Getting your customer to sing your praises is social proof at its best. (Image by Fairphone
Does the following scenario sound familiar?
You go the extra mile for your customer, recruit her to sing your praises, write a striking case study and send it off to your email list to do its magic. Then you do a little dance… and you wait. And wait…
Case studies of customer success let you touch pain points and counter objections in story form, in a way that doesn’t feel too salesy. By reading how their peer overcame challenges and reached the place they’d like to reach themselves, prospects develop an emotional connection with your satisfied customer and, through them, with your company.
Plus, once your case study is ready, you can use this one story across the funnel for maximum impact — from marketing copy to webinars to landing pages.
According to Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs’ 2015 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends report, 77% of B2B and 35% of B2C marketers use case studies. And almost 60% of the B2B marketers who participated in the study said case studies were effective for them.
But not every case study converts, or even makes it from idea to publication. That’s why we created this checklist for you. Follow it to avoid potential roadblocks and create a case study that actually helps you move the needle.
Set a goal for your case study and choose the right customer to feature
1. Decide which product, service or feature is most important for you to promote
It can be your hardest product to sell, one that goes against industry conventions or a new feature that could take your company in a new direction.
Go down your list of products and features and pinpoint the ones that differentiate you from the competition. What do you offer that your competitors just can’t?
Eventually, you’ll be able to follow in New Relic’s steps and present a case study library for each of your key features or offerings. When you do that, prospective customers will find it easy to learn about the solution that fits them best.
New Relic’s case study game is strong.
2. Go beyond features and think about benefits, too
When planning for your case study, also consider the benefits you want to promote — how will your product or feature affect customers on a deeper level?
Take Ringadoc for example, who wanted to develop case studies to show how its app helps clinics easily triage after-hour calls. They wanted to talk about the monetary benefits they bring their customers like Dentologie, a dental clinic in downtown Chicago:
Ringadoc highlights their client’s monetary benefits, but not at the expense of customer service.
The headline of this case study speaks to the monetary benefits that Ringadoc brings its clients. But the company also wanted to make sure clinics know they’ll get outstanding customer service and that their older patients will be able to handle speaking to a recording — so they were sure to highlight these deeper, more emotional benefits in the case study. Check out this excerpt, for example:
“No note gets lost and no patient finds her or himself explaining the problem five times, saving time and discomfort for everyone involved.”
Case studies should highlight features *and* benefits — from monetary to emotional.
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3. Choose an audience sector to prioritize
This is your opportunity to defy stereotypes by proving that elders can use your app too, or show how you can drive results for both solopreneurs and enterprises.
Job search service Simply Hired understands that small businesses looking to hire employees don’t operate the same as the world’s premier staffing firms. By developing sector-specific case studies, Simply Hired is able to send different prospects down different funnels focused on their specific needs:
Project management tool Clarizen offers another way to choose audience sectors for your case studies. Understanding that project managers and IT teams are looking for different types of customer stories, Clarizen lets you filter the case study list by your position.
4. Be strategic in your efforts to attract more local or international customers
If you want to get local press or convince prospects from around the world that you could be a good fit, take location into consideration.
Freelance writing mentors Carol Tice and Linda Formichelli offer a course called Pitch Clinic to help writers improve their pitches. The course gets mostly American students, but Carol and Linda wanted to show international subscribers that their strategies work for writers around the world.
In a case study ebook they developed, they feature this success story of a writer from India:
The added benefit here? Carol and Linda’s prospects in the US have extra proof that their strategies work — regardless of physical location.
5. Choose a customer industry you want to grow in
A very common question prospects ask is, “Does this solution work for my industry?” If you help multiple industries, creating a case study for each of them could help answer this question.
Check out how finance management software Intacct makes it easy for its prospects to hear from their industry-specific peers:
6. Start with the most challenging sector, or the most universal
If you’re stuck and unsure where to start, go with the most challenging industry or sector to sell to, or feature customers that saw the greatest results and can impress the largest part of your target audience.
Get customer collaboration
7. Find the low-hanging fruit
Getting customer collaboration might be the most challenging part of this process, so do your best to find the low-hanging fruit. If customers have already expressed gratitude, they’ll be easier to recruit.
Where do you find this gratitude? Check your inbox for thank you emails, look for Twitter shoutouts, search review sites and forums for praise and pay attention to who sends you the most referrals.
Customer data management software InsideView doesn’t only follow this tip — it features the shoutouts on its website:
8. Decide whether featuring big names or everyday peers will serve your audience better
If you have a satisfied celebrity customer, you may want to feature her for the immediate social proof, but weigh the pros and cons. Could prospective customers worry that it worked for the celebrity because of her unique status?
For example, if you’re an interior designer, prospects might worry that they won’t be able to achieve the same impressive results without the same budget. It might be best to feature a peer with a budget similar to that of your target audience.
However, if the celebrity won the race using your brand’s bicycle or nutrition plan, it could be the inspiration your audience needs to get more ambitious… and try your products while they’re at it.
9. Clarify who needs to approve participation and how long it’ll take
This is a big deal. Your contact might not be the one with the authority to approve the finished case study, and you want to know that before you start investing time, money and energy.
If you’re a B2C company, one family member might need to convince the rest, who could feel uncomfortable with public exposure.
If you’re in B2B, top management and legal departments could have concerns you’ll need to address. They could also have other priorities, putting your case study contract at the bottom of their to-do list and getting you stuck for months.
If you’re counting on the case study for a marketing campaign, consider how long you’re willing to wait.
Clarify a timetable. If you expect delays, consider moving forward with another option. Sometimes it’s better to go with a non-brand name and get your case study published than hold your marketing plans for months waiting for the big names to get back to you.
10. How much incentive are you willing to give?
Yes, some will participate in your case studies out of sheer gratitude, but remember that you’re asking a lot.
You’re asking them to open up about a personal or business process in front of the entire world, and to top it off, they need to make time for you. Maybe they even need to recruit others for the case study to actually happen.
There’s nothing wrong with a little incentive to make it a win-win situation.
Remember Pitch Clinic for freelance writers? I got this email from Linda Formichelli this fall. She and Carol Tice were offering a full refund to students who signed up for their course, did all their homework and… allowed Linda and Carol to feature them in a case study ebook.
Yes, they asked for case study participation before you even bought their product.
11. Identify customers who share your target audience?
Another low hanging fruit is a customer who shares your target audience, such as a veterinarian with a dog food manufacturer as a customer. Getting buy-in and participation will be easier because the case study can promote you both… and that might be the only incentive your customer needs.
Video software company Animoto did just that by featuring a marketing agency on its success stories page.
12. Get written permission to use the customer’s story in your marketing efforts
A “yes” in a post-conference party or an excited phone call will only get you so far. True, getting it in writing might prolong the process, but you’ll be covered in case your contact leaves the company or the CEO changes policies.
Otherwise, you might find yourself investing time and money in a case study that will never see the light of day.
Prepare for a successful case study interview
13. Research your own company
Leading a successful interview requires quality preparation.
If you conduct the interview yourself, take some time to familiarize yourself with departments your customer has interacted with, or departments you want to feature in your case study. These could be your customer service department, your software developers or any other relevant part of the company you don’t usually engage with professionally.
Understanding your customer’s touch points with your company will help you ask the right type of questions.
14. Research your customer’s company and industry
Researching your customers helps you understand their point of view and challenges so you can better brainstorm questions that’ll get you the data and quotes you need.
Consider this case study by enterprise data management software company Acxiom about its customer Hearst Magazines. It demonstrates that Acxiom has an intimate understanding of Hearst’s goals and challenges as the magazine landscape changes:
By showing you really get the featured customer, you consequently show the case study’s target audience that you get their needs too.
15. Research the customer’s journey with your company
Learning about the satisfied customer’s background isn’t enough. Before conducting the interview, collect information about the journey the customer has gone through with your company.
Was there hesitation at first? What concerns, challenges and setbacks were experienced along the way? What ultimately led to your customer meeting or exceeding their goal?
It’s important to get this information from the customer’s perspective as well, but hearing both sides of the story will allow you to lead the interview in the direction that helps you meet your own goals.
16. Research the language the case study’s target audience uses
Every audience has different challenges and uses different terminology. Can you imagine using ROI, CRO and CRM in the same paragraph… in a case study targeted at people considering starting their first business?
Check out this case study section intro from Freelance Mom:
The company targets mompreneurs who’ve undoubtedly said at least once that they need an extra day a week. Freelance Mom is a B2B business, but it targets women raising kids and running a business. You can bet they feel alone sometimes, and here comes Lisa Stein, the Freelance Mom, to tell them they’re not alone, in terms they relate to.
17. Review your goals for the case study and adjust them accordingly
Unfortunately, we don’t always get what we want in life. As much as I want to, I can’t adopt a penguin, for example. But life isn’t about what you can’t have — it’s about making the most of what you do have.
Didn’t get the customer you wanted to feature? Make the most of the customer you did. Be grateful. And adjust your goals before brainstorming interview questions.
You might not be able to reach the target audience you wanted, but you’ll reach another sector that might surprise you.
18. Decide on a case study format
Most companies go with written case studies, but if you have the necessary resources and you manage to convince a customer to go on camera, a video case study can introduce an element of fun to sometimes dry subject matter.
Otherwise, consider bringing your customer on your podcast or webinar — you may even want to specifically seek out customers who have experience appearing on video or podcasts.
When deciding on a format, account for what works best for:
- You and your team: Which resources are available?
- Your customer: Which format are they most comfortable with?
- Your target audience for the case study: Which format will resonate most with them?
19. Schedule an interview
Find out when your customer is available to talk. Make sure your interviewer understands the importance of accommodating your customer’s needs, especially across time zones.
You don’t have to talk to someone at 4 a.m. if that doesn’t work for you (though I’ve totally done that), but make an effort to put your customer’s needs first.
20. Include visuals in your case study
Photos add a great visual impact, as you can see in website builder Wix’s customer stories section:
But don’t assume you can use these visuals.
Some people won’t feel comfortable with you using their photo, even if said photo is available publicly on social media. Others might find it to be uncomfortable enough to share their story, and won’t want the added vulnerability of their photo in your marketing materials. Further, some companies might require management or legal approval.
So get permission first, and get it in writing.
Conduct a successful case study interview
21. Start with the basics
Confirm basic information and correct spelling, and let the customer give you a little background in their own words. This is information you’re supposed to have by now, but you want to verify that it’s accurate. It’s also your way to gain some insight into the customer’s mind, values and the language they use. Pay attention, because it could help you throughout the interview.
Quoted or not, you’ll need to incorporate some basic information in your case study to give readers some context.
22. Ask the customer what the situation was like before using your product
Your customer probably dealt with many challenges your prospective customers are encountering right now.
Showing your audience you get where they are now helps them trust you to lead them to where they want to go. At the very least, you’ll give them a reason to keep reading the case study — they’ll want to find out how someone else got from where they are now to accomplishing their goals.
23. Ask the customer why they decided to change the situation
This is a great way to set the stage for the solution your company offers.
And again, people reading your case study are probably struggling with the same challenges. Showing them someone just like them put a stop to the same struggle gives them courage to do the same.
24. Don’t be afraid to talk about the concerns the customer had about working with you
Did your customer have concerns about working with your company, onboarding challenges or growing pains throughout the process?
Don’t be afraid to ask about these roadblocks and include them in your case study — this is your chance to touch on customer pain points and help prospects overcome objections in a non-salesy way.
Marie Forleo does this beautifully with her course, B-School. Check out the right sidebar in the image below. She has an answer for every objection you could possibly have about joining B-School, and it’s especially effective because it comes from customers who had the same objections, overcame them and achieved great results with B-School.
25. Showcase the customer’s journey with your company
Another benefit to talking about product challenges that prospects fear they’ll face? You get to show the process your company led to help real customers overcome these challenges.
This case study I wrote for Set Her Free, for example, doesn’t claim that life is now perfect for Florence, a young woman Set Her Free rescued from the sex industry in Uganda. But it does show the process Florence went through and how Set Her Free helped her reach a point where hope is a reality.
26. Ask your customer how life or business is different now
This is the best part: Get your customer to paint a picture of how life or business is different now. Try to get as accurate data as you can, but, depending on your goals, don’t forget to focus on feelings too.
BONUS TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions, because you never know what you’re going to learn.
Write a customer-centric, goal-oriented case study
27. Choose your case study structure
Decide whether you use the good ol’ structure of “challenge, solution, results” (to make it easy for readers to navigate), or benefit-driven headlines that tell a story and evoke curiosity.
Athlete endorsement matchmaking service Opendorse, for example, used the classic structure in its Girl Scouts of Nebraska case study.
Unbounce, on the other hand, combined both methods when it came time to share how the company helped Chair 10 Marketing save $400 per client. Unbounce featured a classic structure in a sidebar, and benefit-driven headlines in the body of the case study.
28. Make your customer the hero of the case study
Clearly, your solution helped your featured customer, otherwise you wouldn’t have a great case study to market. But be careful not to make your customer look bad because of poor past choices.
On the contrary, make your customer the classic Hollywood hero, weathering many storms until finally finding the right tool or service to reach their goals. That’s the kind of story your prospects can relate to, and the kind that will convince more customers to participate in case studies down the line.
29. Give your customer a chance to ask for edits
Finally, before hitting publish, let your customer read the case study and ask for edits.
Not only is it fair, but it’ll help you avoid possible friction later (after you’ve already promoted the case study) with one of your most valuable customers.
Get the most mileage out of your case study by marketing it both externally and internally
30. Get the necessary approvals before spreading the news
If there’s anyone who still need to greenlight the publication inside your company or on the customer’s end, get that approval before you share the case study with the world.
31. Let your audience know about your case study in every possible way
Incorporate your case study in your site copy, blog, email newsletter and social media, plus create a designated page or section just for case studies.
Want some inspiration?
HubSpot created a designated case study section, with a quick overview of results and clickable boxes, which lead you to the full case studies:
Unbounce added a case study video to its home page. You see a results-focused quote next to the customer’s photo, then have the option to click a button and watch the case study video… right on the home page:
Danny Iny of Mirasee (previously Firepole Marketing) incorporated a case study in the landing page for one of his courses, Write Like Freddy:
Bryan Harris is known for his formulas, which are based on case studies of successful customers. Here’s one of the case studies he published as a post on his blog, Videofruit:
32. Let other people’s audiences know about your case study, too
Pitch to get interviewed, write guest posts and have related press releases published.
Before Michael Aagaard joined the Unbounce team, he wrote guest posts for the blog and featured case studies of his own company, ContentVerve:
33. Market the case study to your own team
Just as importantly, market the case study inside your company to let team members know their work makes a difference, and recruit them to help you take the company to the next level.
To do that, email everybody when the case study is ready, share it in team meetings and trainings and hang it around the office.
Diane Autey, sales support content manager at RedBrick Health, did just that — she hung case studies on office walls and put them in a binder, which she placed in the lunchroom, so all employees can have access to them.
34. Document the publicity’s impact on your customer
When marketing your case study, keep tabs on how this publicity helps your customer grow, too.
This works especially if you share a target audience, like in the example of video software Animoto featuring a marketing agency on its success stories page.
But even if you don’t, consider making an effort to get in front of audiences that could help your customer shine. If you’re a video software company with a bakery customer, don’t just seek publicity on marketing sites. Look for websites and magazines that serve the bakery industry, or try to get your case study featured on the local news, where this bakery’s customers are the target audience.
It’ll make it easier to convince the next satisfied customer to participate.
Which case study step will you take next?
Creating case studies may seem complex at first glance, but following this checklist will simplify your journey to conversions you can dance to.
Need someone to cheer you on? Share your next step with us in the comments and we’ll do just that.