Most business leaders have some idea of what a marketing case study is, but very few truly understand what they are, what makes them so compelling, or how to use them effectively for maximum impact. A well-crafted, well-timed case study is a conversion machine, especially in the B2B space, which explains their growing popularity among marketers.
Making the most of your case studies can be tricky, but once you understand what they are and how to use them, they will feel like a selling superpower.
Before we get to that, though, let’s take a quick look at the history of case studies and how they came to be such a popular marketing tool.
A Brief History
Case studies have been used in academia for almost two centuries as a viable research and teaching method, usually providing an in-depth look at a single subject of study.
Researchers have used them to publish their findings in formal academic journals, and more recently, collegiate professors have put students in decision-making roles using case studies as a means of teaching them how to devise and defend solutions to difficult problems.
In business, case studies have been used for at least 50 years, probably longer. The modern marketing case study is different in key ways from its scholastic predecessors. But, a compelling narrative is the core concept that all case studies share.
In marketing, however, the narrative is about one or more of your most successful customers. Characterizing their point of view is the key since you want prospective customers to see themselves in your case study subject and how they can be successful with your product or service.
Customer Success Stories vs. Case Studies
So, if a case study is a narrative, how is that different from a customer success story? Are they the same?
Not exactly, though many people use the terms interchangeably. And, as you might have guessed, deciding which to write depends largely on your intended audience.
Customer Success Stories
A customer success story is a brief summary of a single customer’s success with your company. They are usually less than two pages and do not provide a lot of specifics or technical details.
The audience for success stories is in the C-Suite or another high-level position within an organization. They don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of how your customer found success with you. They just need a short, convincing narrative that piques their interest.
A case study, on the other hand, is for those subject matter experts and technical leads that do want the details. Case studies should be very explicit, showing prospects the finer points of how and why one of your customers found success with you.
A marketing case study should probably run between 500 and 1200 words, though there is some flexibility on length if the story warrants it. Anything over 2000 words and you’re getting into white paper territory, so keep that in mind.
You want enough compelling content to convince those SMEs without overdoing it. Ideally, prospects should be able to read through your case studies in a few minutes.
The difference between a customer success story and a case study are the intended audience, the length, and the level of detail. Success stories are shorter, more general, and intended for executives. Case studies are longer, more detailed, and aimed at subject matter experts.
Types of Marketing Case Studies
Fundamentally, a case study is a story. A narrative. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and usually (though, not always) in that order. In fact, most modern marketing case studies are very similar in style and structure to magazine articles, complete with descriptive headlines, featured quotes, and sidebar summaries.
The crucial difference, of course, is that a case study is telling a decidedly biased story designed to convert prospects to clients and customers, and everything in it should be working toward that end.
The two types, traditional and journalistic, reach the same goal but take slightly different paths to get there.
The traditional case study format is a linear description of a company’s background, a problem they encountered, how they solved that problem with your company, and their results.
The headline and subheads typically describe the section, not the features, of the story. So, the background section is labeled Background, the problem section is labeled Problem, etc.
It usually does not present information out of turn, though it may have some modern design elements like featured quotes and sidebars.
Many companies have used the traditional case study format for decades and continue to do so, especially at the enterprise level. There are few frills and even less pizazz. The goal is simply to produce a straightforward story told in a straightforward format.
The journalistic case study, more so than its traditional cousin, borrows heavily from the typical feature article in a magazine. The headlines and subheads describe the narrative, and the prose is more engaging, utilizing copywriting and journalism techniques like set-ups, open loops, hooks, and powerful lead sentences.
This style has been very popular with smaller companies and startups for years since it has more of an edge to it. But, larger organizations are now moving toward the journalistic format, as well. The descriptive subheads make the piece more scannable, and the aforementioned writing techniques grab and captivate readers.
The main challenge with the journalistic method is finding a writer to pull it off. As with a feature article, writing a journalistic case study requires a more substantial skillset.
They also cost a bit more, but remember, the return on investment for a well-crafted case study is quite high, especially compared to other types of marketing collateral.
While large enterprises wanting to convey authority and gravitas may still be inclined to use the traditional case study format, the journalistic method is much more effective at engaging and converting prospects in most industries. A skilled writer is a must, though.
Who to Pick?
This part may seem obvious, and to an extent, it is. Your case study subject should be a customer that you are comfortable reaching out to, and someone that has found success with your company or service.
That’s the easy part.
The tricky part is finding a good story. At first blush, it might seem like anyone that meets the first two requirements is a good candidate. But, certain narrative elements need to be present to really make it a compelling case study. Start by asking yourself:
- What challenges did they overcome? Were they seemingly insurmountable?
- How long did it take them to find success?
- How integral was your company in that success?
- If interviewed, what would they say about you, your company, etc.?
Humans are biologically geared to key in on stories with high stakes, so a client with a unique or highly dramatic history is the ideal case study subject. Think about that and these questions as you research your customer base, and pick someone that will be a shining ambassador for other potential customers.
A good case study writer will be able to help you with this. They’ll know what story features will resonate best with your leads and should be able to assist in convincing your subject to participate in the project, as well.
When to Use Your Marketing Case Study
There are actually two answers here, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s quickly go through them.
Of course, right? You invested time and money into a professional case study, and you want to get it into as many hands as possible.
Setting up a case study page on your website and making all your pieces available for visitors is a great way to get them out there. You should also post them on all your company’s social media accounts and get your team to share them from theirs.
Making your success stories perpetually available is a good web strategy, but what about the prospects in your sales funnel? Is there an optimum time to send those leads something to close the deal?
The Evaluation Phase
Marketers will disagree on this, but in my opinion, the Evaluation Phase is the ideal time to deliver one of your case studies to a lead.
As a quick refresher, here are the phases of a sales funnel:
- Awareness Phase
- Interest Phase
- Evaluation Phase
- Purchase Phase
- Reevaluation Phase
- Repurchase Phase
In truth, you could argue for any of these phases being a good time to send an appropriate marketing case study. The Evaluation Phase is when you are being compared against your competitors, though. Prospective clients and customers are looking for differentiation at this stage, and a story about one of their peers finding success with you can be the deciding factor.
At this point, you should have a solid understanding of case studies and customer success stories. While there is certainly more to learn, you should be able to tell the difference between the different types of case studies and recognize who among your customers might be ideal candidates for a piece.
In our next post, we’ll get into more detail on the anatomy of case studies and customer success stories, and what makes for a compelling sales narrative. See you then.
Case Study Scribe is a B2B marketing agency specializing in case studies, customer success stories, and white papers. To find out more about how you can leverage your customers’ successes to grow your business, email us or go to casestudyscribe.com to get started.