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7 Tips for Building a “Perfect” Case Study

by | Oct 11, 2020 | Case Studies, Content Marketing | 0 comments

7 Tips for Building a Perfect Case Study

Let me begin by saying this: there is no such thing as the perfect case study. Every piece of content is going to have its flaws. Besides, a case study doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.

What I mean by a “perfect” case study is one that fully meets its marketing objectives. One that gives prospects all the information they’re looking for when they turn to a case study. It’s a goal that’s achievable but often elusive.

The seven tips I’m about to give you will help you achieve that goal.

I’m going to start from the assumption that (1) the customer story in question will fill a real gap in your case study portfolio, and (2) customer approval of that case study will not pose a problem. Gaining customer story pre-approval and final approval are topics I’ve covered in other essays.

Tip #1: Ask new customers to benchmark their current process

When I write customer stories for clients, I often find the customer has little or nothing in the way of quantifiable results I can share with readers. Unfortunately, if your customer doesn’t have any metrics to share, it’s hard to quantify how much they’ve improved over their previous situation.

This is one of the most frequent difficulties case study writers face.

Why is this a problem, and why does it occur so frequently?

Perhaps the biggest reason prospective customers read case studies is to find out how much your solution can benefit them. How much time can they save themselves? How much can they improve reliability? How much can they lower their costs? How much can they improve their process? You get the picture.

To show improvement, however, you must first establish a basis for comparison. The most frequent reason customers can’t demonstrate quantifiable improvement is that they haven’t tracked metrics on their previous solution.

You can overcome this by asking your sales team or account managers to work with new customers—or even prospective customers—on benchmarking their existing process.

Find out what metrics they’ve been tracking. Determine if those will form a valid basis for comparison. If they don’t have metrics, help them set some up. Ask them to track those metrics until your solution is fully implemented.

Once you have that benchmark, you’ll have a basis for showing just how much your solution can improve upon it.

Tip #2: Ask new customers to track metrics on your solution

Another reason customers can’t quantify improvements is that vendors don’t ask them to track metrics on their newly improved processes.

Once you have a benchmark, you need data from your own solution to compare with that. Otherwise, your customer’s benchmarking exercise will have been a waste of time.

Help new customers define metrics to measure their performance with your solution. Ask them to track those metrics once their new process is fully operational. When your customer has comparable metrics on both their old solution and the new one you’ve provided, they’ll be able to generate plenty of quantified results you can present in your case study.

Tip #3: Capture the story in the adoption ‘sweet spot’

One of the keys to building a “perfect” case study is to be neither too early nor too late in capturing the customer’s story.

Interview the customer too early, and they won’t be able to provide reliable data showing improved results. Approach them too late, and they won’t remember what life was like before your solution; they may love your solution, but they’ll have lost track of how its results compare with those of their old one.

Recently, I was building case studies for two different clients simultaneously. One had approached the customer less than six months after adoption. The other had waited ten years.

Customer A had not yet completed the project for which they had adopted Client A’s solution. They were able to make qualitative statements about how fast they were able to develop new prototypes and how they were able to hit their interim budget and schedule goals. But they couldn’t yet say how much time or money they’d saved or how successful they had been in improving quality because they hadn’t yet met their project goals.

Customer B could tell me plenty about what he liked about Client B’s solution. But even though he had remained with the company all those years, he couldn’t remember enough about the old solution to compare it with Client B’s, which in turn had evolved extensively over the subsequent decade.

Hitting that sweet spot can be challenging, especially in industries where professionals tend to change jobs frequently. Another case study project I wrote recently was delayed several weeks when their primary customer contact moved to another company.

So, it’s important to keep tabs on the progress new customers are making with your solution. Try to capture their stories as soon as possible after they begin achieving meaningful results. How long that takes will depend on the nature of your specific solution.

Remember, you don’t want to jump to early, but you don’t want to wait too long. The case study sweet spot window opens when the customer starts seeing meaningful, quantifiable results but remains open only as long as the customer remembers what life was like before they adopted your solution.

Tip #4:  Find the right case study writer

Case studies are more complex than most content projects. They require knowledge of both the case study form and the development process, as well as solid skills in both project management and interviewing.

If you don’t have that kind of expertise in house, look for writers who have experience in writing case studies and can demonstrate a solid process for developing them. To choose the writer who’s best for your company, look for someone who can understand your technology and your industry. Verify that they can speak the language of your target audience.

Bear in mind that if you serve a very narrow target market, you may have difficulty finding a writer with experience in your niche. You’ll want to search for writers with backgrounds that will help them understand your solution and communicate effectively with your SMEs. But above all, look for case study writing experience and a sound process.

Tip #5: Provide your writer with background on the story

Before your writer interviews your customer, he or she will want an overview of the customer’s story.

Have your sales or support team gather background data ahead of time. Normally, they can do that through their normal contact with the customer. Make sure you know the gist of your customer’s story, so you can convey a synopsis to your writer.

Good background information will help the writer ask better questions and gather more relevant data and quotes during the customer interview. That, in turn, will make your case study more informative and more entertaining to read.

Tip #6: Invite the right customer representatives to the interview

Which customer representatives should your writer interview? That will depend on who typically makes the purchasing decision for your solution, and who influences it.

If you sell a product that is used across the enterprise, you may want to interview executives from you customer’s C-suite. If, on the other hand, your solution is normally purchased by engineering managers for their laboratories, you may want to interview only the engineer who oversees the daily use of your solution.

In some cases, you may want to gather quotes from your marketing counterpart, especially if your solution is helping the customer market their own services more effectively.

In any case don’t overpack the interview call. Try to limit participation to only those who can contribute meaningfully to the story—people who have witnessed firsthand the impact of your solution.

Too many participants can bog down an interview and makes it more likely to go off track. The former will make the interview run longer than scheduled and waste people’s time. The latter will make it harder for the writer to sort through the interview transcript and find the data that needs to go into the story. That, in turn, could cause your schedule to slip.

In general, one or two participants on the customer side are usually adequate. Aim for no more than three.

Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to show a few warts

A couple of years ago, I was writing a case study about the first use of a brand-new fire prevention product. The product had been created to meet a new safety standard. My client’s customer needed to comply with the new regulation. They also had a tight deadline due to an upcoming event at the facility where they were performing the installation.

My client rushed the first production units of the new device to this customer.

During installation, however, a firmware error caused one feature of the device to operate incorrectly. My client’s engineering team quickly diagnosed and corrected the problem. A technician was dispatched to load the new firmware on all the devices at the customer’s site.

The customer completed their installation on time with the entire system working perfectly. They were effusive in their praise of the support my client gave them.

Unfortunately, during the review of my draft, my client decided they didn’t want to reveal that those initial production units had been delivered with a flaw. Most of the passage I just described was removed from the final case study. Against my objections, this huge, global supplier forfeited an opportunity to show how responsive they’d been to a small customer.

My advice? Don’t obsess about making your company and your product look perfect in your “perfect” case study. Prospects understand that practically no implementation comes off without a hitch. Case studies that claim a flawless implementation tend to be less credible. So, don’t be afraid to reveal a small imperfection or two.

Instead, use those as opportunities to show how your company went the extra mile for the customer. After all, if your customer weren’t enthusiastic about your solution, they wouldn’t have agreed to participate in a case study, would they?

Take-away points

A “perfect” case study is one that gives prospects all the information they’re looking for when they turn to a case study, including:

  • Results that show quantifiable process improvements and business gains
  • A clear idea of what it’s like to work with you
  • The value you offer as a vendor

Remember the following seven tips for delivering a “perfect” case study to your target reader:

  1. Ask new customers to benchmark their current process before they implement your solution
  2. Ask new customers to track metrics on your solution, so they can eventually provide you with quantifiable results and improvements
  3. Capture case studies in the adoption “sweet spot,” that is:
    • After the customer has begun to realize measurable improvements
    • Before they forget what life was like before your solution
  4. Find the right writer for your organization:
    • One who has case study writing experience and a sound development process
    • One who can understand your solution and your target audience
  5. Provide your writer with sufficient background information on the customer story
  6. Find the right customer representatives for you writer to interview
  7. Don’t be afraid to show some imperfections in implementation; use them to show how you went that extra mile to help your customer achieve their goals

Next steps

Have other tips for building a “perfect” case study? Please share them in the comments area below.

Need a writer with a solid process and loads of experience in crafting effective case studies? One who speaks engineer and can deal with complex technical solutions? Contact CopyEngineer at info@copyengineer.com.

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