So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the good old fashioned case study lately. What makes a good one? What makes a bad one? How do they help a client hire you? Or, keep them from hiring you? This article shares 5 best practices for making your case studies sing — if you just want the facts, jump to the bottom.
Why Does a Prospect Consume a Case Study at All?
I think most firms sort of take case studies for granted. They stringently follow a one-size fits all formula — challenge, solution, result — repeat. Little effort is given to modify the content or the presentation based on the medium involved. And, at least it appears to me, little thought is applied to the role the case study plays in the buyer’s journey. Most everyone agrees that they need case studies, but they don’t often question why.
The answer to this question, “Why?,” varies from firm to firm based on the nature of the firm’s expertise, what they do and who they serve. But, I tend to believe a prospective client has different expectations from a case study at different points in their buying journey. (For more on what prospects are looking for from your content, read this post: Marketing is Change Management).
Early Stages of Buying
The early stage buyer is really a researcher. They’ve identified symptoms of a problem they have, and they’re looking for ideas, suggestions and perspective on how to diagnose and solve it. At some point during that process, they also start to seek out potential firms that can help. Sometimes those activities occur together (I have an employee engagement problem….what do I do about it….oh, looks like you can help). Or, they may be discrete activities (I think I know how to solve my employee engagement problem….who can help me with that?). Eventually, during this research process they’ll also be looking for insight as to what it’s going to cost to solve their problem and how long it’s going to take. (For more on what prospects are looking for in the early stages of buying, read this post: Using Content to Educate).
Based on that, here’s what I think early stage buyers are looking for from a case study:
- To learn how to solve a business problem they’re facing and what outcomes to expect based on the prior experiences of others.
- To get a quick synopsis of what your firm does and the value it creates by learning through a story.
- To learn how much it cost your client to solve the problem and how long it took to do so.
What’s useful in a case study to this buyer:
- A quick digestible overview of your client’s situation, the solution applied and the results achieved to gauge if it will be useful to their learning process.
- Moderate discussion of the symptoms and the solution — after all, they’re trying to figure out if the applied remedy would be a good match for their situation.
- Costs and timelines — to be clear, this information should not be detailed nor even specific. It’s most useful when it’s presented as a range to give a client an idea of what it costs to solve a problem of this type.
Middle Stages of Buying
The middle stage buyer has already resolved themselves to solve a problem, they’ve made some assumptions about what the appropriate remedy to the problem might be, and they’ve probably identified a couple of likely partners to help. Now, they’re trying to muster up the confidence to invest the dollars, people and time to move forward (with anyone — possibly your firm, possibly another).
Here’s what I think middle stage buyers are looking for from a case study:
- Inspiration. Noted business development consultant, Blair Enns, likes to say, “No vision. No decision.” At this point, they’re looking for a vision of a better reality — both for their company and for them.
What’s useful in a case study to this buyer:
- A client’s perspective on the problem they had and the outcomes they achieved through a relationship with your firm. Nothing builds confidence more than hearing the perspective of someone who is on the other side of a similar problem you share.
Late Stages of Buying
The late stage buyer is looking to reassure that your firm is the right one to solve their problem. They’re looking to minimize the risk of making a bad decision and increase the likelihood that they’re making a good one.
Here’s what I think late stage buyers are looking for from a case study:
- To gauge the depth and qualify of your experience relative to their specific needs.
- To discern what it would actually be like to work with your firm.
- To understand the process (even cursorily) that you might apply to their situation.
What’s useful in a case study to this buyer:
- A client’s perspective on the experience of working with your firm. How did they feel about the work throughout the process? What unforeseen hurdles were experienced, and how did you overcome them.
- A consultant’s perspective on the engagement. What made it interesting? Challenging? Rewarding? What aspects of the experience proved most difficult?
5 Best Practices for Better Case Studies
- Mix media. Don’t rely on just one media. You don’t have to deliver all of these different types of case studies through the web. You may want to have a few different case study formats to use in different situations — for casual web visitors, for consultants in exploratory meetings and for consultants in late stage buying decisions.
- Video in the middle. Multimedia content is most effective at communicating feelings and emotions. If you want to inspire a prospective client to take action, video content can be a useful tool.
- Business is personal. Most case studies only stress the outcomes achieved by the business. Buyers are people. They have personal and career objectives for hiring a firm. Speak to those as well.
- Process in person. A case study focused on process tends to be most effective when it’s presented to an individual we know to be at the later stages of buying. Early stage buyers are bored by process and will quickly check out. You’ll find very little reference to process on our website. We have a very rigorous process by which we engage a client, but we don’t introduce it until we know a prospective client is truly ready to engage an agency. Introduced earlier, it just pushes clients away.
- More is better. Don’t try to serve all these audiences with one case study. You might need 2-3 different case study formats to address different stages of the buying process. For a flagship client engagement that represents the types of client you’d really like to attract, I’d suggest having a PDF/web-based case study targeting early-stage buyers, a multimedia case study for middle stage buyers and an in-person case study for presenting process.
Examples of Good Case Studies
Here a few good examples to get you started:
- Emergn — Standard Life Relationship This case study is a bit awkward in that it violates best practice #5 — the firm is serving the same content in its PDF content as its website content. The content is very well suited to a designed PDF document, but much less so on an HTML webpage. But, the PDF version is a good example of a case study for an early stage buyer. It offers a nice quick synopsis of the client’s challenge, the solution provided by the firm and the outcomes. Then, much of the longer summary delves into these three areas in detail to help a prospective client learn.
- Definity Partners — Bilstein Relationship This 6-minute video is a good example of a case study for a middle stage buyer. It does a good job of showing what the firm actually does for its clients — the problems it solves and how it solves them. It speaks both to hard business outcomes and the impact of the firm’s work on the client’s leaders and workforce (it features front-line workers speaking directly about how things work now that their company has engaged with the firm). Most critically, it showcases leaders talking about both their business and personal outcomes from the work (scan towards the bottom to access the video).
- Slideshare — Frost & Sullivan Relationship This case study is actually for the social media platform, Slideshare. But, it is a really good example of a case study that’s useful to a late stage buyer. It’s really interesting in that it’s structured like an interview. It provides really good insight into the client’s decision-making process. Why did they do what they did? What were the outcomes? How did they overcome the most direct hurdles to success? As such, it is very reassuring to a new prospective client that is in the late stages of considering a relationship with Slideshare.
Why Does All This Matter?
You can’t really sell a professional service — be it, consulting, architecture or engineering. A client buys a service when they’re ready. The case study is an oft-overlooked tool that helps guide a client’s buying process. Done well, your case studies should be useful to many buyers at different stages of the buying process. (For more on using case studies throughout the buying process, read this post: Using Content to Motivate Prospects).