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What 15 years of B2B case study interviews have taught me about your audience

David McGuire of B2B content writers Radix Communications reveals three surprising truths about your next customer.

It’s a privileged position, writing a B2B case study. Not only am I entrusted with my client’s own client relationship, but the customer will often take the opportunity of talking to a third party to open up, and tell me things they would never say to a vendor direct.

As a result, every case study interview makes me a better writer. It lets me hear how customers really talk about their work, and how industry jargon gets handled in the real world. But more importantly, I get to understand how they reach buying decisions – what they care about, and how they really feel about the brands they use.

And after maybe a couple of hundred case study interviews, I can reveal there’s one clear pattern: the story is almost never what you thought it was.

You have a story in mind. The customer’s reality is different.

The best case study process includes an initial background call with the relevant account manager, so the writer can gather all the basic details – the account history, what was bought, etc. – in advance. This lets us focus the interview itself on questions only the customer can answer.

At this point, a story might start to suggest itself. The salesperson, after all, should be in a good position to understand why the customer reached the decision, and the benefits the product or service have brought.

Indeed, the account has often been chosen as a case study because the narrative seems to meet a marketing need – perhaps illustrating the importance of a certain feature or approach.

But when the interview starts, all bets are off.

And usually, the real reasons the customer made their buying decision are less clear-cut – and more based on gut feel – than you might have hoped (especially if you have a new feature to promote).

Relationships first. Then price and brand. Features last.

Here’s how it goes. I’ve pre-prepared my questions, based on the background call and reading about the amazing new product or service the customer has bought.

“Tell me about the auto-trim balance widget,” I ask, eagerly. “That must fit your unusual shift patterns so well. Has it brought the benefits you expected?”

The customer pauses for a moment. Then they say something like:

“It’s good, yeah. But it wasn’t really a big reason why we bought the kit. Alex did say something about it, though, and I felt I could trust them. They did us a good deal, and we get to work with a known brand… so happy days.”

As a B2B marketing copywriter, it’s almost deflating how often the main reason for the decision was “I liked the salesperson and the price was right”.

But that emphasis on the relationship doesn’t undermine the importance of the marketing work; someone had to get the account manager in the room, with effective messages to say. And the importance of a credible, trusted brand crops up in case study calls all the time (though, strangely, no customer I’ve spoken to has ever mentioned the brand’s purpose).

It’s just that features and benefits play a supporting role – rationalising the decision, and swaying side-by-side comparisons – rather than being the headline act.

They’re probably not measuring the results.

Aside from the questions about the features and benefits, the part where it’s always hard to get a response is when we ask the customer to quantify the benefits they’ve received.

Usually, the customer will have a very clear idea of the impact of using the product or solution. They’ll know if it’s faster, or cheaper, or safer, or easier. But ask them how much time or money they’ve saved, and they tend to become vague and apologetic.

Sometimes, this is because they want to play their cards close to their chest, and not give too much away to competitors. But more often, they’re simply too busy doing the job to stop, collect the data, and do a “before and after” calculation.

In B2B, we talk a lot about dashboard and measurable results but – at least if case study interviews are anything to go by – that measurement happens less frequently than we might assume.

They really, really care about their work.

You don’t need yet another post telling you that emotion is important in B2B decision-making. But when you conduct case study interviews, you see that reality up close. Customers often talk about feeling comfortable with a choice, reveal their worries over potential risks, or share satisfaction at how a decision made them look good.

And those emotions run deep. More than once, I’ve heard customers break down in tears when asked about the workplace challenges they’d had to overcome.

That strength of feeling is worth bearing in mind when you create your marketing materials. While you won’t get far without logical, fact-based arguments, the thrust of your message needs to recognise that the decision itself might be motivated by hope, frustration, fear, ambition, or another deep-seated feeling that needs to be rationalised.  

Find ways to talk to customers, and your content will improve.

Overall, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 15 years of B2B case study interviews, it’s that there’s no substitute for talking to someone actually doing the role. Data, research and personas can get you so far, but ultimately you need to know what someone’s facing, how they feel about it, and what it means to them.

That’s why it’s especially frustrating that 8 out of 10 B2B marketers struggle with access to customers. Without it, you’re missing a world of potential insights – those nuggets of wisdom that tell you what the subjective experience is really like.

If the structure of your organisation makes that difficult, you may need to get creative: inhabit online forums (resisting the urge to promote your brand); find relevant digital events to attend; maybe listen to podcast interviews.

But however you do it, find the true, unfiltered voice of your audience – I guarantee you’ll be surprised. And if you’re trying to create authentic, resonant content, that’s a very good thing.

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