Four mistakes to avoid in your next case study

Four mistakes to avoid in your next case study

Many marketing and sales experts believe the case study is the most effective tool in B2B selling. One client tells me the case histories I research and write for them (one per quarter) are by far their sales and business development teams’ most effective sales tools, both here and abroad. And why not?

After all, a case study is a customer success story — and people love stories. A case study (or “case history”) basically tells the story of how a customer (preferably represented by an actual executive at the company) faced a certain pain or problem, then solved it using your product or service, along with the measurable results they achieved.

One reason case studies are effective is that they’re low-key. They don’t beat you over the head with the sales message. Instead of pounding your chest and crowing about how good you are — the typical sales approach — a case history quietly demonstrates how you’ve helped other companies achieve success. What could be more impressive?

A case history puts your customer in the spotlight, instead of yourself. That resonates with other prospective customers, who are really only interested in how you can help them. Demonstrating your customer orientation and focus never hurts.

A good case history has what Hollywood scriptwriters call a “story arc.” Instead of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,” it’s “customer has big problem, seeks out solution, heroic company solves the problem, customer and company live happily ever after.”

Good case studies follow the most important rule of story-telling: show — don’t just tell. Unfortunately, too many wimp out. They don’t tell a story. Or the stories are fake (or they sound fake). Dry and impersonal, they’re weighed down with business jargon instead of the drama of overcoming obstacles.

Matthew Stibbe of the “Bad Language” blog sees their main flaws as:

  • They are lifeless. You get little sense of person or place.
  • They are formulaic: problem, solution, benefits.
  • There is no story. No feeling of tension, suspense, progress.
  • The results are hard to measure.

I agree. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

One approach that’s been especially effective for me, especially in longer case studies (2000-2500 words), is to focus the corporate story on one person at the customer company. It might be the head whatever department was most impacted by the problem and helped by the solution. Interview that person. Get actual quotes describing their pain, the needs the solution had to meet, how they implemented the solution, and how it eased the pain.

Don’t forget to delve into how they felt about it. A smattering of emotions can dramatically improve a case study. In your interviews, ask questions and make statements like:

  • “That must have been a difficult time for you. Tell me about it.”
  • “What was the mood of your company at the time?”
  • “How did your (co-workers/peers/superiors) feel about the (problem/solution)?”

Not every corporate executive is willing to share their emotions, of course. Even if they do, it will often get cut or changed during the approval process. But at least you tried.

Personally, I believe even a high-tech company’s case study (pdf) can be a story that demonstrates human emotion and drama. See for yourself.

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