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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