Stephen Bush is an inbound marketing expert. He is CEO and Chief Business Writer for AEX Commercial Financing Group.
Case Studies and Inbound Marketing
Case studies are increasingly intertwined with inbound marketing strategies for organizations of all sizes. Inbound marketing is a customer-centric sales process that places consumers in charge when making buying decisions—examples of customer-centric strategies include case studies and extended articles.
In contrast, internet-savvy customers routinely reject old-fashioned marketing tactics that withhold key information—examples of these marketer-centric sales processes include traditional cold calling and advertising.
While the concept of a case study is not new, the contemporary approach of inbound marketing is shining a new light on case studies. Inbound marketing focuses on supplying educational content to potential customers. For inbound marketing purposes, a case study is a concise method of communicating what individuals and organizations do and how they do it via real-life examples.
Here are four concise descriptions of how case studies work in practice:
- Case studies can be as short as 500 words.
- Using case studies can help businesses gain a competitive edge.
- An effective case study can educate customers with concise content.
- Customer-centric sales processes require educational content like case studies.
These points about case studies (and more) are discussed in the following sections.
You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.
— Lee Iacocca
Case studies can be as short as 500 words.
Case Studies: How Long?
Indeed, some case studies can literally consume an entire book (or at least a long chapter). Many MBA programs are well-known for integrating case studies into their coursework. But the purpose here is not to investigate scholarly reading lists — this is all about what it takes to educate and win customers in a practical and cost-effective way.
The bottom line is that the “end product” needs to tell a factually accurate story about a real-life problem that an organization has solved for one of its customers. When done properly, this will help prospective clients gain insights into how they would be treated by a company or how a relevant problem would be handled.
A prudent approach is to prepare both a “short version” and a “long version” for each case study. The most condensed version is likely to require about 500 to 1000 words; the extended version will typically involve 1000 to 3000 words (and more as circumstances dictate).
Always remember that the primary working goal is to educate customers before they are ready to buy a service or product—is the audience more likely to read 500 words or 3000 words?
Using case studies can help businesses gain a competitive edge.
Case Studies: Remember the Competition
Gaining an edge on the competition should be at the heart of any marketing strategy. However, in actual practice, this can be an elusive goal. A case study strategy offers three special opportunities to make even ambitious marketing goals more doable:
- Your organization can take a big step ahead of the competition if one or more of your competitors are not using case studies to educate potential customers. Your case studies will act as a practical tool for differentiating your products or services from “the other guys.”
- Even if the competition includes case studies in their marketing efforts, you have the opportunity to do a better job. In particular, the quality of specialized business writing varies widely from one company to another. By insisting upon high-quality content research and case studies (and all other forms of content writing), small businesses and individuals can compare favorably with “the big guys.”
- Of all the methods available to any company or organization for distinguishing their services and products from the competition, case studies will often be the most cost-effective and practical choice for many managers and business owners.
An effective case study can educate customers with concise content.
Case Studies: Prioritizing Educational Content for Customers
In today’s digital marketing environment, educating potential buyers involves striking a delicate balance between time and effectiveness. “Keeping it short” is a worthy goal for both written and video content. While lengthy white papers and videos might cover every conceivable point, will customers stick around long enough to read or view them?
To describe this another way, simply attempting to educate your customers might fall short of the mark if the content is not concise. It is always wise to remember that some readers and viewers will “scan” rather than look at everything — while others might prefer visual information such as textual images, SlideShare presentations, and YouTube videos.
A cost-effective combination of a “short version” case study (500 to 1000 words) and at least one textual image should be considered. If video content is included, try to keep it within a one to three-minute time frame.
Customer-centric sales processes require educational content like case studies.
Case Studies: What Is a Customer-Centric Sales Process?
The “old-fashioned” approach to marketing emphasizes strategies like advertising and cold calling. These tactics are often described as “marketer-centric” because the marketer controls the flow of information—and key information is frequently withheld from prospects and buyers.
In contrast, the “modern” approach of inbound marketing emphasizes educational strategies like case studies, white papers and extended articles. These strategies enable the customer to be in charge throughout the sales process and are described as “customer-centric.”
If you want your organization to be on board for customer-centric inbound marketing, be prepared to offer prospective customers a comprehensive and educational business writing portfolio that meets and exceeds the expectations of today’s customer-centric buyers. High-quality educational content is of paramount importance — and case studies should be on your short list of candidates that can help make this happen.
More Customer-Centric Content Strategies
Whether an organization uses case studies or not, I recommend including one or more of the following in the overall content writing portfolio:
- Extended articles — see overview below
- White papers
- YouTube and SlideShare rresentations
- Content research
The four inbound marketing strategies just listed can complement case studies — and content research should play a vital role in each strategy. Marketing and business managers should also allow for the possibility of not using case studies due to issues like client anonymity (discussed below).
If the case study content is not included in an organization's business writing portfolio, it becomes even more important to consider other options such as white papers and extended articles.
What About Anonymity of Clients Discussed in Case Studies?
In terms of identifying clients, there are two kinds of inbound marketing case studies:
- A case study that mentions the customer’s name.
- A case study that keeps the customer’s identity anonymous.
For both legal and competitive reasons, many organizations will not provide permission to use their name publicly in content such as case studies and press releases. But in a pervasive “fake news” climate, it is unfortunately true that some anonymous case studies are simply fictional stories. The only surefire way to convey the impression that a case study represents reality is to include the customer’s name.
There is at least one notable exception that supports using anonymous case studies—for technical education that focuses on the “how-to” aspect rather than the customer involved. Technical experts, in particular, will often prefer as many details as possible. In such cases, the client’s identity can be a secondary issue.
For companies that have a great success story to tell but cannot get the necessary approval to publish a case study including the client’s name, consider turning it into an anonymous “technical case study.”
Overview of Extended Articles
In most situations, case studies should not be used on a stand-alone basis. Why? A superb case study can become much more effective when viewed in combination with other inbound marketing strategies—extended articles and white papers are two prime examples.
Article marketing has evolved during the past 15 years, and extended articles represent a “current model” consistent with today’s search engine optimization (SEO) practices. At one point, short articles of 250-300 words were common. This standard changed due to the way that search engines effectively “penalized” shorter articles.
Google and other search engines eventually recognized that the informational quality of a 250-word article was minimal—especially when multiple variations of the same article appeared via blog networks and article marketing services. The SEO quality bar was raised—500-600 words and more are now suggested for standard articles.
But “standard articles” are often not long enough to get the job done when educating customers, so be prepared to do “more” if relying on articles for inbound marketing results. The concept of extended articles is a practical solution.
An extended article can range from 750 words to 1500 words or more. A series of extended articles should be considered if the projected length of one stand-alone article exceeds 2000 words. Always remember the customer-centric emphasis—the educational content needs to be readable by a busy audience.
Case Studies: Four More Observations
Here are four more observations about how a better understanding of case studies can help organizations of all sizes to educate their prospective customers:
- Content research is critical to case study success.
- Practical case study substitutes include extended articles and white papers.
- Anonymous case studies are effective tools for technical explanations.
- The case study content is just one component of inbound marketing.
Review of 4 Key Points About Case Studies
- Condensed Version: 500 to 1000 Words
- Extended Version: 1000 to 3000 Words
- Avoid Anonymity: Possible Exception = Technical Education
- Case Studies Can Help to Facilitate Customer-Centric Sales Processes
A case study can be a practical and cost-effective method for differentiating a product or service from the competition.
— Stephen Bush
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Stephen Bush