Pulling B2B case studies out of the dark and into the spotlight
Writing convincing case studies is an artform. Find out how to turn yours from mediocre to the important sales tool they should be.
B2B case studies should be naturally dramatic.
In every customer success story, an ordinary person faces a challenge. They know there’s a solution, so they embark on a journey of discovery. They forge new alliances, learn new skills and emerge better than ever before. Ultimately, the challenge is overcome.
Many of the greatest tales of our time use this same basic structure. In literary circles, it’s known as “the hero’s journey”.
So, there’s really no reason why any company should be publishing boring case studies. Even in relatively dry industries, you can still use this simple structure to tell engaging stories that hold your audience’s attention.
Unfortunately, many B2B brands have yet to master this proven storytelling technique. As a result, they are missing a golden opportunity.
That means, getting prospects to engage with your case studies is a key part of the marketing process. Holding them to the same standards as the rest of your brand’s content is vital if you want to influence buyers at this crucial stage of the customer journey.
So, today we’ll reveal the secret we use to create our own case studies – and walk you through how to use the hero’s journey to convince prospects that your business is right for them.
But first, we should take a closer look at what so many companies get wrong when creating case studies. Quite simply, when it comes to holding a reader’s attention, knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to put in.
How not to write a B2B case study
The great thing about the hero’s journey is that it makes it easy to see why certain case studies work well and others don’t.
Ask a non-writer what makes a good B2B case study and they’ll probably give you a list of ingredients. You need a relevant brand, a client testimonial and results that showcase the impact of your work on that company. And of course, you do need all those things.
If you lack access to a senior company spokesperson and tangible results that prove the value of your goods or services, stop. You don’t have a compelling case study.
But how you communicate the story to your audience is just as important as having access to the materials you need to tell it.
No one picks up a case study looking for a quote from your company spokesperson. Nor do they want to hear about a business that’s only marginally better off as a result of doing business with you.
Your prospects want to see that you can transform their business, by hearing how you’ve done the same for someone else.
The hero’s journey often includes a call to adventure or a challenge, an aide or a mentor for assistance, a selection of trials, a triumph and, finally, the hero’s return - Kevin Ryan, LinkedIn
That means you need to be disciplined and leave out any detail that doesn’t feed into the story of how your client's organisation overcame its challenges. Don’t dwell on points that have already been made. And leave out details that don’t contribute directly to your narrative.
Making the customer the hero in each of your case studies will make them relatable and immediately relevant to your prospects. Bearing that fundamental principle in mind, let’s take a closer look at the raw materials you’ll need to tell your client’s story effectively.
What you need to tell your client’s story
Gathering everything you need to create an effective case study takes a degree of forward planning. As with any piece of content, the better the materials you have at the beginning, the better the end-result will be.
Certain information can be hard to go back and get after the fact. This is especially true when a key contact at a client organisation moves onto a new challenge, or you don’t put the right measurement framework in place at the outset to track the impact of your work.
Your target audience will be looking for proof you can help them hit their KPIs. So, be sure to measure the results your company delivers using the same metrics your prospects will be working to. Failing to do this invites people to assume your company didn’t deliver results.
With your results sorted, you should look to put a human face to the client organisation. Although you will be framing your case study around how your work helped the business, people respond best to other people.
Quoting individuals that do the same jobs as your ideal prospects will make it crystal clear that what you’re saying applies to them.
In fact, the more you can tell the story in your client’s own words, the better. Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising report shows that 83 per cent of customers trust recommendations from people they know – significantly more than any other media type.
What’s more, 2018 research from Bright Local shows that 84 per cent of people now trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, with that figure rising to 91 per cent among 18-31-year-olds.
Ideally, you should look to interview representatives from your chosen organisation soon after your company’s work for them is complete – while the results are still fresh in their mind.
As time passes, their enthusiasm for your work will fade and they will start forgetting details that might have helped bring the story to life.
It makes sense to use this interview to fill in any factual details you can’t uncover in your own research. But, the real value of this exercise lays in getting clients to share their honest opinions or plans for the future.
Aim to prepare at least six open-ended questions designed to encourage your contact to speak freely about how they feel about the project you’re profiling, and how they might continue or develop their relationship with your company going forwards.
Of course, some clients will have more time to share with you than others. It’s up to you to determine whether it’s best to conduct a given interview in person, over the phone or via email.
With these building blocks in place, you’re ready to use the hero’s journey to create compelling case studies that position your brand as the logical solution to the challenges your customers face.
Crafting case studies that engage your audience
There are a few templates you can use to create B2B case studies. These range from interview-style Q&As to videos, to more traditional outlines that follow the ‘overview, challenge, solution, results, testimonial’ structure. All of them can work, so long as you stick to the principles of good storytelling.
Include every detail that helps prove what an outstanding job your company did. But at the same time, be concise.
Long-form, journalistic masterpieces like Microsoft’s 88 Acres are the exception to the rule. Punchier success stories like IBM’s account of how it helped Banco MAIS respond to customers more quickly are usually the way to go.
Unless you have a truly unique story to tell and real access to your client’s organisation, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than 800-1,200 words to get your message across.
Every story needs a good title
The headline of your case study will determine whether prospects decide to give the rest of the content a shot. As advertising legend David Ogilvy famously proclaimed, five times as many people read the headline of a content piece as read the body copy.
“It follows that if you don’t sell the product in your headline, you have wasted 80 per cent of your money,” he says. “Headlines that promise a benefit sell more than those that don’t.”
The best headlines are generally useful, unique, urgent or ultra-specific. They convey how you can help your target audience, surprise your reader with something they’ve not heard before, convey that the reader is missing out on a huge opportunity, or entice them into finding out more with an unusually precise detail.
Now, it’s usually impossible to do all these things at once. But if you can do two or three, you stand a good chance of drawing your prospects in.
Often, this is just a matter of summarising the most impressive results you uncovered during your research. But you might equally lead on a strong testimonial, or how you changed the way your client does business.
From there, it’s just a matter of making sure the story that follows lives up to the promise of your headline – using the hero’s journey to form the structure of your narrative.
Telling your story with the hero’s journey
Start at the beginning. Your client is a regular business facing a very specific challenge. They have identified a solution but can’t implement it on their own. They learned of your company’s skills and expertise in this area, so they approached you for help.
The middle of every good story involves character development. Summarise the product or solution you provided, highlighting how this made your client’s life easier or changed the way they do business.
Use quotes, data visualisations and pictures of the work you did to bring the story to life and make it real for your audience. These elements provide vital context that help your prospects imagine what it would be like to do business with you.
Finally, you need to provide a satisfying conclusion. This is where you highlight the results the company saw thanks to your work, as well as any plans for future collaboration.
Follow this formula and the end result will have the same basic structure as timeless classics including The Lion King, The Matrix and Harry Potter.
Make the customer the hero. This will ensure your content is relatable and immediately relevant to your prospects.
The research phase is key. The better the materials you have at the beginning, the better the end-result will be.
Use quotes, data visualisations and pictures of the work you did to bring the story to life and make it real for your audience.