When other people talk about how great you are at something, it’s much more persuasive than if you sing your own praises. This is as true for companies as it is for people. A prospective customer is much more likely to use your company’s services if he hears positive things about you from people he knows and trusts. This is why 82% of Americans seek recommendations from friends and family before making a purchase, according to a Nielsen survey, and why 70% of Americans seek opinions from review sites before buying, according to a report from Mintel.
This phenomenon of modeling our actions after the behavior of others is known as “social proof.” There are many ways that social proof can be applied to marketing but the most effective form that we’ve seen is the case study. A case study is a true story about how your integration firm solved a problem for a customer, which is made widely available to prospective customers as well as anyone who’s curious about your company or industry. Like a news article, a case study is usually composed mostly of text along with a few high-quality photographs. (There are also video case studies but this blog post focuses on the written kind.)
If you haven’t done a case study before, we’d like to help out by sharing some of the most important things we’ve learned about why case studies matter, how to write them effectively, and how to get them seen by your target audience.
The Case for Case Studies
If your integration business has a website, social media accounts, or email campaigns, you might wonder why you should add case studies to your marketing efforts. Here are some of the biggest reasons why you should (and they all happen to start with “S”):
- Storytelling: When done right, case studies add a compelling, human touch that most ads, emails, and websites lack. Which type of communication would you be more likely to read all the way through: a laundry list of facts, sales points and awards, or a dramatic story about a group of hard-working people who turn to an outside expert (i.e., your integration team) to help them triumph over a serious challenge?
- SEO: Content marketing, and in particular case studies, form the foundation of a solid search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Search engines use this content to understand what your website is about and what keywords it should rank for. Building keyword-rich case studies can help your website to rank higher for relevant keywords and increase your visibility to your audience, making it easier for your best prospects to find you.
- Social Proof: As we mentioned, case studies provide social proof; they show the prospective customer that companies like theirs have enlisted your services and achieved positive results, which can help convince them to do the same.
- Singularity: Your team might use the same tools as other integrators but a case study is an excellent way to showcase the skills and quality of service that can set you apart from your competition.
To be truly effective, your case study must be well-researched, interesting, and easily readable. One option is to hire a good, professional writer. However, a professional writer could cost $40 per hour or more, or it could be a flat fee, assuming you and the writer agree on the scope of the work. Before hiring someone, make sure they have written quality case studies before. However, if hiring someone isn’t the best option for you, read on for tips on how to do it yourself.
What’s Your Story?
First of all, you must have a strong project to highlight. Know what your case study is about, and why it will appeal to potential customers. What’s interesting about it? What’s unique? Did the customer have a special need? Some unusual requirements? Can you write a short, compelling headline to draw people in?
Make Your Plan
Start by asking, “Who is my audience?” Who’s going to read this? You are creating a message for a specific group of people. What is that group interested in? What do your readers want to learn? At every step of the process, keep your audience in mind. Also, ask yourself, “What industry-specific keywords do I want to rank for in SEO?”
As part of your planning, look at other case studies. You can find plenty of them online, including on the Inductive Automation website. Pick your favorites, and think about what makes them so good. Here are some excellent studies that are worth emulating:
- Accenture and Procter & Gamble Partner in Delivering Virtual Solutions BPO Services
- Amazon Web Services: Kellogg Company Case Study
- World’s Largest Yogurt Plant Thrives on Ignition
- Slack: Bridging Team Communication in the Newsroom (The Times UK)
- Craft Brewery White Box MES System
- Amp Agency: Rips Sewed, Brand Love Reaped (Patagonia)
- Ignition Gets It Done for Electric, Water, and Sewer
- GM Accelerates Warranty Parts Recovery with Specialized Logistics
- Yamaha Motor Opens the Throttle on Innovation and Its ‘Connected Vehicle’ Strategy
SEO success also starts in the planning stage. Determine which industry-specific keywords you want to rank for, so that they will be featured prominently in the finished case study.
Develop an Outline
You can save a lot of writing time by creating an outline first. Type a few words or a sentence for each major idea you want to convey to your readers. This will help you see how the case study will flow from beginning to middle to end. You can rearrange these ideas as you think about them a bit more.
There are different ways to organize a case study. One to keep in mind is the classic approach taken by journalists in news stories: the inverted pyramid. Think of a pyramid shape, and turn it upside down. You want to put the most important information at the top. Then the next-most important. Finally, the least-essential information should be saved for the bottom of the case study. This way, if people only read the top portion of the piece, they’ll still get the most important information.
Another approach is to organize your outline into a linear narrative with four main sections:
- The attention-getting intro: The opening section should set up the story and tease the reader with a peek at some of your positive results to keep them engaged. The goal is to convince the reader in the first couple of sentences that your case study is worth reading all the way through.
- The problem: This section goes into detail about the problems that led the customer to seek a solution. It’s where you’d find sentences like the following: "We interviewed the operators and found areas where we could improve efficiency. For instance, they had been tracking metrics on whiteboards for years."
- The solution: The third section would explain the solution that your team developed and the thought process that led up to it. For example: "Based on our research, we found three major avenues for improvement: efficiency, data collection, and reporting.”
- The results: The last section would go into detail about the results of the solution, with text such as: "The new system resulted in a 35% increase in efficiency. The plant manager said that the project paid for itself in six months and could not wait to start his next project with us."
However you choose to build the outline, the writing and editing processes will go much more smoothly than if you skip this step.
Before working on your case study, get written permission from all individuals and companies that will be participating. You may want to keep it simple, with a short email from everyone approving your use of any interviews, photos, or other content pertaining to them. If you want to make it more formal, you can use a standard release form for photos/audio/video (assuming you’ll use some images, and will make an audio recording of your interviews). Be clear as to what you plan to do with the content. Do you plan to publish it on your website and on social media? Will you use excerpts for your marketing materials? Also know that some people are happy to sign a release without looking at the finished product, while others may want to see the final version before approving.
Ask the Right Interview Questions
The most compelling thing in your case study should be quotes from people who benefitted from the project. A happy end user saying, “this project was great,” is far more compelling than you saying it. And don’t stop with one interview. Quotes from three or four people, all with different job titles and varying perspectives, is much better than quotes from one person.
To get those nice quotes, you’ll have to ask good questions. Avoid questions that could be answered with just a “yes” or “no”; you want to provoke interesting, detailed responses from your interviewees. Below are some examples of good questions to ask.
- What features of the solution are you using? What are you using them for?
- What problems did you experience before working with us? Was there a “last straw” that led you to find a solution?
- How did you go about searching for a solution?
- Why did you choose to work with us?
- Why are you using this product instead of another?
- Were there any special requirements for this project?
- What results have you seen since we implemented your solution? Can you share any numbers (such as performance metrics, cost savings, time savings, improved efficiency)?
- Did the solution accomplish what you’d hoped it would? Were there any unexpected benefits?
- What was it like working with us? Are you happy with how things turned out?
- How does the new solution compare to the old solution?
- How has the new solution created more value for your customers?
- What other improvements would you to like make to your system, process, or facility in the future?
Also think about your target keywords when writing your list of interview questions. For example, if you want to rank for “IIoT,” be sure to ask questions about IIoT.
Ideally, you’d make a list of questions and do an interview of 20-30 minutes with each person, individually. You should record the interviews and then transcribe the best quotes to use in the case study. In addition to quotes, you’ll get plenty of other information you can use. Put the most compelling quotes near the top of the case study.
Make Your Customer The Hero
Every good story has a hero. When writing your case study, it's important to frame your customers as the heroes, rather than the system or solution that you built. In other words, don’t make the case study about the technology that solved the problem, but about how people used the technology to solve the problem. The more you focus on the human element, the more interesting and relatable your case study will be.
Respect the reader, and don’t waste his or her time. Use as few words as possible to get your valuable information across. A useful guideline: The fewer words you use, the more power each word has. That doesn’t mean your case study should be 80 words long. Let’s say you’re writing 800 words. If you write lean and tight, using as few words as possible in each sentence, you’ll pack a lot more valuable information into those 800 words than if you include a bunch of fluffy language that doesn’t benefit the reader. Again, always be thinking about the reader. If a person reads an 800-word case study, do they want 800 valuable words, or 500 words of value, and 300 of fluff?
Also, resist the temptation to use same keywords over and over (a.k.a. "keyword stuffing") in the hopes of boosting your SEO. This doesn’t work for SEO and it will annoy your readers, so it’s best to just use your targeted keywords naturally throughout the case study.
As you finish up your first draft, think about what the headline should be. This is very important because it’s often the only chance you get to convince your reader that your content is worth reading. It should be focused on results. Instead of, “Improvements Made at Widget Factory,” something like “How a Widget Company Improved its Efficiency by 35%” would do a better job of attracting attention.
After You Write, Rewrite
The best writers are not fond of their first drafts. While it would be great if you could dash off one draft and then be done, that’s usually not how it works. Good writing is rewriting. Crank out the first draft, then put it away for a day or two. Then come back to it and make it lots better. Tighten it up. Get rid of words you don’t need. Make the message clearer. Then put it away for a couple of days, and come back to it again. Maybe the third draft will be your final!
This is a good stage in the process to make sure you’re observing proper style. To get a sense of good style, read a mainstream newspaper and take note of how it uses punctuation, quotation marks, capitalization, and more. Most of these newspapers would follow Associated Press (AP) style. If you approach it the way mainstream newspapers do, you’ll have good style. That’s important, because it gives your case study a more professional look.
Before calling it finished, have someone else read the case study. Try to pick a person or two who could make some useful comments. Is there anything they didn’t understand? Any area where they’d want more detail? You don’t have to make changes based on their comments, but you may want to.
Before your case study is published anywhere, you’ll want to get your customer to approve the final version. Make sure you’re 100% happy with it before sending it to your customer. You don’t want to make more changes after they’ve approved it, because then you’d need to get another approval for the changes. It’s best to send it to your customer only once, when the case study is truly finished.
If you can include photos with your case study, all the better. Ideally, you’d have high-resolution photos that would look good when printed. If it’s meant for web only, medium-resolution should be fine. Try to come up with four or five good photos that show various aspects of the project.
Get the Most Out of Your Case Study
Once your case study is fully written, edited, and approved, you should post it somewhere on your website where it will be easy to find. Post a link to your case study on your social media pages (with a nice photo), and send it out in a promotional email or newsletter. You should also lay out the case study as a PDF document that you can print and use as a handout.
However, you don’t have to stop there; there are still ways to give your case study even more exposure. As we mentioned, you can use customer quotations from the case study and use them as testimonials on your website or in emails, brochures, or other marketing materials. Share the case study with the company that you featured so they can also post it, send it, and share it. Also, think about submitting the case study to a trade publication or news website that publishes content about the industry in question. Publishers are always looking for good material and a well-sourced, sharply written, properly styled case study could draw their attention.
As a last piece of advice, you should continue producing case studies on a regular basis. With each case study you create, you’ll further build your brand, establish your expertise in the field, and improve your SEO. Are there any other tips for writing, media, or marketing you’d like to see here on the blog? Let us know in the comment section, and thanks for reading!