Sunday, September 25, 2022

Four Steps to Creating Stronger Customer Case Studies

Customer case studies have been a core part of the B2B content marketing mix for years. In the latest content marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs, 61% of the B2B respondents said they are using case studies in their content marketing program. 

But recent research also indicates that the value business buyers ascribe to case studies has declined. For example, in the 2022 Content Preferences Survey by Demand Gen Report, 40% of the surveyed business buyers identified case studies as one of the most valuable types of content they use when researching potential purchases. That was down from 72% of the respondents in the 2016 edition of the survey.

There are, I would argue, two main reasons for this decline. First, buyer expectations for all types of content have risen sharply in recent years, and case studies haven't kept pace with these rising expectations. I'm frequently asked by clients to evaluate their customer case studies, and many of those I've recently reviewed look much like the case studies I was reviewing ten or fifteen years ago.

The perceived value of case studies has also declined because business buyers have become more skeptical of all forms of vendor-produced content, and in many business sectors, they now have easy access to information they perceive to be more objective.

Building Better Case Studies

It's clear, therefore, that many B2B companies need to improve the quality of the customer case studies they create. A recent episode of Marketing Prof's Marketing Smarts podcast contains several valuable suggestions for making case studies more compelling and effective.

This episode features Bob Wiesner, a partner at the Artemis Partnership and the author of Winning Is Better:  The Journey to New Business Success. Artemis Partnership is a business development consulting firm, and Bob Wiesner has consulted on several billion dollars worth of business development projects in the advertising, audit, management consulting, law, pharmaceuticals, high tech and investment banking spaces.

In the podcast, Wiesner emphasized that a good case study is a story. He said, "Like any good story, they should have a plot, they should have a problem, a challenge, they should have a method for resolving it, they should have an outcome, they should have heroes and even villains."

Wiesner then discussed a four-step process for building stronger B2B case studies.

Step 1 - The starting point of a good case study is a clear articulation of the problem the customer was facing or the opportunity the customer wanted or needed to exploit. It's important to describe the problem or opportunity in some detail. How difficult or complex was it? What was the context it was occurring in? The objective is to describe the problem or opportunity in a way that a reader in a similar type of company can relate to it.

Step 2 - Describe the insights that your organization possesses that enabled you to understand the customer's problem or opportunity and design the right solution.

Step 3 - Describe the solution you provided to the customer. What did you do that solved the problem or took advantage of the opportunity?

Step 4 - Describe the actual business results or outcomes your solution produced for the customer in quantitative terms. In other words, use actual customer data to describe the results. Acquiring this type of data will be much easier if you and the customer agree on how the success of your solution will be measured at the beginning of the project.

My Take

The Marketing Profs podcast contains valuable information, and I encourage you to listen to the podcast and/or read the accompanying transcript. However, I disagree somewhat with one of Wiesner's points.

In the second step of Wiesner's case study development process, he argues that companies should describe their expertise. He said, "What you want to do instead is write a case study that says we understood the nature of this villain, of this problem in this way, we had this wisdom, this insight, this experience. We were able to apply that insight to the problem so that we (and only we) could actually find the right solution to it."

In my view, this isn't the right approach in most circumstances. The mistake many companies make when creating case studies is to cast themselves, rather than their customer, as the "hero" of their case studies.

The story line of many case studies resembles the plot of 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.

An effective case study will lead readers to identify with the customer. You want readers to vicariously experience the pain the customer was feeling - which Wiesner also advocates - and with the success the customer achieved. In essence, you want readers to finish the case study believing they can achieve similar success. When you make your company the hero of your case studies, you're asking readers to identify with your company, not with the customer.

An outstanding case study will speak from the customer's perspective. It will tell the customer's story and describe what the customer was able to accomplish with, of course, help from your solution. 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.

One final word about case studies. When I began preparing case studies for clients two decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that case studies should be short, usually no more than 1-2 pages. But most buyers want to use case studies to 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 ignore the old rules about case study length. A case study should be as long as it needs to be to tell the customer's story in a compelling way.

Image courtesy of Jernej Furman via Flickr (CC).

Sunday, September 18, 2022

[Research Round-Up] B2B Highlights from "The CMO Survey" - Part 1

Source:  "The CMO Survey" (Christine Moorman, 2022)

(This month's Research Round-Up is devoted entirely to the September 2022 edition of "The CMO Survey." This research has been conducted semi-annually since 2008, and it consistently provides a wealth of valuable information about marketing trends, spending and practices.)

The findings of the latest edition of "The CMO Survey" were released earlier this month. "The CMO Survey" is directed by Dr. Christine Moorman and is sponsored by Deloitte LLP, Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the American Marketing Association.

The September 2022 survey results are based on responses from 273 senior marketing leaders at for-profit companies based in the United States. Over two-thirds (68.4%) of the respondents were affiliated with B2B companies, and 95.6% were VP-level or above. The survey was in the field from July 12 - August 4, 2022.

Dr. Moorman and her colleagues typically produce three reports for each edition of the survey.

  • "Highlights and Insights Report" - This is a relatively brief and graphically-rich report that provides mostly overall survey results, along with an analysis of those results and major marketing trends.
  • "Topline Report" - This report provides response data at the aggregate level for all survey questions.
  • "Firm and Industry Breakout Report" - This report provides response data by four primary industry sectors (B2B product companies, B2B services companies, B2C product companies and B2C services companies), company size, and volume of internet sales. This report is quite lengthy, but it provides the most detailed view of the survey data.
In this post, I'll be discussing the responses of B2B marketers exclusively, unless otherwise indicated. The percentages and other numerical values in this post are the mean of applicable survey responses, also unless otherwise indicated.
Declining Economic Optimism
For the past several years, "The CMO Survey" has asked participants about their level of optimism regarding the overall economic environment. When the September survey was in the field, two economic issues were top-of-mind for most business and marketing leaders.
Inflation had been rising for several months and had reached a four-decade high in the spring of this year. To combat this inflation, the U.S. Federal Reserve had begun tightening monetary policy and had signaled that monetary policy would probably need to be restrictive for an extended period of time. As a result, fears that the U.S. economy is heading for a recession had increased substantially.
Under these circumstances, it shouldn't be surprising that B2B marketers have become less optimistic about the state of the economy. The survey asked participants to rate their level of optimism regarding the overall U.S. economy on a 100-point scale, with "0" being least optimistic and "100" being most optimistic. The following chart shows how B2B marketers rated their optimism in the five surveys conducted since June 2020.

As this chart shows, B2B marketer optimism reached a post-pandemic high in the August 2021 survey and has been slowly declining since.
The September survey also asked participants if they were more or less optimistic about the overall U.S. economy compared to the previous quarter. The following table shows how B2B marketers responded.

In the February 2022 survey, only 41.0% of respondents from B2B product companies, and 39.1% of those with B2B services companies said they were less optimistic about the U.S. economy compared to the previous quarter.
Marketing Spending Expectations
Perhaps because of their lower expectations regarding the performance of the economy, B2B marketers responding to "The CMO Survey" generally expect the growth of their marketing spending to slow or be flat in the coming year, although the survey revealed a notable difference between the views of marketers at B2B product companies and those at B2B services companies.
The survey asked participants by what percent their marketing spending had changed in the prior 12 months and by what percent they expected their spending to change in the next 12 months (relative to the prior 12 months). The following table shows how the B2B survey respondents answered these questions.

As the table shows, marketers at B2B product companies expect the growth of their marketing spending to slow substantially over the coming year (compared to the previous 12 months), while marketers at B2B services companies expect their spending to continue growing at about the same rate.
Changes in consumer spending patterns may partially explain these differing growth expectations. During the early part of the pandemic, public health measures caused consumer demand for many services (travel, dining out, etc.) to decline sharply. Many consumers responded by increasing their purchases of products.
As the impacts of COVID-19 began to wane, the pent-up demand for vacation travel, eating out and many other services was released. As a result, consumer spending on services has increased substantially over the past year or so, while spending on many types of products has slowed.
These changes in consumer spending patterns eventually impact the entire product/service value chain and ultimately affect the business conditions that B2B companies are facing.
In next month's Research Round-Up post, I'll discuss some of the other major findings from the September edition of "The CMO Survey."

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Novelty Is Essential for Compelling Thought Leadership

It's now abundantly clear that compelling thought leadership content is a vital component of effective marketing for many B2B companies. Numerous studies have shown that business buyers are increasingly relying on thought leadership content and that it has a significant impact on purchase decisions.

Recent research has also revealed that many companies need to improve the quality of their thought leadership content. For example, in the 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study by Edelman and LinkedIn, 71% of the survey respondents said that less than half of the thought leadership content they consume provides valuable insights. 

Thought leadership content must meet three core requirements to be compelling for business decision makers.

  1. It must address topics and provide insights that are relevant for its target audience. The best thought leadership content addresses topics that can have a major impact on the business or professional success of the target audience.
  2. It must be authoritative. To be compelling, the information and insights provided by thought leadership content must be supported by sound and persuasive evidence.
  3. It must be novel. Merriam-Webster defines novel as "new and not resembling something formerly known or used." Therefore, good thought leadership content will provide information and insights that add something new to the body of knowledge about a topic and that the audience cannot find elsewhere.
These three requirements are equally essential for compelling thought leadership content. Effective thought leadership content is like a three-legged stool, and we know what happens if you remove or break one leg of a three-legged stool.
Understanding the Importance of Novelty
Most marketing pundits that talk or write about the development of thought leadership content emphasize the need to create content that is relevant for its audience, and many also stress the importance of making content credible and authoritative.
The need to make thought leadership content novel is not discussed as frequently, which is unfortunate because novelty (or the lack thereof) is often what separates compelling from mediocre (or poor) thought leadership content.
To fully grasp the importance of novelty, it's revealing to see how it is viewed by organizations whose primary product is thought leadership content.
Academic, scientific and business journals usually provide "guidelines" for authors who want the journal to publish their work. Among other things, these guidelines usually describe the criteria the editors use to decide what material to publish.
Here are excerpts from the author guidelines used by three highly-regarded business publications.
"Guidelines for Contributors" (Harvard Business Review) - "Originality:  New ideas in management are rare and precious - and one of the primary reasons readers turn to HBR. If you're writing about a well-worn topic, we'll be looking for a unique argument or insight."
"Author Guidelines" (MIT Sloan Management Review) - "We're looking for great new ideas that have the potential to transform management thinking and practices. Authors should clearly articulate what's new about their idea, placing it in the context of any previous work in the field and explaining how they are advancing the discussion." (Emphasis in original)
"Submission Guidelines" (California Management Review) - "CMR typically publishes articles that extend our knowledge of a given topic either by contesting or building upon existing theories or by presenting new empirical work."
The thought leadership content produced by companies for marketing purposes will obviously differ in several ways from the content published in journals like the Harvard Business Review, the MIT Sloan Management Review and the California Management Review. What isn't substantially different is the need for novelty.
Original Research Is Vital
Developing novel thought leadership content almost always requires some form of original research. Such research actually plays two essential roles in creating compelling thought leadership content. First, it is usually required to uncover the new insights that will make thought leadership content novel. And second, original research provides the evidence that makes thought leadership content authoritative.
Once marketers have identified potential topics for thought leadership content, they will need to conduct sufficient research to determine where the "white space," if any, exists regarding those topics. Marketers can't decide what topics are attractive for thought leadership content until they know whether, or to what extent, those topics have already been addressed.
To develop novel thought leadership content, marketers will usually want to avoid topics that have already been discussed by others. There are, however, three notable exceptions to this rule.
  • First, a broad topic may have already been discussed, but specific aspects of the topic may not have been thoroughly covered. These particular aspects can be good subjects for thought leadership content if they are relevant and important for the target audience.
  • Second, if a topic has not been addressed for a considerable period of time, it can be appropriate to take a fresh look at that topic.
  • And third, if a topic has already been addressed but the existing treatments are flawed or incomplete, that can be an appropriate subject for thought leadership content - provided, of course, that you can provide authoritative evidence for your alternative point of view.
Business buyers have a strong desire for thought leadership content that is relevant, authoritative and novel. All three of these attributes are necessary to make thought leadership content compelling for business decision makers.
Given the explosive proliferation of marketing content, producing thought leadership content that is truly novel can be particularly challenging, but the effort is worthwhile because novelty is often what separates thought leadership winners from thought leadership also-ran's.

Image courtesy of Jernej Furman via Flickr (CC).

Sunday, September 4, 2022

[Book Review] "Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life"

Source:  HarperCollins

Astute marketers have long recognized the value of tapping into the psychological aspects of human decision making and behavior. The use of behavioral economics principles in marketing has become a popular topic in recent years. Numerous books on the subject have now been published, and it's been frequently discussed in webinars and conference presentations.

One of the more entertaining treatments of the subject is Alchemy:  The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life (HarperCollins, 2019). Alchemy was written by Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogivly (UK) and the co-founder of Ogivly's behavioral science practice.

Writing a review of Alchemy is challenging because Sutherland covers a lot of ground in the book and touches on many points only briefly. Another reviewer provided an apt description of the book when he wrote:

"The ideas that underpin the book are broadly based on behavioural economics and cognitive science, with bits of evolutionary theory, statistics and old-fashioned advertising intuition thrown in . . . Rory's style is discursive:  an after-dinner talk of anecdotes, dismantling of conventional wisdom, ever-so-slightly outrageous assertions, and the periodic emergence of abstract wisdom in the third paragraph of a mid-chapter page."

Despite Sutherland's discursive style, his overall objective in Alchemy is clear. He is attempting to persuade readers that relying exclusively on the rational model of human decision making is a mistake. He clearly states his basic thesis in the Prologue of the book:

"Unfortunately, because reductionist logic has proved so reliable in the physical sciences, we now believe it must be applicable everywhere - even in the much messier field of human affairs . . . But what if this approach is wrong? What if, in our quest to recreate the certainty of the laws of physics, we are too eager to impose the same consistency and certainty in fields where it has no place?"

What's In the Book

Like many books about the use of behavioral science in business, Alchemy describes the flaws of the rational model of human decision making and behavior.

But in addition, Sutherland focuses on the problems caused by the over-reliance on logic and rationality. He forcefully argues that an exclusive reliance on logic and rationality can prevent business and marketing leaders from making valuable discoveries. He writes:

"It is only when we abandon a narrow logic and embrace an appreciation of psycho-logical value, that we can truly improve things. Once we are honest about the existence of unconscious motivations, we can broaden our possible solutions. It will free us to open up previously untried spaces for experimentation in resolving practical problems if we are able to discover what people really, really want, rather than a) what they say they want or b) what we think they should want."

In the second half of Alchemy, Sutherland discusses some of the major reasons why human behavior often departs from what would generally be considered to be conventional rationality. For example, Sutherland devotes several chapters to each of the following topics:

Signaling - ". . . the need to send reliable indications of commitment and intent, which can inspire confidence and trust."

Subconscious Hacking (Signaling to Ourselves) - How humans use placebos to influence their own attitudes and behaviors.

Satisficing - The tendency of humans to make "good enough" choices rather than trying to make perfect choices. Sutherland discusses why - in most cases anyway - people are better off being approximately right than precisely wrong.

Psychophysics - Psychophysics is the study of the relationship between stimuli and the sensations and perceptions those stimuli evoke. In this part of Alchemy, Sutherland argues that nothing about perception is completely objective. He also contends that in many endeavors, its impossible to define success except in terms of the resulting human behaviors. Therefore, perception, rather than reality, is what determines success in those types of endeavors.

My Take

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Alchemy, and I believe the book would benefit anyone involved in marketing, sales, business management and even public policy development. Sutherland's approach and style are entertaining, and the book is filled with examples and anecdotes that illustrate his points.

But while I can enthusiastically recommend Alchemy, I must also say that I disagree with Sutherland's premise that business and marketing success often require leaders to ignore or abandon logic and rationality and pursue "magical" solutions.

My argument is that because of advances in the behavioral sciences, we now have a better and more complete scientific understanding of how humans make decisions and what influences their behavior. More specifically, those advances have clearly shown that human decision making isn't always or only rational. And most importantly, those advances have demonstrated that people often think and act in ways that are predictably irrational.

Given the advances in our scientific understanding of human decision making and behavior, it would be illogical for marketers not to apply that knowledge when crafting marketing strategies and designing marketing programs. So in other words, marketing success doesn't depend on "magic," but on the rational application of behavioral science principles that describe the irrational aspects of human nature.