The forgotten art of the customer case study

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed August 5, 2013
Summary:
In an age of unvarnished content and outspoken bloggers, do customer case studies still have relevance? Yes, and here's why.

Secret plans

I used to scoff at the case study. I viewed case studies as glossy marketing ploys, nothing that a keeping-it-real blogger like myself needed to trouble my cool self with. Then I started writing them, and all that changed. Sixty or so case studies later, I've learned more about enterprise customers through case studies than anything else I do.

Case studies have taught me the necessary discipline of enterprise results. You can fake marketing through techno-hype, but you can't fake a case study. Well, you can try, but good case studies require results, and customers are NOT going to approve numbers they can't stand behind.

It's no small feat to get a customer to speak on the record - not to mention the associated legal and PR hoops that require a special kind of fortitude.

But in an age of unvarnished content and outspoken bloggers, does a formal case study program still have relevance? And how does it fit into today's marketing priorities?

Here's a few tips on putting the power of case studies to work, organized sequentially in the order they should be tackled.

1. Case studies should be the core of content marketing. As soon as you have a handful of live customers, it's time to bring them into what I call a customer advocacy marketing program. Waiting too long to roll out an advocacy program as part of your marketing efforts is a big mistake - even independent consultants should have one!

Every happy customer should be willing to return the favor with some kind of testimonial - or so case study proponents should think. It's entirely fair for these customers to expect something in return. Ergo: your case study promotions could tie nicely into their own marketing efforts. Or you can assist them with with the tedium of applying to co-present at a conference, getting them exposure in front of a new audience.

Every customer has marketing priorities, legal restrictions and time constraints. Ideally, you get them to agree to do a case study first, before any subsequent joint marketing efforts. Why? Because in the process of digging into the case study details, you'll help them create a narrative about your project (and finalize the hard-won numbers) that can be used as the basis for future videos, blogs, and slide shows. Once you have a published case study, the path is smoothed for follow-on content.

If you do it in reverse, problems emerge. Let's say you get a customer to agree to do a video testimonial. If they haven't already done a formal case study, during the video shoot, they may be unwilling or unable to speak to how much money or time your product saved them. That's a huge lost opportunity; you run the risk of a fluff piece without the meat of real numbers.

2. If you get turned down for a case study, explore other options. Customers have their own agendas and comfort levels with different mediums. If they turn down a case study, they may still be willing to co-present at a conference, speak to a journalist, or provide a testimonial for your web site.

The sooner you understand what your customer is willing to attach their name to and what their limits are, the better. I've learned to respect those limits; sometimes over-eager salespeople who are incented to surface case studies (a good idea by the way) can overlook the customer's hesitancy. Trust is about respecting the limits before, not after, a lengthy approval process ends in a big fat 'NO'.

3. Case studies have retreated up the sales and marketing funnel, but they are still potent.

It's true that case studies in their purest form are not the marketing gold they once were. That's because the blogger sensibility has made prepared marketing materials look stiff. Look, if you can say 'bullshit' in a post, it doesn't mean you have more credibility, but it does have a way of loosening up the discussion. To our jaded enterprise eyes, over-produced content tends to set off a BS warning. That's just how it is.

I've seen some marketing departments shy away from case studies precisely because they lack the primal immediacy of an off-the-cuff blog post. That's a mistake. Case studies are still powerful when used properly in the enterprise sales cycle. No, a published case study is not likely to get retweeted, or shared on LinkedIn - nor is someone who is not kicking tires on your services likely to read it.

Case studies are unapologetic product pitches. But they are immensely valuable on product-specific pages. Let's say you have a new cloud product. Hopefully your corporate blog is more about general cloud themes, building trust with readers by helping them navigate trends without constantly tripping on your product pitches. Over time, trust builds.

Savvy links to product demos, free trials and sandboxes are there for the clicking. On the product pages, case studies are there to reinforce the point: customers trust you and get results. Case studies are also a salesperson's best friend when prospects are considering the options.

Nothing reinforces value than being able to send a documented case study of a customer in the same region or industry as your prospect along in a personalized email. 'Oh, and if you want to talk to that customer, I can put you in touch.' A polished case study combined with the option of an informal reference conversation = sales gold.

4. Case studies are fodder for content outside the sales funnel. Case studies are not limited to a pre-sales tool. They give you the content foundation you can draw on for other forms of content that are either more informal, or reach audiences that would never read through a case study PDF. Examples I've seen include:

  • a blog post on customer lessons that cites several projects and case study details
  • co-presenting with a customer at a user group conference
  • connecting the customer with journalists to speak to industry themes
  • develop a webinar series featuring or including customer stories
  • filming an informal video that shares the customer story, but steps away from a product pitch

We've done a boatload of these informal customer video interviews on JD-OD.com. Most of them we did not charge for, and that's the beauty of putting customers in front of journalists/bloggers/videographers - everyone wants good customer stories.

If the customer you put in front of a like the ones we shoot at JD-OD has already been through a formal case study process with you, when it comes to the point in the video where we ask about project results, they will be far more prepared.

5. Wait until after go-live to do the case study. This may sound bloody obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times a customer's project is done but the go-live hasn't happened due to various reasons, like waiting for the three day holiday weekend to flip the switch or upskill users. You have a great story - waiting three months to do the case study seems tortuous. Wait. Case studies without a 'smooth go-live' ribbon on top are severely discounted.

6. Be prepared to lose some case studies in the approval void. Even with the most fastidious planning, you're going to lose some case studies in approvals. Sometimes it's legal, sometimes it's PR, sometimes it's a manager whose rubber stamp turns out to be a metal spike. Accept it just like receivables accept some level of bad debt and so on.

Expect a fairly high casualty rate - perhaps as high as 20 percent. Keep in mind that even if you can't publish the case study, you can get some wins from the experience. I've seen customers turn down case studies but still present the same material at conferences, or do some of the other things in number 4.

7. Fight to get numbers you can use. Customers are understandably wary of putting numbers in writing. In some cases, those numbers have legal implications. If you saved a customer $200,000 in outsourcing, they may not to want to worry about their friendly neighborhood auditor asking to see those results later. But you need those numbers.

This is usually the most awkward part of the case study interview. You should be prepared for some haggling and some tension as you sort out what numbers can be used and what can't. Also remember to prep the customer for the numbers questions ahead of time - often it takes a bit of calculation on their part ahead of the case study call.

Keep in mind the best numbers are often percentages. For example if a customer says 'your product saved us four days of person hours'. In some cases that may sound impressive, in others, miniscule. But what if that comprises a 50 percent reduction in project labor? That's the number you want, because it translates across projects. You can quantify a lot more than you think also. Even user happiness can be quantified, based on adoption levels, feedback surveys, and so forth. It's worth supporting your customers to get that data.

8. Be creative about engaging customers with content. Beyond a formal case study program, there are plenty of nifty ways of getting customers to document their stories. One client of mine decided to take impromptu case study interviews with customers on an iPhone when they dropped by their booth. I was skeptical about the results given the obstacle to get good sound and video in a packed hallway.

Imagine the egg on my face when several customers who had never agreed to do a formal video shoot were willing to do a 30 second 'booth video.' These videos served a more limited purpose but they were a heck of a lot better than the nothing I was getting by trying to secure an agreement to a more formal approach.

Final thoughts

Customer case studies are hard, frustrating work. But they are great for anyone who wants to quit their vendor tech hype addiction. Judging companies by results is the right way to go. Case studies may be unfashionable, but anyone who thinks case studies lack credibility should remember that getting a customer to put a number in print next to a product or service is still the most underrated feat in enterprise software.

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