If there is one type of website content I am asked most about, it is the case study. And while I have written quite a bit about how to write and design better case studies, I haven’t written much about how your website’s audience will experience them once you’ve hit publish.
That’s what this post is about. I’ll review three different ways a prospect is likely to experience your case studies, and help you identify the visual and written elements that will be most effective in making use of their attention when they do. Whether a prospect is reading it in full, just scanning it, or discovering on a search engine, they can always get value from a carefully crafted case study.
But first, let me provide some background.
Thinking About Your Prospect’s Experience
It’s always important to put yourself in your prospects’ position and consider how they might experience your website — this is why we take the time to create personas and design our content strategy with them and the kinds of information they need in mind.
But the way a case study works is different from how most of our marketing content works. For one thing, a case study is much more of a late-stage type of content.
A Case Study’s Role in a Good Prospect Session
A good case study will be most influential to someone evaluating your services in comparison with a competitor or who is on the verge of getting in touch with you. Because it tells such a specific story about your client and you, it’s less likely to be a good fit for a searcher looking for a solution to a problem they have.
Is this an irrefutable fact? Of course not. No one has a crystal ball when it comes to this stuff. The fact is that anyone could see your case study at any point. But the more important question is who should see your case study, and when? There’s a much clearer answer to that question, and you already know it.
That is why — though there are absolutely things you can do to optimize case studies for organic search — you should prioritize the prospect who is already on your website. That person will use case studies to better understand how you have applied your expertise to real-world problems, and most importantly, how you measure the effectiveness of your work.
Positioning Content vs. Marketing Content
In my series of articles on Prospect Experience Design, I describe how to best design your content for prospect engagement. One of the most important principles to understand before we think specifically about case studies is how the positioning-focused pages of your website and all of its other marketing content work together to nurture a prospect.
While content marketing pages — articles, white papers, webinars, etc. — are the most likely points of entry for a prospect to your website, the positioning pages — pages like your home page, capabilities landing page, service pages, and case studies — are the ones that help prospects understand what you are selling, how you can help them, and what they can expect from working with you. In other words, a piece of marketing content will convince a prospect that you understand their problems and are smart enough to solve them, but it’s your positioning content that will actually make clear to them how you do that and what they can buy.
In fact, the more session data I study, the more I see the same pattern of use over and over again. It’s one I call the “orientation pattern.”
The Orientation Pattern
The Orientation Patter is simple. It describes what a prospect who has landed on your site for the first time will do. The vast majority of your prospects enter your site on an article page that they’ve found via search, social media, an email link, or a paid advertisement. When they do that, they’ll do one of two things next. They will either (A) move laterally through the site and look at another piece of content like the one they began with, or they will (B) go to your home page. If they dolook at some kind of related content, they’ll almost always go to your home page within 1-2 pages of that decision.
The reason for this is simple: they need to better understand the context of the information they’re seeing. What is this website really about? Is it about just this one topic, or is it about more? Who created it? Are they just giving away free information or are they selling something that I could use? When they go to your home page to answer these questions, you can then begin to guide them through your main positioning pages so that your website can actually do its job. And if we’re unclear on that, let me put it simply: Your website’s job is to move prospects through the buying cycle, not freely educating people that may never buy from you.
If you haven’t, make sure you read about how the four main positioning pages work together to do just that. For a prospect that follows a controlled path through them, the case study will be the last thing they see before the best next step they can take will be to contact you directly. At that point, there is really no more information they can get from your website that will better qualify them for you, or you for them. And it’s that prospect — and that kind of session — you need to have in mind when you create your case studies.
If there’s such a thing as closing an opportunity, then case studies are for closing.
1. Prospect Readers
Ideally, your prospects will actually read at least one of your case studies. For them, the story and the results are key. Make sure you make it easy for them to track with you through both the narrative components you employ — like the background information you provide, the way you explain the problem and your solution, and the results of your work — by keeping your word count manageable and using typography and layout decisions to make it easy to flow through it quickly and accurately.
I generally recommend aiming for about 500 words for a case study, but I offer that recommendation purely to make it possible for a page like this to get some organic search traffic. Anything shorter is not likely to show up in search results. But length for the sake of SEO shouldn’t be a priority for a case study.
Remember, we’re optimizing for the human prospects who are already on your site. They’re probably a few pages into their session by the time they get to a case study, so making the best use of their attention is critical. Get to the point and make it abundantly clear to them what kinds of results they can expect from you. In fact, you might want to use things like pull quotes and images to draw extra attention to quantitative and qualitative results.
This is probably how you’re most inclined to think about your case studies already. But there are at least two other ways to think about how a case study can work on a prospect who isn’t reading it, or at least isn’t reading it yet.
2. Prospect Scanners
While some prospects will read some of your case studies, most prospects will scan several of them. And even if they never read a case study in full, a prospect should still be able to get some value from having looked at them.
First, think about the informational backbone of your case study.
If your case study was reverse-engineered into a simple text outline, what would the top-line words or ideas be? Often, we are inclined to arrange our case studies in a predictable, but generic, narrative — something like, “Problem > Solution > Results.” But if a prospect scans just those headlines, they won’t actually glean any useful information from your case study. Instead, think of how you can specify the problem, the solution, and the results in the headlines that set up the paragraphs of your case study. For example, “Integrated Cross-Channel Campaigns” is a much more informative headline than “Solution.”
In the same way, use your title strategically. A solutions-focused title that generalizes the client is better than one that specifies the client but generalizes the solution. For example, most firms initially assume that naming the client in the case study title will draw a prospect’s attention because they’ll recognize the name. But what a prospect is hungry for are results. So prioritize those in the title and give them enough of a description of themselves for them to know they’re in the right place. “Social Media Marketing Strategy for an International Hunger Non-Profit” is much better than “Our Work for UNICEF.”
More Informative Visual Aids
Also consider how the other visual elements on the page — pull quotes, testimonials, images, lists, and stats — can inform a prospect if only they were scanned in isolation. For example, if you’ve designed your page to feature a big results stat offset from some text, it is better to make sure that stat can stand alone because that is how it is most likely to be read — at least the first time.
If a prospect only scans your case study, they can still come away with the right impression of what you can do for them, even if they never read the specifics you’ve written, as long as you are careful to be specific in the way you frame supporting and structural information.
3. Prospect Searchers
Finally, I did mention that a case study can draw in first-time website visitors, and so some consideration should be given to search engine optimization.
Word Count is Important
Word count is always a critical factor for search engine performance. In generally, the better performing content these days is pretty long. I already mentioned that my general recommendation is to keep case studies as short as possible. But if you do want to shoot for length as a way of increasing organic search traffic to a case study, then at least design the page to manage that word count effectively. Provide a summary at the top. Pay close attention to how headings can tell a story on their own, as I mentioned in the previous section.
For very long, in-depth case studies, consider dividing your case study into two sections. The first can provide a short version of your problem, solution, results narrative and the second can go further into detail on how you did what you did. Just make it clear that this is how the page is structured.
Titles Are Critical
As I suggested for a prospect who is only scanning your case study, how you write its title could directly affect how much information they get from that experience. The same is true for a searcher.
However, in the searcher’s case, how you write the case study’s title tag will directly affect whether they ever see it in their results. And so, my advice here is going to be the same as above. Specify the solution and generalize the context.
If you put the client’s name in your title, then your case study is more likely to appear among results for search queries that include that name. But ask yourself, why would your case study for the work you did for UNICEF be the kind of information someone searching for UNICEF needs? And is that really the searcher you’re hoping will find your site anyway? You want someone like UNICEF who searching for the kind of solution you provided to UNICEF, not someone searching for UNICEF specifically.
Creating Prospect Behavior
We can’t predict what a prospect will do with 100% accuracy. But, we don’t have to. We just need to know what our prospects need from us, what we need from them, and then design accordingly.
If we focus on what we know, we won’t have to throw a bunch of things at the page and see what sticks. Always focus your pages on the outcomes you want from prospects, and take the time to think about how those prospects might experience that information. When it comes to case studies, some of those prospects will read them, all will scan them, and even fewer will find them through search.