Customer case studies have been a staple of the B2B marketing content mix for decades. According to 2018 research by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 73% of B2B marketers are using case studies for content marketing purposes.
Recent research on the effectiveness of customer case studies has produced mixed results. For example, in the 2019 Content Preferences Survey by Demand Gen Report, customer case studies were classified as "influencer content." Ninety-five percent of the survey respondents said they prefer credible content from industry influencers, and case studies were the most-preferred type of such content (cited by 47% of respondents).
On the other hand, the 2019 B2B buying disconnect research by TrustRadius indicates that customer case studies have lost some of their effectiveness with buyers. In that research, just over 20% of the surveyed B2B technology buyers said they used vendor-produced case studies to inform their purchase decisions, and they ranked case studies 11th (out of 15 options) in trustworthiness. Two quotations from survey respondents capture a perspective that is becoming more prevalent among B2B buyers:
- "Vendor provided case studies - these are hand picked success stories / [we] preferred independent reviews."
- "Whitepapers and case studies are geared towards selling you the product so I don't put a whole lot of weight on these."
The growing buyer skepticism of customer case studies mirrors a decline of buyer trust in most forms of vendor-provided information. Therefore, one of the major challenges facing B2B marketers is to increase the credibility of their marketing content of all types.
When it comes to case studies, there are three concrete steps B2B marketers can take to bolster credibility and effectiveness.
Make the Customer the Hero
I'm often asked by clients to review and comment on their customer case studies, and unfortunately, what I read all too often is self-promotional "brochureware" disguised as a case study.
The mistake that many companies make is to cast themselves, rather than their customers, as the heroes of their case studies. The story line of many case studies resembles an old silent movie where the villain ties a helpless damsel (the customer) to railroad tracks, and the hero (the selling company) rides in at the last minute to rescue the damsel in distress from an oncoming train.
A good case study will lead readers to identify with the customer. You want readers to vicariously experience the "pain" the customer was feeling and the success the customer achieved. In essence, you want readers to finish the case study believing they can achieve the same success. When you make your company the hero of your case studies, you are asking readers to identify with your company, not the customer.
So, when you're preparing a case study, you can give your company a strong supporting role, but always let your customer be the star.
Include Enough Detail to Make It Engaging
When I began developing content for clients more than a decade ago, the conventional wisdom was that customer case studies should be short, usually no more than 1-2 pages. But most buyers want to use case studies to help validate their purchase decision. And this means that a case study needs to include enough detail to describe the customer's business situation and experience with your product or service in a meaningful way.
So, B2B marketers should forget the old rules about case study length. Each case study should be as long as it needs to be to tell the customer's story in a compelling way.
Make Your Customer Case Studies Realistic
This is likely to be the single most difficult change for most B2B marketers to accept and implement. Most marketers are conditioned by culture and training to emphasize the positives and minimize the limitations of their product or service. But this is the very tendency that causes many buyers to view vendor-provided content with a healthy dose of skepticism.
A lack of transparency about product limitations causes one of the most significant disconnects between buyers and sellers. In the TrustRadius research described earlier, 71% of the buyer respondents said it was very important to understand product limitations before buying, but only 42% of the marketing/sales respondents expressed this view. And while 84% of the marketing/sales respondents said they aim to be clear about the limitations of their product, only 36% of the buyer respondents felt the vendor they selected had been forthcoming about product limitations.
No product or service is perfect. And it's likely that many of your most satisfied customers can identify something about your product they wish was different. These customer perspectives should be included in your case studies because they will make your case studies more credible and persuasive.
A Final Thought
Many companies find it valuable to work with an external content developer to create their customer case studies. An independent content developer can provide the objectivity that's essential for creating case studies that are credible and trustworthy. Just be sure that you work with a content developer who (a) has experience creating evidence-based, non-promotional content, and (b) understands what makes a customer case study effective with today's skeptical buyers.
Image courtesy of Animated Heaven via Flickr.
Image courtesy of Animated Heaven via Flickr.
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