How to mess up a customer case study - let us count the ways

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 9, 2023
In an era of social media sound bites and content "snacks," does the customer case study still matter? Absolutely - but there are use case pitfalls to avoid. Eleven of them, by my count.


Is there a better enterprise sales asset than a well-executed case study? I can't think of one.

But a customer case study can go wrong just as fast. Done properly, a customer use case captures a vivid project story - and backs it up with numbers. But an overly promotional case study accomplishes very little - and reads like a brochure. It might help babies fall asleep at night, but it won't impress others.

Let's face it, customer case studies lack sex appeal. When you produce a case study for your company's web site, it's not going viral. But if you map it into your sales cycle, a well-executed case study is the salesperson's best friend - and a huge credibility boost. IF it's done properly - and that's a big IF.

For your reading enjoyment, I decided to update the ways to mess up a customer case study. I'll run you through the most common mistakes, then we'll breeze through some real life examples with winning attributes.

I've written previously on The forgotten art of the customer case study. That piece reveals why case studies are the foundation for an array of follow-on content, so I won't dwell on that here.

Eleven ways to mess up a customer case study

1. Leting the customer provide the copy for the "about" section. In a past life, I've lived this one. Customers provide PR-sanitized content for the "about the customer" section, which induces yawns for the reader. A case study, by definition, is a marketing piece, but it does not have to be full of PR crud. The best "about the customer" sections are mercifully short, and interesting.

2. Not including a "challenge" theme. Enterprise buyers are anything but naive - they know even the best projects are full of gotchas. Good case studies set the tone early - by laying out the challenges the company was facing. Then, the rest of the story keeps the same tone, acknowledging the obstacles overcome in the context of a greater success. That includes detail on the selection process, and what factors led to the buying decision. B2B project success is based on the strength of the customer relationship, not on the magic pixie dust of new technology. The case study should capture this.

3. Not covering implementation, user adoption, training, and support. Readers want to understand the implementation process - how much training was needed, how the process was managed. User adoption is a critical issue for project success. How the users reacted to the new solution, and how change was managed, is core to the credibility of your narrative. The absence of that material turns the case study into workplace fantasy. Sharing the imaginative ways your customers achieved user adoption is a case study win.

4. Lack of hard numbers or quantifiable benefits. If the case study doesn't have at least one quantifiable benefit, it's not worth doing. There are plenty of quantifiable benefits besides numbers (not all customers can publicly share project financials). Other quantifiable benefits include: speed improvements, user adoption growth, increased sales (by percentage), reduced help desk and/or customer service calls. In today's "outcome" world, you want to quantify how your software/services helped a customer serve their customers better (or other stakeholder groups).

5. Only publishing a PDF version. Yeah, we pay a king's ransom to our designers to make the case study into a pretty PDF. That's great for salespeople who want some email razzle-dazzle to send along, but on a web site, PDFs stink for search. They aren't a picnic on mobile devices either.

6. Neglecting to feature "pull quotes".  Every good case study has a couple of standout quotes. Those quotes should be featured prominently in web and PDF layouts. Too often, they are buried. Pull quotes can also be used on testimonial pages and event promotions, etc.

7. Overlooking the power of video. Once a customer has done the written case study, if you can charm them into a follow-on video, that's huge. Videos are especially powerful for case studies, because when you are vouching for a product or service on camera, it speaks volumes. I recommend doing the written study first, so that the numbers and benefits are already in the public domain, allowing the interviewee to speak more freely, with less video nerves. The approved published case study gives them air cover.

If a customer won't do a full-fledged video, they may still agree to do an impromptu 30 second quickie on the trade show floor. Tip: always be ready to shoot a quick smart phone video on the show floor (ideally with a plug in microphone, to reduce the conference chaos).

8. Assuming one case study works across regions and industries. It's a hard lesson, but most prospects aren't swayed by case studies unless it applies to their industry and/or region. That's why we need a case study program, not just a case study. The best case study libraries have pull down menus to sort by geography, industry, or solution.

9. Refusing to invest in case studies because they are a pain in the neck to produce, or perceived as outdated. Customer stories never go out of style. Some have told me, "We don't need case studies because our customers sing our praises on social channels." Great - but they won't share financial numbers unless you go through a formal process. I've had to perform last rites on many case studies that died in the customer approval stage, but enough of them survive to make it worthwhile.

10. Doing a case study too soon. Most of the significant benefits come after go-live - and go-live itself should be part of this story.

11. Obsessing over case studies from your most famous customers only. Yes, publishing a case study with a household-name brand is a huge win. But those are also the hardest to achieve - and the approval cycles can be never-ending (the bigger the name, the fussier the PR/legal review). It's really about the best stories - across geographies and focus industries.

Winning examples?

This may be the shortest section ever. When I went looking for winning examples of what I'm talking about, I really couldn't find any. Why? Most vendors do a pretty good job now on quantifying case study benefits. But they still fall short on the challenges - and the real world feel of the case study. I'll point you to this tweet from Raven Intel's Bonnie Tinder, who studies customer project success for a living:

Vendors could use more of this unvarnished feel in their case studies. I do see progress on another front:  these days, I see more extensive case study libraries - organized by industry and geography.

My take

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. But the end result is worth it.  Customer use cases seed a slew of upstream content assets:

  • 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 (or podcast) series featuring or including customer stories
  • filming an informal video that shares the customer story, but steps away from a product pitch
  • updated: prompted by Thomas Wieberneit, not to be underestimated is the handy one-slide case study summary. There is a real art to these - the info needs to be detailed but not crammed up - but they can be highly effective backdrops to all kinds of events. To this day, the best use case slides I have seen come from Sage Intactt's SaaS vertical via David Appel, which have a very readable challenge/before/after/result format.

Granted, customer case studies are not the most exciting content ever written. But here's the thing: they don't have to be. 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: No, B2B and B2C content strategy are not the same - why the dynamics of attention for B2B content are different. I have a longer diginomica special on this coming out fairly soon - stay tuned.

Note:  we should not confuse a case study with a journalistic use case like the ones we do on diginomica. I recommend doing your own case study first, agreeing on the numbers and results, and then turn that customer over to journalists. Why? Because journalists appreciate being able to ask your customer about the quantified numbers and results in your case study - and the background it provides. Just keep in mind that your customer doesn't get to approve that final journalist copy. I've written about that super fun situation in "I get to review this before you publish it, right?" A media day botch job we all need to avoid.

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