James Carbary

Founder at Sweet Fish Media

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Start Treating Case Studies Like Human Stories

James Carbary

Founder at Sweet Fish Media

Full Profile »

My passion for case studies began as an offshoot of my core business. At the time I was wrapping up a project for an enterprise sized brand when a board member asked:

“Hey Joel, do you do case studies?”

At the time, I did testimonials but didn’t utilize case studies to their fullest potential. This was when everything for me shifted. After going through that process of crafting a case study, so much was uncovered that blew me away. The first thing being, case studies are an asset that every B2B company can benefit from. Digging a little deeper, I discovered no one in the industry had a process for putting one together and then there were other blindspots in messaging, product building, voice of the customer, etc. 

Surely somebody’s planted the flag in doing this as a service right? No, it was a wasteland. There were small services available or add-ons, but they weren’t doing this craft any justice. 

It was then I decided to start Case Study Buddy. I wanted to build a process that would change the way companies do business, provide value with this hidden gem of an asset, and scale it to reach every industry. These have the ability to change how you hear your customers, how you differentiate and how you can stay relevant. If it wasn’t snowing in Calgary, I would be climbing my nearest mountain and scream from the mountain top “CASE STUDIES ARE GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD” because that is how much I believe in them! Now…

What are the best practices for B2B case studies? The best practices for B2B case studies include:

  1. Systematize Replicable Success Stories 
  2. Define Strategy for
  3. Identify Use Cases
  4. Deploy Case Study 
  5. Design Feedback Loop 

This article will be breaking down 15 case study best practices to help you win new business. By the end of this article, we will have climbed to the peak of this virtual ‘case study mountain’ and can scream together.. “CASE STUDIES ARE GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD! Let’s get started!

  1. Replicable Success Stories 

One of the biggest mistakes I see, way before fingers touch keyboards is treating customers success stories like happy accidents. 

Question: Are you sitting passively waiting for someone to leave you a review or send a glowing email? 

If the answer is yes, you most likely don’t have a process, system, or mechanism for making these stories come out. 

If you do have a process, it may very well be siloed to a single business unit rather than stakeholders who would find value in them. Here is an example:

Bad: relying on serendipity

A salesperson has been working with a client for a few months now. They receive an email from the client saying: 

“Thank you so much for your time with this project. We had a great win with XZY company.”

That email will most likely never migrate to the marketing team, senior leadership team or HR team and become an asset for the company. Instead, it will stay in your salespersons inbox. 

Good: having a systematized, intentional process

This is why it is important to have a systematized, intentional way to collect this feedback. This client email has the potential to become a multifaceted asset to the company and be used to help create a system to collect interactions like these more often. 

  1. Define your Strategy 

A prevailing myth across B2B industries is social proof is made equal, this idea that testimonial A is just as good as Testimonial B. My work on the conversion side has shown me that this is not true. 

Having a testimonial that talks about a particular pain, a particular solution or a particular aspect of your service is far more valuable than a general testimonial saying “this is great.” This is why having a strategy is crucial to your success as a business. Try answering these questions when crafting your strategy:

  1. What are our business goals?
  2. What stories do we need to tell those business goals?
  3. What stories do we need to arm ourselves with to penetrate the XYZ market?
  1. Identify Use Cases

Now that we have identified the need for a strategy, ask yourself “How are we going to use these stories?” Usage for these stories typically gets relegated to a resource section of the website and forgotten about. 

When focusing on deploying your strategy to identify use cases, you are now able to have conversations around how you can use case studies to identify, nurture and upsell. By putting thought into end use cases, you are able to put thought into its format and how you will deploy strategy across business units. 

I may be a broken record here, but in this step it is crucial to identify use cases across your entire business, not just B2B marketing. 

  1. Deploy Case Study 

At this point, you have great stories from great customer interviews and you’ve thought about use cases across your entire business. Now, it is time to break down how you will deploy this across your entire business funnel. How are you going to turn this into a lead generation asset, nurturing asset or an upselling asset? 

One way to help you answer these questions is to… quite literally… draw out a funnel (or whatever framework you use). Draw the top, middle and bottom and ask: What currently occupies this space? 

Below is an example of things that may be in your funnel and questions to ask:

  • Top of Funnel – How can we use case studies in advertising? Remarketing?
    • Advertisements
    • SEO Content
    • Blog Content
    • Guest Post Content
  • Middle of Funnel – What questions do customers have before they become a full fledged raving fan?
    • Nurture Sequence 
    • Onboarding Snags
    • Customer Questions 
    • Upgrading / Upsell
  • Bottom of Funnel – Where can we use case studies at the bottom of our funnel? 
    • Testimonials 
    • PDF’s
    • Written Assets 
  1. Design Feedback Loop 

Typically, companies have no feedback loop or mechanism to collect great stories from customers. Conversations may even be viewed as getting in the way or a last resort.

What I’m going to tell you is: Make conversations with your customer a normal feeling occurrence.

Companies that do this well are systematizing the way they interact with customers and are talking with them often. Imagine having the best win in the company’s history, but that win was 3 years ago. Now, the customer is so far away from what happened, if you were to go back you wouldn’t be able to get the level of detail you would’ve gotten if you had systemized interactions years ago. 

Smart companies deal with this by consistency and escalating commitment. You don’t want it to feel like a stranger asking, that’s the reason why you’ll hear ‘NO’ so often. Instead here are two examples of how to normalize these conversions to hopefully turn that ‘NO’ into a resounding ‘YES.’

One Question Survey

After a purchase, send a one question survey asking: 

What was going on in your business or life that sent you looking for our solution today? 

Or 

What are your goals for the product? 

A company named Freshbooks does this really well. They ask objective based questions so they can track initial struggles that the customer identified and then are able to go back and ask “Have we solved that problem?” and “What have your results looked like?” This gives you a warm entry into a conversation and you definitely won’t feel like a stranger. If you’re not paying attention, this section will be an exciting one. 

NPS Score

I’ll let you decide if the NPS score is a great metric or not, I’m not here to debate rather lead you to your own conclusions. What I can say is, I don’t really care about NPS score as a metric so much as I love it as a frequent, low friction way to stay in touch with people and get a boroomater for where your wins might be.

When you send something low friction like an NPS score, it helps you quickly identify wins in your customer base, advocates and who is willing to engage. After that, you have the opportunity to escalate by saying “We saw you gave us a good score, would you be interested in chatting more about your experience?”


All of this to normalize conversations with your customers! Give customers a face, name and relationship, so when you ask for feedback you’ve got a historical record of what happened. You won’t be a stranger!

  1. Incredible Interviews

A great interview makes for a great case study. They are the heart and soul! These are not ‘you’ success stories, and not ‘your’ perspective that is important. These are human stories about the customer. If you blow the interview, ask closed ended questions or get basic insights, your case study is shot.

Logistics 101

1-to-1 Calls

This means one person interviewing and one person responding. Even if there are many people involved in the decision making process, having 1-to-1 calls means you are able to avoid cross-talk and dominant voices that may cloud less senior, more valuable perspectives. In short..you don’t want too many chefs in the kitchen!

Homework

Before the call happens, put your teacher hat on and assign some homework. It doesn’t sound sexy, but is critical. If the decision maker comes in cold to the interview, and you are asking about results and metrics, you will not get the information you need for a successful case study. While you prepare for the interview by writing question sets, make sure your other half (interviewee) is given the opportunity to feel equally prepared with their answers. 

Dedicated Interviewers  

Core question sets are not enough for a successful interview. Sitting at a table writing questions is easy. Thinking about how to ask those questions or how to structure the conversation is hard. That’s why dedicated interviewers are a great resource to have. These are people who understand conversations, good at asking questions and know how to turn anyone into a storyteller.

Questions should reflect story prompts, are open ended, and follow a BDA (Before, Durning, After) Format. 

Before: What was wrong? This goes into their history, pain, triggers, and what sent them looking.  

During: What what was done? Dive deep into how it felt, what surprised them, and what the impact was. 

After: Metrics are not enough. Find the holistic details that frame the situation, its impact and what the short-term/long term results were across the business. 

Through all of this, realize you are having a conversation and are a human talking to another human. The last thing you want is to read like a robot or rattle off a good question set like it’s a contest on how fast you can do it. 

  1. Precise Timing

How long are these conversations? Well, before that you need to recognize that you are asking for a favor. Is an executive more likely to accept a 2 hour interview or a 30 minute interview?

If you said 30 minutes… you’re right! The less time you ask for, the chances of you sitting down with them increases. With that being said, you need to capture as much time with them as humanly possible. The art of the interview is capturing the time, not reading questions like a robot, and having a real, human conversation. That’s why having designated interviewers is so valuable!

Our target interview is 30 mins to 45 mins, this is a sweet spot. Anything under this, especially 10 min calls, typically don’t even scratch the surface with the level of detail you need for a case study. Our all-in-target, with the interview and reviewing the draft, is less than an hour of their time. We want to be able to make the promise that the entire process is going to take less than an hour because we understand how valuable time is. 

It is very possible to get everything you need with the level of detail you are looking for if you have a plan going into the call. 

  1. Journalist Skills

Now the designated interviewers pass the baton over to the writers. The goal here is to write like a journalist. 

A big mistake people make is having a ‘paint by numbers’ methodology that is very linear compared to treating these interviews as human stories. When it comes to the written piece, yes, challenge, solution, results is the standard. But the way you can differentiate is by writing like an journalist instead of someone who is writing a white paper. 


“Joel, what’s the difference?”

A white paper conveys facts. It is metric driven, staunch, cold and not depictive of a human story. There is a time and place for this type of writing, just not here. 

A story has a human centric approach. It has emotion, tension, passion, stakes and surprise. The time and place for stories, that also feature the standard challenge, solution, result framework, is here in our case studies.

Writing Best Practices

Headline

Your headline has one job: get people to want to read the study. Don’t make it about the company, make it about the impact. Ways to make it even more targeted is to cater to where you are in the funnel. If you are at the top of the funnel where leadership is aware of their pains, tailor your headline to that pain and alleviation of that pain. 

Challenge Section

Another common mistake is structurally, we like to start describing who the company is. That’s not how stories start. Cinderella doesn’t start with: Cinderella is a 5 foot 2 young woman with strawberry-blonde hair, and blew eyes. She is an avid sewer with above average family strife and occasionally talks to mice.

Source: Giphy https://gph.is/MrqSa7

Instead, they plunge you into the narrative, they start with tension, stakes, things gone wrong, and justice that needs to be served. In case studies, we don’t omit this information, instead we save it for a sidebar or the end of the story, because it’s not the sexy part people came for. 

You want to use your challenge section to immediately introduce tension and give it a human face. Yes there is a company, but who is the person involved? What did it look like for them?

Solutions Section

Here, people get hung up wanting to talk about the ‘what’ so bad, they don’t talk about the ‘why.’ Typically, companies have a bullet point list of capabilities of what they can do. I don’t hire for ‘what’ you can do, I hire because of how they think about it or why they do it in such a way.  

Here you need to answer not only what was done, but why you did it that way and why that was the approach. What was the thinking?

Results Section

Don’t make this a touch-me-not trophy case! Instead you want to dive deep into the impact the results had with a detailed level of specificity. An example we’ve heard is “I don’t have to run around the office checking people for paychecks anymore.” 

This is a sexy, specific example! Someone in that role can empathize with that example and think “Holy crap, i’m running around the office.”


It tells a completely different story compared to just posting a metric.

Call to Action

Have a call to action.  Depending on the application, give your target a relevant contextual way to scratch the itch you made them aware of. Not a big contact us button, rather real world stories with real stakes. 

  1. Enable Sales Teams

You finished the interview, it is written like a journalist, the case study is done and now it’s time to enable your sales team with these resources. First, consider the situation your sales team is in. Ask “What level of awareness are the people my sales team are reaching out to in?” and recognize their need for different versions of assets for the different levels of awareness. 

Think bite sized, snack sized and meal sized! This can translate to a one sheeter, short powerpoint, or full blown presentation. Consider the context for your team and have various versions available. 

Make sure your sales team is aware!


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