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10 Big Mistakes Marketers Make in Case Studies

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Customer case stories are a powerful way to communicate the value of a company, product, or service. Nobody speaks more loudly for you than your customers. But if that's the case, why do so many customer success stories and case studies fall short?

Here are 10 reasons that blunt case study effectiveness and what you can do to avoid each.

1. Lacking Objectivity

Sometimes a company is just too close to its customer story. Readers can usually tell that because the case study falls back on corporate ego statements. A good case study is like a feature article. It tells a customer-success story in an interesting way and progresses through four phases: business context, business problem (the pain), solution, and results. And like a good feature story, it reveals details along the way to keep the reader engaged.

2. Choosing the Wrong Customer

Just because a customer is willing to do a case study doesn't make for a good candidate. Your marketing budget may not allow creating case studies for every market. So select your customers strategically. Handpick the best to support your marketing goals. Address your largest, most competitive, or emerging markets first. Whichever you choose, you want customers who are doing something interesting that will lead others to your company or solution.

3. Making One Size Fit All

Pretending one generic story fits all markets won't work. To be successful, direct your case study at a specific market. The case study addresses the pain in that market. It uses the market's language. Healthcare and construction markets have different vocabularies. They might be using the same Oracle database server, but their readers have different expectations and applications for it. It's better to do fewer case studies and target each one properly than to pretend one size fits. It's even worse to create a generalized case study, hoping that all those who read it will bring their context to it. They won't.

4. Providing Too Much Detail

Ever have a friend who told you a story but somehow dragged it out with superfluous details or tangential asides until you just felt like screaming "get to the point?" Carefully select just the details that tell the customer's story and leave the rest out. Too may details frustrate and confuse readers, who won't finish reading the piece.

5. Targeting Your CEO, Not Your Prospects

This isn't just a problem with case studies: Many marketing materials tend to be written for the CEO or the marketing director. Write for your potential customers. This means stressing the customer perspective and down playing corporate ego.

6. Failing to Show ROI

Return on investment can be the hardest benefit to pull out of even a cooperative customer. Still, prospects reading your customer story want to know what to expect from your product or service. Get a financial ROI if you can. It speaks loudly to customers. Or ask the customer how long it took for the solution to pay for itself. Has it improved internal processes? Can employees make more calls, build more widgets, or book more orders? How many more? When the customer doesn't want to reveal the overall numbers, what about selecting one department? Or showing the results of a typical user?

7. Using Sweeping Generalizations

All good stories rely on "show me, don't tell me." Showing versus telling is not a subtle difference. Using phrases like "Acme Solutions represents the best price-performance ratio available on the market" is telling and not showing. Such phrases fall flat, and readers mostly don't believe them. If you must use such statements, have the customer say them. At least that gives the statement some credibility. Still a better way is to show how you helped the customer: "Acme Solutions solved SmartCo Inc. bandwidth problem for two-thirds the cost of the competitive product." Showing how your company is "the best" has more impact on prospects than simply telling them "we're the best." Which would you find more believable?

8. Stopping Short of Benefits

Weak benefits statements dilute a great customer story. Saying that a solution empowers employees or improves productivity is a start. But quantifying that statement says more. A customer story needs to tell readers how the solution empowered employees, how much the productivity improved or provide other compelling values.

9. Tolerating Poor Writing

Write like a journalist, not a marketer or engineer. Avoid marketing-speak, buzzwords, and hyperbole. Rephrase wording like "The amount of data sent translates into highly competitive data tariffs" to "sends more data at lower cost." Tackle the customer's story head on. Look at it like a three-act play: set the stage (set up the context); reveal the conflict (customer's pain); show the resolution (your solution); and the results. Do get key messages in, but don't distort the customer's story to do it. If all six of your key messages don't get in, that's fine.

10. Intimidating Readers

Don't make your case studies too long. Readers can only handle 3-4-page case studies. That's between 1,500 and 1,700 words. Any longer, and readers lose interest. Just tell the essence of the story—not the entire story in excruciating detail. Most readers will scan the story looking for something they can connect with. Use subheads that support key points that you want to them to remember.

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Martin Middlewood is the president of Frontline Strategies ( and blogs at CaseStudy411 ( Reach him at

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  • by Charles Brown Thu Jul 3, 2008 via web

    The point I really took away from your article was the fact that not all willing customers are good subjects for a case study. There has to be story value in what the customer is doing. But left unsaid was the fact that the best case studies start with a big problem.

    In fiction, it takes an antagonist to move the story forward, even if the antagonist is a thing, not a person.

    (Warning, shameless plug coming) I write about this and other story-telling techniqes that can be applied to case studies in my new ebook on marketing with case studies, available at

    Good article. more companies need to be doing case studies, especially in a tough economy.

    Charles Brown

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