The written case study is the WD-40 of B2B marketing tools.
It’s been around forever, it’s not exactly glamorous, and it’s popular for one simple reason. It works. (Regularly lubricating those narrow few inches at the base of the sales and marketing funnel.)
The power of the case study is easy to understand. What’s more persuasive than learning how a company has helped someone just like you? And helped them so much, they’ll sign up to tell the world about it?
But some case studies are way more powerful than others. Because – let’s be clear about this – writing a genuinely brilliant case study is tough.
You need 100% commitment from your company and the customer. You need above average interviewing and writing skills.
And, of course, you need the magic formula…
Prologue: the case study formula
Unlike a can of WD-40, what goes into a case study is far from a trade secret. As Radix’s glorious leader explained in a recent B2B Copy Chat, the basic formula is simple:
Usual formula is: 1. the challenge 2. the solution 3. the benefits 4. glowing customer quote 🙂 #b2bcopychat https://t.co/phLlUhElXB
— Fiona Campbell-Howes (@patroclus) October 4, 2016
You can mess with the order of these elements, but unless you’re writing for a particularly iconoclastic brand, you’ll save yourself both time and trauma by leaving well alone.
This flow is natural and chronological, and provides a solid structure for everything from your interview questions to your first draft.
Chapter one: getting the background
Track down the best person talk to about the case study. This will usually be the customer’s main point of contact with your company.
Arrange a quick call with them to discuss:
- What the customer does
- What the customer bought
- What they think the case study should focus on
- Who you should talk to at the customer company, and what their job entails
- Where the case study will be published
- If there’s an existing template you need to work to
You’ll also want to establish who’ll attend the call with the customer, and who will lead.
Your ideal scenario is as follows:
- You will lead the call. You’ve a short time to get all the information you need to write this thing. Plus, it’s important to have the freedom to go off-script if you suddenly spot a great new angle on the story.
- Only the customer (and you) will attend. In our heart of hearts, we all know the quality of a telephone call is inversely proportional to the number of people on the line.
By the time you’re done, you should have a basic understanding of the ‘solution’ part of your case study – i.e. what was sold, when, and how, be it a product, service, or combination of both.
This won’t just help you prepare for the customer call, it’ll let you focus on the stuff that only they can tell you.
Chapter two: writing your questions
Remember the other three bits of the formula? The challenge the customer was facing, the benefits (how the solution solved those challenges – and then some!) and the customer’s overwhelmingly positive feelings about the whole experience?
Put together a list of open questions, designed to give the customer ample chance to talk to each of these subjects.
Always prepare more questions that you think you’ll have time for, and always prioritise, aiming to cover the most essential points early on. (If you need extra inspiration, my colleague George has some excellent advice on weird-but-powerful questions, many of which can be used to great effect in a case study interview.)
Chapter three: talking to the customer
Q2 What is the most important part of a case study to get right? #b2bcopychat pic.twitter.com/APreWJNP5C
— Radix Communications (@radixcom) October 4, 2016
A2) IMO initial client interview is important. Thoughts? #b2bcopychat
— Jason Stockwell (@jj_stockwell) October 4, 2016
Yes, Jason. A thousand times, yes. In these thirty or so minutes, the case study’s potential for greatness will be decided.
The material you gather from the customer will dictate how much – or little – you can achieve at your keyboard later on.
Here’s how to run the call.
- Arrive first – you’re representing yourself and the brand, if you work for an agency, and leaving a customer hanging is always less than professional
- Greet the customer warmly when they join, and introduce yourself
- Recap the purpose of the call
- Check how long the customer has (and reprioritise your questions accordingly)
- Ask if you can record the call, and assuming they agree, set your recorder rolling
- Work through your questions – keeping an ear open for answers that suggest further questions, and an eye on the clock
- Mentally – or literally – tick off the formula elements as you cover them
- Press for concrete results (e.g. how much money has the solution already saved the customer? How much faster, in hours, days or weeks, can they now do the thing they do? How many extra people would they need to do this stuff manually? Etc.)
- Ask any bonus questions that have occurred to you during your conversation
- Wrap things up by thanking the customer for their time, and assuring them they’ll get to review a draft of the story before it’s published
(If you want more interviewing tips, you’ll find plenty here.)
Chapter four: writing the damn thing
You know how you work best. I always create an outline of the case study first – with sections based on the magic formula – and listen back to my recording of the call, filling in the gaps as I go.
Here are some classic best practices to guide you as you type…
Lead with your biggest result
Your headline has to capture attention, and sell the rest of the piece. Unless it really doesn’t fit with the story you’re trying to tell, be sure to put your most concrete, most impressive result front and centre. (e.g. ‘How Radix learned to write blinding B2B copy 160x faster.’)
Make the customer the hero, but keep the business case clear
A great case study pulls of the deftest of balancing acts.
It tells a hugely relatable story about human beings, but it also keep the one thing the reader really needs to know – the incredible business results – front and centre.
Write from the heart, but use subheads, box-outs, pull quotes – essentially, every trick in your pencil case – to make the those cold hard benefits leap out to someone scanning the page.
Make everyone look good
Your interviewees will often trust you with information that could be used to show their business in a bad light. When this happens, tread extra carefully.
Your job, more than anything else, is to make everyone look good. If you don’t, you risk damaging the customer’s trust in the vendor – and landing yourself with hours of major amends.
Don’t be scared to edit the customer’s ramblings
Few people train to be copywriters. If they did, there would be the same beautiful moment on every course, a couple of weeks into the first term.
The lecturer would leave the whiteboard and its arcane hieroglyphs – MOFU, CMO, ROI – turning slowly to face the hall. They’d pause just long enough to win the attention of its fifty, wide-eyed undergrads, and in a slow, patient voice, gentle as a hand placed on a shoulder, they’d say:
‘It’s OK. You can rewrite what your customer said to make it read well. They won’t sue you. If anything, they’ll be pleased.’
Do strive to keep the customer’s voice
The fact you’ve actually spoken to the customer automatically elevates your case study above a lot of the case studies already sent out into the world.
So when you add their glowing testimonial, be sure to preserve their more interesting turns of phrase and speech patterns. It’ll add life and authenticity to the finished piece.
(Frankly, I always aim to keep as much of the customer’s voice in there as humanly possible. If you can tell their story almost entirely in their own, neatly quoted words, so much the better.)
Remember the call to action
What should the reader do when they’ve finished reading? Since most case studies are designed to sit at the bottom of the funnel, the call to action will often be to get in touch with your company.
Make your call flow neatly out the story – e.g. ‘See how much faster you could write blog posts…’ – and add a placeholder until you’ve identified the best link, phone number, or email address.
Chapter five: acing the amends
Sharing the first draft of a B2B case study is a good feeling. But it’s rarely the end of the story.
Be ready to tackle amends from stakeholders at your company, then amends from the customer, then extra amends from either. Or both.
This (probably) isn’t your fault. It’s just what happens when you’re trying to please different parties, with different agendas. But if you’re charging for the work – say you work for a marketing agency, rather than the vendor itself – be sure to factor this time in when giving your quote.
Epilogue: I could drink a case of case studies
When everyone involved is fully engaged, the case study is easily one of the most rewarding content pieces to write.
You get to talk to a real human being, who daily uses the thing you’re trying to sell – giving you invaluable insight for future projects.
And you get to make a lot of people feel good about what they do.
Which, you know, is nice.
Use your new power wisely. And have fun along the way.