If you’re asking, “What the heck is a case study strategy, and why do I need one?”—you’re not alone.
Most companies seem to believe that a great customer success story is something that “just happens.” It spontaneously explodes into existence when they help a customer achieve something great.
Only… that’s not the way it usually goes, is it? Sure, after a big win, high-fives abound. You gush about the customer’s success during your next meet-up. Maybe you regale prospects with the story on your next sales call in an attempt to win them over.
But for a lot of companies, that’s where it ends. The big win slowly stops getting used by sales or shared as a morale booster internally. Eventually, it fades from memory.
Other companies go one step further. They do turn their customer success stories into case studies. They might share them once or twice. But then they relegate their big wins to a rarely visited “case studies” sub-page… and pray for some sort of result.
What a massive, missed opportunity!
What if—by thinking just a little more strategically about case studies—you could MULTIPLY your ROI and use that fantastic sales asset to stack up win after win after win?
Let’s break down how to do that in four steps.
Step 1. Define your goal
With case studies, you want to work backwards from your goal.
Otherwise, it’s incredibly easy to lose the plot as you conduct research, craft the story and begin distribution. Before you do anything, sit down with your team and answer three questions:
- Why do you need a case study in the first place?
When all is said and done, what outcome do you desire? You need to understand what business objective your case study will serve and how.
- Who are you targeting?
It’s important to understand that case studies aren’t catch-all sales assets. You need to prove to different personas that you can solve their pain points. You also need to showcase your value to the different verticals you serve.
- How will you use the case study?
This is the commonly forgotten question that kills too many case studies before they have a chance to shine—and it’s essential to realizing your goal. For example, do you want to promote a specific service offering or expand to a new regional market? Great! Now how are you going to make that happen?
Let’s look at a live example…
Mary Iannotti, the person behind Digital Marketing Deva, enlisted Case Study Buddy to turn her experience working with Sierra Club Colorado into a compelling customer success story.
Mary had an amazing story to tell. She’d helped SCC nearly triple its number of donors (3x higher conversion rate) and increase its revenue by more than 10-fold.
It made for a good story on its own. But having a purpose would turn it into a great story.
Mary knew at the outset that she wanted her case study to close sales and build brand authority. Mary had hard plans to use her case study as a sales asset, but she also wanted to position herself as a thought leader in the copywriting industry.
“I thought it’d be a good thing to have for getting on podcasts and securing speaking engagements. I’d have something in writing that was a hit, you know? Proof that my copy performs well and I know what I’m doing,” Mary says.
The customer being highlighted, Sierra Club Colorado, is a local chapter of the national non-profit organization working to preserve the environment and protect outdoor spaces. As a fierce lover of the outdoors, Mary wanted to help SCC—and other organizations like it.
Her target prospects were environmental non-profits.
As for how she would use the case study, Mary planned to use the classic 1–2 punch: hit prospects with a proposal, then follow-up with a killer case study to seal the deal.
“Case studies are strong sales tools to close the deal. You know when you send out a proposal and you don’t get an answer right away? Sending that case study is a really sweet thing to do. It’s not aggressive, but it’s educational and it subtly says, ‘Hey, by the way, I killed it here,” Mary explains.
Step 2: Understand who you’re targeting
Once you understand the goal behind your case study, it’s off to the races, right? Time to get a customer on the horn, crank out a great success story, and push it live?
Not quite. First, there’s one more very important thing you need to do: understand your target audience. Because, as Joel is fond of saying, “The stories you tell will be the stories you attract.”
In other words, your amazing story about how you helped an SMB bump revenue by 500% is the wrong story to tell if your goal is to sign more enterprise-level clients.
And your super granular deep-dive into how your product simplifies coding for software engineers? That isn’t going to resonate with stakeholders who have never touched a code editor. So if they’re your desired reader, it’s back to the drawing board.
Let’s be crystal clear on this point: before you can determine who you should interview and showcase in your case study, you need to know who you’re writing for.
When you understand your target audience, you’ll have a better idea of what pain points you should be agitating, solutions you should be highlighting, and results you should be celebrating.
You’ll also have narrowed down the list of potential customers you might want to showcase in your new case study. You can narrow down your list even further by assessing who you have the best relationship with and who experienced the most recent notable win.
Step 3: Determine how you’ll use your case studies
A lot of companies treat customer success stories like they’re a trophy for the mantelpiece. They stick it on a “case studies” page on their website and then let it collect dust.
That’s the worst thing you could do (short of never creating a case study in the first place).
As Bryan Harris from Growth Tools explains, case studies are among the most powerful sales assets you have at your disposal:
“We’re regularly reminding our clients and our leads that our coaching works. Not for one client here or there, but for hundreds of real people every week.”
Growth Tools is collecting over 6,000 wins annually—and they’re using those wins to create compelling marketing assets, celebrate wins during weekly email blasts, and to convert prospects who just need a little extra convincing.
Chris Dreyer is also leveraging case studies throughout the marketing funnel. Currently, Rankings.io uses case studies to…
- Generate leads by using them as lead magnets and sharing via social channels
- Close more deals with ideal prospects
- Prove competence in a complicated vertical
- Reinforce on-site SEO (case studies are amazingly keyword-rich pieces of content!)
As if that wasn’t enough, Chris says that case studies have been instrumental in helping Rankings.io close seven-figures annually.
And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
Case studies are amazingly versatile pieces of content. In addition to the way that Growth Tools and Rankings.io are using case studies, you can also use them to…
- Create slide decks for stakeholder meetings
- Train staff and bolster team morale
- Write up a Q&A blog post based on the interview
- Turn heads at trade shows and conferences
- Add metrics and head-turning hero quotes to pitch decks
- Pepper testimonials throughout website and landing page copy to build trust
- Overcome areas of friction on your website (like pricing pages)
- Make cold outreach emails 1000x more compelling
- Improve how you market to leads in different verticals
- Upsell existing customers
The list goes on and on.
It’s in your best interest to decide how you plan to use your success story before you begin creating your case study. Why? Because the use case will almost always determine the format.
Case studies are tricky things to write because there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all format and no cookie-cutter template you can fall back on. Use case, target audience, and the complexity of your solution all factor into how long and how detailed your story needs to be.
For example: short case studies (like our snapshot format) are perfect for email outreach, social sharing, pitch meetings, and inclusion with RFPs. They’re also great for C-suite readers who want to understand the big story as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, long case studies (like our narrative format) make better lead magnets, blog assets, newsletter content, and staff training material. They’re perfect persuasive pieces when you have stubborn leads on the fence who want to thoroughly understand your solution or see an example of your product in action before they make a decision.
Another benefit of long formats is that they’re easier to repurpose. When you have the ‘meal,’ it’s easy to chop the big, meaty story up into bite-size testimonials, convert it into a blog post (or a series of posts), or pull out the juiciest tidbits and share them on Twitter and Facebook.
(Pssst… this is the “money-making” part of your strategy. Don’t skimp on this step!)
Step 4: Figure out who owns the relationship on the client’s side
Nothing torpedoes a potentially great success story faster than a string of “I don’t knows” or “I’ll have to asks” during an interview with a customer.
That’s why it’s vitally important that you connect with the one or two people whose day-to-day is most heavily impacted by your solution and who understand and can communicate its value.
Determining who owns the relationship on the client-side will help you figure out who your best interview candidates are. Obviously, you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but if your goal is to write a granular success story about how Company X uses your accounting software, you probably want to talk to the Head of Accounting as opposed to the CMO.
Obviously you don’t want to step on any toes, though. That’s why it’s important to lay down some ground rules about the case study creation process. I recommend…
- Limiting the interview to a MAXIMUM of two people. Too many POVs will jumble the narrative and distract from your main goal and target audience.
- Limiting the number of people reviewing the document on the client’s side. As they say: too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. Similarly, too many people poking around in your story is the fastest way to turn something exciting into something generic.
- Limiting what you ask them to review. Obviously you want your customer to be happy with the end product, but that doesn’t give them license to rewrite the entire story. If they have no qualms with the narrative then the only thing they should edit is personal quotes (there’s nothing wrong with them wanting to sound even better in writing).
Enforcing some basic ground rules like this will ensure that you don’t waste your time—or your customer’s time—with unnecessary back and forth. It will also help keep the process as smooth and hassle-free as possible if go into the creation of your case study with a clear understanding of who your point of contact is, who you’re interviewing, and who will be giving final sign-off.
Now that you’ve defined your case study strategy, what’s next? Well, it’s time to actually create the case study you’ve prepped so hard for. Starting with…
1. GETTING BUY-IN
I’ve covered how to get customer buy-in before (and, when you work with Case Study Buddy, we send you a Pitch Packet to help you land the ‘yes’), so I’ll keep this brief.
The best way to get customer buy-in is to plan for your success story waaay in advance—long before you have any solid plans to create and publish a case study. If every new client kick-off includes a “case studies clause” in your contract, and regularly celebrating your wins together, you’re golden.
But if that ship has sailed, you can still inch towards a ‘yes’ by…
- Clearly establishing what’s in it for them. Frame the ask as a big opportunity for both of your businesses. Guarantee them that the time commitment from them will be minimal and that they’ll come out of the experience looking like a hero.
- Solving pain points. A (very legitimate) fear a lot of customers have is that you’re going to give away the big secret behind their success. Assure them that will not happen. A good success story needs to be specific, sure, but it doesn’t need to give away the farm. Hard numbers can always be swapped out for percentages.
- Creating a compelling pitch. You can smooth the road to buy-in by keeping your pitch short, giving it a deadline (so they know they won’t be stuck in revision limbo forever), and sharing how you plan to use the case study.
2. CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW
Imagine: you’re both dialled into the Zoom call and your client is sitting there, waiting for you to say something… anything… What do you do?
Well, if you want to capture the whole story, you need to ask the right questions. It’s not enough to start in the middle—you need to understand the pain that led them to you, the solution you provided, and the results that followed. That’s why you ask questions like…
- What does success look like for you?
- What was going on in your business when…
- What was the most valuable thing _____ brings to the table, and why?
- What results have you seen because of…
Some basic rules will ensure the interview goes well, despite your sweaty palms:
- Prepare your list of questions in advance and send them to the customer ahead of the call.
- Tell them explicitly what metrics you’ll be chasing and ask them to prepare those numbers ahead of time.
- Interview no more than two people from their team at once.
- Test your microphone, camera and chat software ahead of time.
- Record the call so you can catch small details and avoid furious note-taking that distracts you from the actual conversation.
- Follow-up on specifics after the call, like metrics.
- Ask about their experience before working with you, during the time they were working with you and then after working with you. Remember, every great story has a beginning, middle and end.
- Keep the conversation focused on the customer’s experience, not their opinion.
- Ask why… a lot. Seriously, just keep on asking. Get real existential on them, Sartre.
- Get comfortable with silence. Don’t rush to fill a lull in the conversation. Eventually, they will fill it with sweet, sweet detail that will make your case study even more compelling.
Or, if all of that sounds like a bit much, you can have a third party with a proven process conduct the interview for you.
Having Case Study Buddy conduct interviews was the one thing Chris Dreyer, Founder of Rankings.io was most nervous about going into the first case study:
“I was a little concerned about not being on that call. Having an external individual do a customer interview is nerve-wracking,” he says.
But to his surprise, unexpected benefits came out of having Case Study Buddy interview his customers for him—and CSB’s professional interviews actually extracted fresh insight that he says might not have come to light if he’d been on the call.
“Sometimes, when we talk to clients, they don’t share negative experiences because they don’t want to hurt our feelings,” Chris explains. “Case Study Buddy captures everything professionally and respectfully—the good and the bad. That’s phenomenal, because it gives us information we can use to improve.”
3. CREATING THE CASE STUDY
You defined your strategy. Your customer green-lit the project. You conducted a killer interview.
Now it’s time to write a page-turner and turn it into something beautiful that’s going to snare the attention of everyone and anyone who even glances at your website. No problem, right?
Fortunately, you have all the building blocks laid out in front of you.
You know your goal, so you understand what the central narrative of your case study needs to be. You’ve got your final CTA locked and loaded; the body of your story can all work to help you realize that one, singular goal.
You know your target audience. You understand the depth and complexity they expect. You also understand the metrics that matter to them, the pain points they’re looking to solve, and the other solutions they’ve tried—that didn’t work. Plus, because you conducted an AMAZING interview and asked the right questions, you have firsthand testimonial on all of these topics.
You also know how you plan to use the case study in sales and marketing. Armed with this knowledge, you understand the format your case study needs to take to make an impact, how long or short it should be, and how you can repurpose it in other parts of your funnel.
And finally, because you concretely established who owns the relationship, you’ve ensured that the rest of the process is going to be as quick and easy as possible. Good thing, too; it would suck to come this far, only to have your big, beautiful case study tied up in endless revisions.
All that’s left is to tie all of that information together into a beautiful, goal-oriented customer success story you can proudly show off for months—or even years—to come.
Before you know it, you’ll have one high-impact case study at your disposal.
If you keep going, you’ll have an entire arsenal of social proof at your fingertips. Create enough focused, specific stories and you’ll always have an example to share that…
- Speaks to the different industries you target
- Solves different challenges
- Explores one specific solution you offer
- Matters to the people who interact with your product/service on a daily basis
No matter who you’re pitching to, you’ll have a use case on hand that will feel like it was custom-built for them—and they’ll be able to envision how easy life will be with your solution.
And if all of that sounds like a lot of work, you can bet your bottom dollar that Case Study Buddy will be here to help you. And, like a fine wine, our process just keeps getting better with time.
Want to refine your case study strategy?
Contact Case Study Buddy to find out how we can help.