Storytelling in the real world: How case studies connect technology, people & sales results
When I left the world of creative and academic writing for technical marketing work, I vowed to use my powers for good.
I scorned businesses that used showy, shadowy language to manipulate buyers. Even as a software technical writer who worked on admin guides and help files (remember those?), I strove to make personal connections, even if they were only in my mind: Whoever reads this will do their job better. Or at least hate it less. I sympathized with end users who probably read my words through clenched teeth anyway, only consulting documentation when things were already going wrong.
Ideally, I wanted to make them feel better—heroic, even—about their work.
Storytelling is what led me to become a case study writer. Along the way, I grew fascinated by the ways businesses function, and I gradually fell in love with the idea of helping to make them successful. And it turns out that telling their stories on the individual customer level is a critical exercise in achieving communications success. Product positioning and message frameworks are important, but until companies reach their prospects on a human level, they're bypassing the opportunity to truly engage the decision makers and influencers who will hopefully see their vision and buy their stuff.
Customer stories are among the most influential content types in B2B software purchase decisions. A well-chosen, well-executed case study project benefits all involved.
Why case studies?
Case studies have a familiar structure: Here was the business problem; here's what we did about it; and here were the results.
As knowledge workers, we apply this reasoning repeatedly when generating use cases for our ideas—but as long as it's us talking, the ideas are hypothetical, and we're limited by the credibility of our own bias. It's one thing to say what you're good at; it's another thing when you get happy customers to say it on your behalf. And so, companies create case studies as customer evidence to shore up their own claims about what makes their offerings market-worthy.
I write case studies because they use the art and force of storytelling to make technology solutions and services come to life for my clients. Interviewing their customers gives me the perspective to understand how a real business operates in ways that relate to the value my client offers. By talking to actual people about how they do their jobs, I learn about my client's solution from every angle and can expand on their value proposition to craft true stories that are concrete and vibrant, not smarmy or abstract.
It's one thing to say what you're good at. It's another thing when you get happy customers to say it on your behalf.
This can be a jarring perspective shift for many marketing departments who are stuck in the gerbil wheel of rote benefits recitation and side-of-the-box feature fluff. The usual message-based content tactics still matter, of course, but on their own they don't connect with humans until you provide a picture of actual problems being addressed and solved by people who behave, more or less, like them.
The Featured Customer website ran an article a few years back highlighting the proven benefits of storytelling based on customer evidence, and citing studies conducted by TechTarget, HubSpot, and other marketing data providers. Among its conclusions, it notes that customer case studies are among the most influential content types in B2B software purchase decisions, citing studies from Publicis Hawkeye and Content Management Institute.
As for ROI, as I tell my clients, an investment in my time to produce a meaningful customer story can yield disproportionately positive results. I've tried to track actual metrics on this over the years, but my only hard evidence is that the same clients keep hiring me back for more.
The case study as magic trick
If you look at the problem-solution-results cadence of case study construction from a customer-focused perspective, it becomes something more like this: Challenge, innovation, benefits.
When I interview my client's customer, they know I'm there on behalf of a technology vendor, so they often want to dive right into the ones and zeroes. But I guide them to back up and tell me more of their own story—what the company does, and what challenges they face, independent of technology altogether. What's a day in the life? I also ask about the interview subject's individual role. To put it all into words, I want the full context that makes their own story and their company’s story unique.
The effect of this is sort of like a magic trick. These are, generally speaking, very smart people who are very good at their jobs—but they're not used to talking about it, or answering outside questions. Much like my clients, they're absorbed in the world of their own competence and passion, and don't naturally step outside of it long enough to fathom the end-to-end perspective. So I do it for them.
And once I've drawn out the story, and I write a draft and send it back to them, I often get a surprised response: By golly, you're right—this is what I do, and this is how our technology solution story actually went down.
In the best cases, when my client checks the story from their standpoint, it triggers new levels of awareness on their part as well. Often, they knew the value they offered was good, but they hadn't thought of all the specific ways their solutions might make people's jobs easier or better.
Case studies expand on your value proposition to craft true stories that are concrete and vibrant, not smarmy or abstract.
Making the connection
And here's where the critical cognitive hook comes in for the case study readers. It doesn't matter whether they are in the same business or industry as the customer interviewed for the story. It doesn't even matter if the customer's problem space doesn't reflect their own. In the course of reading a story, they gain a deep, contextual understanding of what a particular technology enables, and they grasp it in a way they never could have via abstract messaging. The experience of reading about one company's dilemma starts the gears turning in their head: Okay, so what if I applied these results to my situation?
You know what comes next. Get those gears turning, and you're several steps closer to closing a sale.
In my experience, it all ends up in a win-win-win, for the client, their customer, and … well, me. A well-chosen, well-executed case study benefits all involved:
- Real-world problem solving that amplifies marketing and showcases your company's hard work.
- Casting your customers as the real heroes as they share how they're transforming their business.
- A writer's contribution to the world of B2B knowledge using real-life characters and situations.
Tips for developing awesome case studies
- Think beyond your messaging pillars. Focus on finding the right customer and telling their story.
- Choose stories that will engage your target market, not just describe your company's strengths.
- Reach out to clients you know will be responsive and supportive—don't waste your time or theirs.
- Be strategic—tell tales from industries and markets into which you aim to expand your business.
- The story doesn't have to be perfect—telling your "lessons learned" builds credibility as well.
- Work with a professional case study writer who has the journalism skills and technology industry knowledge to put customers at ease, listen closely to ask the right follow-up questions, and pull together a story about transformation you might not have fully realized you were ready to tell.