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How to Write Better Case Studies

Chris Butler: Hello, and welcome to Newfangled’s Agency Marketing Matters podcast. This is actually episode 12. I’m Chris Butler.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

Mark O’Brien: And I’m Mark O’Brien.

Chris Butler: And we get together every couple of weeks to talk about digital marketing, stuff that we hope is going to be interesting and relevant to you listening. And we want to first sort of talk about something that’s interesting just to get ourselves warmed up, and then we’ll get into a topic that Lauren, again, planned for us, and then we’ll wrap it up with something that we think you should read or take a look at afterwards. So with that, what’s on your minds guys?

Mark O’Brien: Well, I was just actually trying to figure out when this was, and it turns out it was actually this week.

Lauren Siler: That’s a long week.

Mark O’Brien: Could have been a few weeks ago or a month ago, but something that was really just fun lately was being with Mike Seyfer, the CEO of HTK Marketing out of Duluth. And Mike and I have known each other a long time. We’ve been working with them for probably close to a decade now.

Chris Butler: Yep.

Mark O’Brien: And we were there to meet with one of his clients in New Jersey, and this happens to me pretty regularly, I was just struck by the conversation we had. We went out to dinner the night before, and he was covering all aspects of life and business and how fun that is and how lucky we are to work with people like that all the time. And I’ve actually had agency principals lately mention to me when I talk about this, they’re like, “Oh yeah you get to work with us!” And it’s true, and they’re working with, you know, people in other professions and don’t necessarily get to hang out with people as cool and fun and interesting as agency folk. And you know, Mike’s now become one of my good friends, and I’ve got tons of great friends now who are also clients, and former clients, and future clients, or might be. And we all do. You know we all get close with our people because our people are really wonderful, and so I find myself just being extraordinarily thankful for that this week.

Chris Butler: That’s a good one. That’s a really good one.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, I’ve often thought about how lucky we are to get to work with the people that we do coming from the agency side of things, and I loved being on the agency side of things, but the client side when you are on the agency side is certainly not as interesting. I’ve been thinking about how many of our clients these days are just nailing their content programs, and that’s really exciting for me to see. You know we’ve created a new – or sort of expanded our content marketing department this year, and we used to sort of have a more abbreviated version of this where we would get content plans put in place for clients and then sort of hand it off and say, “Good luck; hope it works,” and check in a few months later, and it had fallen flat or the agency was sort of stumbling with it.

And with this new program we’re much more involved, so it’s a 12-month program. We’re involved not just with the initial content strategy development, but we are with them every single month, running their editorial meetings and helping guide their content and structure and make sure it’s really strategic and focused. And it’s really fun watching the culture of these agencies change with regard to marketing because they start to get excited about the fact that they can actually sustain an effective content marketing plan inside of their four walls. And you know, checking on these agencies and going and seeing the transition from just nothing hitting the site to thousands of words of really amazing things – smart, interesting content, every single month. It’s just incredible to see that transition.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, they’re making the Internet a better place.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: And they’re transforming the sort of – what’s the word? Well the way that the word “marketing” is heard.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: And this is very true among our clientele. “Marketing” is a slimy, dirty word to them, and honestly I struggled with that in the past, but no longer because I see the way we think and the way that we do it, and I see our clients transition in that way, and I think it is a word that you can feel good about – provided that you’re doing it a certain way.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, you know you’re an educator. And I find myself really enjoying reading the content of my clients. You know, I’m learning something, and it’s cool. They all do really interesting things; they have varied areas of expertise, and they know what they’re doing, and it’s really great to see them be able to communicate that so clearly and in such an interesting way.

Chris Butler: That’s right. So come join us in marketing.

Mark O’Brien: Well let’s get back to the article you showed this week – the Mitch Joel article.

Chris Butler: Oh yeah, so good.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and it’s this. And it really is a transition from marketing being something that’s potentially slimy to being something that’s incredibly specific and accountable and authentic.

Chris Butler: I don’t remember the title of that article at the moment, but I’ll put it in the show notes. But Mitch Joel from Twist Image, he’s got a podcast as well, and you can just Google him if you don’t know him. He always has really good stuff. He blogs like every day, which seems impossible, but he put something out this week that was sort of seven or so statements, or was it more?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah I think it was like 16 bullet points.

Chris Butler: 16, okay.

Mark O’Brien: And the entire post was pretty much just those bullet points. They were quite succinct, but marketing was this, and now is this.

Chris Butler: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: And the headline was Marketing’s Accountable.

Chris Butler: Right. It’s accountable, it’s intricate, it’s detailed, it’s interesting, it’s so much more than what people thought it was. And on that note, here’s my interesting thing because I had a thing ready, but I have a different thing. Because just as we sat down, actually, Lauren and I were in here doing a sound test before Mark sat down, and I got a text from my younger brother. He’s ten years younger than me, and he’s going to go back to business school. He wants to get his MBA, and he’s in Finance right now – super smart kid, and he got into Duke, and he’s super thrilled. I’m super thrilled for him, but the reason it’s relevant to this is because he has seen what we do and wants to be a part of that.

He wants to get into this line of work. He’s very much in Finance, there’s a growth track for him in Finance, but it’s just in Finance, and he wants to do this. He wants to be more engaged in this kind of work. He wants to be a part of people’s businesses; he wants to change what’s happening – he doesn’t want to just look at the numbers. And a really cool thing is, when he was looking at different schools, he was able to talk to one of our strategists who went to the business school at UNC, he applied there as well, and I just thought that was amazing. You know I just gotta say, “Hey, you can speak to Scott. Scott went to that school; he has his MBA from Duke,” and so I’m just thrilled. Plus, he’s in Michigan now, and that means he might move here, so that’s exciting.

Lauren Siler: Yay! So exciting, so exciting.

Chris Butler: So with that, what’s our topic?

Lauren Siler: So today we’re going to talk about case studies. They come up quite a bit, it seems, especially in the agency world figuring out how to share a particularly compelling portfolio piece, and kind of understanding what the components should be. I get a lot of questions around this. You know, “how many case studies is too many case studies on the site? How does it need to be structured? How often should we be refreshing our case studies? Is it really true that the more case studies we have, the merrier on this site?” There’s a lot of confusion around how to develop this particular type of content, and it’s a really important piece of content on the site. And so, you know, we’ve written about this a lot throughout the years, but I think it bears repeating, and our perspective on it has evolved over the years as well. And so I thought this would be an interesting topic for us to cover, and maybe we can start with just the core fundamental elements of a case study, and what we see as being the important components of it.

Chris Butler: Well can I just overemphasize something you just said, which is there’s a lot of case study shame among our clients because they do good work, and they know they need to share it, but they just don’t. And actually we were at the seminar last spring, and I forget what the context was, but I said at one point, “the cobblers’ children have no case studies,” and Mark was in the back of the room, and he kind of like lit up a little bit because the cobblers’ children thing … Yeah it’s always applied to like the agency website not being good enough. It’s always the website, but it’s like, well it’s case studies too. There’s no case studies. So yeah, I just want to belabor that point. It’s probably one of the most important pieces of content you can write as an agency, and it’s the one that’s often most neglected.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, yeah.

Chris Butler: So right, what makes for a good case study?

Lauren Siler: Well, you know I think one of the things that makes this such a challenging content type for agencies is that there’s this perception that the more verbose you are in your case study, the more compelling it’s going to be. And that’s actually the opposite of what’s actually true. It’s not about the word count of the piece at all. And often what we’ll see is that agencies will really bury the results of what they did because they’re so eloquently describing the problem and the process, and it’s sort of this beautiful work of art at the end, and if you think about the person wanting to read that case study and the reason that they’re on that area of your site … they want to know what you did. What did you accomplish? And so, I think getting to the results, you know, briefly describing the problem but getting to the results as soon as possible is the really important factor when developing a compelling case study.

Mark O’Brien: It’d also be fun to issue a challenge to ourselves and all of our clients to figure out who can write the shortest case study.

Chris Butler: Right! No, I mean there’s something to that because I think we’ve all had this sort of Teehan + Lax come-to-Jesus moment, which is like, you know a bunch of years ago they were the sort of gold standard for what makes an awesome agency case study because of what you were saying. They were these gorgeous, immersive, freaking long winded works of art. And this agency no longer exists, so I think it’s okay for us to say this, like I realized, especially in two pieces I’ve written on case studies that my perspective on that had completely changed. I went from seeing it like, okay most case studies should reach for that standard, to actually, most case studies should not. It’s okay if you have a few of those, but the majority of your case studies should do something completely different. And to your point, succinct, would be nice.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, some numbers, some graphics, over and out. Maybe a testimonial.

Lauren Siler: Definitely a testimonial, right? I mean, people skip that. They say, “we are so amazing and we did this great thing, and we are all really excited about it.” But having the client say that is so much more validating of what you did. So, you know, I would say that’s another component to it that’s kind of non-negotiable for a really compelling case study.

Chris Butler: Well, right. I’ve gotten really dogmatic about this as I am wont to do. In the audits that we do for all of our clients, this is one particular content form where I will point out that there’s key things that they need to have, and there are four key things that I think a case study needs to have. Number one: 500 plus words of indexable content. So, it could be 500, it could be 501. That’s actually not that much. That’s a few paragraphs. If you can write something shorter, and you have the volume, like you’re doing that regularly, great. But for most of our agencies, they’re maybe doing one a quarter. 500 plus words of indexable content.

Lauren Siler: But even with just that point, I find my agencies are surprised. They’re like, “oh, we can do that? 500 words is okay?” I mean, they’re under the impression that it needs to be 3,000 words or more, you know, and no. 500 is great.

Chris Butler: Right. That’s absolutely enough to cover the point.

Mark O’Brien: And that does seem to contradict a message that people hear or say all the time about this volume of content and certain benchmarks and things like that, but a subtle point that we also talk about quite regularly is that you want to write a lot of content in certain areas so you have to freedom to not have to in other areas. And this is an example of something that should be as light as possible and as distilled as possible.

Lauren Siler: Your case studies aren’t the primary factor in your organic SEO strategy.

Chris Butler: Right, and actually something that I think about a lot, it’s like a case study could definitely be something that a researcher interacts with and finds and gets a lot of value out of, but I would recommend that they’re written for an evaluator.

Lauren Siler: Always, yep.

Chris Butler: So if you’re writing for an evaluator that’s completely different content engagement experience. That’s a different amount of time; it’s a different sort of call-to-action experience, and so, yeah. I mean you don’t want to waste that person’s time. Get to the point, tell them what the outcome was, tell them why they should call or email or whatever it is that your asking them to do next. Which is ideally get in touch. On that point, so number one required 500 plus words in indexable content, number two a testimonial. For goodness sake. I mean if you’re writing about something you’ve done for a client, let the client praise you. Let the client sell for you. You know, have some kind of statement that they have to say about how good the work was or how good the experience was. The question is always, because we have a few clients, what if you can’t name the client? And I say well, okay, so they don’t have to name themselves. If you can’t name the client, still get a testimonial from them, and just say, “Marketing Manager,” or you know, whatever.

Mark O’Brien: At a company like this.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, describe the company. That works, totally fine.

Chris Butler: I mean, just get someone else’s words on the page, period.

Mark O’Brien: I think that makes a lot of sense, right? This is really a simple thing.

Chris Butler: Alright.

Mark O’Brien: I mean, that’s part of the point, is to keep it as simple as possible.

Chris Butler: It is simple, but as is the case with many simple things, they’re often overlooked.

Mark O’Brien: I guess one thing to make sure we’re clear about is that to me I think the most important part is not how much the client enjoyed the work or the process, but what the actual hard results were –

Chris Butler: Right.

Lauren Siler: Yes.

Mark O’Brien: Numerically. And this gets back to the Mitch Joel thing. Right, marketing is accountable. And just speaking to that accountability I think is really the most important thing you need to do.

Chris Butler: Yep. Yeah, actually something we should have mentioned under the 500 plus words of indexable content is most agencies fall under a very standardized outline for a case study; it’s a problem-solution. Right, you know, generally something like that.

Mark O’Brien: Problem-solution, yeah, hopefully results in.

Chris Butler: Except, yeah that last part is often not there. Right?

Mark O’Brien: Right.

Chris Butler: And it’s also a misunderstood component. So problem-solution outcome, if you’re being really classical about it, would be the way to go about it. But what is the outcome – is the outcome that you made something? Or is the outcome that the thing that you made led to something else? And that’s the outcome. It’s not we made this website. We made all this collateral. We made this t-shirt. It’s what happened next.

Lauren Siler: Yeah I spent a lot of time talking to agencies about writing to what the prospect cares about and avoiding writing about themselves, and you can really fall into that trap with a case study because the agency’s really excited about the new portfolio piece, and the new piece of collateral we designed, or the new brand identity we created, or whatever it is. And that’s all beautiful, but if you think about what the problem of the prospect was, that’s what that person reading the case study cares about hearing.

Mark O’Brien: Right.

Chris Butler: Very few people buy process.

Mark O’Brien: Right. I think one issue with this is that the agency – if they’re going to write the case study, which we know is difficult and hard to sort of find time to find the content, but if they’re going to do it, they’re likely to do it right when they launch the thing. Right? And so there are no results yet. All the outcome is is the product, and so in order to do this well you actually need to stagger it and wait, who knows, three to twelve months, until there are results to speak about. And by then you’re on to the next thing, and like oh you’re going to write a case about that? That’s old! And, you know, it’s not old. It’s still due as a result of you, but it’s not. And so I think the timing of when you actually write and publish the case study has a lot to do with it, and I bet most agencies are doing it at the wrong time.

Chris Butler: Yeah, well there’s also sort of a diminishing emphasis of attention in the agency space, like the most attention is put towards getting the work, right? Pitching, getting the client, winning the business. Then it’s like alright, then we shuffle you off to the production team. And maybe there’s a strategy team, but it’s like production team, so then it’s like a dwindling amount of emphasis on getting the work done. Then holding the work accountable is like, if it exists at all. You know, it’s just a really rare thing. So I hope that we can model this, I mean this is another area where we definitely need to write more case studies and have them come out more frequently. But the ones that we have, I think are purely focused on showing what happened as a result of the work that we did. And showing that in numbers, in measurements, in provable outcomes, the client’s voice as well.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, and to that point, you know that speaks to a question that I get a lot, which is, “how often do we need to be posting case studies, and how many case studies need to exist on this site?” And more often than not, I find that agencies are feeling more pressure to just have a higher volume of case studies on the site, rather than investing in creating the right quality within those case studies. And I’m always advising, I’d rather see fewer case studies on your site that are more potent, that are more compelling, than a slew of sort of just meh case studies, you know? I think that there’s a balance to be pursued there.

Chris Butler: I’ve tended to notice some agency sites that I tend to look at a lot … really the case studies section is just a portfolio. It’s just a bunch of images. And I have a hard time figuring out, like what are you trying to say with these images, like why are they here?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, that’s a great point. Case studies and portfolios are completely different things.

Chris Butler: And there’s a place for portfolios. People need to vet the creative output of the agency, but to Lauren’s point, if you’ve got a really long list of case studies on your site, the real question is, do they still accurately represent what it is that you do and sell to your clients? And if the answer is no, then obviously they have to go. But some nuance there is that some of our agencies, like what they really want is a long-term engagement that re-ups every year. They want to continue to win that clients, especially if they’re agency bracket, they want to continue to preserve that. And I would think in that case, rather than writing a new case study, you would be going back and making sure that the case study you have for that relationship is still accurate. Does it still tell the current story? So there’s an argument to be made, I guess is what I’m saying for going back and pruning, you know, an existing case study or actually updating it as opposed to writing a new one entirely.

Lauren Siler: That’s a great point.

Chris Butler: With that being said I would rather a short, accurate list than a long, inaccurate one, of case studies. Okay so we’ve got number one, 500 plus words of indexable content, number two, a testimonial, number three, I have been advocating for the last year, an easily scannable list of related services. And every agency that I see, they’ll listen to that, and then they produce the creative to show what this page is going to look like, and it’s always related case studies. And I point out to them, look, what do you want them to do here? Do you really want them to get caught up in a cycle, an endless cycle of reading case studies, some of which may have nothing to do with the kinds of outcomes they need, or do you want them to actually understand the connection between this outcome and the business you’re selling. So relate the service.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, it’s about the intention of this type of content. What do you want this person to do, why are you investing time creating this case study in the first place, and what is the head space that the person reading this is in? You ultimately want them to read this case study, understand your expertise, be validated, or have you be validated, and get in touch. So, yeah I think that’s really important just to go back to the purpose, always going back to the purpose of why you’re investing your time in this particular type of messaging.

Chris Butler: And what’s the starting point? I mean, the majority of people that are going to read that case study are going to start there. That’ll be the first page that they see on the site. So you really need them to go at that point from that sort of evaluator content experience into understanding the business. And if you don’t give them a door to do that, you can’t assume that they’re going to say, “Hey! Maybe I should look in the menu to understand how this connects to what this business is about.” So I think related service is really critical. And then finally, a buyer friendly call-to-action. What does that mean? Buyer focused. What do we mean by buyer?

Lauren Siler: So when we’re thinking about somebody who is leader stage in their purchasing journey, who’s ready to potentially get in touch with you about a potential project or working together. So somebody who’s later stage.

Chris Butler: Yeah, so we’re not asking them to subscribe to anything here; we’re not asking them to download a white paper- I mean those things are fine on some of these pages, but the thing we want them to do, if they’ve understood what it is you do and understood the outcomes that you bring about and are excited about that and want to be a part of it – get in touch. Let’s talk about the project; let’s talk about working together.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah we spent so much time talking about catering to researchers and evaluators because they’re always ignored, or typically ignored in most agency marketing strategies, but the other times you really need to go for that buyer. And this is a much more effective way of doing something than a Contact Us form. You’ll have that too, but this is probably your prime buyer CTA.

Chris Butler: Absolutely, and the whole purpose, and I’ve said this so many times, but maybe just once on the podcast, of your site and your content strategy is to graduate researcher interest into evaluator and buyer action. That’s the whole point. If you’re attracting people, they understand suddenly what it is you do, they’re excited about it, and then they move into understanding the container, right, how you actually work with your expertise, how you actually bring it to the market. Then what are they supposed to do? But that’s the whole purpose of your site. If it doesn’t do that second thing, then it’s just a school. I love school, but we’re not here to make schools.

Mark O’Brien: No we’re not; we are not making schools, not one bit. Alright well this is fun, so why not talk about some things that we want to get people to check out?

Chris Butler: Yeah, let’s wrap it up.

Mark O’Brien: I’ll go last.

Lauren Siler: Alright, you’re last.

Chris Butler: Okay, yeah, well I’ll do one real quickly. I mentioned that I’d had the Teehan + Lax come to Jesus moment. So a bunch of years ago I wrote a piece called Rethinking the Case Study; people really loved that. It’s still one of the most frequently accessed pieces on our site, and I rewrote it this year because we’re thinking differently about this, so it’s called Rethinking the Case Study Again?

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: Yeah. Rethinking the Case Study Again. It’s easy to find on our site. Just type in Rethinking the Case Study Again, and you’ll find it, but it basically takes everything that we’ve talked about this morning and puts it in written format, so take a look.

Lauren Siler: So something I’m excited about is a relatively recent piece of content; it’s actually a blog that was written by one of our content marketing strategists, Julia Vanderput, and it’s kind of a tactical piece, but I really like it because it speaks to a problem that we hear a lot, which is getting team buy-in for your content marketing, and that’s actually what it’s called, Getting Team Buy-In for Your Content Marketing, and what she’s writing about is how to sort of rally the troops internally once you’ve got a content marketing plan in place to sustain that program ongoing, and sort of what the common hurdles to that are and how to get around them.

Mark O’Brien: Awesome. So mine has to do with a piece of content that Lindsey Barlow wrote, and Lindsey is our Salesforce strategist, and Salesforce means Salesforce CRM, and it’s about learning to love Salesforce, and so we work with agencies to help them primarily with their website, their automation system, their content strategy, their contact strategy, and CRM. CRM is often times the dark horse of all of that because a lot of agencies don’t really like the topic; a lot of agencies are really confused about the topic, and it’s behind the scenes. You know, automation and content strategy and website are very much surface, and on everyone’s mind all the time, but CRM isn’t, but it’s a critical part of it, and so many of our agencies, and the prospects we speak to have used Salesforce specifically at one point. But they paid too much for it, and they didn’t use it enough. We had a client prospect we were speaking to yesterday who was paying $8,000 a month for Salesforce, and not a single person in that organization was using it.

Lauren Siler: Yeah that was hard to hear.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, but not atypical. Right?

Lauren Siler: Yeah, it’s true.

Mark O’Brien: And in fact, they need to spend about $300 a month on Salesforce. And we know exactly how we can get them to use it, and it’s an amazing tool once you get over some key barriers, and Lindsey speaks to those barriers in her article, and it’s really nice to see that.

Chris Butler: There’s gonna be like a hundred people who are listening to this right now who are just like, “Holy crap. I don’t have to spend that much?” They’re like, “Where’s the episode on that?”

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, right.

Chris Butler: So, maybe we need an episode on that. But, yeah so that’s a future episode hopefully. So we hope you join us for a future episode. This has been our twelfth episode. We’re glad you joined us. If you’re on iTunes, please rate us there, and tell your friends. That’s the best way we can expand our network. And so we’ll see you next time. I’m Chris Butler.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

Mark O’Brien: And I’m Mark O’Brien.

Chris Butler: And this has been Agency Marketing Matters.