Rethinking the case study's place in B2B content marketing

Rethinking the case study's place in B2B content marketing

As anyone who's been around for a while will tell you, despite all the current interest, many aspects of B2B content marketing aren't new. B2B marketers have certainly been producing 'content' for the 20 years I've been in the business (and it wasn't new back then). Of course it has now become more focused, there's been an explosion of different formats, and there is a clear recognition that useful, interesting content is exactly what B2B buyers are searching for. But some elements have remained pretty much unchanged.

Take the humble case study. The B2B Content Marketing Trends Report for 2012 puts case studies in the number one spot, used by 62% of B2B marketers. Of course this is for very good reasons – the same report also puts them in top spot for performance with 78% rating case studies as effective. And while the percentages in other studies vary, it's clear that case studies are one of the foundation pieces of B2B content for many marketers.

Time stands still for the B2B case study

Certainly, if you read most case studies today, you'll quickly realise that some things really haven't changed. Most follow a predictable format – XYZ company is a £10m business headquartered in Birmingham, they had an issue with losing valuable time while their people searched for relevant information, they bought our product and lived happily ever after with unicorns for pets, blah, blah, blah. (Okay, I may have made up the unicorns part, but you get the picture.)

Limiting horizons

Apart from being somewhat dull, this approach also leaves a lot of potential value on the table:

  • It limits the reach of the content to a single representative company with few options for repurposing
  • The format can be very static and quite formal, failing to engage the reader's attention and imagination (after all, they've seen it all before)
  • It tends to be too heavily weighted toward the solution when customers are more interested in the problem and the process

So what do customers really want from a case study? 

Well, they want to see that you work with other businesses just like theirs. They want to know that you understand the situation they find themselves in. And, of course, they want to know you have the products and services to help. But, today, they also want a more stimulating, immersive experience – frankly, they're bored and don't have the time to waste on the same-old, same-old case studies they've seen a million times before.

Evolving the B2B case study

The current case study format can seem so ingrained that it can be difficult to view it any other way. But change is possible.

While case studies do focus on individual companies, this doesn't have to be the full extent of their usefulness. When interviewing customers, in addition to asking about their individual experiences, have a set of more generally business-focused questions that you ask all customers. This will allow you to not only produce the individual case study you need but also to then create pieces that compare the experiences of multiple companies across a sector or service line.

Consider double- and triple-header case studies. Get two or three customers around a table (a nice restaurant always helps) and moderate a discussion about their experiences. This should give you the material for multiple individual case studies and potentially a number of wider ranging pieces. (It also removes some of the stiffness and formality that plagues too many examples).

Turn the case study into an interview. Have the questioner visible in the case study and show the conversation between them and the customer. In doing so, you can bring out the personality of your own brand and highlight the kind of relationship customers have with you – after all, even in B2B, people buy people.

If you're working with video, you'll need to keep it short (around two-and-a-half minutes or so). Of course, this can make for some difficult decisions about what to keep in and what to edit out. Another option is to house multiple clips within a single unit and allow viewers to pick the questions they want to see the answers to.

Finally, a little humility goes a long way. While you'll want a healthy dose of your product or service in the case study, the focus should remain fairly and squarely on the customer's business.

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Why you can't find good B2B writers (and what to do about it)

Why you can't find good B2B writers (and what to do about it)

It's a problem almost everybody in B2B content marketing faces sooner or later (normally sooner): Why can't I find people who can write engagingly about B2B without being spoon-fed?

Let's be clear: most writers aren't particularly interested in writing about B2B and tech (unless they get to write about the groovier end for the likes of Wired). Learning this stuff takes time and effort that other sectors are mercifully free from. And it's easy to get wrong (leading to endless rounds of amends).

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule – writers who get tech and B2B and get off on writing about it (we know, we work with a number of them) – but there aren't that many, they're not cheap and they get hideously booked up. So what are your options?

The in-house writer

If you create a large volume of written content, you may want to simply go ahead and hire an in-house writer. That way, you know you have a resource on tap that you can use. With sufficient volume, it will cost you less than going to a freelancer or agency and you can 'grow your own' as they learn about you and your business. The challenge will be finding someone who is a) good and b) wants to go in-house. Many writers thrive on variety and naturally shy away from single-subject gigs. And, if they're any good, they can typically make more money at an agency or as a freelancer.

Freelance writers

If in-house isn't an option, your next step is a freelance copywriter or journalist. This is where you're likely to find the most talented people. Sadly, it's also where you'll find a whole bunch of writers who are winging it while they try to find a permanent job (or attempt to get their novel/play/script finished). While you won't need to make the long-term commitment of hiring someone, finding the right person will still take time and money. You could always go to some of the new services that promise to get great writers bidding to work on your latest brief. However, the reality is that the kind of people who will do the best job simply don't need to bid for work – they're busy enough thank you. But, if you're willing to spend the time doing your research, meeting with potential candidates and reading what they've produced before, you should be able to get someone. One thing: remember, if they're good, they'll get booked up so you'll probably need to give more notice, adjust your timescales accordingly or have back-up plans and alternative options in place.

Retained writers

This offers a half-way house between hiring someone and using freelancers. Again, it only makes sense if you have a sufficient volume of work on a regular basis. If so, you can look to retain a freelancer for a certain amount of time each week. This can be a good option for on-going projects such as blog writing, newsletters, regular case studies etc. It will, however, require a certain amount of management on your part (if you don't use your retained time you'll lose it and still have to pay the cost). It can be an idea to simply opt for a certain amount of time spread across the week rather than fixed days but you'll need to accept that your projects will be fitted in with the writer's other work.

How we do it at Considered

Getting copy right is fundamental to what we do. Our ability to create engaging written content (whether an ebook or a script for a two-minute video) is one of the main reasons clients and agencies partner with us. So how do we do it?

Well, we have the advantage of our experience as senior people in a number of specialist tech and B2B agencies. Our founder is a copywriter and has written for a wide variety of B2B brands across multiple sectors. And, over the last couple of decades, we've employed a lot of great people (permanent and freelance). So our little black books aren't so little and we know precisely the quality of writing we can expect.

For on-going client relationships we will retain writers where we can to give a consistency of output (and demonstrate our commitment to the writer). We're also not afraid to pay more for good people (we know we'll actually save money over the long term).

Finally, we use an editor-in-chief model. So for each client we have a senior person who spends time on everything that leaves the agency. They ensure the work is to a quality we can be proud of and has the right tone of voice. It means we can use multiple writers to give us scale but still get the consistency we'd achieve by using a single top-quality writer.

While it's not the only option, it works for us.