In this episode of the Marketing Smarts podcast, we talk with business adviser and author Bob Wiesner about how to create stronger B2B case studies. Bob shares why case studies are important, what we marketers have historically done wrong with our case studies, how to do them right—and so much more.
Don't miss a MarketingProfs podcast, subscribe to our free newsletter!
Bob is a partner at the Artemis Partnership and the author of the recently published Winning Is Better: The Journey to New Business Success.
"To succeed in B2B, or anywhere in marketing, you have to prove your trustworthiness to your prospect," says Bob Wiesner in this episode. That fundamental insight goes to the heart of what makes for a successful case study.
"Case studies go right to the heart of your credibility. If the reader of a case study can project themselves into the case, if they can say, 'I can see how that might have been me,' or, 'I can see how that is me,' then you have credibility as a potential resource for that prospect," Bob explains.
And that's the starting point of this episode of the Marketing Smarts podcast. In our conversation, Bob takes the time to break down four steps you should follow when creating your case studies—"case stories" filled with narrative, data, and villains.
Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode. And if you prefer to read instead, the full transcript is available below.
George Thomas: Are you thinking about case studies in the right way? We'll find out, because today that is the conversation we're having. I'm excited not for me, but for you, because there are so many tips, tricks, thoughts, mentalities, all sorts of goodie nerdiness around case studies that happens today with the conversation with Bob Wiesner.
Bob Wiesner has always been fascinated with how people make decisions. Even as a kid, and a huge baseball fan, he was more interested in the operations of the front office, selecting players and managers, making in-game decisions, etcetera. Then he was in the action on the field. Wiesner studied psychology as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then went into advertising where his focus of decision making shifted to the persuader, the advertiser. After 18 years with the world's largest ad agencies, Bob shifted focus again, from the mass persuasion of advertisers to the individual persuasion of a seller relative to a buyer.
Bob has advised on over 400 transactions in the last 25 years. His clients have included top firms in advertising, accounting, architecture, engineering, consulting, investment banking, law, and many others, and he has helped them win 75% of their pursuits. Bob has also consulted on Olympic bids, IPOs, and other fundraising engagements, and road shows. Are you ready for this road show around case studies? I know I am. Marketing Smarts listeners, let's get into the good stuff.
Bob, I think the people know, but I hate to live in this world of assumptions, so for the rest of this conversation, setting the foundation, when we're talking about case studies, what exactly do you mean and what are they in your mind?
Bob Wiesner: Let's be really clear on this. This is what we think they should be, not necessarily what B2B marketers are actually producing right now. When we call them case studies, we sometimes use the word case stories.
That's what they should be. They should be a story. Like any good story, they should have a plot, they should have a problem, a challenge, they should have a method for resolving it, they should have an outcome, they should have heroes and even villains. That's what a case study should be. God knows there aren't enough of those out there. There are too many supposed case studies that are just displays of work.
My wife loves to go through museums and look at artwork, and she'll study a classic painting for minutes or hours. I'm looking at the painting for a minute, but then I love to read the little story behind the painting. That so-and-so was a starving artist in Paris in 1874, and he came from a school of impressionism. I love to just know how it got there, how did he think of that idea.
I think the B2B listener, the B2B client is no different. They would love to see your work and your ideas, but they're much more interested in how you got there. That's what a case study should be, it's that story of how you got there.
George: I love this so much because I feel like we've all seen those dastardly case studies where you're like you're just talking about yourself. Yes, we can talk about ourselves, but as I listened to you, I envisioned this case study that takes me away, that I can envision myself in the scenario and understand. You mentioned villains and heroes. The hero isn't necessarily the person who wrote the case study, but the hero can be me inside of the case study that they might write.
I'm super interested in where we're going to go with this, but I want to ask one more foundational question. In your mind, why are case studies vitally important? Some people do them, some people don't. Why are they vitally important, especially to B2B marketers?
Bob: One word to answer that; trust. To succeed in B2B, or anywhere in marketing, you have to prove your trustworthiness to your prospect. I didn't invent that concept. In fact, everybody who is following MarketingProfs should be familiar with The Trusted Advisor, the classic book by Maister, Green, and Galford in 2001. They talk about the trust equation, they talk about the fact that trustworthiness is proved through four components, credibility, reliability, intimacy, and a lack of self-orientation.
Case studies go right to the heart of your credibility. If the reader of a case study can project themselves into the case, if they can say, "I can see how that might have been me," or, "I can see how that is me," then you have credibility as a potential resource for that prospect, and that definitely contributes to and starts to build your trustworthiness, you prove yourself to be a trusted resource, and that gets you well on your way towards business.
George: So good. We might have already reached a rewind point, but let's keep moving forward. We'll see if we get that later on in the episode. I'm sure we will. Bob, I am loving what you're laying down.
Historically, if we think about some of those case studies that we've talked about before, and maybe even some that we're talking about now, creating case studies has been challenging. Why do you think this is, and how can we help the B2B marketers create them easier or easily? What are a couple of tips to ease the pain of case study creation?
Bob: I can't say with authority that they're difficult to write, because many of the ones that I see feel like they were just slapped together. They feel like they were easy to write because there wasn't a lot of thought given to them. They're nothing more than a portfolio, frankly, here's the client and here's the work, or here's the client and here's the solution. I think good case studies, the kinds that we're advocating, would be challenging to write, but the best way to write them, there are two parts to it.
Part one is definitely have a template, have a format to follow. I'm happy to share that. Part two, which may be really alien to a lot of marketers in B2B, is before you start a project, think about the case study that you want that project to become and craft the project so that you can extract from it the right information that then turns it into a case study. What many people listening to this are going to have to do if they want to follow what I'm going to recommend is they're going to have to rewrite history a little bit because they probably did not gather the information that we're going to strongly advocate they should have.
The second part to this is really going to help them down the road. To get ahead of the game, begin accumulating that information, even during your proposal stage. Then when you get the project and the project unfolds and is completed, you will have all of the information you need to instantly turn that into your most effective case study.
George: Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope that you're picking up what Bob is putting down. I will agree, 10+ years of agency work and I know case studies were always an afterthought, it was this actually went well, we should talk about it. I love that your tip in there that I pulled out that just smacked my brain and jerked it around for a little bit was write your future. Your case study, the thing that you're going to do, the project, think about it at the very beginning. I think that's good for case studies, but it's probably good for life. Write your story.
Let's talk about the title. I do title these a specific way so that people will know what they're getting in here. We talked about in the title four steps to stronger case studies. Bob, just break down each step. If we were to go one through four, what is step one that the Marketing Smarts listeners can implement for a stronger case study?
Bob: The first thing you have to have for a case study is you have to have a clear articulation of the problem that you were solving, that you were addressing in that case. A problem that your client was facing, or potentially an opportunity, an upside that they were looking for, that could be just as effective. It has to be one or the other, it has to be a challenge that they're facing.
What too many case studies come across as right now, supposed case studies, is our client needed a new website, here's the one we built. Our client needed an introductory campaign for a new brand, here's the one that we came up with. There's no challenge there, there's no problem there. It makes it sound so easy that anybody could do it. If anybody could do it, why do I have to hire you, especially at your prices?
What's really interesting as far as nuance about this idea of challenge, problem, opportunity, is that the bigger it is, the more impressive your solution will seem. Amplify (without BSing) the nature of the problem. Just how difficult was it? What was the context that it was occurring in? What complexities were you facing? What challenges from competitors were going on? Why was this such a big challenge that only you and your brilliant solution were able to solve it?
That's step one, identify and articulate a problem, and make sure it's worded such that a reader who is in that category or perhaps adjacent to that category can relate to it.
George: It's interesting because we kind of positioned this at the beginning, a stronger case study is story based. This problem or this challenge, can you put it in your brain, is this the villain? Am I thinking about this in the right direction, this portion was the villain causing the problem?
Bob: This is the villain, or this is the challenge. This could be the tornado that is about to tear through your town. This could be the villain in Lord of the Rings, Sauron, who is about to destroy Middle Earth. It's an issue. It could be a competitor, which is an easy target as a villain. It could be the pandemic, which is an easy target as a villain. It represents something that your client, in this case, was unable to solve for themselves, and had they not solved it, they would have experienced either worse outcomes or missed the boat on the opportunity for a much better outcome.
George: We have the problem, we have the challenge, we've diagnosed the tornado, Sauron, the villain. What's step two, how do we actually move on and make stronger case studies as we move forward through this four-step framework?
Bob: The next piece that you need is the wisdom or the insights that you possess as an organization that help you get a better understanding of the problem or help you identify the better possible solution. There's a lot of truth that inspiration came to you in the shower, but you can't write a case study about your bathing habits. What you want to do instead is write a case study that says we understood the nature of this villain, of this problem in this way, we had this wisdom, this insight, this experience. We were able to apply that insight to the problem so that we (and only we) could actually find the right solution to it.
Don't make it sound like it's smoke and mirrors or an accident. Make it sound like the solution, which we'll talk about later, came through insights, wisdom, replicable process, something that is, I'll call it tangible. This is really important. When I'm a prospect and I'm reviewing your cases, I will certainly relate to the problem that your client faced, and I can easily see that I have that problem, but why should I believe that the brilliant solution you developed for those guys will be something you can develop for me? Do you possess knowledge, wisdom, insights that you can apply to my problem?
That gives me greater confidence that when we work together, I don't have to wait for you to take a shower to find the answer, but that you'll be applying the same pieces of understanding and wisdom to give me a similarly effective solution.
George: I love this. This to me feels like the defined process, the roadmap to success, the journey that the travelers have to face. But there's also a tinge that I start to feel, and it's also this place where you start to fall in love with the character. For you, it might be Dusty in Stranger Things. There's just this different thing and set of things that they do that you start to lean in a little bit. For this, of course, it's your B2B company, your marketing, the process, the thing that you're actually doing.
I love this. I love going through this with you and tying it back to actual story elements or pieces of this. We've talked about step one and step two. Guess what? I know how to count. We're on step three. When you think about step three of stronger case studies, what do we need to start to think about and where do we need to lean into?
Bob: This is the easy one. This is your solution. Step three is what did your insights lead you to do that solved the problem or took advantage of the opportunity. This is a really clear articulation of what your solution was. If you're in a creative or a design area, then you might be just showing the creative or showing the design. If you're in a more conceptual area, if you are process driven, like a management consulting firm, then you're talking about the plan or the program that you've put in place.
This should be easy for everybody because this is probably what they're accustomed to doing and talking about right now. Remember, maybe the most important part of this is that it's not step one, it's step three.
George: That's so good. Where my brain dove into is number three might be what you already have in what you thought was a case study, so you might need to wrap one, two, and four around it. Something to think about and look at depending on who you are and what you have. Let's keep pushing forward because we're already over 12 minutes of value, and I have multiple questions that I want to try to get into the rest of this interview for the Marketing Smarts community.
Let's dive right into the deep end of the pool, number four, step four of stronger case studies.
Bob: Step four is probably going to be the hardest one for most of the Marketing Smarts community to have in hindsight, which is going to be measurable results, actual outcomes. Those are numbers, that's data, wherever you can get it. It's data that clients can say, "I would love to have those kinds of numbers if I had that kind of problem."
A better way to understand this, or a good way to understand it, is to contrast it to what we often see in case studies. Sometimes what we'll see is we put up this website and these are the awards that we won, or we put up this solution and look how wonderful it is, or we put something up and the client loved it. Yeah, because you're not going to show me a case study that the client hated, so I'm not impressed by that.
What about numbers? Did you move any product? Did you move any boxes? Did you generate any interest? Did you generate more inquiries for your client? Did that client actually gain any market share or sell more medical equipment or attract any new leads? Give me a number, a measurable number.
Now, I say it's hard because we oftentimes don't try to gather that information. Sometimes we don't ask for it. Sadly, many companies, especially the larger ones, don't even reveal those numbers, they won't even tell you what it is even if you ask, and that's a problem. Many cases, more times than you think, you can get it. You might have to go back and say, "Remember that project we did for you last year? Do you have any sales data that coincides with the implementation of that solution?"
This is why I say you have to write the story ahead of time. This is why I say even in the proposal stage you think about what are the measurable results that I want to be able to achieve if I get this project, get the client to agree that those are the results, and that you'll have access to them. That's why the next case study you write will be so much easier, because the data and all of the information will be so much more readily available. Step four, I need to see measurable outcomes.
George: Two things that I want to unpack here. One, you talked about some people won't even share it with you. We humans are smart. By the way, B2B marketers, you're human, and the people that are reading your case studies are human. We're the same, we're built the same way. I know that sounds crazy.
As soon as we feel like somebody is hiding something from us, all of a sudden, it degrades our trust. As soon as it degrades our trust, then the case study is no longer effective for what it's actually trying to do, which is to honestly help sell who you are, what you do, how you do it, who you do it for. You have to have this measurement. I agree with Bob, it's a very important piece.
Bob, I do want to go off the beaten path, because the thing that was in the back of my brain just screaming like it was in a massive tunnel and it's the only thing I could really hear was have you ever seen a company or companies have a process built out around this gathering that information? Think of the tactical. You're thinking about it at the beginning of what you want it to be, you do the project. Now what I heard you say is in a year from now, is there something better that you can almost start to think of the process, the pre-case-study, case study, post-case-study or post-project to get that measurement more times than not?
Bob: You have to build that right in. You can set up dashboards with your client. Many in the marketing community are, in fact, at an advantage if they can already state in their proposal that we have a dashboard that measures some sort of effectiveness. If you don't have one, and it's too costly, or you don't have the time to acquire one, then work with your client to agree on what the measurements will be.
What I'd also love to see companies do is, as you said, start with the baseline so you know what the current sales are, what's the current velocity of business, before you implement your solution. Acquiring the data and checking the data almost immediately, but certainly at agreed upon mileposts, have some sense as to where I ought to be one month in, three months in, six months in. Maybe most importantly, agree to revisit the solution as you get indications that perhaps it's not achieving what we expected it to, so what adjustments do you want to make to that solution so that you get back on track with the results that you want.
All of these things are going to work really well for you in terms of not just the case study, but more importantly the client relationship and the success of the project. You also might have an opportunity here, which you'll need your client's permission perhaps, but you might be able to create an interim case study even though the project is supposedly not finished, but look at the results we've gotten in three months despite this tremendous problem that we faced.
Work with your client to be able to acquire data as quickly as you can and have it on an ongoing basis. That gives you much more useful information to justify the case or make adjustments.
George: I love this idea of your case study doesn't have to be one and done, it can grow over time. It's about client relationship, which by the way, if you have relationships, you have conversations. It's not like the project is over and then they just go away. You can continue to talk to them. I love all of this. And the success of the project, that was another piece that you put in there that was absolutely amazing.
As we go into almost over 20 minutes of value, what are some hurdles that the B2B marketers, the Marketing Smarts listeners, should be watching out for when creating or leveraging their case studies as they move forward?
Bob: We've talked about a few of them already, and they're really worth underscoring. The first hurdle is being able to articulate what really was the problem, or what really is the problem, what is the opportunity. We oftentimes don't think of it that way, we just think of a project.
I need to renovate the bathrooms in the dormitory, that's a significant project that is going to pay you a couple million dollars, and I know how to renovate bathrooms, so that's what I'll bid for. What are the problems associated with it? Is it a supply chain problem? Is it a gender bathroom usage problem? Is it a sustainability problem with the materials that you intend to use? Start thinking right away about really being truthful and thorough about articulating what the problems are.
The other hurdle you'll have to overcome is the one we just talked about, which is the accessibility of data. If your client doesn't have a mechanism for giving you data, either current data so you have your baseline, or data that tracks the progress or the time over the length of the project, then you have to create that. You have to come up with some ideas as to what kind of data you want and how we might accumulate that.
Perhaps the best we could do is qualitative. You're putting into place some kind of retail experience, you're not able to acquire data on customer behavior, but every month we're going to talk to 10 retailers and ask them how the retail experience is going since we put this new project into place. Something that gives you some inputs to measure effectiveness or at least have hypotheses about effectiveness.
I think those are the two biggest hurdles. First of all, coming to grips with what the problem truly is. Secondly, having the data to support the effectiveness of your solution.
George: I love this so much. One of the things that I like to do on the Marketing Smarts Podcast is kind of do the polar opposites of what you could run into. We just covered hurdles. Literally, the potholes, the spikes, the snakes, the pits, whatever might get in your way. Now I want to turn our eyes to we're standing on the podium, we have the golden medal around our neck, and we have hit case study success, case study nirvana, we're knocking it out of the park. What the heck does that look like, how are we feeling as a company at that point?
Bob: We're feeling great as a company. The reason we are is not because we've won the Nobel Prize in case study articulation. We're feeling great because we're starting to get inbound inquiries with people saying to us, "I read about what you did for so-and-so. I'd love to talk about some problems that I have." That's the perfect phone call. That's the phone call that should get you excited and put the champagne on ice. You're not ready to pop the cork yet, but that means you're making progress.
A successful case study, a case study that you're proud of, gets people to want to know more, gets them to want to learn more. It actually should deliberately leave them with questions where they want to know how you did that or, "I've got this problem. Do you think you could help me?"
To a certain degree, and this is a bit of an unfair comparison, I don't want to mislead Marketing Smarts listeners, but it's worth thinking about, a case study is a little bit like a movie trailer, using that entertainment analogy. By seeing the trailer, I want to see the movie. That's what you want to do with a case study. If it's working and people are buying tickets to your movie, then you have cause for celebration.
George: I think we're brothers from another mother, because as you were talking about that, the same thing was coming into my brain of it's the teaser, it's the trailer. Right now, I want to go see Wakanda: Forever like nobody's business because they just dropped the teaser and trailer. Actually, they dropped a couple of the phases that are coming out. Anyway, not why we're here, but I do like the fact that we've talked about Marvel and J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, we got to nerd out.
It is all about this storyline, it's about taking people somewhere, it's about teasing, and I love it. As we close out this episode, what are some final words of wisdom that you would like to leave the Marketing Smarts audience? It can be pertaining to case studies, or it can be anything else. Just what are some words of wisdom that you would like to give the marketers of the world?
Bob: Thank you for the opportunity and thank you for the chance for us to talk. It's been terrific.
We as marketers, and my company faces this as well, we're really proud of the work that we do and proud of the IP that we have. What sometimes we lose sight of is that our work, our IP, our outputs of solutions are not automatically going to be viewed as wonderfully, as excitedly by our prospects as we view them. We have to think about how is this going to land on the reader, how is this going to land on the prospect.
Sometimes the work that you really love has to be reframed. I'm not suggesting it has to be hidden. It has to be reframed so that it gets the reaction that you really want. Word number one is understand how your information, your solutions, your point of view is going to land on your prospect, and make the adjustments you need so that it lands the way you want it to, not the way it occurs to you.
Second thing, stick to your core strengths. This certainly applies to the case studies that you choose to put out there into the public. Those of us in very entrepreneurial smaller businesses have this can-do attitude. There's nothing that a client can present us with that we're incapable of handling. Besides, they'll pay us for it, and we can always use the money. When it comes to putting out case studies, when it comes to positioning your solution or your company, make sure that you understand exactly what your strengths are, understand the work that you do that excites you, the work that you do that you and the people you're affiliated with are excited to perform, the work that your clients not just love, but want to buy more of.
Put that in the center of all of your marketing communications, make those the high priority projects that you pursue, and make sure you're writing case studies about that. You might be a brilliant marketer, and perhaps a client comes to you and says, "I love the marketing work you do. I really need some focus groups. Can you run some focus groups for me?" I probably could, I've been in focus groups before, sure, I can do that. That's not your core work. You're not going to be able to write a case study around it. If you need it to keep the lights on, go for it. But stick with your core strengths and that will propel your business and make it easier for you to acquire new clients.
George: What an absolute joy of an interview. Bob had some great insights on case studies. Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.
Also, I have to ask, are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education you'll be adding to your life. Speaking of additional education, have you signed up, are you going to be there, will I see you at the B2B Forum? 49 sessions, four keynotes, and tons of shenanigans. Make sure you check out the B2B Forum this October 12th through 14th. Hopefully, I'll see you there. Use the discount code MyPalGeorge for $300 off your ticket for the B2B Forum.
We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Nate Brown on how B2B marketers can leverage voice of the customer for growth, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.
Don't miss a MarketingProfs podcast, subscribe to our free newsletter!
Published on August 11, 2022
Bob Wiesner, managing partner, the Americas, at the Artemis Partnership, which focuses on helping clients improve new business win rates and accelerate organic growth. Bob's book Winning Is Better: The Journey to New Business Success was published in Dec. 2021. Bob has advised on over 400 transactions in the last 25 years. His clients have included top firms in advertising, accounting, architecture, engineering, consulting, investment banking, and law. He has helped them win 75% of their pursuits.
You may like these other MarketingProfs articles related to Content: