Let’s talk about case studies…
By Tracey Wallace
My experience with case studies began like so many young content marketers’ experience does: you get handed the project with no direction, but lots of expectations, and you just have to figure it out.
So, I did what I usually do. I went to a bunch of other tech sites to see how other people were doing case studies. Shopify Plus’ are still some of my favorites, but there are so many great ones out there!
The difference, I soon learned, between brands like Shopify Plus and what I was going to be doing was that a lot of tech companies have at least one person dedicated to doing case studies.
At BigCommerce, I’d just be me––in addition to the blog content I was publishing, the partner content I was writing, the social posts I was filming, etc.
Y’all have all been there, right?!
So, I leaned on what I knew:
- We needed a lot of case studies––at least four per month––and quickly.
- Those case studies would be used by the sales team, but marketing also wanted to use quotes from those in other marketing activities (landing pages, ads, etc.)
- We’d need to get a legal approval process setup ASAP to make sure we could interview for one thing, and get approval to use it in a variety of others.
- I needed to be able to do this AND write all blogs, manage gated asset production and SEO without missing a beat (I was a team of one at the time).
To be as efficient as possible with my time, I decided to do something I’ve seen no other brand do before then, nor since.
Even BigCommerce has changed how they write case studies. Don’t worry––they did it when I was there. We finally hired someone, not on my team, to write them full time. That’s when the format changed, when it was no longer under my management.
Totally fair! People should always do what they feel is the best work.
What I thought worked best was this:
- I’d email the brands––explain that I was impressed with their growth, and would love to talk to them about what they were doing specifically. I might use this for a case study, but only with their approval, and the interview itself would take no more than 30 minutes.
- Always tell people how much time you need from them. Make it a short amount.
- Most brands were stoked that I noticed them, and said yes pretty quick. Others, especially the larger brands, wanted to know what I’d ask. So, I’d do a bit more research and send over a few questions, like the below:
- Why did you start looking for an ecommerce platform?
- What ecommerce platform solutions and companies did you compare?
- What about our technology made you decide to go with us?
- What results have you seen over the last year since coming on board?
- What parts of our solution do you like best, and why?
- Would you recommend our solution to others?
- Then, when I’d get on the phone with the brand, I’d be as friendly as possible. People like to work with people they like, and I’d be asking for a lot of approvals from them. Start with a good first impression. It’ll make everything else easier.
- Next, always ask if you can record the call! My talk track here: “One quick thing before we begin, do you mind I record the call? I’ll be transcribing this and I want to make sure I get everything you say as accurately as possible.” No one ever said no.
- I never stuck to the script. Instead, I followed the advice a former boss gave me to “follow the pain.” When people talk about something that took a long time, was frustrating, was confusing, etc., ask more questions about it.
- What was so frustrating?
- How did you hope it would work?
- Was anyone particularly helpful during that time?
- Do you have any regrets about decisions you made during that time?
- How would you do it differently today?
- Then, you empathize. And by empathize, you listen. Like, really listen, the way you would to a friend telling you about a bad day at work. Things I often said during these calls:
- “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
- “That must have been really frustrating.”
- “It took HOW LONG?!”
- “I don’t even want to imagine…”
- Finally, I asked the same question at the end every single time––and I swear y’all, I had two different people get literally choked up when I asked it. Almost everyone I asked it to said something along the lines of, “You know, no one has ever asked me that before.” It went like this, after them telling me about something painful in their job (that our solution likely solved)…
- “You know, I have to say, listening to all of this, you are clearly very good at what you do, and care a lot about it. Could you tell me why? What is it about this job that gets you out of bed in the morning, that gets you excited to turn on the computer and get to work? Why do this? With all this pain, and frustration, what’s in it for you?”
Now, hear me out. I didn’t ask for numbers once in any of these calls.
After the last question and their answer, as we were wrapping up and I was thanking them for their time, I’d say:
“Oh, and, we do need three metrics to support the case study. Let me transcribe this and send you a few ideas that you could look up. Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be exact numbers or any that reveal business revenue. We’re really just looking for percent improvements over the previous state, if that’s OK.”
It always was.
To be fair, I had access to the backend of their sites. So, I’d hop back there and look at their metrics myself. And then, I’d suggest a few to them. Most people agreed with those and signed off for us to use them. Others went and pulled more specific data for me. Either way, I always found myself with three metrics without really having to ask.
And that’s because, for me, the case study call was never about the numbers to begin with.
Business isn’t about the numbers, though I know it seems like it is. Business is about people.
It’s why you see so many people hyping their success and even their failures on Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s why someone like Adam Neumann could raise venture money again, from Andreessen Horowitz no less!, after a literal blockbuster show detailing his incriminating behavior and business failure.
People love stories. They love to hear them. They love to tell them. And business is a story.
Here’s what I did next.
Case studies follow similar formats across the web, something like:
- The problem
- The goal
- The solution
- The results
- Products used (if the business has multiple products and tools)
So, with these 30 minute, very personal interviews, I’d create two pieces of content (where I could…it wasn’t always possible and that’s OK).
First, the case study, which followed this format:
- Intro––which I wrote.
- Specific sections about specific problems, in which I used their own exact words to describe the issue.
- Why do it this way? Because I could get the brands to approve those exact quotes, and if they approved them, then my marketing team could use them in other marketing channels. I later created a Google spreadsheet with all the companies and all the quotes so folks could search quickly.
- Oh, also because it saved me a ton of time!
- Here are several examples:
You’ll notice in all of these, each section includes a, “As told to BigCommerce by XYZ person at XYZ brand.”
Then, where it was possible and where there was a story interesting enough, I wrote a feature piece about the brand for the blog.
This is how I made case studies make sense as part of the larger blog strategy, too. It also made for great interlinking!
Unfortunately, BigCommerce has removed most of those stories, likely because they didn’t drive any SEO value. That wasn’t ever the point.
Feature stories about specific brands are often what get picked up most on social media, or in newsletters. People love sharing the stories of people, their trials and tribulations. These pieces do wonders for getting prospects to click and for showing prospects that you really *get* them.
I once thought I would turn them into a book, but alas, it’s been a little too long (but maybe, I don’t know!!).
Finally, once a quarter, you want to round up the relevant case studies and create gated assets out of them. Here’s an example of one I did for BigCommerce, gathering up several of the enterprise brand case studies we did.
Anyway, this is how I’ve done case studies as efficiently as possible because it gets you:
- The case study
- Customer-approved quotes you can use in marketing channels
- A blog post for interlinking (and just plain cool story telling!)
- Several gated assets at the end of the quarter to wrap it all up!
Better yet, doing case studies like this made me friends with the brands I interviewed. I still talk to a lot of them today, cheer them on as they’ve made career moves on LinkedIn, DM with them over Twitter, and so much more.
Case studies can be such powerful pieces of content, and can create efficient content flywheels. But more so, they can build your network, and your company’s base of raving fans.
You just have to treat them like stories, like individuals, like people. Ignore the numbers, at first.