Companies and consultants are using them more because they work.
They’re a great way to cultivate social proof, and to build trust with prospects.
However, they don’t always work.
In fact, a poorly crafted case study can be worse than no case studies at all.
In this post, I will share with you the six most common reasons case studies fail so that you can avoid making these same mistakes.
1. Customer Selection
Selecting the perfect customer for your case study is essential for its success.
When going through the selection process, there are three different areas where you can inadvertently set yourself up for failure.
Choosing the Company
If you’re new in your field, you may not have many customers to select from.
Whether you are choosing between two companies, or two hundred, your selection process needs to be carefully structured and implemented.
You need a company with a problem that will be relevant to potential customers in your target market.
You also need a company that will be viewed as credible.
The larger, and more well-known the better, as it increases Influencer power.
However, the most important aspect here is that the company is registered and recognized as a legitimate, respected business.
Not only should the problem be relevant to your target audience, the company should be relevant as well.
For instance, if you provide Project Management Consulting for IT firms, you shouldn’t choose a customer in the retail industry, even if they had a similar problem.
Once you’ve chosen which customer you want to feature in your study, now you need to determine the level of their involvement.
A common mistake is not to involve the customer at all.
Case studies are useful marketing tools because they capture the customer’s perspective of your business and service offering.
If you do not involve the customer and do not write the case study in their voice, you lose this perspective.
In addition, a case study without customer involvement immediately risks losing credibility.
Prospects want to read real stories of real customers in real language.
Why do companies choose to leave out the customer?
Common reasons are that it adds delays, complexity, and sometimes cost to a case study. It takes more effort.
However, with an experienced case study writer, you can generally get the customer details you need with one survey and a 30-60 minute interview.
The results are worth the effort.
Choosing the Individuals
Now that you’ve chosen your company and determined you want their involvement, the next step is figuring out who to speak to within the company.
It’s natural to reach out to the person you interacted with during the project.
However, this is often a mistake.
The customer representative for projects is likely an executive. They may even be an internal Project, Product or Service Manager.
What they are unlikely to be is the end user.
For your case study to capture the whole picture, you need to interview someone with direct, first-hand knowledge of the problem, the project, and the solution.
Focus on the people who executed the plan or the people who implement the ongoing processes.
Choose someone who understands the problem that was solved, who directly experienced it.
For instance, I once worked on a project with the Center of Excellence (CoE) where we harmonized processes for Store Operations.
As the COE was my contact, it would be natural to reach out to them, but they’re not the right subjects for a case study.
Store Operations employees who lived with the problem and are now living with the solution are the ones who need to be involved in painting the full picture.
Another reason case studies fail is due to inadequate preparation.
Before you begin a case study, it’s important to understand what the goal of it is.
What outcome do you want?
The goal should not be, “I want my case study to convert more prospects into customers.”
That is simply too broad.
A clearer goal might be, “I want my case study to demonstrate how we help medium-sized IT businesses become more efficient and lower resource costs by implementing our time-management practices.”
This gives you a clear directive of the problem you’re trying to illustrate, the solution you’re offering, and the target market you’re speaking to.
After all, if you’re a consultant, you may offer a wide array of services to different businesses.
One case study cannot capture all of them.
Next, before you ever begin writing, there are a series of steps that should occur.
If any of these are missed or rushed, it leads to rework, or a poorly crafted study.
As with all projects, preparation and planning are the majority of the effort if you want things done right the first time.
Remember the saying, “measure twice, cut once?”
You should know in advance the background of the customer, problem, and solution.
Also, know what process you will use for gathering information.
Have a list of questions to ask and details you want to cover.
Have a good idea of what you want the end result to look like, including template, content, length, and any other characteristics.
For example, if you want visuals or graphs included, it’s important to know this going in, so you don’t have to go back and try to find or create relevant ones after the fact.
The last thing you want to do is have to go back to interview the customer or employees on the project multiple times because you missed something the first time.
You also don’t want to try to piece something together with missing information.
The gaps will be noticed by experienced prospects.
Every case study is different. It needs to be, or why would prospects bother to read them?
However, the backbone of a solid case study should always be the same.
Researching and writing them can, and should, be approached with a consistent methodology.
For example, here’s an outline of a high-level methodology:
- Have the customer complete a standard questionnaire
- Conduct a 45-minute interview with the customer, with prepared questions
- Create a transcript of the interview
- Use a standard template for your case study
- Write your first draft
- Have the study reviewed and approved by the customer
- Complete the final written draft
- Add in design work and polish
- Publish via your standard process and channels
As you can see, there is an assumption here that you have templates, forms, questionnaires, etc. that can be reused over and over.
The less methodical you are in your collection of information, the more likely you will miss key facts, leave gaps in the story, or create a case study that simply does not flow well.
The other benefit of having a strong methodology is that it saves you time and makes the crafting of case studies much more efficient and reliable.
If you follow a haphazard approach to each case study, you will get inconsistent results.
You may be lucky and end up with some case studies that work. But you will likely have others that don’t.
Then you’re either forced to toss some away, or leave it to chance which ones prospects will read.
If you have multiple people crafting your case studies, it’s even more important to have sound methods, so case studies are consistent across writers.
4. Interview Structure
Have you ever walked into an interview where the interviewer is clearly not prepared?
It’s painful for everyone involved.
However, it’s not as simple as just having questions prepared in advance.
Everything we’ve already spoken about is applicable to the interview process.
It’s important to be prepared and know what outcome you want.
It’s also important you’re interviewing the right person, and that you go about it in a structured, methodical way.
Don’t try to write your case study during the interview. Even hoping to capture the essence in notes will lead to you forgetting or missing things.
This is why it’s critical to record interviews so that you can refer back to them later.
Be structured in the flow of questions, so you’re not jumping around between subjects.
Start with broad questions about the background of the customer and their company. Then lead into the problem or challenge they were experiencing.
Go through the solution, implementation, and results.
Following the timeline of events can help your interviewee recall facts better, and it leads to a more natural flow of conversation.
Remember to ask about the why.
Why did people respond a certain way? Why did the problem exist? Why did the solution work effectively?
Also, ask about issues, errors, failures, and ongoing struggles.
If you only ask about what went right and ignored what went wrong, you won’t capture the whole picture.
5. Quantitative Results
Which of the following three sentences is more credible?
- The customer experienced time-savings
- The customer reduced production labor by 3%
- The customer realized a time-savings of 200%
I’m hoping you went with #2.
The first sentence provides no quantitative results, which is a common reason case studies fail.
It’s too generic, and not meaningful.
What if the time savings was only half an hour a month?
Prospects don’t know from sentence #1 how much you can really help them. A lack of measurable benefits will cause doubt.
However, sentence #3 will also likely cause your case study to fail.
Prospects will read a figure like 200% and immediately think, “it’s not possible.”
They will then discount the rest of your case and your ability to solve their problem.
It’s important to make sure any quantitative results are measured, realistic, and can be backed up, especially if they’re above-average outcomes.
It’s like those diet commercials that claim you can lose twenty pounds in two weeks.
I immediately assume they’re a scam because the claims just seem too outrageous to be true, no matter how many before and after pictures they show of customers.
In fact, I would be more likely to believe them and consider their solution if they claimed that I could lose five pounds in two weeks.
When it comes to quantitative analysis, keep the following in mind:
- Be as specific as possible.
- Insert plenty of back-up and details
- Make sure the numbers are meaningful
What do I mean by ‘meaningful’?
Focus on numbers demonstrating how your solution improved the company’s situation.
Statistics around project hours or money invested are not meaningful if there are no measurements around outcome and end results.
Use numbers to illustrate ROI, time saved, costs reduced, or some other bottom-line measure.
After you have the meat of a strong case study, now it’s time to write it.
Even with everything above done properly, a case study can still fail at this point if it’s not readable.
Customers are not experts.
If they were, they wouldn’t need to hire you.
Therefore, writing in language that is too technical or full of jargon can cause your study to fail.
Case studies are not research papers for peers.
They need to be engaging and easy to read.
Write in approachable language, and use a format that is easy to skim.
Add sub-headings, bullets, images, quotes, and other visuals to make your study more interesting and engaging.
Word it from the viewpoint of the customer and write it persuasively.
Case studies should be seen as a form of story-telling.
Focus on the following key points:
- Sell the problem, not the solution
- Use concrete language; don’t be vague
- Use relevant examples and facts
- Build in contrast (before and after)
- Include a call to action in the footer
Remember, readers will think that stories that seem too good to be true probably are.
This means you need to include information about struggles or flaws with the implementation or solution.
No one will believe that any project went perfectly without at least one unforeseen hitch.
Case studies are currently the number one form of content marketing for B2B companies.
To make the most out of them, make sure your case studies aren’t being set up to fail.
Take the time to properly plan and prepare in the beginning.
Select the best customer, use a standard methodology, and conduct a structured, recorded interview.
Incorporate plenty of relevant details and quantitative results.
Use language that is engaging, approachable and in the voice of the customer.
Have you created case studies that failed? Which one of these six reasons was the culprit?