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What to Do When Prospects Don’t Read Your Case Studies

“I didn’t read a single one of your case studies.”

A client admitted that to me just the other day. And you know what? I wasn’t surprised to hear it. Despite the fact that we were, at that very moment, discussing how to write and design more effective case studies for his firm, and despite the fact that he had also reported being fully convinced of our expertise and effectiveness by our digital marketing, the idea that our case studies didn’t play a major role in his evaluation made sense to me.

I’ve written a lot of material on case studies. Over the years, it’s probably the topic I’ve revisited most frequently. My opinions about what they should be and how they should work have certainly evolved as I’ve more closely observed prospect behavior. That process has led me to a controversial conclusion: case studies don’t work.

Now take a deep breath.

When I say that case studies “don’t work,” I mean that they don’t work alone as the primary way of giving prospects what they want and need to properly evaluate your expertise. Even the best case studies have inherent barriers to giving prospects what they need. Those barriers are implicit in my client’s admission: if they don’t read your case studies, then how can they ever really know that what you promise is possible?

Are there ways of getting more prospects to read — not just scan, but actually read — your case studies? Yes, of course there are. But the more important question is whether there are ways of getting more prospects to understand the results you deliver. The answer to that question is also a resounding “yes,” and doing so does not depend upon regularly creating case studies.

We need more ways of showing the results of our expertise that can work on their own and with case studies to give prospects the assurances they need. Let’s explore what those could be.

Case Studies Need Three Proofs of Expertise

There are three things that prospects need in order to evaluate your expertise:

  1. Proof of success
  2. Proof of quality
  3. Proof of fit

The priority of these proofs will vary depending upon who is reading your case study. For example, a CEO might see certain measurables as representing the kind of success you can offer their company. But someone focused on creative output might need to see that your work meets a certain subjective level of quality. Another stakeholder might be primarily concerned with whether you’ve done enough work in their industry or fully understand how to collaborate with organizations like theirs. Each of these is a unique proof. Each is demonstrated in different ways.

Why Case Studies Take Too Much Time

One reason why creating case studies is such a huge effort is because a good case study will include all three forms of proof. It doesn’t just take time to write a persuasive case study. It takes time to measure the success of the work. It takes time to request and receive testimonials. It takes time to gather the right assets to show the work in a way that properly represents your creative direction and technical skills. It takes time to describe a problem and a solution in a way that demonstrates to a prospect that you know how to leverage it for them specifically, without pandering. It takes time to identify the overall editorial angle of the case study that keeps the what and the who in proper balance. And then there’s the writing, the editing, and the campaigns to share this material with the world. It all takes a lot of time.

That’s why we either don’t publish case studies with the same frequency as we deliver results for our clients, or why we frequently publish stubs — little more than portfolio entries — that we hope will do the job of a good case study. A stub will typically have 1-2 of the 3 things a prospect needs from a case study, and measured results are almost never among them.

Why Prospects Don’t Read Your Case Studies

Half of the problem is a result of our behavior, but the other half is not. Even if we write great case studies which provide all the proof a prospect needs, many of them won’t ever be read. By the time a prospect reaches a case study in a healthy, headed-for-opportunity website session, they are likely anywhere from 3-5 pages deep. Typically, time on page increases as session depth increases, but that doesn’t go on infinitely. Time on page will level off and then drop.

Most prospects begin their sessions on a piece of content they’ve discovered organically, encountered on social media, or had promoted to them. If they stick around, most will navigate to positioning-focused material on your website in order to better understand the context of the content they began with, and to get to know who created it. This is why I recommend the positioning page information architecture that I do, which guides prospects through a multi-page process of understanding what you do, why you do it, how you do it, and what the results are.

Case studies are typically the end of the line, as far as positioning pages go. At that point, we’ve asked a lot of a prospect’s attention. They’re not likely to have much left — whether in time or interest — to devote to reading thousands of words. Because of this, you should aim for ~500 words as a maximum. Though that’s commonly understood as a minimum viable word count from a search engine optimization standpoint, we shouldn’t expect a page like this to be a leading organic performer. A case study will never perform as well as a 1,500-word article written for a researcher when it comes to attracting an audience. And a 1,500-word case study will never be read by an engaged prospect strapped for time. Given the process we’re intentionally putting prospects through, asking them to fully read 500 words is a tall-enough order. That’s why a prospect may never actually read your case studies.

But they still need proof, and we still need to give it to them. The best way to do this is to break down the three forms of proof into smaller pieces that can stand on their own and, more importantly, be more easily created on a regular basis.

Providing Proof with Micro-Results

First and foremost, proof of success is what any prospect needs from your website. If they read a page about your capabilities, and that page is written well, we can anticipate that they’ll wonder, “How does it all work?” You can provide an answer to that question with a well-written service page. But if that page does it’s job — if it explains what makes that service, discipline, or solution unique, how it works, and what measures of success it is held accountable to — then we can anticipate a prospect will think to themselves, “That sounds like exactly what I need. But does it actually work?” I’ve historically used this dialectical approach to show how a case study can close the gap between a client’s understanding of what you do and their conviction that it’s what they need. But as we’ve already explored, perhaps the case study need not shoulder this burden alone. How else can we offer proof of success?

How to Provide Proof of Success

There are two forms of micro-content that can do the job of proving success on their own. Any quantitative measure is likely to be effective, provided it’s expressed properly. For example, instead of a headline for a full-blown case study that reads, “How we increased conversions by 55%,” you could simply create a standalone entry — think a “card” that need not link elsewhere — that includes that kind of information. It could be a headline, a short description, and an image or an infographic. All you need is for a prospect to read it and understand that not only do you hold your work accountable to measurable results, but you actually achieve them.

The other form that proof of success can take is a testimonial. While an anonymized or third-party testimonial can be effective within a case study’s narrative, it can’t stand alone. A testimonial that will work well as a form of micro-result is one from which a prospect can glean a quantitative or qualitative result as well as confirm that it comes from someone like them.

In this way, a good testimonial can also satisfy a prospect’s third need for proof: it shows them that you have expertise in their industry, and that you can operate effectively within organizations like theirs. It proves fit. A testimonial could be a written statement, a piece of audio, an embedded social media post, or a short video.

How to Provide Proof of Quality

One of the most common questions I get from clients trying to build out an effective “Work” section is, “Why do you always downplay the role visual aids play in a case study?” I always reply by reminding them that their question contains the answer: A good case study doesn’t need to put as much emphasis on the product as it does the result of the product. In other words, the result is what happened because of your work, not the work itself. A case study with no images but with profound statistical proof will always be better than one with the most beautiful images and no stats. But that doesn’t mean that beautiful images don’t play an important role in the prospect’s experience.

Prospects need proof of the quality of your work. They also need proof of other aspects of your output, like how stylistically consistent (or not) it is, whether it holds up in all areas of production, and whether it aligns with their sensibilities. You might be the best branding agency in the world with undeniably smart and savvy work consistent across all channels but still not be the right fit for a prospect. Maybe what you’re offering is just too shiny for the local, organic, homegrown vibe they want to preserve. No hard feelings. But this is the sort of evaluation a prospect might not easily get on your website. Maybe they can get it by looking at every work entry you’ve added to your work section, or scrolling through every case study. But that’s a lot more clicks and pageviews than necessary.

A great form of micro-content that could give a prospect the right exposure to your output may be a standalone “look-book” or carousel that shows them a large amount of work that stands on its own, without a story, without any stats (though that doesn’t mean you couldn’t include that sort of thing, too). I’ve found myself routinely recommending this sort of arrangement, where a firm curates these carousels based upon a variety of factors, like industry, context, formats, or other themes that might be resonant for their prospects.

Each of these forms of micro-content could be just the right format to grab a prospect’s attention at the right time. And if you can envision it, they could all be used to create not only a very engaging “Results” landing page (as opposed to something like, “Our Work”) but also extremely effective when distributed throughout the rest of your website.

You can see examples of this micro-content approach on our results page, our capabilities landing page, our service pages, our case studies, and our home page.

The Cobbler’s Children Need to Go Someplace

The age-old problem of producing case studies almost always invokes the same phrase, “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.” It’s been a useful shorthand for sheepishly admitting why we can’t do for ourselves what we do for our clients. But the more I think about it, the more problematic that metaphor becomes. It’s not really about the shoes. The cobbler’s children need to go someplace. That’s why they need the shoes!

If it was really just about the shoes, then creating case studies would be enough. But just like the cobbler’s children, we don’t just need the case studies. We need the case studies to do something. We need them to inform and engage a prospect. When you think about it that way, you realize that there might be other ways to do that.

But if I were to push on the metaphor in the other direction, I might ask, what really makes a shoe? What are the essential components that let it do its job? Are they recognizable on their own? If the shoe is a case study, then what are the laces, the sole, the heel? Deconstructing the case study shows that not only is it often overstuffed to the point of repelling the prospect, but it contains elements that can — and probably should — stand on their own to meet a prospect’s need for proof. I’m advising my clients to explore that. I hope you will, too.

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