Do case studies still count as content?

There's something odd about the latest trends report from CMI and Marketing Profs. Can it be true that case studies no longer count as marketing content? And if so, what does that make them?

Do case studies still count as content?

Like everyone in B2B content marketing, we’re always eager to see the Content Marketing Institute & MarketingProfs’ annual B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report.

(We write content for a tonne of American B2B brands, so when someone asks 1,102 of their marketers what they think, we sit up and take notice.)

But this year, we spotted something weird. It worried us a little bit. And when we asked the CMI about it, their response worried us a lot more.

The mystery of the disappearing case study

As you’d expect, our favourite slide in the report is always the one about which kinds of content work. It’s fun to know what we’ll be working on next. But this year, something looked odd.

Spot the difference:

    • In 2014, B2B marketers used an average of 13 content marketing tactics. Case studies were rated the second most effective.
    • In 2015, the average was still 13. Case study usage had risen to 77% (2nd most widely used). They were rated fifth most effective.
    • In 2016, it’s still 13 tactics on average. Case studies still second most widely used (82%) and third most effective.

But this year? An average of eight tactics. Case studies are not even mentioned, for usage OR effectiveness. At all. Out of a list of 21 possible tactics.

Pretty clearly, the list of tactics you can choose from has been rationalised. No problem with that. But why axe the second most popular – and third most effective – from the list?

My colleague Fiona Campbell-Howes took to Twitter, and asked the CMI. They’re sensible people, after all – there’s got to be a good reason, right? But the response was, um, interesting…

Is there still room for BOFU?

Hands up: we have a special interest. We write loads of B2B case studies – largely because our clients find (in common with previous CMI / MarketingProfs respondents) they work.

But we have a bigger worry than that.

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

– The Content Marketing Institute’s definition of content marketing

The CMI’s own definition of content marketing talks about “driving profitable customer action”. In this year’s report, 44% of marketers measure content marketing ROI by bottom-of-funnel activity (conversions and sales), and 62% are focusing on sales as a marketing goal.

So why do none of the 21 content marketing tactics listed (OK, aside from, maybe, webinars – depending on the subject) cater for prospects at the bottom of the funnel, at all?

Are we supposed to be driving profitable customer action… or just vaguely hoping for it?

If you build it, they will come?

From our position writing B2B marketing content, we’ve seen marketers work hard to get content marketing taken seriously. To get that all-important buy-in, and ditch the perception of fluffy, thought leadership material that couldn’t move the sales dial if it tried. We’ve witnessed the battle to prove ROI, and – crucially – to convince sales colleagues not to jump on the first sign of engagement, because marketing covers more of the funnel now.

So this sneaking sense that proper content marketing is somehow divorced from that dirty, yucky money business is, at the very least, bizarre.

Fiona said: “There’s a danger that the focus on top and mid-funnel content tactics could send a message that content marketing’s primary goal is to ‘build an audience’, rather than guide people through the funnel to a sale. I’m not sure how many marketers would agree with this view of the world – especially as 62% of them are measuring the success of their content in terms of sales.”

Yes, many case studies suck. But they’re still content…

To give the CMI its due, that tweet might have meant that most case studies are so bad they don’t qualify as content marketing. It’s hard to do nuance in 140 characters, especially if you’re including two @ mentions.

And we’ve certainly read (but hopefully not written) our fair share of awful case studies. Creating better ones is the subject of our fourth ever podcast, and our next #B2BCopyChat.

The frankly-bloody-amazing Irene Triendl of (CMI Award-Winning) Velocity Partners was absolutely right when she said:

“I’ve seen few written or video case studies that don’t, almost systematically, waste their potential in one way or another. 97% of B2B case studies out there suck. No real drive, no real conviction. 3-page PDFs or talking heads with upbeat background music. Colour by numbers. No drool.”

But even a really sucky case study – you know, one of those “me, me, me” ones where the vendor and not the buyer is the hero – even that case study:

  • Focuses on a company or buyer in a potentially similar or analogous position
  • Talks about a challenge they faced, and how they overcame it
  • Shares their view of the experience
  • Talks about a real implementation of a product or service

If you’re towards the end of a buying decision process (clearly defined audience: tick) that’s both relevant (tick) and, surely, valuable (tick). How in the world is it not content marketing?

As Fiona put it: “A case study – even a bad one – is always a story. It’s content by definition. And for years B2B marketers have testified that they work. The decision to remove it as an option is mystifying.”

Content marketing without revenue is just… content

To be frank, the reason is pretty simple: our own, in-house content is great at gaining the attention of the B2B tech agencies and marketing managers we love to work with. They generally get a good feel for who we are, how we think, and – while they’re gleaning some value, information or chuckles – we get to quietly show that we’re pretty good at what we do.

And often, that’s where it ends.

Turns out we’ve been all about the “attract and retain a clearly defined audience” part – but the “drive profitable customer action” bit? Maybe not so much.

(Don’t get me wrong: we do get new business straight from blog posts – our Copywriting for ABM, Reddit v Quora and 7 Types of B2B Copywriter pieces in particular have all made the phone ring – but we’re hungry for more. There’s a blockage in our metaphorical funnel.)

And maybe part of that is that writing content for the top of the funnel is easy and fun, so – like a lot of companies – we pay a little less attention to adding value after the initial “ooh – that’s interesting”. And the result of that? It’s harder for people to understand what’s possible for their particular audience – or to see our track record in their market.

Yeah, content marketing needs to “help, not sell”. But isn’t the whole point that people are doing research with an eventual view to buying something? So we need to keep helping them all the way to making a good buying choice.

Content is not only helping if it’s vague and thought leadershippy. (In fact, maybe that’s less help.)

Case studies, done differently

In our market, we think the (small but important) bit of the decision-making process where someone wants to read a case study is to gain ideas and inspiration, and see how they can make good content and copy work for them. Maybe they want to see some examples in their own sector.

So our next batch of case studies – such as they are – will focus on just that: cool things our clients have done, and why we enjoyed helping. Very little about us, much more about the idea and inspiration – how our smart clients solve business problems with content. And (unlike this blog post) they’ll be really, really short. We defy anyone to tell us they’re not content marketing.

Come and chat about it

Spookily enough, our #B2BCopyChat for October was already scheduled to be about B2B case studies, and how to write better ones.

Come and find us on Twitter, on Tuesday 4th October, from 4-5pm UK time. We’ll be the ones using the hashtag #B2BCopyChat.

(Don’t worry if you missed it; we’ll post a Storify online.)

Disclaimer

This blog post is offered with all due respect, love and cheery waves to MarketingProfs and the CMI. You guys are doing awesome work, but if content marketing’s really going to retreat from the end of the funnel, that’s a worrying thing. BOFU content is hard to do, but it does need doing.

(And don’t get us started about post-funnel content…)

Feature image illustration by Keith Sparrow.


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