A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Buyer-focused, Outcome-based Case Studies

Case studies can provide important proof of a solution directly from the mouths of customers. Do yours help prospective buyers see how it can apply to them, too? A couple years ago, after a hugely successful career with traditional marketing, a long-time marketing manager I know embarked on digital demand generation methods for the first time. You know; implementing marketing automation, segmenting audiences and targeting them with relevant content, tracking and measuring conversion results. Her aim was to grow business by nurturing B2B leads in new verticals, with an email campaign segmented to each vertical. She started out by planning a case study program. The fact is, as familiar as they were from her days in traditional marketing, case studies are still one of the most effective ways for prospects to learn about a vendor’s solution in scenarios similar to their own. Case studies can be effective conversion tools at every step of the marketing funnel:
  • A word-of-mouth viewpoint very appealing to readers comes shining through case studies, because they offer a glimpse into the customer’s perspective, bypassing the vendor’s sales pitch in early-stage information gathering.
  • Sales reps love case studies too, because they help explain offerings during 1:1 conversations with prospects at the evaluation stage among multiple solutions.
  • Even purchasing officers in certain sectors often require evidence of a solution in their respective market or use case all the way up to the actual purchase.
Case studies work at nearly every point along the customer journey, making them a great starting point for my friend’s demand generation efforts.

Ready, Fire…

To launch the project, she hired a tech journalist she knew in her company’s primary industry to interview select customers and write their stories. He had an impressive and long resume, with dozens of technical articles published in multiple trade publications. She gave him a list of five customers to contact, a customer briefing questionnaire, and a generous deadline — not to mention a healthy freelance fee. In return, from this old-school industry trade magazine journalist, she received … five old-school industry trade magazine articles. Technically correct on every level. Excruciating attention to spec detail. Classic inverted-pyramid narrative. Uncovered smart, unique approaches by each highlighted customer. They would have crushed it in a technology roundup. But they were utterly unappealing to a buyer in my friend’s email campaign. Why? Because they violated the two biggest rules of buyer-focused content.

Rule 1: Write for the Audience

Because a subscriber to the trade magazines in the company’s core industry is not the same as the business buyer in the new vertical markets the campaign intended to target. An industry reader would understand the technology, read the insider’s jargon with ease, appreciate hearing how the turnkey solution was deployed in a way that integrated seamlessly with the subject’s workflow by leveraging his facility’s optimized infrastructure. Buyers in one of the non-technical vertical markets, however, would be interested in how others in their situations solved a problem, or addressed an area of business focus or growth. These buyers may not even be looking for a technology solution; they’re looking for a way to be successful in achieving their immediate goals.

Rule 2: The Case Study Subject is Not Your Audience

This one is tougher for people to hear, the interviewer/writer in particular. It’s tempting to place the interviewees under the spotlight, and showcase them as pioneers who used unique approaches, unheard-of problem-solving skills, and true grit to overcome monumental odds with heartwarming success. To make them the stars. This approach makes case study subjects very happy. They’ll print out the finished case study, frame it, email the PDF, and post it on their website for their customers to see. You’ll make them look like a hero and both of you will feel good. But they’ve already purchased. Your campaign is designed for prospects who haven’t yet! Remember them? The ones in your other vertical markets, the ones who need examples of proven solutions used by people like them to address business challenges. They’re the real stars, and if they don’t identify with the subject’s goals, pain points, budget level, and buying process, then they won’t engage and convert.
Without focus on the prospective buyer, a case study campaign will not be enough to engage and convert prospects.

The Essential Marketing Case Study Format

The demand gen manager asked for help steering the program back on-course. We salvaged the interview responses already recorded, went back for round 2, and put a process into place to keep the writer focused on the outcome. Here are the basics of that process.
  1. Use a customer who matches your target readers: a company in their market sector, a person with their job title, a department with the same pain point or goal, etc.
  2. When possible, ensure the case covers the most ideal, typical, or profitable use of your product or service. In other words, if your case study is about a highly unusual use of your product, then even if it’s interesting, it won’t be relatable nor make the connection to a buyer looking for a solution.
  3. Prepare 10-15 questions that essentially plot out the route of the buyer’s journey, from when they started thinking about solving a problem, to the impact that the solution will have on their business in the future. A set of questions I’ve used in the past includes:
    • what does your company do;
    • would you like to share your background;
    • tell us about your customers (or stakeholders, etc) and what you do for them;
    • what were you aiming to accomplish before you put this solution into place;
    • how did you go about finding a solution; what other options did you explore;
    • how did you finally end up choosing this solution;
    • what are your feelings about using this solution compared to what you were doing before;
    • what measurable impact has it had / do you think it will have;
    • what big success stands out as a result of this new capability;
    • what can you do now that you couldn’t do before.
  4. Note that these questions inspire the subject to answer with responses that paint a complete picture, not just a technical one, with brush strokes of of clarity, achievement, and heartfelt sincerity… which means business questions, measurement questions, and ones that draw out color and emotion. People want to hear about these! It’s all part of business storytelling.
    • Ask or re-phrase these in ways directed to your industry, that will elicit responses your audience can relate to.
    • Always think of the outcome your readers want, and phrase your questions to achieve that outcome.
  5. Craft the answers in classic case study template: Background, Challenge, Selection, Solution, Results, Conclusion. You don’t need those labels; you can be creative. But the framework should follow that path. Why? So readers don’t have to work hard to understand the story you’re trying to tell. They look for information in this order – so give it to them that way!
  6. Use direct customer quotes. For one thing, writing exclusively in the third person keeps the voice distant from readers. For another, if you’ve selected the appropriate customers to spotlight, some of their word choices will be apt to resonate with your audience’s search patterns on your topic.
  7. Write in a lively, storytelling way. Use a word processor that can detect passive sentences – and keep yours close to 0% (coincidentally, like this post).
  8. Additionally, use the Flesch index to achieve a reading level appropriate to your audience–8th grade is a general “sweet spot” target (happily, also like this post)–but no higher than 12th grade for a dense, technical topic.
It took six intense rounds of revisions to transform the tech journalist’s drafts into buyer-focused, problem-solving, SEO-friendly materials that appealed to the readers’ solution considerations. At last the manager ended up with a set of five case studies that helped her successfully move leads further along the qualification path. And that made her look like a star.