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Case studies are the gift that keeps on giving. Yet few small businesses bother with them. Or even know what they are.

This is a shame as they’re a powerful tool in your marketing arsenal. Demonstrating the value that you provide to your customers. And why you’re the right choice for them.

The role of social proof

Let’s take a look at how they work.

The main thing your customers want to know is whether your business can deliver on its promises. We’re all familiar with the hype that some companies deploy to promote their products or services. But how do we know that those promises will be honoured?

The simple fact is we don’t. Which is why so many people look at reviews these days to find out what others think. This process is called ‘social proof’. The term was coined in 1984 by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Essentially, if we’re unsure about how to act in a particular social situation, we take clues from the people around us.

Translated into a marketing context, what this means is that if we’re undecided about the relative merits of different products, we’ll be guided by the actions of others. If one brand’s product has loads of four or five-star reviews, then we’re likely to prefer that product to one with an abundance of poor reviews. Makes sense when you think about it.  

So, what has this got to do with case studies? The point is that case studies take social proof to a new level. A review will (you hope) say what a fantastic job you did and what a nice person you are. Case studies go much further than this. They describe the client’s pain points, how they were overcome and the role you played in solving their problems.

They tell a story that brings the project to life. And like all good stories have a beginning, middle and end. Based around the resolution of often difficult challenges, the management of change and delivery of new goals.

The evolutionary science behind storytelling

Of course, we all know that everyone loves a good yarn. They entrance us. They excite us. They entertain us. But as a fascinating article on the BBC Culture website explores, there’s an evolutionary reason for this. Since the early days of humankind, we’ve been hard-wired to like stories precisely because they improved our ability to survive as a species.

And the dramatic cave paintings at sites like Lascaux in France from 30,000 years ago provide a fascinating glimpse into how early humans used visual storytelling to depict their world.

Stories helped us learn about what’s going on around us. They allowed us to bridge the gap between ourselves and others by sharing ideas, feelings and imagination. They helped intensify the hyper-sociality of early humankind. Through narrative, we deepen our connections.

They helped us face challenges and solve problems. They increased our ability to experience empathy and understand how others are feeling. They promoted cooperation and bound us together. They provided a mechanism for relating our adventures to others in the tribal group.

Case studies build on this very human characteristic and the emotional charge that stories offer by providing a powerful narrative about how your business has helped customers in real-life situations.

Myths and legends

We can develop this story analogy further. Professor of literature Joseph Campbell coined the term the Monomyth (often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey”) in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He examined the struggles faced by heroes in ancient myths from around the world and concluded that they were all based on a common structure.

The hero experiences a loss or serious problem, embarks on an adventure, faces a crisis, eventually wins against considerable odds, and returns home victorious.

To put it in his rather more evocative words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This story structure is successfully used today by many screenwriters, novelists and others as a guide for creating powerful narratives. Think of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings

Unsurprisingly, the Hero’s Journey is also used in the advertising and marketing world because of its power to build an emotional connection and engage with consumers. Where your business is the hero, helping your clients meet their goals.

In a competitive market, case studies will help you stand out from the competition. They also allow you to educate your potential customers about the value delivered by your products or services. And give you an opportunity to simplify complex or technical subjects, for the benefit of your potential customers.

How to develop a set of effective case studies

So, how do you go about developing a set of good quality case studies that will showcase the benefits you provide your clients?

Here’s a few simple tips:

1.      Nail down the main problems faced by your potential customers, and weave stories around those issues.

2.      Reach out to those customers that you’ve had a particularly good relationship with, who you know will welcome the opportunity to give you some good feedback. You can present it as an opportunity to highlight their business and give them some useful exposure. Have a chat with them about why they engaged you and what they felt were the key outcomes of the work.

3.      Develop narratives based around a beginning (the challenge or customer goal), a middle (the solution or how you overcame the challenge), and ending (the outcome or benefits delivered).

4.      If the typical three-part Challenge/Solution/Outcome structure looks a bit formulaic, try being a bit more creative and free-form in the structure to bring the story to life.

5.      Remember to start with a short introduction to the client, talking a bit about who they are, what they do, their strengths.

6.      Case studies are real stories, revolving around real events with real customers. Use them as an opportunity to pull back the curtain on your business, revealing what it’s like to work with you. This means it’s essential to include a compelling quote from the customer which reinforces how you’ve met their needs and solved their problems

7.      Where possible, work in some numbers such as how the quality of your product or service has increased enquiries, improved customer retention or grown profits.

8.      Make sure you’ve got an eye-catching headline, as well as a strong Call to Action at the end.

9.      Include some images/photos wherever possible.

10.  Don’t make your case studies too long. They should provide an engaging, focused account of what happened. Somewhere around 400 to 700 words is probably about right.

If you’ve written a good case study, the reader should be able to relate to the story and picture themselves achieving their own goals using your product or service.

Improving knowledge, creating trust, building credibility

Now you’ve got your case studies, what do you do with them? Good question. Your case studies are specific to your business. They can’t be imitated by competitors. This makes them uniquely valuable. So, you want to use them to the best effect.

You can do this by:

  • Creating a dedicated case studies page on your website.
  • Signposting this page from your home page.
  • Sharing the case studies through your social media accounts.
  • Promoting them in your newsletter or email marketing.
  • Using extracts from the case studies in other marketing materials.

Don’t forget that a set of well-written, informative case studies will send a signal to search engines about the value of your content, boost your SEO, and drive more visitors to your website.

Case studies are powerful endorsements by satisfied customers of the value delivered by your product or service. Drop me a line if you want to talk about how I can develop a set of case studies that start generating more leads and enquiries for your business.

Wise words: Wealden Wordsmith

Image: Prof saxx via Wikimedia Commons