How to create a world-class case study program

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“I wish more of our customers would agree to do case studies.”

I hear these words a lot. From PR pros like me looking for a great pitching angle. From marketers looking for another tool in one of the most credible toolbelts available to them. And from salespeople seeking success stories that can nudge prospects into clients.

No wonder, given that educational content can increase purchasing intent by an incredible 131 per cent.

I’ve managed case study programs for several large organizations, and helped generate my fair share of case studies for many others. What I’ve learned over the years is this: structure and a clear end goal that's shared by key stakeholders are crucial to success.

It all comes down to answering two key questions: first, how can my organization generate more case studies? And second, how can I make the most of a case study opportunity, once a customer agrees?

How to create more case studies

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Some companies will never agree to case studies, and will put that language in their contracts. Others, not wanting to be perceived as endorsing a product or sharing a perceived competitive advantage, will also decline. Nothing to be done there.

Instead, let’s focus on companies that have no inherent barriers. This doesn’t mean they will agree, only that’s an option that can be discussed. Let’s also assume that your agreements include language around participating in case studies (if they don’t, they should). Finally, you have a project or product that has been in place for an amount of time that allows for both parties to see measurable results and declare the effort a success – the bare minimum for any case study. You’re dying to share the story as loudly and widely as possible.

Now you’re ready to begin. Here's how to do it.

Don’t blow the ask

You don’t get jobs by telling employers what you want from them. You get jobs by telling people what you can do for them.

The default reaction from most customers will be somewhere between “I’m not sure” and “probably not.”

The same rule applies to case studies. I can tell you that the default reaction from most customers being asked to participate in a case study lies somewhere between “I'm not sure” and “probably not”. For them, it adds another to-do to an already long task list. It means setting aside time, corralling people and committing to shepherding copy around the organization. Who needs that headache? And where's their value in this?

So, don’t make it about you, make it about them. What are their marketing goals? What stories do they want to tell their clients?  Is there an executive looking to make a name for him/herself in the industry? Get that information, and make sure what you create tells those stories. Show them what you’ve generated for other customers using their case studies, and get their mouths watering at the opportunity.

Bottom line: It’s not about “we want a case study.” It’s about “you have a great story, let us tell it for you.”

Provide clarity and assurance

Spell out in detail what the customer is really signing up for. Show them your vision of the finished product and exactly what you want to do with it. That will avoid nasty surprises down the road.

Make clear to them that you’re committed to doing all the heavy lifting from writing to managing timelines, minimizing their investment and making it all a pain-free experience.

Get clear buy-in as well. The project lead may be into it, but that doesn't necessarily mean his colleagues are. Make sure he/she has at very least notified their marketing or PR teams. In fact, it’s best to make a separate outreach to them regardless to make sure they understand the ask and are truly on board. I’ve seen many case studies get derailed by people not following proper internal procedures.

Winging it = failure

I worked with a global company with operations in Canada that turned 10 or so case studies a year into nearly 100. They did it by putting a clear process in place around case studies. I could spend a whole post on this, but highlights include:

  • Identifying one point person tasked with quality and quantity of case studies
  • Keeping sales involved in the process, but never as the leads. Case studies help sales, but they’re first and foremost communications tools
  • Using a strong writing and editing team (more on that below)
  • Making sure marketing, communications and legal get to weigh in at the appropriate times
  • Leaving ample time for delivery, knowing customers usually miss deadlines and almost never share your urgency

How to make the most of your case studies

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Think big, even if the goal is small

So, you’ve got them hooked, but they’ve only agreed to the bare minimum. A few paragraphs, or a couple of quotes. That’s great, but whoever does the customer interview should approach the engagement like they’re preparing to write a white paper.

Dive deep and get all the data, proof points, anecdotes and achievements that you can. Sure, you may not be able to use them now, but they may come in handy later. Or, as I’ve seen, customers begin to get more open and willing to do more once they see the process isn’t what they feared. Use your and their time wisely, and with an eye to future possibilities.

Use an experienced (and preferably outside) writer

You have a new intern who is eager to try writing, and seems enthusiastic. Plus, she has time. Win-win, right? Wrong.

Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle a customer interview.

 

As I’ve mentioned, case studies are among the most valuable pieces of content you have. Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle an interview. Just because a company is fine with a case study doesn’t mean the project lead on the other end of the phone is eager to talk. They may be reluctant, nervous, busy, or simply not a great conversationalist. You need someone who knows how to overcome that, and still walk away with a great story. And nothing kills enthusiasm faster than someone getting a draft to review that misses the mark.

And remember that even the best internal writers may be too immersed in your culture to be objective. Consider looking outside your walls for help.

Be open to options

Case studies come in many different forms. From videos to in-depth articles to something as simple as a standalone quote. Many companies I’ve worked with have a preferred format or template. Just don’t make it an either/or scenario. Anything a customer is willing to share on the record will prove valuable in some way. 

Remember to actually use what you create

Often, case studies get done and posted on a website and sent to salespeople. And that’s it.

That's weak. Instead, milk them for all they're worth. Check with your PR teams – can they use the story to generate media coverage? Can the story be shared on social channels and blogs and, if so, how? Should there be a mini-release strategy to maximize the story, and is the customer willing to come on board and amplify those efforts even further?

The bottom line is this: The need for case studies is one of the few certainties in a constantly evolving content marketing landscape. Creating or refining your process now will pay big dividends for years to come.


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