FLAMING HOT TAKE ALERT: creating case studies is like flossing.
(The dental hygiene version, not that idiotic dance kids are into these days.)
Everybody knows they should be doing it. Almost nobody does. And when they finally do, it’s a painful, bloody, but oddly rewarding experience that has them vowing to do it again soon.
Because it just so happens that case studies are the single most powerful sales asset you can possibly have.
And I’m not exaggerating.
“Bold Claim, Klettke. Can You Back it Up?”
Let’s start with the psychology behind what makes case studies burrow into our brains and influence our decision-making in ways other content can’t:
1. Stories turn our brains into super-happy chemical soup.
Cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger found that reading (or hearing) words and sentences that refer to bodily actions actually activates the motor cortex in your brain.
So, for example, “she kicks the ball” just lit up the part of your brain that controls your leg movements. But it’s not just your motor cortex.
In a fascinating Spanish study, researchers were able to show that odour-related words, like “garlic” and “cinnamon”, light up the olfactory cortex (your sense of smell).
This is a lot of science-speak to say: your brain responds to reading (or hearing) about an event through a story in roughly the same way it would if you were to actually experience the event in real life. That’s a whole lot of empathy being built up in the mind of your reader.
Not only that: storytelling, done right, can literally influence the chemicals in your brain.
During a talk at CXL Live 2019, Dr. Brian Cugelman of AlterSpark explained that a good editorial hook can increase your dopamine levels, which gives you an emotional reward that temporarily makes you feel energized and curious. In addition, using a story to describe a threat can boost your cortisol levels, which grabs your attention and drives you to remove the pain or threat, real or perceived, ASAP.
And even just reading about goals and challenges can spike serotonin levels, which triggers the pursuit of goals and loss avoidance.
2. Stories are memorable by design.
When it comes to marketing, being forgotten is death. That’s where customer success stories curb stomp other content.
According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, a story is up to 22x more memorable than facts alone. Done well, case studies are stories that help you stay top-of-mind and sell at the same time.
3. Stories appeal to both the rational and emotional parts of the brain.
According to Dual Process Theory, there are two systems at work in the human brain: system one is fast and emotional, and system two is slow and rational. System one is always on, while system two requires focus and gets quickly depleted.
The bad news is that the majority of our decisions are made by system one.
While we’d all like to think of ourselves as logical people living in a logical world, but we’re actually instinctual people who rationalize our emotional decisions after the fact.
The tension, emotion, and cold hard facts in well-written case studies appeal to both systems—a killer one-two punch that ensures you’re covered no matter which system is taking the lead at the moment.
4. Customer success stories replicate word of mouth marketing.
Reviews, case studies, and other voice of customer content mimic the effects of word of mouth—and word of mouth is super-mega-important to the modern buyer’s journey.
BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review 2018 Survey found that 86% of buyers read reviews for local businesses. In fact, buyers read an average of ten online reviews before they even feel able to trust a local business.
But here’s the kicker: 91% of respondents under 35 trust online content as much as personal recommendations from friends and family.
“Nice Theory. But Does It Work in Real Life?”
Yep. The numbers are there, too.
Studies show that not only do buyers actively seek out case study content, they also spend more time engaging with it compared to other types of B2B content.
According to the Content Marketing Institute, case studies remain the preferred content format among B2B buyers, with 79% of respondents claiming they’ve consumed this type of content in the last year.
And in a study of 34 million (yes, million) interactions between buyers and content, Harvard Business Review found that case studies had an 83% completion rate, orders of magnitude higher than any other type of sales or marketing content.
The case for case studies (ha!) grows even stronger when you realize B2B buyers aren’t just more likely to read case studies—but much more likely to share them as well.
According to Demand Gen Report’s 2018 Content Preferences Survey, 64% of respondents share case studies with colleagues, which is second only to blog posts (74%).
That’s a HUGE deal, because so many business decisions (especially on SaaS platforms) are made jointly by people in different roles. Harvard Business Review found that the number of people involved in B2B solutions purchases climbed from an average of 5.4 in 2015 to 6.8 in 2017.
It’s no wonder, then, that the vast majority (73%) of content B2B marketers surveyed by Content Marketing Institute in 2018 said they use case studies for content marketing purposes. 47% said case studies were among their top three most effective types of content marketing when it comes to achieving specific objectives, a very close second to eBooks and whitepapers (50%).
Take Rankings.io, for example:
Adding case studies into their sales and marketing mix helped them close over $175,000 worth of deals in one month. Chris Dreyer, founder and CEO, says:
“We closed over 179,444 worth of deals in the past month, and case studies helped close them all. If you’re trying to improve your conversions and showcase your expertise, you need case studies. Case studies are powerful lead magnets, they’re powerful presentations, and they’re great for sales.”
And (BONUS!) as we’ll dive into later on, case studies are also one of the only content assets that can be used across your entire funnel, and even reused time and time again.
But if case studies are so great, then why isn’t everyone investing heavily in them?
The truth is that getting case studies right is difficult and time-consuming. It’s a heck of a lot harder than just plugging in a “Problem, Solution, Results” rubric.
And when you have a million ecommerce orders to fulfill or you’re deep into rewriting your SaaS onboarding flow, it’s easy for case studies to start looking like a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.”
Thankfully, I’m here to help. After more than three years of running Case Study Buddy, I’ve been part of putting together over 150 studies for clients ranging from enterprise SaaS companies to Fortune 100 clients I can’t even name without being sent to jail.
And I’m about to hand you YEARS of knowledge I’ve picked up the hard way.
How to Get Case Studies Right—the First Time
Getting case studies right the first time around comes down to five way-too-easy sounding steps:
- Define your strategy
- Choose the right candidates
- Run a great interview
- Write up the story
- Put your case studies to work(strategically!)
Defining Your Strategy
Before investing a ton of time and money into creating a case study, you need to get really clear about why you’re doing this in the first place.
Otherwise, you risk wasting hours of time and energy capturing stories that won’t ever help you accomplish your goals. Start by asking yourself three questions:
- What’s my end goal?
Maybe you’re trying to launch a specific service, promote a specific product or appeal to a specific industry.
The stories you tell need to align with that goal.
- Who am I targeting?
Which types of buyers are you trying to attract with your case study? Do they have a specific role, or work in a certain industry?
The people you profile should look like the people you’re trying to attract.
- How will I use the case study?
Where in the sales and marketing processes will you plug in this case study? How will you reuse different elements of the case study?
Your use case will influence the way you go about capturing and telling the story (more on that later!)
As a quick example, conversion copywriter Kira Hug was keen to do case studies. With a ton of happy clients, she could’ve chosen any of them to feature.
But Kira stopped and defined her goal. She wanted to use case studies to attract more clients looking for help launching products and courses.
While a success story about one of her SaaS clients would’ve made her look great, it wouldn’t have helped her achieve that goal.
So instead, she approached Rick Mulready to capture a story that would support her goal.
Choosing the Right Candidates
In the example above, Rick was the obvious choice. But how do you find willing candidates and get them on board once you’ve got your strategy in place?
The first step is identifying candidates who have a strong positive affinity towards you. These three approaches to be the simplest:
- Send out a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey.
Isolate all those who responded with eight or higher and reach out to them to gauge their participation interest.
- Mine existing customer reviews online.
Look for places where your advocates have already invested their time to sing your praises—whether that’s on G2Crowd, Capterra, Amazon, your ecommerce comments section, social media, reddit… you get the point.
Find the most detailed reviews and reach out to the authors.
- Send out an in-depth survey.
If you want to take it a step further and capture more details right off the hop, a full survey is also an option.
If you go this route, keep in mind that your goal is to turn your customers into storytellers, not butt-kissers. Ask them experience-based questions such as…
- What was going on in your life that sent you looking for a solution like ours?
- What does success look like for you?
- How has our [service/product] helped you achieve that success?
- Which features or benefits do you like best about [working with us/using our product]?
“How do I get buy-in?”
Finding viable candidates is only the beginning. Now you need to convince them to do you a favor and go on the record. It’s arguably the hardest part of doing a case study—and the reason many companies quit before they even begin.
Realize that almost every rejection boils down to three factors, all of which you have an opportunity to counter:
Clients may say “no” because they’re uncertain about what will be exposed and how they will be presented. The best way to counter this is to give them control.
Often, countering this objection is as simple as assuring them that nothing will be published without their review and full consent.
Another powerful countermove is to show them examples of other studies (yours or someone else’s) that mimic what the end product would look like.
People are busy! Some won’t want to take part in a case study because they assume it’ll take hours of their time.
To counter this, make sure your client knows that the entire process will take less than an hour of their time, and spell out exactly what you’re asking them to do.
“What’s in it for me?” is a common response when you ask someone for their time, which means you’ll need to frame the case study as something that benefits both sides.
For example, you might share how big the audience you’ll share the study with is, or emphasize that you’ll be linking to them from your site.
“How Do I Make the Ask?
Keep it short and simple. This email template has worked wonders for me, and you can use something very similar on a live call:
“We’re so excited that you’ve (achieved a result) with our (product or service). We want to showcase the good stuff you’re doing—to show people what you’ve accomplished in your space. We’d love to schedule a time to interview you for a case study.
You will always have the final say. Nothing will be published without your approval. All we need is 30 minutes of your time. And we’ll make sure you look like a rock star.
We’d like to get this case study published at the end of next month. Can we count you in?”
Running a Great Interview
Congrats! You’ve found the perfect candidate and they’ve given you an enthusiastic yes.
Now it’s time to get them on a call (or a video chat) and capture their story.
1. Prep your questions.
Before your call, craft a list of interview questions you KNOW will help you capture the core elements of the story.
Open-ended questions are ideal, because “yes/no” questions require absolutely no elaboration (and thus, no storytelling!)
I like to use the “BDA” (before, during, after) format to get to the heart of the interviewee’s experience and story:
Before: What were they feeling before purchasing from you?
During: What were they feeling during the purchase process?
After: What were they feeling immediately after? How about six weeks after?
This line of questioning encourages your interviewee to walk through each stage of the process step-by-step instead of spewing out platitudes.
You might ask, for example:
- What does success look like for you?
- What was going on in your business when you purchased [service/product]?
- Most valuable thing [service/product] brings to the table, and why?
- What results have you seen because of [service/product]?
Before the big interview day arrives, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Limit the number of interviewees to two.
And honestly? One is even better. The more people you have on a call, the more they’ll talk over each other. Worse, you may lose juicy details because an individual may feel less confident being candid with someone else listening in.
- Test your tech ahead of time.
Microphones, cameras, recording software… make sure it all works, and make sure you have a backup plan if it doesn’t!
You don’t get a mulligan on this: clients are only willing to do you so many favors.
- Prepare a list of questions early and send it to the interviewee in advance.
The more comfortable and prepared your lead feels going in, the easier they’ll be to get details out of. Nothing sucks more than asking about their ROI and hearing “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Spoiler alert: they won’t.
- Record the call.
You’ll want to review the call later on, even if you take light notes live. Frantically jotting down notes doesn’t make for a very human conversation.
- Follow up for more details if necessary.
There’s a good chance your interviewee won’t remember specific dates and numbers, for example.
95% of your job is listening and asking “why?”
You’re not there to talk – you’re there to listen and probe. It’s fine to ask the same question multiple times or investigate another angle—sometimes, clients are grateful to be asked again because they’ll remember new information.
How I Write a Powerful Case Study
First, the basics: just like every story has a beginning, middle, and an end, case studies should all follow more or less the same flow:a headline, a challenge, a solution, the results, and a call to action (CTA).
I’m going to rip apart an example case study from Case Study Buddy client Pillar, a construction data company that provides risk management technology.
(Phew! Is it just me, or did it just get vulnerable in here?)
What It (Really) Is
The headline is the pillar (get it?) of your cover page, but it’s also the snippet you’ll lead with when sharing your study on your site, in ads, on your blog, and so on.
The headline has exactly ONE job: getting people curious enough to keep reading.
How to Do It Right
A great case study headline draws your leads in immediately by leveraging one (or all) of the following:
- A company they recognize or relate to
- A pain they’re intimately familiar with
- A result they desperately want to replicate
Here are some headline formulas that work well (in our experience):
- How [service/company] helped [client] [result]
- [Result] for [client]
- [Client] gets [result] with [service]
- How [client] eliminated [pain] with [service]
When in doubt, keep your headline simple and direct. Avoid jargon, complicated words, and creative adjectives.
Use metrics whenever possible. In Pillar’s case, “a 30 Million Dollar Fire” emphasizes the costly impact of not having risk management in place.
If you don’t have any big, sexy metrics to use, leverage the headline to highlight a relatable challenge or pain point instead. For example, take a peek at this headline for Looop, a SaaS in the employee learning space.
Even though their study HAS great metrics, none of them were universal enough to appeal to the diversity of leads Looop would be sending the study to.
Instead, we chose to use the headline to address the shared pain point we knew all leads would have:
On the opposite end of things, here’s an example of a time we completely dropped the ball in the headline department for Elucidat, another great SaaS in the employee learning niche:
I mean, really? “[Company]: An Elucidat Case Study?”
At the time we thought this would throw the big, bright light on the impressive metrics below the headline. Instead, the case study hits like a wet noodle. Who’s going to want to keep reading?
If I could step back in time, here’s how I’d fix it:
The most important metric there (according to Elucidat prospects) is the 95% increase in efficiency, so I might write:
“How Integrity Inc. Increased Training Efficiency a Shocking 95%”
Juicy, right? Much better than the barf-worthy headline we rolled with. Live ‘n’ learn.
One last tip for case study headlines: add immediate credibility, weight and intrigue by including a direct quote from the interviewee on the cover page that talks about the same result or pain in the headline.
What It (Really) Is
The “Challenge” section is the place where your story either takes off like a rocket, or falls flat on its face.
In this section, you introduce the hero of the story—your client—and the problem they were facing in a way that gets your reader to care about what happens in the end.
How to Do It Right
To suck your leads into the story, your “Challenge” section should jump right into the action, set the stakes and build tension to get them emotionally involved. For example, note the study introduction in the Pillar example above:
“At 2 AM on February 3 2017, a new 200-unit community in Maplewood, New Jersey burned down. AvalonBay had been only weeks away from turning over the first phase of apartments, and in one night their 18 months of progress had been reduced to nothing.”
This could have easily read: “A fire broke out at AvalonBay’s construction site,” or “AvalonBay is a blah blah blah zzzzzzzz…”
Instead, you’re brought on an emotional journey. AvalonBay was careful and compliant, but disaster still struck. In less than 12 hours, 18 months of construction work disappeared.
As you build tension and raise the stakes, be sure to highlight core pain points that readers will identify with to make the story feel personal—like it could be about them.
AvalonBay’s disappointment and loss is almost tangible, even in just a few short paragraphs.
What It (Really) Is
The “Solution” section is where you explore exactly how the hero’s pain got solved. Your job in this section is to help the reader experience the relief, security, and confidence that the actual customer experienced in having their problem solved.
How to Do It Right
Start with this: Don’t just focus on the how, include the why.
Why did you do things this way instead of that way?
What was the thinking behind your approach?
For example, Pillar doesn’t just say they installed intelligent sensors, they elaborate on the why:
“[…] designed to survive harsh construction site working conditions and don’t require users to manually check each sensor”.
For SaaS and ecommerce companies, this means going beyond mentioning the features or elements of a product the client liked and instead tying them to the actions and outcomes a lead could use them for.
As an example, check out this snippet from a study for PracticeIgnition, a SaaS that helps companies send proposals and manage the payment process:
Every time a feature is mentioned, it’s tied back to an outcome or task for the client.
And if something went wrong, be open about it.
You won’t find that in the Pillar or PracticeIgnition examples above, but consider ecommerce reviews. Being open about a product needing to be returned or exchanged, for example, highlights trustworthiness and customer care.
In real life, solutions don’t always go smoothly. People have to adjust. Changes have to be made. For example, your case study might acknowledge if your product had a steep learning curve for the client—before highlighting how you stepped in to help them out.
Authenticity goes a long way for both trustworthiness and likability. For that reason, Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center and PowerReviews found that, in moderation, bad reviews actually help boost sales.
What It (Really) Is
The “Results” section usually gets treated like a success metric dumping ground. Here’s a metric! There’s a metric! Look at all this success!
Huge mistake. The real job of the “Results” section is to wrap up the story and not only share the happy ending, but what that happy ending actually meant for the hero of the story.
How to Do It Right
When recording the results, there are a couple guidelines to keep in mind:
- Talk about the “ROI” and the “RO-Why-That’s-Important.”
Terrible, I know. But so, SO crucial. Pillar, for example, highlights the direct impact on Head of Safety, Jeff’s mental well-being:
“Jeff sleeps better at night knowing that AvalonBay now has preventative measures in place to stop future setbacks.”
That human impact goes a long way and serves the narrative of the story best.
Give the reader a reason to give a crap.
AvalonBay’s story certainly tugs at your emotions, but some readers will still be thinking, “Not my fire, not my problem. I’ve never experienced a disaster.” That’s why the final quote in this section makes such an impact:
“There were 18 large construction fires in 2017—$480 million in losses. In 2018, there have already been eight fires and two fatalities. It shouldn’t take a disaster to get us to adopt an advance warning system.”
The Call to Action
The most important thing about your call to action (CTA) section is simply that you have one. You should always end on a CTA that relates back to the story you’ve told and the specific challenge you’ve addressed. It’s enough to clearly and directly reiterate those elements and then introduce a logical next step.
(Key word being “logical”. If you’re using your case study at the bottom of the funnel, your CTA might be very different than if you’re using your case study at the top of the funnel. You may want to create different CTAs to use, depending on the context.)
How long should a case study be?
I’ve published studies ranging from 450 to 4,500+ words.
But is one length the “right” length? Get ready to be momentarily frustrated because the answer is the dreaded “it depends.”
DocSend’s content completion rate study found that case studies between two and five pages had the best completion rates. Helpful intel, sure. But that’s still a HUGE range.
To narrow things down, stop fishing for a magic word count and focus on two things:
- How you plan to share the study, and
- The reader’s context at the time.
If you plan to send your case study attached to an RFP, for example, shorter is better as the lead already has a pile of information to sort through.
The same typically applies for situations where your lead is new to you: cold emails, ads, in-person sales pitches, and so on.
Longer studies are incredibly useful for situations where a lead is primed for detail: in your blog, sent as a newsletter, printed out as a meeting leave-behind, and so on.
And the best part is, you can use shorter formats as teasers to prime a lead to read the longer variant.
Use case and context should determine length—not some fancy magic number from a study.
Putting your case study to work
Done right, your case study has taken you a lot of time and effort to put together. That’s why it’s important to use your new piece of content strategically and squeeze out all of the value you possibly can.
There are two primary ways to do this:
- Recycle, recycle, recycle.
- Use your case study throughout the entire funnel.
At Case Study Buddy, we use the “Bite, Snack, Meal” model to repurpose case studies for multiple uses.
A bite usually takes the form of a slide deck, which is perfect for sharing on social media or during a pitch meeting. The focus here is compelling quotes, impressive metrics and high-level insights at a glance.
You could also consider a lone testimonial pulled out of the interview a “bite” (or a nibble!)
A snack is a short-form case study, much like the Pillar example we looked at above. There’s room to tell the bigger story, but the format is still somewhat condensed and lacks elaboration. Snacks are ideal for onboarding flows and boost your credibility in cold outreach, for example.
A meal is a long-form case study. The Pillar example we looked at above was just four pages. The long-form version of the same case study extends to eight pages. This is the version you’d put up on your website for the world to see. It includes elaboration, the finer details, more quotes, etc.
Depending on your industry, funnel and revenue model, you will use each of these assets at different times. What’s important is that you have recycled the content to fit different levels of intent and different mediums of distribution.
Off the top of my head, here are no less than 20 different ways a SaaS or ecommerce company could put their case studies to use:
- Pull client quotes into on-site testimonial
- Bake a story into your cold email outreach
- Share your wins as organic social media content
- Leverage the success metrics in paid social media ads
- Add quotes or metrics to your pitch deck
- Publish the study in your blog
- Use the full study as a downloadable lead magnet
- Write up a Q&A style blog post based on the interview
- Train your staff using real-world examples of why people love you
- Hand out printed versions at conferences and trade shows
- Add a link to your business card for networking events
- Create a slide deck for talks or in-person meetings
- Add a link to your email signature
- Send them to leads as part of your onboarding sequence
- Use notable outcomes as email subject lines
- Give them to your sales team
- Turn them into a video
- Put testimonials near points of friction, like pricing
- Win back lapsed leads or churned users with fresh stories
- Upsell existing customers
…and we’re just getting started! Remember, these assets work across the ENTIRE funnel.
Take Pingboard, for example.
Initially, they weren’t sold on case studies, but after one test trial with Case Study Buddy, Pingboard became a believer. Now they collect one to two new case studies almost every month, and recycle those case studies again and again.
“There’s more than one way we get value from these case studies: They’re sales tools, marketing tools, brand tools, and even tools for new hires,” says Cameron Nouri, Director of Growth at Pingboard.
Today, their sales team uses case studies to explain how they can help to new prospects. Their marketing team has chunked out sound bites and testimonials, which they share via Twitter. Their blog team uses case studies to share real-life lessons and examples from buyer interviews.
The utility is near endless, and the content is evergreen!
You’ve just been handed a SHWACK of my best stuff.
The science is good. The stats are there to prove it. The process is sitting right in front of you.
But just like flossing, you can only be told it’s “good for you” or “essential so that your teeth don’t fall out of your skull” so many times. In the end, it’s up to you.