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How to get the best bang from your case study buck

Everyone loves case studies.

But how do you create a really great case study?

Then how do you squeeze every drop of value out of it?

We put these questions to two seasoned case study writers: Steve Slaunwhite and Casey Hibbard.

They generously shared 15 pragmatic tips on how to plan, write and publish case studies for maximum impact.

These are arranged in chronological order: through planning, researching, writing to publishing a case study.

Case study tip #1: Offer incentives to sales reps

Your best source of case study subjects will likely be your sales force. But how do you get their attention?

Just like you get their attention for anything else: cash.

“One software company I work with offers pretty good cash incentives, and they get a fair number of ideas submitted,” says Hibbard.

“And then if the story winds up getting published, the sales rep get $1,000.”

She suggests choosing a few key opportunities to ask sales for case study leads, like at sales meetings or during a traditionally slow quarter.

That may work better than nagging them all year round.


happy people with blue sky

Case study tip #2: Offer incentives to customers

We know at least one software firm that offers a $1,000 discount on their license to any customer who agrees to be featured in a case study.

Another approach is to appeal to the client’s own need for promotion.

“People are busy and you’ve got to sell the idea. Say, ‘If you’re willing to share your story, you’re going to be featured in all these places and get a lot of exposure.'”

For a company at the right stage in their own growth, that kind of free publicity can be worthwhile.

Case study tip #3: Control the process

Once you have a case study lead, handle it carefully.

Someone from marketing should call and tactfully confirm that they agreed to be interviewed. Explain the process and where you will likely want to publish the story.

You may want to pre-interview them to make sure they have a solid story to tell.

Whatever you do, keep their entire time commitment down to an hour or two.

As for approvals, Hibbard recommends a simple approval form for subjects to sign.

“If you flesh out the process at the beginning, that can really help,” she says.

“Ask, ‘Who is going to approve this and sign off?’ Talk to the legal team and show them, ‘This is the release form, this is a sample we did for another company, this is how it’s going to be used.'”

All that preparation can help when it comes time for the company to sign the release.

To sum up: Pre-qualify your leads. Explain the process. Get their permission now and approval later.

Case study tip #4: Always name names

A case study without a customer name is about as believable as an urban myth that happened to a “friend’s roommate who knows this guy.”

If you have plenty of leads and one won’t agree to let you use their name, move on to the next.

“It significantly diminishes a case study’s worth if you can’t name the customer,” says Hibbard. “It’s important to have a few big names to drop.

“But if you can’t get them, go after the smaller companies that you can name. A smaller company is more likely to want the exposure.”

Case study tip #5: Think “before” and “after”

As far as structuring the story itself, the classic case study format is Problem and Solution. Before and After. Then and Now.

Before, a terrible darkness had fallen over the land. Then, we found your wonderful software. After, peace and prosperity once more flowed across the realm.

Sounds corny, but this is the underlying mythos of every case study.

Case study tip #6: Don’t forget Discovery and Implementation

Slaunwhite has a useful article at his site that lists the eight key parts of a case study:

  • Customer
  • Challenge
  • Problem
  • Journey
  • Discovery
  • Solution
  • Implementation
  • Results

“This is a tried-and-true formula, a logical sequence that works very well,” he says.

Slaunwhite points to the discovery and the implementation as the two elements most often overlooked in case studies.

Case study tip #7: Focus on how issues were solved

One key part of the story is how any problems were handled.

“There is no perfect implementation of any complex product like enterprise software,” says Slaunwhite.

“There is always some turbulence. I constantly ask, ‘What problems developed? How were they solved?’

“It’s like getting your house renovated,” he says.

“It’s never perfect. But how are the issues resolved? Those are important ingredients of a successful case study, because they really make the story believable.”

Case study tip #8: Probe any metrics

Of course, everyone wants to see the bottom line.

But not all numbers are created equal.

“The customer may say, ‘I cut shipment preparation time in our warehouse by 70 percent, because this software does our shipping labels for us. And if a study hasn’t been done, I ask, ‘How was that estimated?'” says Slaunwhite.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, we used to have three full-time staff there and now I only have one, and the other two are on to something else.’

“So that makes it more concrete. I always try to nail them down.

“You may not always get analytical results.

“But if you keep asking questions, you will usually get some specifics that make it believable to someone reading it.”

Case study tip #9: Show personal benefits, too

Sometimes a key result that emerges from a case study interview is that your software makes someone look good.

“This is an important point in good B2B copywriting,” says Slaunwhite. “There are business benefits you have to talk about, but there are personal benefits as well. Your software may cut costs 20 percent, but it also makes the CIO look like a hero.”

He says personal benefits are sometimes ignored in case studies, but they shouldn’t be.

“When it comes right down to it, it’s individual people who make buying decisions; not groups, not committees, not companies, but individual people,” he says.

“So you definitely have to balance the business benefits with personal benefits.”

collage of three $ 1bills forming the recycling logoCase study tip #10: Recycle in many ways

“You can get a lot of mileage out of a case study,” says Hibbard. “But I rarely see anyone really leveraging that investment.”

“A lot of case studies are not utilized to their full benefit,” echoes Slaunwhite. “Because it’s a success story—because everybody loves a good story—it should be used at every opportunity.”

Here are some of the many ways you can publish—and republish—a case study:

  • An article submitted to a trade magazine
  • press release
  • mail-out to prospects or recent buyers
  • A piece available to sales reps and channel partners
  • On your website, under a heading such as “Customers,” “News,” or even “Case Studies”
  • In your company newsletter or e-zine
  • A free giveaway at trade shows
  • testimonial, by pulling out a few short snippets
  • On a CD as a leave-behind on sales calls
  • An example in your next white paper
  • Converted to PowerPoint slides for your sales force
  • proof point in speeches by your executives

If they’re agreeable, you can also invite your case study customers to speak at your user conference, to appear in a webinar, or to be interviewed in a podcast or video.

Of course, these versions will be more elaborate and costly than simply writing up their story in print. But they will gain even more impact by featuring a live person in a richer medium.

Case study tip #11: Sell deeper into the same organization

The easiest sale is sometimes just rolling out your proven solution to another division of the same company.

“It’s very powerful to use a case study to sell further into an organization,” says Hibbard.

“One company I work with has their software installed in one branch of a huge mortgage company with lots of branches worldwide. It’s been a very good success: This one branch was at the top in terms of revenues and staff efficiency, so we did a case study on that.

“Now my client is taking it to the head office to try to convince them to roll out that software to all the other branches.”

What else could possibly give you such a clear inside track?

Case study tip #12: Organize for easy access

You don’t need any fancy content management system. A sensible design for your website will do.

Let your structure mirror your plan for developing case studies.

In other words, organize them by product, by market, by sector, or by geography—or maybe by several alternatives— so that any visitor to your site can quickly find the stories that interest them the most.

“If you can search by industry, by company name and by product and module used, then the sales reps can find what they need,” says Hibbard.

“If you’re going to the trouble of organizing all your stories for your sales team, you may as well do that for the public as well.”

Case study tip #13: Tie to a topic or calendar

The more work you do for an editor, the more likely they’ll be to pick up your story.

“The editors of some niche or trade magazines will sometimes reprint a case study almost in its entirely, because it’s already written in article form,” says Slaunwhite. “If it’s well-written and it seems impartial, they may use every word of it.”

OK, how do you best approach a trade magazine with your latest case study?

“The best way is very simple,” he says.

“Send a letter or e-mail and enclose the case study with a short cover letter stating, ‘Here’s a success story with our product, featuring this kind of company, which had these kind of problems which were solved by this.’

“In your cover letter, tie in your story with possible themes, such as technology improving productivity, reducing HR costs, streamlining payroll, or whatever the current themes are.

“If you can get the editorial calendar, you can send that letter at just the right time to match up with a topic. That seems to work much better than just sending a press release with the story.”

Case study tip #14: Sell stories, not products

“A case study still works like a charm as a free giveaway,” says Slaunwhite.

“Case studies are very valuable in lead generation. I’ve written tons of e-mails promoting a particular case study. They get a high click-through rate and do very, very well.

“If someone is interested enough in a product to download a case study, that qualifies them as a pretty good prospect that should be followed up.”

Here’s how to pitch a case study to prospects.

“If you’re writing an e-mail to promote a case study, a webinar, or a white paper, focus on the offer, not the software.

“What does the case study reveal? What is the inside information you’re going to get from reading it? Why should you read it now? Why is it important?

“Focus on those things, not the software featured in the case study. A lot of software companies write a lead-generation e-mail, or letter, or postcard that focuses on the product, not the offer.”

In other words: Sell the offer and let the case study sell your software. That’s what it’s there for.

Case study tip #15: Thank your subjects

With so much riding on your case studies, don’t forget your manners.

There are lots of ways to say “thank you” to a client who agrees to do a case study for you.

Here’s are some suggestions from Hibbard:

  • Mail a handwritten note
  • Have the account manager or sales rep call to thank them personally
  • Send them some company promo items: a mug, T-shirt, cap, or whatever, along with your thank-you note
  • Order them a more elaborate promotional item, like a gift basket.
  • When the story is done, always send your client a couple of color hard copies. Consider framing or laminating one so they can hang it in their cubicles and feel like a hero.

“People really like reading stories. If you can make it an interesting story… if you can impress someone with a really compelling story, it will really help sell your software,” says Hibbard.


Do you know any other ways to use case studies? Please leave your comments below.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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