Marketing with Case Studies
By Robert W. Bly

According to copywriter Heather Sloan, case studies are often more effective than brochures and traditional sales collateral. Why?

"Everyone loves a story," explains Heather. "An old adage says, 'A picture is worth 1,000 words.' Never did this wisdom ring truer than in sales conversations and marketing pieces. Stories paint pictures. Stories evoke emotions. Stories are memorable. Stories give your presentations sticking power. The easiest way to tell a marketing story is by case study."

A case study is a product success story. It tells how a company solved a problem using a specific product, process, method, or idea. As with other marketing techniques, case studies fluctuate in popularity: while almost any company can profitably market with case studies, an informal survey of B2B web sites shows that most companies don't take full advantage of the power of case study marketing.

While case studies need not adhere to any one formula, here are some guidelines. The average case study is relatively brief: one or two sides of an 8 1/2 by 11-inch page, or approximately 800 to 1,500 words. More complex or in-depth case studies can run 2,000 to 2,500 words.

An effective case study makes the reader want to learn more about the product it features. It's a soft-sell proposition designed to compel your prospects to request more detailed information. If you've mirrored the reader's problem successfully, the case study will propel them deeper into the sales funnel and closer to buying.

For the most part, case studies are not overly technical: they are written in a style similar to that of a magazine feature article. The intent of a case study is not to present in-depth minutia and analytical data, but to briefly describe how a product or service can effectively address and solve a particular problem.

You needn't be creative or reinvent the wheel when creating a case study. Most case studies follow some variation of this time-tested outline:

"We don't have formal guidelines for case studies," says Mark Rosenzweig, editor-in-chief of Chemical Processing, a trade publication that has been running case study articles for decades. "Generally we're looking for a relatively recent installation, say within the last two years, of innovative technology. What issues prompted the installation? What did it involve? What results have been achieved? We're generally looking for 1,500-2,000 words."

Because case studies are presented in a story format, readers are naturally more inclined to take interest - especially if the story has some sort of benefit to them. Unlike sales presentations, case studies are all about showing how a product or service works, rather than telling. Since the product benefits are extolled by an actual user - and not the manufacturer - the claims are more believable.

By using a satisfied customer as an example, a case study essentially demonstrates how well your product works. Rather than present a pile of facts and figures, you tell an engaging story that vividly shows your product's effectiveness.

An equally strong selling point is the level of empathy a case study creates between your prospects and your satisfied customers. People tend to identify with people like themselves. Prospects feel far more at ease listening to their peers. They relate better, because they often share the same issues and problems.

The reader also believes case studies more than other sales literature. They are skeptical of ads and find brochures full of puffery, and even podcasts and company blogs self-serving. But in a case study, a customer who has no motive or financial incentive to praise the product does so, creating instant credibility.

What makes case studies so attractive to marketers and B2B prospects alike is that they're based on real-life experiences. Case studies are viewed as credible, third-party endorsements that carry a high degree of believability. That gives case studies a big advantage over traditional advertising, which consumers often view with skepticism.

A survey by Forrester Research Inc. shows that 71 percent of buyers base their decisions on trust and believability. Relating your customers' positive experiences with your product is one of the best ways to establish credibility in the marketplace. Giving your customers confidence in what you're offering dramatically increases the likelihood they'll do business with you.

One of the best sources of candidates for case studies is the sales force. However, salespeople prefer to spend their time selling. They are often indifferent to marketing communications and view participating in case studies as an aggravation with no direct reward to them.

You can get salespeople excited about finding case study candidates by offering them tangible incentives: the sales rep gets cash, merchandise, or a travel incentive if her candidate is chosen and profiled in a case study. When offered a nice incentive, the sales force suddenly gets excited about the case study candidate search. The incentive does not have to be huge, but it should be desirable - a new iPod, for example.

To prepare the case study, a writer interviews the person in the customer organization who is most involved in the application. For a small business, this may be the owner; for a larger company, it could be a plant manager or engineer. Before the writer calls, the vendor salesperson or account manager handling that customer should call and make sure the customer is willing and even eager to participate. Case studies written about reluctant or hostile users are difficult to create and rarely successful.

During the interview, get as many good quotations as possible. Use these quotations in the case study text and attribute them to the person being interviewed. Reason: the quotations in published case studies can do double duty as testimonials. Tip: If the subject is not saying exactly what you want him to say, use the "So are you saying" technique. Say to the subject, "So are you saying that ..." followed by the statement you want him to make. If he answers "yes, that's what I am saying" you can attribute your phrasing to the subject.

Often prospects are vague with their answers, and it is up to the interviewer/writer to wring the specifics out of the interview. Whenever possible, get the subject to give you numbers, so claims and results can be specific.

For instance, if the subject says the product reduces energy costs, but can't say by how much, pin him down: "Did it reduce energy consumption more than 10 percent? More than 100 percent?" He will give you a guesstimate, which you can use as an approximate figure; i.e., "The XYZ system reduced plant energy consumption by over 10%."

Before the case study can be released, the subject of the case study - the person you interviewed -- must approve and sign off on the case study. Keep these releases on file. If the subject takes a job with a different company, you may lose track of him. So you can't afford to lose track of his signed permission form. Otherwise, if your authorization to use the case study is questioned, and you can't produce a signed release, you may have to remove that case study from your site.

Ask subjects of case studies whether they are willing to serve as reference accounts. That way, a prospect whose needs relate to a particular case study can in fact speak with the product user featured in that case study. Check your reference account list periodically to make sure names and numbers are current, and update as needed.

About the author:
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Racom). You can find him on the Web at, or e-mail him at, or phone 201-385-1220.