The do's and don'ts of the customer use case - the bedrock of B2B content strategy

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 13, 2022
Are customer use cases just a glossy marketing ploy? No. Done properly, they are the foundation for all the content that follows. Amidst the social noise, case studies still have relevance. Here's why.


My piece on B2B and B2C content strategy ruffled some (productive) feathers - No, B2B and B2C content strategy are not the same - why the dynamics of attention for B2B content are different. Soon, I will engage in dialogue with a detractor.

I remain on the side on Maureen Blandford:

One of the biggest reasons I push back on mimicking B2C content? The high production values of B2C content can be an expensive money pit. In B2B content strategy, entertainment is usually a bonus, not a must-have. Here's the crucial twist: the authenticity that makes B2B content stand out is often low on production polish.

Why? B2B marketing is so pre-planned and overwrought - often, the best way to break through is via a jugular, raw alternative. Example: the quickly-produced videos Acumatica shared early in the pandemic, with customers self-filming how they are ensuring business continuity. Inspiring and instructive. And not high budget whatsoever. But the videos were issues quickly, capturing the moment.

This is counter-intuitive to most B2B marketers. There is a tendency to blow out budgets flying in entertainment nobody asked for - and sprinkling expensive/pretentious DJs all over the place, when they are actually disrupting the conversations we flew across the country to have.

Instead of throwing the goal of entertaining B2B content under the bus, we should redefine it. In B2B, entertainment is some combination of unscripted, authentic, and interactive.

The rough edges B2B marketers want to scrub out are the exact things that make the content resonate. I've appeared on several conference panels in the last couple of years where the unscripted rehearsals (that nobody saw) were superior to the over-produced final product. That should get somebody thinking! As I wrote last time:

Believe it or not, raw, authentic talk from experts qualifies as entertainment in B2B.

Which led Bonnie Duncan Tinder of Raven Intel to respond:

The three main types of B2B content

B2B content should compete on relevance, not entertainment. Most B2B content just needs to be some combination of helpful, relevant, and interactive. Only a smaller percentage of B2B content needs to be truly kickass/exceptional. There are three main planks in B2B content strategy:

  1. Customer use cases - the bedrock of your content strategy (relevance).
  2. FAQ-style content, which maps to the entire "buyers and customers journey" - from those in the so-called sales funnel, all the way through mature implementations (helpful).
  3. Thought leadership, opinion, and industry tone setting, aka topic authority - the hardest type of B2B content to produce, especially at any kind of scale (exceptional/kickass).

I don't think brands need much help with #2 type content - except figuring out how to make that content available and intuitive to consume, at the exact point when it's needed. In some cases, customers will actively write that content themselves - if you energize your community platform.  #3 is the biggest challenge, and I've addressed that repeatedly. Example: Why the informed buyer is ruining the content party.

Writing the customer use case is not necessarily hard, but the logistics sure can be. Navigating the legal and PR hoops necessary to approve case studies is about as fun as scrubbing algae from the bottom of a pool.

Customer use cases - do's and don'ts

I wrote a series on the art of the case study in diginomica's early years. These use cases take too much energy to get them wrong. So here's an updated list of do's and don'ts. Off the top:

  • You can build a great customer community. But without formal use cases documenting benefits, you're missing crucial buying content.
  • Customer use cases need documentation across the major industries and regions you serve. Use cases don't transcend industry or region.
  • There is too much obsession over big brand names. You don't need big brand names; you need vocal/enthusiastic customers that will go on the record with quantifiable benefits.
  • Quantifiable, post-go-live benefits are the key to credible use cases.
  • Yes, customer use cases probably don't work outside of your sales funnel. But once you have the documented benefits in place, a range of other editorial options are possible.

That's the beauty of a well-documented use case. Now the customer content can proliferate into:

If you don't have those benefits nailed down in a published use case, all the subsequent content and interviews will be soft and/or awkward, with the customer contact either unwilling or unable to speak clearly to the published benefits.

As for the top use case don'ts and gotchas, start with this:

All customers speaking on webinars, panels, and at events should be aware: their comments will likely wind up on social media, and perhaps in published articles. Neglecting this leads to stressful situations, and, at times, the intervention of legal - which is ultimately powerless to do anything, but makes everyone miserable for a few days.

Overlooked use case topics

Even though your use case is a marketing document, it shouldn't be an exercise in happy talk. Honestly cover these vital topics:

  • Quantifiable benefits
  • Project challenges - every project has gut check moments; let's stop pretending otherwise. Companies often leave this out of their published use cases. Big credibility mistake.
  • Change management - every project has change and people issues. Find a way to cover it.
  • Training, documentation and adoption - how was training addressed? How was adoption achieved? Enthusiastic adoption is now the most important aspect of any project. Shelfware is constantly in danger of being supplanted.
  • Post-go-live benefits - the most important benefits usually come after go-live. Stopping at go-live means your customer use case is immature.

Older use cases can't vouch for new releases. When software has a major new release - especially a cloud version - that must be re-documented with new go-live stories.

On video - and structuring a narrative flow

Video can bring your customer use case to life - and reinforce credibility. But don't release the video before you issue the written case study. Then the customer will be much more comfortable speaking to the quantifiable benefits on video.

I've made fun of over-produced B2B content. One exception might be the 30-90 second customer testimonial video. That video has a simple structure: problem -> evaluation/selection -> solution -> result. I'd prefer to see this 90 second video edited down from a longer video conversation (10 - 12 minutes), that covers a broader narrative. Something like:

1. overview:

  • about the company/individual
  • industry disruptions and competitive challenges (a topic too often overlooked)
  • how tech is changing - this can also set the stage for how outdated processes and/or old tech has held the company back

2. meat of interview:

  • challenges faced
  • solution chosen
  • obstacles overcome
  • tangible and intangible benefits

3. wrap section:

  • advice to fellow customers
  • advice to the vendor/solution provider (including strongly-worded feedback)
  • what's next (if they have an interesting project on the horizon they are allowed to talk about)

Some customer use cases get stuck in PR/legal, and never come out the other side. That's the nature of this game - and it's one more good reason not to obsess about the biggest brand names. Those are often the ones that get stuck.

The final do/don't is: make sure your customer is aware of the type of case study interview they are doing. Once they transition from the original use case, there are no more approvals: "I get to review this before you publish it, right?" A media day botch job we all need to avoid.

My take

For more context, check:

In that third piece, I wrote:

Getting a customer to put a number in print next to a product or service is still the most underrated feat in enterprise software.

There are plenty of quality customer use case programs (and libraries) - too many to mention here. But I'll pick a few:

With customer use cases in place, content has a way of flowing from there. Getting customers to talk with journalists or analysts isn't necessarily easy, but the case study paves the way. Of course, you have to answer the question of "What's in it for the customer?" But that's a solvable problem.

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