4 reasons why your B2B case study doesn’t work

David McGuire of Radix Communications reveals four common mistakes B2B marketers make when creating case studies.

Case studies are one of the most enduring B2B content formats – and with good reason. For a prospect, there are few things more compelling than seeing how someone in a similar situation solved a familiar problem or achieved a business goal.

There’s also an important aspect of social proof. In any important decision, it’s reassuring to know the option you’re choosing is a popular one. Although B2B buying processes are often assumed to be logical, anyone who’s seen one up close knows gut feel plays an important role – and a good case study can help a vendor to feel like the right choice.

Which is why it’s so frustrating that a lot of B2B case studies are not good. Often, they’re boring, boastful, and lack any kind of detail a prospect would want to read. In theory, the formula that makes a case study work is straightforward; how do so many brands get it so wrong?

As a full-time B2B tech content writer – and a veteran of hundreds of case studies – I can tell you exactly why. A case study is a simple recipe, but some of the ingredients can be tricky to get without the right support. And research shows support for B2B marketers is in short supply.

If you’re in an environment where marketing doesn’t get the cooperation it needs, case studies are one of the first content types to suffer. Usually, it’s because the marketer had to compromise in one of four areas.

1. The customer is not the hero

If you’re trying to placate an internal stakeholder – say a salesperson or a product expert – then it’s easy to make your product or service look like the hero of the tale. To keep them happy, maybe you put your brand name right at the start of the headline. Or you make it sound like your product achieved the results on its own.

Big mistake.

Case studies work because the prospect can identify with your customer – the challenges they faced, and how they need to overcome them. You want the reader to root for the customer, and feel that they can achieve something similar. If your case study is so full of your own awesomeness that your customer ends up being a bit-part player, you deny that possibility.

To the prospect, your customer should be the hero of the story – and not you. So let them own their achievements, and tell the story of what they did with your help. As a bonus, your customer might just get a warm glow about that upsell conversation, because you made them look so good.

2. We can’t hear the customer’s voice

There are any number of reasons why marketers decide to exclude customer quotes from a case study. Sometimes, they can make the signoff process harder. Or it could be a protective sales team insists on doing the whole thing by email. 78% of B2B marketers have difficulty getting access to the customer at all.

But by omitting that quote, you miss the chance to use one of the sharpest weapons in all of marketing: your customer’s voice. However good your copywriter, your reader will take anything you claim with a pinch of salt. But your customer’s real words are another matter – and that makes them exponentially more powerful than anything you might say about yourself. It’s worth the extra effort. And while you’re quoting the customer, why not use their actual words – instead of converting what they said into corporate speak? Using words a human being might actually say makes your case study easier and faster to read, and more believable too.

3. It’s about companies, not people

A lot of case studies never name the person in the buying company who needed to achieve an outcome, or who decided to call the vendor – it’s just what the company did.

And it’s easy to see why. Readers are smart enough to recognise a relevant example from the same industry. Meanwhile, signoff can be awkward, individuals may not want to take credit, and salespeople want to keep their contacts close to their chest. But companies don’t make buying decisions; people do. People, not companies, read case studies.

And while “Here’s how a similar company did something great” is interesting, it’ll never be as compelling as “Here’s how someone with my job solved that problem I face every day, and how it made them feel."

So if you get talk to the customer, ask questions that will prompt them to go beyond the standard, corporate responses, and give you a tangible, human reaction that your next reader can respond to.

Questions like:

  • What was wrong with what you were doing before?
  • Was there a moment when you knew things had to change?
  • What difference has this made to your job?
  • How do you feel about the project now?

If you do it well, you can get past “Yes, that is a relevant company”, and get the reader to think “You know what? This person sounds just like me.”

4. The headings are “challenge”, “solution”, and “results”

Yes, it’s easier to get stakeholders to approve content that follows the same pattern you’ve always used – but that can come at the expense of making your case study more effective.

Even the best-written case study will be glanced at far more often than it’s read in full. And while the time honoured “challenge, solution, results” approach is a sensible way to structure your story, using headings that simply describe the content misses the opportunity to make your point from the first cursory scan.

If you can change your headings to a one-line summary of what the challenge, solution, and results actually were, you can get your message across in five seconds flat. And if you can build those headings from real customer quotes, you can even tell the story in their voice before anyone reads in depth.

(Some stakeholders will flatly refuse to accept any case study that doesn’t explicitly say “challenge”, “solution” and “results” in its headings. The best compromise here is to put these words at the start of your heading, and then explain them. For example, “Challenge: overcoming stakeholder objections”.)

Take small steps

No decent marketer cuts corners on their content out of choice. If you’re missing important steps in your case study process, it’s likely because of pressures or restrictions within your organisation. Or maybe your access to customers has been limited by the pandemic, and you’re trying to work out what’s possible.

In that situation, beware of the instinct to shoot for perfect case studies straight away – you could end up freezing your content pipeline, and end up with no finished content at all. Instead, start from where you are. Pick one small battle, establish it as normal practice and look for data to prove it worked. Then move on to the next.

It feels like a lot of work – especially at first. But once you start to get more engaging, effective case studies into the world, the results should speak for themselves.

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