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Nine ways to botch a customer case study

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 7, 2014
How do you mess up customer case study? Let us count the ways, nine to be exact - and learn from the winners.

Update, March 5, 2018: This piece got referenced and linked from social media, provoking a terrific how-not-to, ripped from the worst practices headlines by Brian Sommer:

Let's face it, customer case studies lack sex appeal. When you produce a case study for your company, it's not going viral. But if you map it into your sales cycle properly, a well executed case study is the

hardhats with problems
salesperson's best pal - and a huge credibility boost. IF the case study is done correctly - and that's a very BIG IF.

This week, I scoured the web looking for examples of exceptional case studies. I found precious little that impressed. 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 compelling follow-on content, so I won't dwell on that here.

Nine ways to mess up a customer case study

1. Letting the customer provide the copy for the "about" section. Ugh - 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. Check out this one I wrote - it's got a couple facts about the company's founding that readers won't know, and then just a line or two about the firm (scroll down to the "company" section).

2. Not including a "challenge" theme. Enterprise buyers ain't stupid - 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.

3. Not covering implementation, 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, builds credibility. The absence of that material turns the case study into brochureware.

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.

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 and aren't a picnic on mobile devices either.

6. Neglecting to feature "pull quotes".  Every good case study has a couple of keeper 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. Forgetting 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 freely.

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. Qlikview has a nice example of this, though they should make it possible to sort by completed case studies. Panaya (a former client) has a nice industry/solution/region pull down.

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 approval stage, but enough of them survive to make it worthwhile.

Winning examples

Let's run through some of the best examples I've found - none are perfect, but each has attributes to consider.

Constellation Research Supernova Awards - Technically, these 2014 winners are award submissions, not case studies, but this one of the finest formats I've seen. Why? Because of the creativity factor of categories like "Shining Moment" and "Disruptive Factor." There's also a big emphasis on numbers, with a "Metrics" section in addition to "Results". The "Company" section is boilerplate, but that was necessary background for the judges. I'd shake that up for a case study format, but otherwise, we have a winner.

Panaya Case Study Library - Granted, I'm biased towards Panaya's approach because I worked with them to design it. I already pointed out the useful industry/region pulldown, but have a look at the web format for this ERP test automation study. The bullet point overview of project overview and results is not used by companies often enough. A unique section is "Advice", which provides the chance for the customer to offer lessons learned to their peers. This adds relevance and closes the study on a broader note.

MicroStrategy Customer Library - Another good example of pull down library - should be easier to pull out the case studies, but the format is good too, with plenty of attention to challenges. Bonus:  ever-present but non-obtrusive chat window on the case study pages.

Qlik Customer Library - Nice (scrollable) video library at the bottom of the page. Ability to sort by job function/department is a real differentiator. Individual customer pages have a concise snapshot and a link to a detailed "success story." From a web browsing perspective, one of the best UIs I have seen. Their longer writeups should be published in non-PDF format, and should include more headings for navigation.

Apigee Stories and Webinars - Apigee doesn't have a ton of published case studies (that I can find), but I like how they are integrated into webinars and other collateral. Individual case study pages often start with a substantial embedded video. I like the in-depth content - I'd also offer a short video with highlights from the full convo.

Docker Case Study Library - Really like the links under many capsules to talks the customer has given at the DockerCon show. That sends a strong message about customers not as marketing showpieces, but as community members. This blog post from the library also includes an embedded customer presentation from Slidshare - a neat feature not often used.

Wrap: There is no one right format for a case study. I hope these examples and gotchas provide motivation to raise the case study game, inspired by the creativity of the best approaches.

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, where you will (probably) get broader reach, but much less control over the final look.

Image credit: Worker made a mistake in a factory © -

Disclosure: I intentionally excluded all diginomica partners and all current clients from mention here. Panaya was a client in 2009, when we launched the case study program there. Our Den Howlett serves on the Constellation Research board; I served as a Constellation SuperNova Award judge in 2014, but I did not include examples from the category I judged.

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