Create compelling customer case studies

Marketing case studies, done well, can be persuasive pieces of marketing content.

They are, effectively, just brief stories.  Readers, especially prospective customers at the top-of-funnel to middle-of-funnel stages read about a situation similar to theirs’ and they relate to it.  They can imagine what the product in question could do to help them address their particular challenge.

As well as posting a library of customer stories on your website, or having a range of printed copies on display at customer events, case studies are useful collateral for social media: blog posts, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.  They are useful hand-outs for customer visits.  They also support other activities as proof-points in themselves.

But, how do you write an effective customer case study?  There are three critical aspects:

  • Story structure
  • Quotations
  • Proof-points

Story structure is critical

Yes, it sounds over-blown to talk about story structure.  After all, it’s only a customer case study.  Isn’t “storytelling” just another marketing cliché?  Yet, it is absolutely essential to an effective end-result.  The reader has to care, or he/she won’t read and won’t retain what you’re trying to say.

One of the simplest summaries of the story structure was given by Nancy Duarte in this TED talk:

There are three parts:

  • Likeable Hero
  • Encounters Roadblocks
  • Emerges Transformed

You could simplify it still further: you need to create a tension between the Dark and the Light, between the Before and the After.

Don’t get all technical – there’s time for that later – just help the reader understand, in everyday business terms, what the problem was and how badly it affected the subject (the Roadblock, the Dark Before).

Describe what the customer did about it and how your solution was able to help them address their challenge.

Then, describe the “so what”.  What was the result, again in tangible, business benefit terms (the Emerges Transformed stage, the Light After)?

Remember, also, that the customer is the hero, not your company or your product.

It’s that simple.  As a reader, I can’t understand how great your product is until I understand how bad the situation was before.  And I don’t really care (at this stage) how long it took, where you did the work, which version of which of your products in which configuration did the work.  I just need to know that it was dark, and you made it light.  I need to understand the situation well enough to relate to it and to imagine how you can help me in my similar situation.

Use direct quotations

Some things sound better in the words of the customer.  In particular, capture the effect the Before situation was having and the benefits of the After situation.  If they say, “John Doe Plumbing saved me £1 million a year!” so much the better.

Direct quotes have impact and they draw the eye (just like sections of dialogue in a novel).  They feel more real.  But then, to be effective, they have to be real.

Far, far too often “quotes” are just marketing speak attributed to someone with an important-sounding title.  They are invariably over-long and over-detailed and you can spot them from across the room: “John Doe Plumbing’s Virtual Mobile Plumbing Platform version 2.64a has transformed our business.  Now we save £45.12 every time we turn on the tap, and our staff can drink water wherever they are, at whatever time they want.  Virtual Mobile Plumbing Platform version 2.64a is a cloud-based application that features military grade security and five-9s reliability.  Fresh, cool water is available with just one simple, 98 degree twist of the unique John Doe Plumbing Virtual Mobile Plumbing Platform’s Torsion-controlled Access Point (TAP™).  I wouldn’t be without it.”  Jane Buck, CEO.

Real people don’t speak like that.  Even the marketing and PR people who “crafted” the quote don’t speak like that.  It smells of committee.  You read it and imagine not the delighted CEO the quote’s attributed to, but the embattled product marketing manager ticking off his features list.  Keep it real.

Even when the interviewee doesn’t say exactly what you’d like, go for authenticity every time.  Sometimes the way that we speak looks odd when written verbatim, we change tack half-way through a sentence or we get an expression muddled up.  I will change the grammar so that the speaker isn’t embarrassed, but I’d rather keep an odd quirk or a slightly off-message testimonial so that the quotation sounds genuine.  Remember: temper, don’t tamper.

The power of proof-points

Numbers or percentages, hard facts, credible references and testimonials are all powerful proof-points that make your story both memorable and credible.  They are also often the hardest to pin down.  Customers, especially in larger and public sector organisations, are sometimes reluctant to commit to hard data.  As an external, third party writer I’m surprised at how often this is because nobody has bothered to measure the impact of the project.  That’s a problem far deeper than telling your story.  In many other cases, it’s simply that people don’t have the figures to hand.  As a vendor, you may have your own numbers for the project that the customer might agree to.  Being able to state that the project in question saved x dollars, or y man-days per month or reduced real-estate requirements by z% makes everything more tangible.

If the customer gives the number in a direct quote, even better.  It’s so much more powerful for the customer to say that you’re great than to blow your own trumpet.

What next?

In summary then, there are three parts to creating a powerful and persuasive customer case study:

  • Use a story structure
  • Use direct quotations
  • Use proof-points.

What next?  Share it widely.  Make the finished story available on your website (both as an HTML page and as a PDF download).  Share the published result on social media.  Get the customer to share it too.  Often they are keen to see their names in print and share a story that subtly shows them in a good light too.

Make it easy for others to share, as well.  Add social media sharing buttons to the web page and ensure the embedded text leads with a snappy title (and not the library taxonomy).

Stories are for sharing.  So make it easy.

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About Andrew Munro

An independent business consultant, interim manager and writer, Andrew operates through his company, Burning Pine Ltd (http://burningpine.com).
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