.
One place to look for potential case studies may be among customers who are already talking about you.
"They may have shared positive sentiment with an employee, in a survey or via a reference call, or they may have tweeted positively about you, or posted a glowing review on a review site," Reese says. "Start there."
To help case studies stay relevant for a longer term, some businesses systematically identify customer success stories that exemplify common problems in their target markets and highlight their offering's ability to solve them. "Start by putting a process in place to catalogue existing stories against target industries and top challenges, and then identify gaps that new case studies can fill in," Reese advises.
Once a case study is created, it can be shared through all marketing channels from websites and blogs to social media and email. "Consider re-purposing customer quotes from your case studies to support presentations, web pages and signage," Reese says. "Make sure your sales organization has access to and knows how to use each case study to help the buyer along the process."
While identifying, recruiting, recounting and effectively communicating a good customer case study can appear daunting, the likely impact of the actual case study can often be readily seen.
"A good customer success story should be indistinguishable from a good article in your industry's most read publication," Germain says.
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