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Congrats if you’re among the 73% of marketers who publish customer case studies to win hearts, minds, and pockets. In a world of fake news and fake reviews—only 37% of B2B buyers trust vendors—genuine customer success stories are precious assets.
Yet, a 2018 B2B content marketing report found that case studies, while frequently created, aren’t always persuasive:
This is a missed opportunity. According to LinkedIn’s Demand Gen Report 2018, case studies are the preferred content format of B2B buyers, with 79% of respondents consuming them in the past 12 months:
They’re also, the report notes, the second-most shared type of content among B2B buyers (after blog posts).
Many buyers rely on social proof. In fact, 94% of buyers go online to evaluate what their peers say about a product or service before deciding. So what’s going wrong?
Having worked with dozens of B2B companies, I’ve seen way too many case studies consigned to the content graveyard before they’ve even drawn breath. Franken-jargon, weird acronyms, loopy narratives. It’s no wonder they get ignored.
Two psychological concepts—cognitive fluency and narrative transportation—can turn yawnsome case studies into hard-working persuasion assets. Ignore either one, and your case studies are likely to fall flat.
But first: why case studies fail to convert
In my experience, sales teams want case studies, but marketing teams are cynical about the engagement they generate. That’s when you end up with boring or lazily written, text-heavy advertisements that do nothing to persuade readers.
Here’s a classic example of a text-heavy and overly promotional case study:
So, B2B buyers say they want case studies. But what’s the potential impact?
What happens when you get case studies right?
Case studies have the potential to fast-track buyers through this self-directed journey, combining everything they need to make a decision—social proof, stories, emotional connection, and data—into one document.
Those elements help buyers know, like, and trust your company.
Case studies cut through the noise. Research shows that word-of-mouth marketing is directly responsible for 20–50% of sales. But short of corralling passionate brand advocates into a room with prospects, it’s not easy to manufacture. Case studies are the next best thing.
Real success stories from genuine customers grab prospects’ attention, especially as more and more tune out traditional advertising.
Case studies amp up your likeability. Did you know that we all have the ability to “catch” each others’ emotions? For example, in sports, when a team is in a good mood, the upbeat spirit transfers to individual players. And when teams are happier, they tend to play better.
Same goes for when someone says that they “love your product,” others are more likely to as well. (One study suggests that B2B buyers are even more emotional than B2C buyers.)
If your case study can highlight the emotional impact of your business on a customer, you’re going to have a stronger chance of upping your likeability. Likeability matters because people buy from people they like.
Take this emotive quote from Gorilla.sc. The enthusiasm is infectious:
Plus, according to the principle of similarity, people like other people whom they perceive as similar. Try to feature customers who most represent your prospects. Similarity leads to liking, which leads to sales.
(For some, it can be tempting to feature the “big name” client in your case study. But if the rest of your clients are small- to medium-sized businesses, the case study may not resonate.)
Some 78% of B2B buyers placed greater emphasis on the trustworthiness of a piece of content’s source in 2018—the single largest shift in content consumption habits last year. And, according to Nielsen, 92% of consumers trust earned media, reviews, and testimonials more than any other form of advertising.
Case studies are just as powerful. KlientBoost’s Dale Cudmore writes that case studies are like testimonials on steroids. They deliver a hefty dose of social proof and trust.
If customers are willing to share numbers, data can add credibility. Actual percentages of time saved or dollars earned tell a story of objective success.
Fractl’s case studies place metrics front and center:
case studies are highly effective at converting visitors to leads – about half of our leads view at least one of our case studies before contacting us.
This aligns with Forrester research that touts digital content as the most important driver in B2B purchasing decisions:
- 60% of business buyers prefer not to interact with a sales rep as the primary source of information.
- 68% prefer to research on their own, online.
- 62% say they can now develop selection criteria or finalize a vendor list—based solely on digital content.
You may not have data to draw on. Your product may be new, or your results may be hidden behind a non-disclosure agreement. That’s not to say you can’t tap into the power of social proof.
Use real photos of your customer, their full name and job title, verbatim quotes, etc. These little flags of humanity imbue your case studies with credibility.
The more you can anchor “success” in data or your customer’s words, the more credible your case studies become. As TrustRadius implores:
Connect buyers with those who are better equipped to provide them with the balanced feedback they need — your customers.
Two principles are essential to create case studies that achieve the three values outlined above: cognitive fluency and narrative transportation.
Optimizing B2B case studies for maximum impact
1. Write and design for cognitive fluency
People prefer to think about easy things rather than hard things. The feeling of ease or difficulty is known as cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency often affects a customer’s willingness to convert. (It’s one reason why simple websites are usually better.)
Cognitive fluency applies even to the simplest of tasks. According to a Princeton study, when a company has an easy-to-pronounce name, its shares significantly outperform companies with a less pronounceable name:
If you started with $1,000 and invested it in companies with the 10 most fluent names, you would earn $333 more than you would have had you invested in the 10 with the least fluent.
In short: The easier it is for prospects to understand what you’re saying, the more likely they are to trust—and buy from—you. The Boston Globe describes the phenomenon of how fluency shapes our thinking as: Easy = True.
When your words create friction, you don’t just fail to earn trust. You strip it away. For example, a University of Michigan study showed that people perceive food additives with hard to pronounce names as more harmful than those with easy-to-pronounce names.
In the B2B world, “hard to understand” undermines that same trust in your content and, by proxy, your brand. Consider this excruciating example:
Or how about this?
How many times did you read the headline before you understood it? (I’m still counting.) Now compare it to this one from Wootric:
There’s no need for interpretation. You know exactly what’s in store and whether it’s relevant to you.
B2B companies often limit cognitive fluency by writing for themselves, rather than their customers. Company-centric language is not customer-centric.
Here’s a typical example, filled with unnecessary details about the company and corporate jargon:
The wasteful prose above slows the narrative. As Jack Hart explains in Storycraft, his book on narrative nonfiction, “The trick to writing a good expository segment is to tell readers what they must understand…and no more.” Unless a detail is essential to understand the rest of the case study, it’s dead weight.
Another common shortcoming is burying case study results. Your busy prospects want to see the concrete benefits of your product or service. Boxing out results or highlighting them in sidebar is a great tactic for making them stand out.
Take this example from a DocSend case study:
Remember: Bullet points are your friend. Write for skim readers. Give them the essential nuggets as quickly as possible, like this example from Groove.co, which summarizes the results on the right-hand side of the page:
What else do you need to get right? Four more things.
Four ways to increase cognitive fluency
1. Get rid of jargon. Go with the simpler word. So, instead of:
You could write: “Digital ad tech company cuts management costs by 50% and lowers bid latency to <100MS with Platform Equinix and Unitas Global.”
2. Write how people talk. Read your writing out loud for an extra dose of fluency. So instead of this:
You could write: “With more people using mobile devices at work, security and waste are growing issues that require a new approach to management.”
3. Get to the point. I see a lot of padding in B2B case studies. What could be said in five words is said across five paragraphs.
Take this example:
It would be much easier to read and understand if you summarized it like this:
The bank now has a strong mobile management tool. This means:
- Fewer security risks;
- Improved customer experience;
- Scalable and rigorous monitoring;
- Future-proofed mobile management.
Human attention spans are short. Choose your words with care. Less information is easier to process, freeing up cognitive resources for more demanding tasks—like clicking your call to action!
4. Make your case study easy on the eye. Cognitive fluency applies to design, too. You only need to look at a classic Apple sales page to see Easy = True in action.
Here’s an example of the opposite of that:
If you want to persuade people with your case study, you need to make it look easy.
That means minimal text, simple fonts, dark type (on light background), and lots of visual interest. Unbounce demonstrates great cognitive fluency, summarising for busy skim readers:
If you want to take your B2B case studies even further, layer in narrative transportation.
2. Embrace narrative transportation
A study that averaged the results of 76 research reports and 21,000 participants found that stories can reliably change the attitudes and intentions of readers and viewers. When people are immersed in a story, it can influence how they think and behave.
A well-written case study can immerse your leads in a story. They get a sense of walking in the shoes of your happy customers. And that feeling helps make your content more persuasive.
Seth Godin said it best: “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” But how do you do it?
Borrow the structure of every best-selling movie, novel, and screenplay
Steven Pressfield, author of Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, believes everything you write needs to have a three-act structure.
To make nonfiction powerful and engaging, he says, “You must organise your material as if it were a story and as if it were fiction.” (One exception: Whereas fiction often excels by prolonging tension, you’ll need to resolve it quickly.)
To make narrative transportation work, show the transformation of a subject from an initial state to a changed state. And in a good case study, that looks like this:
Sure, it’s formulaic. So is every Avengers installment. It still works.
To gather source material for that narrative, ask your customers to describe their situation before and after using your product or service. The more emotion you can draw out, the stronger the hook you’ll create.
Hook your reader into the narrative with emotion
The real key to hooking your reader into any narrative is emotion. Demonstrate the personal impact of your product or service, not just the bottom-line improvements.
Thomas Ordahl of Landor Associates explains why the emotional stakes can be unexpectedly high: “B2B buyers are making decisions every day that can change their careers.” Don’t be afraid to talk about your customer’s fears and frustrations, dreams and goals.
- What made them anxious before you came on the scene?
- What was at stake for them personally?
- How is it helping them achieve their career goals?
Build some jeopardy into the narrative. Up the stakes. Make the struggle real. Like this grass seed company case study built around the groundskeeper:
Asking follow-up questions like “How did that make you feel?” is a good way to flip the script from facts to emotions. How do they feel now that the challenge is solved? Relieved? Joyful? Proud? What does the result mean for them personally?
Prospects’ words can live outside of quotes, too. Using the voice of the customer in your copy is also a powerful way to trip prospects’ triggers. Joanna Wiebe of CopyHackers, champions this technique.
Twilio does a great job of building suspense into its case study on Salesforce. It starts by outlining a last-second change and the scramble to make it:
Then, Twilio sweeps in to save the day:
Before rounding things out with a satisfying, data-backed result:
Creating an emotion-packed narrative took just a few paragraphs. The keys were to highlight the risks and anxiety the problem created, then to tie the nuts-and-bolts solution to a cathartic relief.
The concluding data adds credibility to the narrative and shows the impact of the solution.
Businesses often fail to convert prospects because those leads don’t know if a solution will work for them. Good case studies deliver context, relevance, and credibility.
On the surface, B2B topics may not seem compelling. But, for decision-makers, plenty of emotions are involved. The problems are real. A good decision might earn a promotion. A bad one could cost someone their job.
Two psychological tactics—cognitive fluency and narrative transportation—can help you create something that will earn attention and persuade your audience. Remember to:
- Use clear language and design. If it’s easier for someone to understand you, they’re more likely to trust and buy from you.
- Embrace storytelling. Stick to a three-act structure that demonstrates the before and after. Ask questions that highlight the emotional experience of your customer—not just the business benefits.