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An edited transcript of the conversation is provided below.
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Ok, so let's move on to talking about the case study process.
What should I ask a writer about his or her process?
Excellent question, Pamela.
I think the first thing is have they documented this on their own website or blog.
It should be clear from checking their blog or website that they have some kind of a step plan for how they run case studies.
Perhaps it's an online article or a downloadable document.
The end goal needs to be kept in mind. You're trying to produce a case study that your client and customer are both going to be proud of.
So, I think before the writer gets really into a particular story, they need to talk
about the hiring company's story strategy for this market, product and geography. It's often the hiring manager's call, really.
They need to tell the writer, brief them, what it is they expect the story to do.
For example, a company might have its own template.
This is something that I’m seeing more and more. The hiring company already has a preferred way of doing case studies.
So, you need to make it clear from the start; otherwise, you may find the writer will go off and produce a first draft that is not what you wanted e.g. you might need a story format instead of the feature format submitted by the writer.
Also, I think you need to make sure that the customer's sales representative is involved before you go out and hire a writer.
The main reason for this is to make sure that the particular customer you're going to feature is what the sales team(s) also wants.
Because one of the things that can really derail the return on investment from a story is to hire a writer for a story on a really big customer, only to find the sales people have moved on.
That they're already targeting a different niche, or they're targeting a different combination of problems, and have little use for that specific story.
They key message here is to get the strategy right at the beginning - before spending any money on hiring freelance writers!
Answer the questions: Why do you want to use a story and is this customer you're proposing to have it written up for, appropriate?
Another thing to find out is how the writer does research.
I had originally thought this not worthy of mention because writers just get on Google.
However, that is probably the baseline of every writer on the planet!
You want to find a b2b writer who goes way beyond that and you should be able to get a sense of how the writer organizes their case study research from just checking their website and looking at some of the samples.
If they've produced a couple of good stories then it's pretty clear they've done research but if you're uncertain then talk to them, or email them, and find out exactly what type of research they do.
So, yes, 'case study research' involves using the internet but it's not just, "type google" and, "type in name of customer, or name of product"; an excellent writer will go further than that.
And sometimes, a really 'switched on' writer will tell you that there isn't enough here that's publicly available, either on your
website, or in the trade press online.
The writer wants a briefing from your marketing people or your sales manager for the account on what's really driving this story.
And sometimes the hiring company will be keen to do that but they may want the writer to sign a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) beforehand. In any case, check if the writer's done that before.
Another important topic is the customer interview.
As we mentioned earlier, the writer's your ambassador and should have a template of basic questions that they can send you. You should look them over and see if any need to be customized.
Even though many of the questions are formulaic and usually require only a bit of tweaking, if the potential writers don't even have that, it suggests they're not very organized.
Next, let's look at the review process; when the writer has completed the (phone) interview and written the first draft.
You should review it, being the hiring manager, or appoint someone to run the project and handle internal reviews.
Naturally, the end customer will want to see it and often they have to share it internally with managers. They'll probably also have to share it with their legal department.
How a writer handles this review process is important.
Maybe the hiring manager wants to offload tasks which can be irksome sometimes e.g. it takes a lot of time to chase up approvals.
So make it clear with your writer whether you're going to handle the editing and review process or whether you expect the writer to handle it.
Mark, these are very good points and i agree communication is one of the key things in making sure that all aspects of writing the case study are nailed down. . The more experienced case study writers will help you answer those questions before they're asked!
Yes, Pamela, I think an experienced writer will be able to guide a hiring manager on what to do about interview questions that seem a bit weak.
They'll also be handle situations where the account manager insists on
attending the interview call. It might be appropriate if they are, but that will partly depend on the type of customer.
In most cases, however, I think a private interview leads to a better customer story i.e. just the writer and the end customer.
Because, then the end customer's often a bit more relaxed, they're prepared to say things that maybe they wouldn't say to the vendor account manager's face; they don't want him or her to hear those things.
So, check out how your writer handles that and also check out how they handle confidentiality.
One of the things I do, for example, if I'm holding an interview with just the customer and myself is say;
"look, this interview's for research purposes and I don't share the mp3 audio file with anybody else. The hiring company doesn't get to hear that.
The only thing I share with them is the case study draft 'because that's what they want to see; that's why they're paying me."
OK. So, I think we've covered that.
Here's another topical point.
How do we know if the case study writer really gets it?
And by "gets it", what i mean is how can you sense that the writer's able to ask strategic questions, important questions about the goal of the case study?
How should a hiring manager get a sense of that, Pamela?
One of the first questions that a case study writer should be asking is about the message you want to communicate, the message that the
company as a whole is trying to convey?
And how does this case study fit in?
And, the writer wants to know who the audience is, and what is their most important pain. What's going to cause them to read this case study and say, "oh, I get it, somebody else's had the same problem, and you fixed it for them, and you can fix it for me."
So, being able to focus that case study on the most important aspect that you're trying to reach with your customer is important, as it fits into the overall marketing plan.
A lot of case study writers will actually have what they call a 'ramp up' period where they're going to do a crash course on researching your company; looking at all the company material; looking over your
competitors' material and general industry information.
This is so they can better understand what your company is about and what your client is about. Therefore, the kinds of questions your case study writer asks that really show a marketing edge, will be effective.
It's not just the storytelling itself but how does the story help the company move forward; how does it help to persuade people; how does it help convey a consistent marketing message.
Yes, I think those are very important, Pamela, and you can often sense, whether that writer has got that marketing edge by their own online presence.
Of course, none of these guarantee that they'll do a perfect job for you but it gives you a sense that this is more than just a writer; that this person is also familiar with marketing concepts and is prepared to see how you want the story to be written; they're not just about putting words on a page; there's a lot more behind it.
An interesting example comes to mind, Pamela. I was just thinking about this the other day.
There's a wireless networking company.
I'll not mention their name on the call, it's not appropriate.
They're not my client, I don't currently work with them.
Anyway, I saw a case study where they had sold some wireless networking equipment to a hospital.
Now, by itself it doesn't sound so fantastic, you know, a wireless network in a hospital.
However, the writer did a fantastic job because the story focused on how difficult it was to get doctors, and even senior nurses, to use computerized devices as they walked around the hospital wards, checking on patients.
They tried different things, such as having terminals by each patient's bed but found that the doctors were
so busy they didn't want to login every time they walked by, so they weren't using it.
They were just writing notes on slips of paper and putting them in nurses' pockets, or putting them in their own pockets and then expecting someone to update all this information when they had finished their rounds.
The wireless company tied their solution into a very emotional story by describing how the hospital's IT people were very keen to introduce iPads because they knew how useful tablet computers would be to doctors.
They can just carry these very light devices around and automatically connect to the wireless network, on whichever ward, on whichever floor of the hospital they happened to be in.
Once they realized that this wireless company's solution allowed iPads to connect wherever they were in the hospital and the doctors could quickly update their patient notes, they could pull down pictures and documents for that particular patient, they (the IT managers) were really sold on what the wireless company was doing.
It didn't focus on the technical details behind the wireless solution which I’m sure were very complex.
Instead, it emphasized the IT team's satisfaction at giving the doctors and nurses a tool that allowed them to roam the hospital and be able to give patients updates on their condition in real time.
It was a fantastic story, a wonderful story.
You see, Mark, a generalist could've written that!
I know that, and I agree. It might have been you, Pamela. The success story was that good.
Yes, sometimes a specialist may not see a particular 'human interest' angle to the story so it's worth considering if your writer has got that outlook.
Mark, this happens with some of my clients as well.
They're very focused on what their products do, the features that they offer; when what the clients are most interested in is the solution!
They're not very interested in features by themselves.
They want to know, does this solve my problem well and does it solve it quickly.
Being able to convey that makes the case study very effective; and so you would want your case study writer proactively looking at those kinds of things.
Obviously, understanding the key features is important, so you can also include their benefits somewhere in your case studies.
Another important fact is that people take much less time to read through (online) documents these days.
This means they're probably skimming to the end and if they find the answer that they're looking for then, they'll go back and read that section more carefully.
But you have to assure them that, yes, we solve this kind of problem and then you can go back into the details of how you did it.
Pamela, you mention another great point - your case study's probably going to be read first online because not too many people print and then distribute case studies these days.
This means that your case study writer should be able to come up with good headlines and they should also be structuring the story to include interesting subheads.
Because a CIO might skim the headlines, look at a couple of bullet points, and that's it.
They may not read anymore because they have no time.
They might just pass it on to somebody else, or trash it if they don't think it's useful.
So, the b2b success story writer has to be a bit of a copywriter too. They have to be able to find those 'hot response' buttons that will make people stop for a few seconds to take a look.
And if you can get them to stop for three to five seconds, then you have a chance of them actually reading more of the study.
But if it's a boring, deadly dull headline, people are not going to read it.
I struggle to read those types of poorly-written studies sometimes, and I’m a technical guy underneath the marketing hat.
You've got to hook people's interest early.
And you said a very interesting thing, Mark, about so many of the case studies being online.
One question to ask your case study writer is, "are they familiar with search engine optimization?"
They don't necessarily have to become a SEO guru but it's important, as you said, that they understand how those headlines work and which industry keywords are in vogue; so that if somebody is searching for certain terms they might be more likely to pull up your online case study.
You certainly don't want them to stuff the case study with keywords but having a knowledge of how to structure it so that it's more likely to get found is a plus.
Yes, that's really important, Pamela, because Google keep changing their algorithms.
SEO is still a big thing.
There's inbound SEO and there's on-page SEO.
Inbound, I'm not going to talk about today; but, on-page, you've alluded to.
Sometimes companies will publish either all of the case study online or just a simplified version (in the form of an online web page document.)
This makes the SEO quite important because you want it picked up and correctly indexed whenever the search engine spiders come around and crawl the page.
There are some simple things to check out too, Pamela.
One time I noticed a company with a whole bunch of really well written case studies on a dedicated 'customer success stories' web page.
Good, so far but when I downloaded a story as an Acrobat pdf document,
the filename was something obscure like one-two-three-x-y-z dot pdf.
Incredibly, there was no keyword or customer name as part of the file name.
Contextually meaningful file names may not always be important but at the moment it appears to be one of the ways that Google and, to a lesser extent the other search engines, actually built context into how they rank a page (for specific search terms).
And, so I think it's important to have your keyword for that particular case study as part of the file name.
You can sometimes include a description of the pdf file itself and load it into the document. Google can increasingly crawl those descriptions too.
Sometimes people have their browser set up so they can't see the images.
(A web visitor could be visually impaired.)
However, if you have included relevant 'alt image text', the browser software may 'speak' what's being displayed, and that can help people.
Individually, these are small things but collectively they can add up, and I think a writer should be aware of them.
In fact, a savvy online case study writer should be able to competently discuss the optimization of online parts of your case study as part of the service.
In a related market, but an area that's not covered by today's call,
the white paper market, I'd just like to mention it briefly.
B2B white paper page numbers have shrunk dramatically in the past 3 to 5 years. They used to be as much as ten pages (or more) but now it's typically between four to six pages, depending on the audience.
I think that b2b case studies are going a similar way because many busy people don't have time to read six to eight-page case studies anymore.
Even for one-page 'success stories and online summaries of case studies; these documents have to be structured carefully so that you get people to read them.
There's little point having them online if they're not being read.
Google may index them but if nobody reads them...
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