When marketing to potential clients or end-users, B2B vendors/suppliers across the spectrum of industry verticals have long relied on case studies to convey credible information about their products and services.
The typical B2B case study created for marketing (as opposed to for academic purposes) is based on the classic "challenge-solution-result" business school format.
Marketing practitioners view case studies as an opportunity to demonstrate a business challenge that an end-user client faced, the solution that the vendor implemented, and the results (preferably with both anecdotal and quantifiable evidence) that show ROI.
In a B2B case study, the end-users relate their experiences with the vendor's product or service. Although the vendor or service provider may produce the case study, they are not the focus of a case study; the spotlight is, or should be, on the end-user.
The intended audience for B2B case studies consists mainly of potential clients, and the desired outcome is for that audience to view the vendor in a positive light.
In a well-written case study, the satisfied end-user has no directly obvious vested interest in praising the vendor company's solution, but does so anyway. That, in turn, creates valuable credibility with potential customers. Over 70 percent of buyers base their decisions on trust and believability, according to a Forrester Research survey.
Although the products and services they're intended to support are usually technology-bases solutions, B2B case studies generally do not need to be technical. The material should be designed first to inform and educate, then to convert the reader into taking some kind of action. Generally, the desired action comes the form of requesting more detailed information about the vendor's suite of products or services.
Key Components of a B2B Case Study
Because case studies are presented as real-world events presented in a story format, the readers are (hopefully) going to connect with (and relate to) the material.
For the vendor producing the case study, including actual numbers that go beyond the "this is what happened" narrative will speak volumes. In fact, even estimated percentages of positive change as a result of using the solution demonstrate the value of your product or service in a tangible way.
In B2B case studies, "quantifiable payback metrics and return on investment figures are the 'golden nuggets of content,' the stuff of compelling optical pulls, and, as digital content distribution goes, it's really at the root of what drives high open rates," said Matt Pillar, a content development consultant.
And Mike Ziegler, vice-president of Software Sales and Customer Success, North Region, at IBM, says enterprise decision-makers are increasingly demanding "quantifiable information" that can be validated with a reference before moving forward with an offering from a vendor.
He adds that "quantifiable information is more critical today than at any other time in the history of making corporate purchases, and every time someone makes a decision for their enterprise where capital is being consumed, they are putting the spotlight on themselves and their initiative, and if they are not able to engineer the return contemplated in the planning process, they are putting their career at risk."
Multiple, meaningful quotes and anecdotes from the participating customer—including in the form of testimonials—are also essential.
"By all means, don't discount the anecdote, because however hard your figures, it's tough to beat a good 'soft' story from an influential story subject," said Pillar. "In fact, strong anecdotal commentary on specific business pain points can often resonate with audiences even better than a killer statistic."
In one published case study, Gregory Kennedy, a vice-president with the mobile marketing firm TapSense, is quoted as having said that "retailers using mobile apps need a single point of integration, a tool to gain insight to get the most out of their ad campaigns through a direct link to the revenue produced," then adding that his product "solves all pain points for retail app marketers," and detailing how that is possible through a published case study. His words emphasize the value of the solution.
Other important components of a case study are a descriptive title to pique the customer's interest, the supplier company's website and contact information, as well as that of the participating customer, and high-quality photographs.
In addition, the case study should be available in .pdf format with a contact link or button for quick navigation to your site.
A case study should run only one or two pages, or about 800 to 1,500 words. In-depth case studies can run to 2,500 words, but they are infrequently used.
The writer will interview the persons in the end-user company who are the most knowledgeable and most involved in the product or service.
Identifying Case Study Opportunities in Your Customer Base
Candidates for the case study should be end-users with fairly recent installations of products or services, preferably within the previous two years—especially when rapidly evolving technology categories are involved.
The vendor company's sales and marketing functions should be able to suggest a list of potential end-user candidates.
Convincing End-Users to Participate
A satisfied client willing to speak about experiences with a product or service is the core of a successful case study. However, convincing end-users to participate in case studies is always a challenge, for a variety of reasons.
Matt Pillar: "Public companies are often skittish about investor reaction to published material on B2B dealings of any sort. Some end-users are hesitant to share details on tech or systems investments they see as proprietary, or those they feel create competitive differentiation for them."
Michael Ziegler: "The best way to overcome this challenge is to set this expectation early, in the negotiation process. It's common for vendors to seek a discount or other favorable terms of sale, and tying these conditions to a case study or reference sets the expectation with the client early—and makes a case study project more likely to be approved."
Vendors should also be sure to remind reticent end-users that their company will receive good exposure through the case study—essentially, free PR. Assure them that their (client's) respective services or products will be described in the case study, and that their identifying information will be provided.
"One way to do this is to tie it to an event," says Ziegler. "Inviting them to review the case study at a conference or seminar (where you might be covering costs associated with the trip and accommodations) is an effective way to convince them to participate.
"At the end of the day, making sure you are doing something that is in fact valuable for them in exchange for their case study participation is the key."
Companies should be told in advance that they will have the opportunity to review, approve, and sign off on a release regarding the case study, which provides a level of comfort for the end-user. Releases should be kept on file.
Avoiding 'Sunk Costs'
Although the upside for the investment of time and effort in case studies is high, it's important to know just when it might be time to give up on a reticent end-user, move on, and devote the marketing and PR resources to different prospects.
"In some cases, these objections simply can't be overcome, notably in cases where the end-user is a publicly traded company," said Matt Pillar. "I've rarely changed the mind of in-house lawyers who've said no."
Finding a Writer
If the resources to conceive, manage, and execute a case study development program don't exist in-house, vendors should explore engagements with professional content producers. To ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible, look for a freelance copywriter, PR specialist, or journalist who brings a high level of familiarity with the vendor company's industry or field.
Sources of possible candidates include industry trade magazine writers and online sources, such as linkedin.com.
Always request samples of work, which is something freelancers expect.
Although a B2B case study program is not without its challenges, vendors that execute them well can reap serious rewards—in the form of reduced sales cycles, market share growth, and increased visibility among key stakeholders.
For this article, the following people were interviewed:
- Mike Ziegler, vice-president of Software Sales and Customer Success, North Region, at IBM
- Matt Pillar, owner of a B2B content development business