The term ‘case study’ is bandied around in marketing meetings but what does someone really mean when they declare ‘let’s do some case studies’?
Defining a case study is tricky as it will depend on what industry you work in, what types of customers and clients you have, and also how the content is being used.
The names I have assigned below to the examples or types are not scientific and not necessarily used across all marketing departments but they simply help demonstrate how the catch-all ‘case study’ term will differ depending on the context.
Let’s look at the most common types…
Case studies for the consumer press
Whatever the sector, there is still something entirely satisfying about seeing your customer or client waxing lyrical about your company or organisation in the mainstream national or other consumer press.
As it is written entirely by the journalist, you have to be pretty confident that your case study is going to say the right things about your business before letting them loose in front of the media. In general, the journalist will want the details of the client or customer and a brief outline of their story – bullet points are usually sufficient.
Whilst hard facts are always helpful, journalists tend to be looking for a bit of personality or something to bring their story to life here. Anecdotes and human interest insights can sometimes be preferable over percentages, data, and numbers.
Don’t forget, great photography or the possibility of a photoshoot are all beneficial to your sell in.
The journalist will want to make contact directly with the individual and so the marketing team has to sit back and hope the magic happens.
Never ever expect to be able to approve the copy before publication – even asking is a big no-no!
It’s all a bit nerve-wracking but if successful, it’s usually met with a big hearty slap on the back from everyone concerned as the third party endorsement in an independently written piece generates untold amounts of trust and kudos.
B2B case studies
Case studies for more general B2B press can vary from being written by journalists themselves through to content being accepted that is largely written by a company or organisation. Typically, the better regarded the publication or site, the more likely they will want to do an interview and write the copy themselves (unless of course, you catch them on an extremely tight deadline – there are always expectations to the rule!)
B2B case studies tend to be more factual so it’s always good to ensure both the interviewer and interviewee have the same stats to hand about the success of the product or project.
In the trade press, and particularly the B2B buildings and industrial press, case studies are often called application stories i.e. when a product has been applied to a situation or problem. They tend to be drier than consumer or B2B case studies: data is king here and without it, it can be hard to place.
As with B2B case studies, where either party has reservations about using absolute data, it’s fine to use relative i.e. percentage increases can be used in place of actuals.
In my opinion, client wins often get confused with case studies – they are not the same thing.
A client win story is usually entirely promotional without too much substance due to the relationship being so new. If the new business was won after a particularly competitive pitch process, trial phase or pilot scheme that can all add some useful colour, but don’t expect to win too many column inches or pixels with a client win story alone.
The real beauty of a case study is when two parties have had a successful relationship over a period of time and KPIs have been met or success is measurable. This type of information is much more helpful to potential future clients as well which is why it is preferred by the media too.
That said, every industry tends to have one or two specific publications that cover new business wins but they will probably be read by your competitors, not your future clients. A link in his type of coverage might be useful from a Domain Authority point of view but not necessarily from a new leads or conversion perspective.
Owned media – website, marketing literature etc.
When you’re looking at putting case studies live on your own site or in your own marketing literature then the rules are, there are no rules. You can say whatever you want to about your business and organisation and about the experience of the client or customer.
It’s reasonable to expect the customer to want to sign off on any quotes or information you are assigning to them. It’s also best to think along the lines of features and benefits as you normally would for marketing content but when it’s owned content, it’s much more straightforward.
It can be useful to think of testimonials as extended quotes. They are written almost entirely by the client or customer and give a more personal insight into how a product or service has helped them, so on this front they are perhaps more akin to a case study for consumer press but usually appear in owned media.
Lots of marketing departments will interview the customer, write up the content as though it’s from the case study for brand consistency, and then ask the customer to approve it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach as its primary use is in owned media.
Quality is always better than quantity so spend time creating really great content rather than churning out case studies to meet an arbitrary target.
The harder it is to secure the case study placement, the more good it is likely to do the company or organisation. So having case studies on your site is great and absolutely necessary but getting a third party journalist or expert to use it is probably more beneficial in the long run.
As tempting as it might be, DO NOT put the copy on your own site (except for a link and a small introduction) otherwise, you’re breaking all sorts of copyright rules and regs!
So if you’re contemplating case studies as a tactic, ask yourself, what success looks like before rushing in. And if it’s part of an earned media strategy, it could be helpful to speak to some of your targets publications or sites and see how they specifically like to receive case studies.
None of the above are hard and fast rules – you may be lucky enough to sneak a case study into the Telegraph that you’ve written yourself or perhaps see massive gains from a client win story without much substance. However, thinking about the type of output will definitely be an advantage before you start.