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Secrets of Case Study Winners: How B2B Marketers Can Create Successful Programs

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How B2B marketers can effectively woo clients to do case studies
  • The elements of a winning case study program

We hear the objections all the time:

"We're not ready to endorse your product at this time."

"Our executives won't sign off on it."

"We don't want to tip our hand to our competitors."

"We don't do case studies with our vendors."

Excuses like those are a veil for not executing. Even as social media brings clients and vendors together to "engage in the conversation," you'd think that case studies would be easier to develop. But they are no less challenging than before.

In the face of hard resistance from clients, most B2B marketers manage to publish only a smattering of case studies.

Yet a few B2B companies stand out. Several interviewed for this article have strategically produced dozens (in one case, over 100) client case studies. Their success with case studies is not due to their products' superiority, but to their straightforward and calculated techniques for getting clients on board. As a result, their sales teams benefit from broad collections of case studies and first-class reference programs. This article reveals their secrets.

A Tale of Two Companies

Chapter 1: NormalCorp, a Familiar Story

Jennifer is a marketing director at NormalCorp, a midsize B2B company. Her CMO, knowing the value of case studies, tells her she needs to produce 20 good ones this year. Jennifer starts by emailing the sales team and asking for customers who would "be willing to talk." To her delight, she gets an overwhelmingly positive response from most of the reps: "Of course, they'll talk. They love me and they love us!"

But as Jennifer starts to reach out for interviews, she realizes things are a lot more clear-cut than she thought. Reps are busy; many are lackadaisical in their screening and don't arrange interviews. Clients are busy, too. They want to know the questions ahead of time. They respond with questions that indicate they are unfamiliar with the process: "What magazine will the case study be printed in?" and, the most dreaded of all, "Let me check with Legal."

After months of cajoling and rescheduling meetings, Jennifer ends the year with six case studies and a few more in the works. What's worse, the case studies don't represent all of the most lucrative target markets. Some stories are good, but others are less than compelling. Still, after all the trouble, Jennifer (and her boss) are relieved to have gotten what they have. The sales reps, however, are less than impressed.

Chapter 2: BetterBiz, an Exemplary Tale

BetterBiz is NormalCorp's competitor. Rob, its marketing director, receives a pipeline report indicating that a prospect in the healthcare industry, looking to buy BetterBiz's mid-tier product, has just been upgraded to an "A" opportunity with a 90% probability to close. Contracts are being drawn up, and the prospect's executives will be in-house on Friday.

"Bingo," Rob says. "Sales needs a story for the mid-tier line in healthcare." Rob calls the sales rep to learn about the deal. "The CIO has been our strongest advocate," the sales rep says. "She'll have some great quotes." Rob also contacts his director of professional services, who will be in charge of implementation. He will keep Rob informed about the new client's launch plans, and how they will measure success. Rob also touches base with Legal, making sure they have the standard client reference and case study language in the contract to set expectations that this is a normal part of the client/vendor relationship. From Rob's colleagues in PR, he receives a list of healthcare-industry publications that the new client will want coverage in. He briefs his boss (the CMO) to be ready to discuss opportunities with the prospect at a Friday meeting, including the user conference in April.

Ten weeks later, the prospect has become a customer. Rob has stayed informed about the implementation and knows how BetterBiz's product has benefited the client's company. He has also arranged an introduction with Jo, the client's director of corporate communications. He calls Jo, practitioner-to-practitioner, to discuss how to publicize the success of the project. His plan: pitch an article to three healthcare pubs, submit an abstract for a healthcare conference, and present the article as a case study at next fall's BetterBiz user conference.

The Clear Winner

Sound familiar? NormalCorp certainly understands the value of case studies—that is, the value to NormalCorp. But no one thought about the value to the client. Jennifer approached the process like many companies do, as a one-time, ad hoc project; accordingly, each client was essentially asked to do a favor for NormalCorp's marketing department.

On the other hand, Rob isn't pitching a case study; he's rounding up members of a team—aligned throughout his company and the client company—touching the legal, PR, services, and executive departments. He positions the case study not as a favor that the new client grants to BetterBiz but as one item in a benefit-laden customer program.

Balance the Bargain

For you as a B2B marketer, case studies have tremendous benefit. They position your company as a safe and credible vendor. Few sales support tools are more powerful.

But for your clients, the value is not so apparent. You are asking your clients for a big favor: a public endorsement. In return, they may perceive nothing but competitive, legal, and branding risks. That's hardly a good bargain.

It's your responsibility to eliminate their perceived risk by lavishing them with benefits. How?

Case study winners have a concerted client-facing program that frames the case study as a benefit—not a favor, and not a risky endorsement.

Manhattan Associates, a provider of supply chain software, has such a program. Its website offers more than 100 case studies—significantly more than its competitors. "We look for ways to include our clients in conversations about the importance of supply chain to commerce, not the importance of our company to them," says Mindy Kenney, director of the company's Supply Chain Leaders program.

B2B companies offer many benefits to their clients as part of a case study program, including these:

  • Visibility, by publishing articles in trade publications or websites that give the client press
  • Participation in industry events through speaking opportunities
  • Financial incentives ranging from reduced fees for services to free upgrades
  • Feedback through user panels and advisory boards within your company
  • Special access, such as a direct line to your top management (a letter from the CEO to introduce this benefit is a nice touch)

The Winning Program

Here are the elements of a winning case study program that promotes participation and fosters great client relationships.

Select Worthwhile Stories

Though it is tempting to do a case study on every client who is willing, winners select their subjects strategically.

"I look for case studies that focus where our sales team wants to focus," says Marie Melchiorre of Tenrox, provider of project and workforce management solutions. "It's my job to make sure that Sales has an abundance of stories to back them up."

Nurture the Relationship Early

To identify a case study opportunity early, case study winners have strong communications with their colleagues in sales and customer service. But don't talk about marriage on the first date. Wait until the client is in a position to endorse you before you ask outright.

"The process starts even before the deal is signed," says Lisa Plaskow of Blackboard Inc., a provider of online learning software. "I work with sales managers to identify organizations that will lend themselves to the best case studies. It's better to know that up front instead of having to chase people down."

Deliver the Benefits

Demonstrate your company's commitment to its clients by writing the case study to glorify them, not you. "We make the case study about the client. It's their story and their success," says Plaskow. "The case study is not about our software."

Do All the Heavy Lifting

By doing all of the hardest work up front, in a spirit of service, you greatly increase your chances of getting editorial approval with minimum resistance.

Communicate your plan and objectives to the decision maker before you write the case study. Be ready to give over editorial control to make the client comfortable. And do all the legwork for the convenience of the client.

Welcome Your Client to "The Club"

The final step in the program is to grant your clients the elite status they deserve. That means following through on the benefits of your program. And don't underestimate the value of simple recognition; for example, Manhattan Associates publicly names participating clients "Supply Chain Leaders."

The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship

A growing number of companies understand the commitment it takes to build a winning case study program. For example, to understand Manhattan Associates' commitment, one need only refer to Mindy Kenney's title, Director of Customer Leadership Marketing. "It's a matter of building that relationship into the client lifecycle," she says.

By positioning their clients as leaders, these marketers are leaders in their own right.

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Paul McKeon is the president of The Content Factor (, a content-generation and information-architecture firm based in Atlanta. Reach him via 770-457-2489 ext. 227 or

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  • by Timo Kruskopf Tue Mar 8, 2011 via mobile

    So true and realistic! Seldom companies try to create refs and case studies to benefit both parties. Usually buyer organization has internal buy-in issue where perspective buyer-vendor article could do a diference, not midgeting buyer's benefits on customer relationships.

  • by Pamela DeLoatch Tue Mar 8, 2011 via web

    Paul-- excellent points about building the relationship throughout the process. When you work closely with a customer in an effort to help him be successful, you establish yourself as part of the team. Then, when you suggest documenting the success in a case study, it's not viewed as them doing you a favor--and it shouldn't be.

    As a case study writer, I know that there are many ways that a well-written success story can benefit both you and your customer.

    Pamela DeLoatch

  • by @sightconsulting Wed Mar 9, 2011 via mobile

    I really valued the perspective, comparative example and purpose of the case studies. I am an advocate for case studies and have recently implemented a program through the help of a PR agency. The one area that we seem to be struggling over is educating the sales force on how to utilize them in the field. Maybe you could lend some insight into this. Otherwise, the blog was spot on!
    Thank you.

  • by Pamela DeLoatch Wed Mar 9, 2011 via web

    @sightconsulting-- a previous article here by Casey Hibbard lists 25 ways case studies can be used-- a number of them for sales training and in the sales field. Here's the link:

  • by Laura Thu Mar 10, 2011 via web

    Excellent article. I have heard every excuse in the book from clients as to why they won't participate in a case study. In our industry (healthcare finance), contrasting data before and after the engagement of a vendor is gold. The challenge is two-fold: getting the "before" data from the client and getting them to lay out their problems for the world to see. Sometimes they know they need help but their antiquated systems make it difficult to quantify. Second, a case study invariably exposes their shortcomings. Not something most CFOs are eager to do. We have resorted to writing case studies of anonymous clients using anecdotal evidence. It isn't as powerful but it is better than nothing.

  • by Amanda Brandon Fri Mar 11, 2011 via web

    This article is so key to a marketing and sales teams' success. As a B2B copywriter, I always ask for success stories to illustrate email campaigns, brochures and web copy. However, I've always struggled to have enough "meat" to tell a story in a campaign. I've also worked with companies to develop case studies just because there might be a connection to a differentiator or industry. Educating the client on the fact that this is their success story would save everyone so much work. Thanks for a great article!

    Amanda Brandon

  • by Mark Rechner Tue Apr 19, 2011 via web

    Does anyone have any examples of standard client reference and case study language that they use in their contracts?

  • by Stephanie Tilton Fri Apr 22, 2011 via web

    Paul, I think the biggest takeaways you offer marketers is that they need to be choosy and strategic about the stories they pursue, and they need to get involved early. Another terrific way to build up a case study library is by soliciting stories from customers. I recently wrote a post describing how SAS does a bang-up job of this:


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