Case studies are powerful tools for turning leads into customers. In fact, 47% of B2B Marketers rank case studies as one of the most successful types of content for their B2B strategies.
That’s why we’re distilling the knowledge gleaned from creating thousands of case studies for the world’s top performing marketing teams into a handy guide–one filled with analysis, tips, pitfalls to avoid and examples to inspire you.
There’s no need to delay, so let’s dive right in!
Chapter 1: What is a case study?
Case studies offer an in-depth, insider view into how a particular customer successfully engaged with a company’s product or service. Most companies, whether B2B or B2C, have one or more public-facing case studies. When created effectively, this content has the power to build brand awareness and reputation, convert readers into high-quality sales leads and ultimately, close deals.
However, like almost anything that promises a big return, creating an effective case study isn’t easy. Building a library of case studies that pack a punch is as much an art as it is a science.
Case studies are branded storytelling pieces that bring your company’s value to life through the experience of a champion customer. The type of results shared, the format of the content, and elements like images used and customer quotes chosen all affect the effectiveness of your case study.
Remember: anyone who has found your case study, clicked it, and is using their time to read about your company is a red hot lead!
You’re expected to (reasonably) toot your own horn on a case study.
When a reader opts-in to read a case study, they want to hear about how you’ve helped people like them–they’re literally asking for the story. It’s a golden opportunity, one that shouldn’t be wasted by feeding your reader useless fluff or underselling your value.
Read on as we walk you through everything we’ve learned about creating powerful case studies while helping hundreds of amazing brands to highlight their value and convert leads.
Types of case studies
Whether behind a marketing form where entering an email address is required for download or completely accessible on a webpage, PDFs are one of the most common case study formats. In an analysis of 79 case studies from leading B2B tech startups, we found that 54.5% of these studies were PDFs. This format allows you to create a solid, downloadable design and offers intuitive lead collection.
Case studies that live directly on your website can reach more readers and positively contribute to SEO. 45% of the case studies we measured were hosted on regular webpages.
In our analysis of case studies published by rising B2B tech star companies, only 0.04% were interactive. The likely reason? Video, podcast, or slideshow may appeal less to traditional customers with long buying cycles, on top of being less compatible across devices and windows. They’re also difficult to produce and even harder to master.
Chapter 2: How to create a case study
Choose the right customers
First, it’s important to make each case study specific to one customer. The story and emotional impact will be stronger if you can show how a customer was transformed by your solution. Your case study will need to emphasize how your product or service has added value for champion customers.
The customer you choose to showcase in each case study should have pain points and experiences that are as close as possible to those of your target audience.
Remember, your case study will serve as a key marketing and sales asset. The customers you highlight will represent the power of your brand and the value of your product. A customer who understands and loves your product, especially if they are a respected household brand, becomes a powerful advocate for your company. You effectively leverage the brand, notoriety and experience of the customer you write about in each study.
Here are some of the traits you’ll want to consider when choosing the right customer to showcase in your next case study:
- The customer loves your product or service
- The customer is known or respected by your target audience
- The customer has the role as your targeted decision maker
- Your product solved the challenges of and provided value to the customer
- The customer represents a key segment of your business
When creating multiple case studies, diversify! Atypical customers, non-traditional customers, and unexpected customers who have seen excellent results will show your product’s value and help to address any doubts from customers. Write as many case studies as there are different market segments and personas you wish to sell to.
Here is a good flow when reaching out:
- Let your customer know the purpose and process of the study in your initial approach, whether over e-mail or on the phone.
- Set expectations for a realistic timeline, but aim to accommodate their participation. You want to avoid delays caused by the customer due to lack of direction.
- Make sure the customer you approach (and ultimately interview) is authorized to participate in the case study. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck behind red tape halfway through your execution.
- Send your chosen customer contact a brief questionnaire. Get them thinking about the type of questions you will ask them in your interview using a questionnaire that includes specific questions about the quantitative results of using your product or service. Don’t be afraid to push a little and ask them to look at any of their own data or financials that will help prove your results.
- Schedule a time to hop on a call and conduct the full customer success interview. Grooming the customer beforehand will lead to fuller answers and a better final product.
Asking the right questions
Once you’ve chosen the right customer for the case study, you need to hash out questions that will shape out the type of testimonial you’re looking for. This is a storytelling piece, so avoid asking questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”.
Ask open-ended questions that encourage your customer to elaborate on their experience with your product, such as these:
- What were the specific challenges you faced prior to using our product?
- What made our product stand out from the competition?
- Why did you choose our product?
- Explain your decision-making process.
- Describe the process of purchasing, adopting and integrating our product.
- What were the immediate results?
- What were the long-term results?
- What was it about our product or service that addressed the challenges that you faced?
- What unexpected value did we create for you?
Structure a clear outline
Creating an outline is one of the most helpful things you can do to make a killer case study. Laying out the goal and clearly organizing the problem, solution and results will keep your case study in check. Decide the elements that you will include ahead of time, shape out the customer quotes that prove your message, and then fill in as many important details as possible.
The more you plan, the easier the actual writing and the more precise your content will be.
Here are some things to consider when developing a structure for your case study:
- Basic information about the customer
• Name of company
• Logo of company
• Chosen customer’s role at the company
• Industry of customer’s company
• Length of time they have been a customer of yours
• Who is the company?
• What do they do?
• Picture of the chosen customer
• What is the challenge your customer faced?
• How did this problem affect their business? Bottom line? Value?
• Direct quote(s) from the customer describing the problem
•Tell the story of how your product was discovered by your customer
•Outline which part of your product provided a solution for your customer
•Include specific details to give your prospect an insider view into what the next steps look like
- Results section
• Reveal hard-hitting quantitative results, showing numbers and sharing qualitative results
• Include quotes that illustrate the value your product has generated
• Use graphics to convey the results
Remember: this is a piece of marketing and sales material, so be sure to add a strong call to action. Provide a link to see a demo, set up a call, or get more information. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to seal the deal!
Create great content
Case studies are incredible opportunities to connect with prospects in a way that appears more natural or “off the cuff.”
With a distinct tone in your brand’s voice and the understanding that you’re taking the reader on a journey that has a beginning, middle and end, here are some things your study should do:
Have a purpose: Before you write, circle back to the goal this content will serve–whether to serve as sales material, capture high-quality leads, or convert readers into customers. With the goal in mind, be choosey with the information you include in order to keep it concise and punchy.
Follow a clear format: Begin your case study by introducing your customer. Include information that describes the company in detail so that the reader knows exactly who they are and can see some of themselves in the customer. As you write, use headlines to break the information down into meaningful sections.
Outline the problem: Describe the challenges the company faced, using the interview questions the customer answered. Include specifics, quotes, and numbers to effectively paint the picture of a company in need of your product.
Share the results: Reveal hard-hitting quantitative results–let the numbers speak for themselves. Be bold, and don’t be afraid to emphasize the excellent results your product has had on their company. Use graphics and customer quotes to bring home the value you provided.
Keep word count down: The reader is giving up their precious time to let you talk about yourself. Don’t lose them with irrelevant information, drawn out points or tangents. Stick to the facts, keep it singular and goal oriented.
Tell a story: Your product should be seen as the hero that saves the day. Be a storyteller. Build suspense.
Easy to read: Remember, it’s 2020–people are busy, and most of your readers will scan your study. Use bullet lists, block quotes and summary lists to make key information stand out. Design elements help to draw important information out, so be smart about what information needs to pop!
Create share-worthy design
While it’s important that your content is tight, the design of your case study is just as paramount. You want the look and feel of your case study to be consistent with your brand and match your website. As with any other marketing collateral, the design of your case study impacts on the way the information is absorbed, which points stand out, and even your conversion rate. Test out different iterations and find a design that can be templated to help you build out a comprehensive case study collection.
Good design should carry your content further, strengthening the impact of your words–it should never get in the way.
Here are some tips to help on your case study design efforts:
Use bold headlines: Grab the reader’s attention with intuitive headlines. Readers will initially scan to see what information pops out and headlines will point them to the information they are looking for. Headlines will break your case study into bite-sized sections and make the study digestible.
Use blockquotes: Blockquotes command attention and emphasize what your customer has said about your product or service. Use at least one or two blockquotes per case study, choosing powerful quotes that capture larger ideas. For example, use a blockquote that first describes the challenge the company faced, then another that describes the value of your product, and a final quote that sums it all up. Ask yourself: could your prospect read the quotes in sequence and understand your value? If so, you’ve done a great job.
Include customer images and logos: Adding an image of the customer(s) you interviewed will make them relatable and boost their credibility. You want to put a face to the company you’re humanizing in your case study–plus, adding the company’s logo is good for brand recall.
Use visuals to show results: The results are what your audience really cares about. The clearer you show these results, the more likely you will convert your reader. 91% of the case studies we analyzed had one or more graphics to help demonstrate quantitative results. Use charts, graphics, arrows, and numbers to visually illustrate the value your product has created.
Include video: Nearly 35% of the companies analyzed used video. It can be costly, but if your budget permits it, it is a great tool to tell your story and keep your audience’s attention.
Test different formats: Try out different formats for your case studies. For example, most case studies are in PDF format, so that they can be exported, saved, or sent as an attachment to other members of a decision-making team. Some companies do require a marketing form be filled out before the PDF is released, though, which means guaranteed lead generation but potentially decreased readership. Test and see what resonates with your target audience.
Include a CTA: The call to action should usually be intuitive and obvious. If your case study is being used for lead generation, ask your reader to enter their information. If you want your case study to convert a potential customer, include a “Sign Up” or “Request a Demo” button. If your case study is used by the sales team, include links to contact the team, ask questions or provide feedback to keep the conversation moving. Think you’ll run into difficulty with the design? Reach out to our team at SketchDeck—we’re specialists in this sort of optimization.
Distribution is often the most difficult link in the whole content puzzle. It can be challenging to get your YouTube video, blog, or eBook seen by your ideal audience, let alone a case study. And while it probably goes without saying, case studies are only valuable when customers read them.
Here are the places your case studies should live and grow:
- On your website
• Feature your case studies on your homepage or other high-traffic pages. If your case studies aren’t accessible directly on your homepage, make sure they can be found within 2-3 clicks.
• Capture leads by placing your case study behind a marketing form and including a CTA.
• Conduct A/B test formats (downloadable PDF, webpage, etc.). See what performs best and track these pages for the best conversion rates.
- With a sales team
• Your sales team is the front line for an email distribution strategy. Work with them to find ways they can increase shares.
• Have your sales team add links to top-performing case studies in their email signature.
- At conferences and events
• A well-designed printed document stands out. Hand them out at events for people to read and then convert!
• Pair the case studies with free swag and people will be more willing to grab a printout.
- Owned and shared channels
• Use your owned, shared and even paid distribution channels to give the studies legs.
• Promote your case study throughout your social channels ( LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter) and third-party content distribution sites.
• Encourage sharing on your case study by including social icons and prompts. Running a campaign to promote each study with incentives such as referral bonuses can jumpstart its momentum.
- Within client’s network
• To further your reach, ask your champion customer to share the case study with their network. These customers are usually happy to share their positive experience with your company–after all, they’ve already shared via your study!
Chapter 3: Who’s doing it well? 79 Case studies examples analyzed
To test our theories and hypotheses about case studies, understand what “great” means and find out what separates the superior from the less than, we took to the virtual streets.
With a particular interest in B2B tech startups, we shortlisted 11 high-growth companies with venture backing exceeding $35M. With unicorns like Uber and Airbnb removed, the chosen startups were all recently in the press for raising funds and cited as being poised for “takeoff.”
These startups were growing, securing investment, and taking names. Would their case studies be a cut above as well?
Measuring 30+ elements against the 79 case studies published by these startups, we looked at the commonly prescribed formula for building a successful case study. We analyzed the number of case studies each company published, the chosen format, number of customer quotes used, word count, whether there was a clear call to action, headline titles, graphics, and more.
Throughout this primary research, it became obvious that the separation between a good case study and a great one is in the details. The more elements that a case study can get right, the more impactful that study will be for the reader.
21 elements of a great case study
- Has fewer than 6 distinct discussion points
- Word count is less than 500
- Headlines (H1 and H2 or more) are used
- Company has 3 or more case studies
- There is a case study for each target user the company has (e.g. content marketer, a hobbyist blogger, etc.)
- Customer quotes made by a decision maker
- Client featured in the case study matches target persona
- Minimum of 2 quantitative results
- Qualitative results
- Distinct CTA
- Case study is used to generate sales leads and/or sign-ups
- Video or other interactive elements incorporated
- 1 or more blockquotes utilized
- Quotes proportional to word count (about 1 per 150 words)
- Image or logo of customer used
- Case study is branded to the company
- Accessible on their websites in under 3 clicks
- Graphics or other illustrations used in design
- A summary of main results is provided
- Company tests one or more case study formats, CTA’s, etc.
- Case study is both webpage-based and available to download
Notable takeaways from the 79 case studies analyzed:
Of the high-growth B2B companies analyzed, Slack (the messaging app for teams) and Lever (the applicant tracking system that allows small to medium companies to streamline their hiring process) outperformed the rest.
Here’s why Slack and Lever killed it with their case studies:
- Succinct, making fewer than 6 original discussion points. For Slack and Lever, word count averaged at 527 and 355, respectively
- Accessible with intuitive navigation (found at slack.com/customers and lever.co/casestudies)
- Headlines are used to break up story, provide flow and context
- Blockquotes double as section dividers and notable design element
- A wide range (6 respectively) to meet the diversity of their customer base
- Client images, logo and photographs are used
- The chosen client (both the person and company) represents Slack or Lever’s target customer (e.g.Global Planner at Lush and VP of People at Lever)
- Show real quantitative results (e.g. Lever grew from 85 to 400 employees in just a year using Lever)
- Summarize key takeaways (challenge, solution, results) for the reader
- Branded design with an aesthetic that matched the information being shared and the brand itself
Room for improvement:
- Slack has no CTA, and Lever uses the classic “Schedule a Demo” to collect leads
- Slack played it safe when it comes to introducing multimedia. Lever used video to help tell each customer’s story.
With room for improvement in mind, let’s take a look on the most common mistakes one can do on a case study.
Chapter 4: The common mistakes of case studies
Creating a case study and building an arsenal of specialized, top-performing content weaponry isn’t easy. There are a lot of moving parts that must work together to deliver a polished and effective final product.
Now that we’ve walked you through how it’s done, we’ll show missteps that even startup superstars can make.
01. No CTA or lead capure
Case studies aren’t leisurely reads stumbled upon by someone looking at cat memes–case studies are read by potential customers. Not including a CTA to be used to capture email addresses, schedule a demo call, or even upsell existing customers is like opening a restaurant but not taking orders.
Slack has a tight case study game, but they fell short when it came to leaving out the all-important CTA. The only link on the page (excluding upper navigation) is to “read” other case studies. Ask your reader for something mutually beneficial.
02. It’s too long
You have the stage but your performance shouldn’t be a 72-hour live stream installation at a modern art museum. Think of each case study as a halftime show at the Super Bowl. Hit your best moves and high notes quickly and move on. You can only expect your reader to be interested for so long, so spare them any unnecessary details.
While DataBricks has mastered putting case studies behind marketing forms, they have not nailed the length. Their case studies average 7 pages (or 1200 words) a piece.
A good case study shows the problem, challenge, results and solution like each word counts–because it does.
03. Too few or weak quotes
Like a bullet list, headline or chart, people read quotes. This is especially true if you differentiate the look and feel of quotes.
Origami Logic, a startup that’s raised just shy of $50M in venture backing, helps companies manage marketing signals from campaigns, channels and devices. Yet in their case studies, they include an average of just one quote. The chosen quote feels ambiguous, filled with jargon, and is made by an unnamed employee from the customer company.
04. Poorly branded
A case study shouldn’t look like a Microsoft template from 2008. A case study should look, feel and sound just like your brand. This means keeping with your colors, fonts, logos, tone, personality and other brand elements. The whole purpose of a case study is to build trust; thus, it must showcase the very best of your brand.
Datadog, a cloud-scale monitoring platform, has a clean aesthetic with some bold colors and a lot of white space. Here is what their homepage currently looks like:
On the other hand, this is the template they’ve used across 10 published case studies:
05. Lack of quantitative results
Depending on what your company does or the types of customers you serve, quantitative data may be hard to come by–we get it. Even so, strive to have some tangible, meaningful numbers to share. Anecdotal or qualitative evidence can tell a great story, but nothing stands out like numerical results.
Highfive, a video technology for company meetings, has a well designed, digestible case study collection. However, the studies lack quantitative results. The solution to the customer’s problem is about fitting out conference rooms with technology, breaking awkward silences and “saving time and money”–yet, you’re never shown how much time or money is saved or the number of what the measure of awkward is.
06. Difficult to find
If your case studies aren’t accessible, they won’t be found. Case studies should be intuitively filed away on your website–if you’d like them to be a marketing or sales tool, they should be accessible within 2-3 clicks. Case studies are most commonly found under www.xyz.com/customers, www.xyz.com/case-studies or www.xyz.com/resources.
07. Unrelatable story
When writing a case study, you’re hoping that a) the reader is a potential customer, and b) they see a piece of themselves in the story. In order to help the reader draw the link between themselves and the customer chosen, you need to tell a relatable story and seek testimonials from the exact user you wish to target.
Choose the wrong customer and your case study may be dead. Gusto, payroll and benefits for small to medium sized businesses, has beautifully designed studies. However, Gusto includes the number of employees at each company–three case studies are written about companies with 4 employees or fewer, a company size that does not match the target audience.
08. It’s just plain boring
We know that a case study can serve as a crucial piece of content. However, just because your content serves a serious function, does not mean your case study needs to be devoid of personality or strictly facts. Avoid excessive length, weak design, few elements used to break up text, zero multimedia and an unrelatable customer in the lead role.
How do your case studies measure up?
Curious about how your case studies measure up? Want to know if you are an “A” student or if your case study is barely passing the class?
Use the following chart to generate a report card for your own case study. Pull up a case study and for each element, answer either “yes” or “no.” If yes, give full points–if no, allot 0 points for that element.
The higher your score, the more you’ve honed the details that tip a case study toward greatness:
Wrapping it up
Case studies are your opportunity to showcase the value you have created for your most successful clients. They provide a unique and powerful opportunity to give your potential customers the insider information they want, directly from a credible source.
We hope that you’re excited to start creating some high-yielding content of your own. But if you still need help, start a project on SketchDeck and let us work with you to create the perfect case study. We’re ready to assist you with both content and design to make sure you get the case study your company and audience deserves!