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Celebration or Advertorial?

The dangers of misusing case studies in your content marketing plan.

It’s easy to see why case studies are so popular – happy clients who found the exact solution they were looking for with your product or service. Everything worked as promised, expectations were met (or hopefully exceeded), and your client is so pleased that he or she has agreed to take part in a case study that you intend to promote as much as you possibly can. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Without careful thought and planning, this success story can quickly transform from a powerful sales tool into a rogue document that has the power to damage hard won relationships with both your existing clients and future prospects.

Approaching a case study as the simple documentation of a success story underestimates the power of the marketing tool you have at your disposal.

Let’s start by clarifying what a case study should not be:

First, it should not be a bait-and-switch ‘advertorial’ that promises valuable information but only delivers a thinly disguised sale pitch for a specific product or service that, coincidentally, happens to be on sale at a huge discount for a very short period of time. This tactic abuses both your relationship with the client featured in the case study (who did not agree to become an unofficial pitchperson for you), and the prospect who downloaded the case study looking for some concrete usable business advice.

Second, the case study should not place your client in the role of having won the lottery by finding you as their vendor. The selection process required just as much work on their side in terms of research, analysis, and implementation as any effort you may have had to put in in terms of sales presentations, proposal development, and client service. If your case study doesn’t come across as humble, balanced, and collaborative, then it’s really nothing more than a fluff piece that allows you to brag at your client’s expense. How many more happy clients do you think will sign up to participate in future case studies based on that performance?

Third, it should not be a testimonial. Your client is happy; you are happy that your client is happy; your prospect may even be benevolent enough to be happy for you both that things worked out so well, but if you aren’t providing information that the prospect can use in the decision-making process, you have simply wasted valuable time and missed a terrific opportunity.

So what should a good case study contain?

1. A Human Interest Story that Resonates with your Targeted Prospect

A well written case study provides an opportunity, more than any other piece of marketing collateral you may have in your arsenal, to connect with your targeted prospect. Real people in real situations that are hopefully similar to the ones currently challenging that prospect, help to position your product or service as a solution far more effectively than any list of features and benefits that you could craft. While your prospects may be in full data-gathering mode during a selection process, any opportunity to interrupt the objectivity of that research process with a human interest story with which they can connect should be cherished and treated with the respect it deserves.

2. A Complete Story.

There is a definite temptation to tease your prospect with an intriguing success story that offers enough information to prompt them to contact you for the full picture. You must resist that temptation! Your prospect might surprise you and contact your client directly for the full story (which may be more than your client bargained for in agreeing to participate in the case study in the first place). Simply deliver what you promised: an interesting story that documents the challenge faced by your client, the steps that were taken to address that challenge, and the outcome of those steps. The story should have a clear beginning, middle and end, so that your prospect feels as though the complete journey is documented in the case study. Present as much information as your client will allow you to share, and make sure that the story is educational, so that your prospect is better informed about your product or service at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning!

3. Hard Data with Real Numbers.

Your client will ultimately decide how much information can be shared, but your initial request for participation in a case study should make it clear that you want to document the ‘who, what, why, where, when, and how’ with as much detail as possible so that other clients (and prospects) can be as fully informed as possible. Your client may balk at a ‘warts and all’ approach, but at the very least, your case study should be specific: how many weeks/months did it take; which elements of the product/service did you use, and how did you use them?

4. Different Formats to appeal to Different Learning Styles.

A text-heavy newsletter article or blog post featuring the beaming face of a happy client may be the standard format, but not everyone prefers to read (or learn) that way. Consider an interview offered in a podcast, a YouTube video posted alongside the story, or even a bright and colorful infographic that clearly documents the journey taken and the key decisions made at critical points on that journey. And don’t forget that positive results always look better in charts!

A carefully crafted case study that is entertaining, revealing, and informative, is marketing gold and should be treated accordingly. You have a happy client who is willing to go out of his or her way to help you convince targeted prospects that you can make them happy too. Don’t mess that up with a fluff piece or disguised advertorial. Make the most of the opportunity to celebrate the positive outcome of a productive relationship – what better definition of success could you ask for?

To continue this conversation and discuss how case studies can complement your marketing strategy, contact us today.

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