You Want The Case Study That Google Got

how to create detailed case studiesIn the past, I’ve ranted about what vendors leave out of their case studies, what they need to make them great, and how much of your “secret sauce” you should reveal in them.

But rarely do I see a case study that is so good it sets the bar for the industry. It involves Spotify switching from its own data centers to Google to host its streaming music service. Published in the form of a blog post from Spotify, it goes far beyond the usual “apple pie and motherhood” generalities to describe specifically why Spotify chose Google over other cloud providers.

Maybe this level of detail results from what sort of a discount Spotify got. More likely it has to do with an engineering-centric culture at Spotify that led them to share the technical details behind their infrastructure growth in gleeful detail.

But instead of wondering how this case study came about, let’s talk about what makes it so good and how you can try for the same level of detail with your customers.

Why They Choose Google – Specifically

In its blog post announcing the shift, Spotify said:

What really tipped the scales towards Google for us…has been our experience with Google’s data platform and tools. Good infrastructure isn’t just about keeping things up and running, it’s about making all of our teams more efficient and more effective, and Google’s data stack does that for us in spades… (f)rom traditional batch processing with Dataproc, to rock-solid event delivery with Pub/Sub to the nearly magical abilities of BigQuery, building on Google’s data infrastructure provides us with a significant advantage where it matters the most.

Note that Spotify went beyond euphemisms such as “enhancing efficiency” or “end to end solution” to talk specifically about how Google helps them cut costs and improve the streaming experience for their users. It also mentioned specific Google  tools. While the post could have been more specific about how those tools helped, it’s already head and shoulders above most case studies.

Questions to ask your customers to get similar results include:

  • What specific products or services from other vendors did you consider besides ours?
  • For each of our offerings you chose , describe the specific benefits (such as lower cost, higher performance, greater ease of use) that drove your choice, with at least one example of how we were better in each area.
  • What strategic aims or needs (such as optimizing use of your infrastructure or assuring a great customer experience) drove your purchase decision? Please provide an example of how each of our products or services helps you reach these high-level objectives.

Honesty – Painful Honesty

In its more detailed “deep dive” technical blog post,  the Spotify team also discussed frankly what they don’t like among Google’s tools and services. It found, for example, that the Google Cloud Deployment Manager was too difficult to use, leading it to build its own  Spotify Pool Manager to more easily spin up new servers as needed.

Admitting your own products aren’t the absolute ideal fix for every customer, regardless of their needs, takes courage. Standing by graciously while one of your customers does so ain’t easy either.  But the smart, and ethical, product managers I talk all the time are the first to know, and admit, when one of their solutions isn’t a good fit for a specific customer. Just imagine the credibility you get by being as honest, and as technical, as Spotify is when talking about Google.

Sweat the Details

The common theme here is the importance of details in making a case study come alive. Push your customers to explain what they mean by jargon such as “transformation” or generalities such as “agility.” Digging into specifics helps tell your story, and may even give you added insight into your client’s needs for follow-on sales.

 

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

By Gretchen Dukowitz

Case studies – love ’em or hate ’em – remain a critical part of the content marketing mix for almost every B2B organization. To some, they may seem stodgy (or dare I say boring?), but CMI research shows more companies are using them – 77% in 2015 – and 58% say they’re effective.

But, let’s be honest. Case-study creators’ opinions probably fall more on the hate-’em end of the spectrum. The tried-and-true formula – challenge, solution, benefit – doesn’t exactly inspire creativity or good storytelling, and the fallback – to pack them full of bad business jargon – can make writing a case study a huge chore.

Life is short; you shouldn’t waste it laboring over case studies. Fortunately, a few simple steps will allow you to not only create your case studies faster, easier, and less painfully, but can help make them sound better, too.

  1. Interview a real, live person

A good customer interview is the lifeblood of a good case study. Before you write a case study, do yourself a huge favor and actually talk to a real, live customer. In the past, I’ve been asked to write case studies based on quotes taken from videos, testimonial quotes, emails from sales teams – anything and everything but a customer interview.

“But wait,” I can hear you saying, “it’s hard to find customers and get time on their calendars. And get sign-off on the final product? Forget it.” Yes, it can be difficult and time-consuming, but trust me when I say that trying to use secondhand sources makes case study writing 100 times harder than it needs to be.

Case studies are stories. They have narratives and need to be rooted firmly in the experience of the customer. You can get all of these things by talking to one. The end result is a strong case study with a clear beginning, middle, and end, as opposed to a Frankenstein-assembled story that you put together from random parts.

  1. Edit the heck out of your quotes

You are a case-study writer, not a reporter. You are not being held to some journalistic standard that says you must reproduce all customer utterances word for word (not even journalists adhere to this standard, by the way). You can – make that should – edit and embellish quotes to make their point more effectively. In all my years of writing case studies, I have never had an interviewee take me to task for altering a quote. In fact, most people appreciate being made to sound better.

You can’t go crazy and just make up stuff for the fun of it. You have to retain the spirit of what a customer says and make it sound plausible. If you take a quote like, “Yes, on the whole, I would say the WidgetTron 2000 is a pretty good product,” and turn it into “The WidgetTron 2000 is the best product in the whole wide world and its awesomeness brings me to tears every time I think about it,” you’re going to run into problems.

A better way to shape the original quote would be something like this: “The WidgetTron 2000 is a really good product. It is easy to use and allowed us to streamline our operations.” I deleted the “on the whole” and changed “pretty good” to “really good,” which removes the lukewarm tone. I also extended the quote to make it sound well-rounded. A few small, completely OK tweaks make a big difference, and with customer approval, you are secure in knowing your updated quote works for everyone.

  1. Blow things out of proportion

When you get right down to it, most businesses aren’t too terribly concerned about the challenges other businesses face. This may be short-sighted, but more often than not, businesses are too knee-deep in their own issues to worry about the other guy (aside from giving lip service to outpacing the competition, of course).

This thinking is a big problem for case-study writers because exploring the case study’s problems – the challenge section – usually makes up at least a third of the story. To effectively hook readers, take a step back and think about why a broader audience might be interested in the one business’ challenge.

Let me show you. In this case study, the challenge is written as: “Luigi Mozzarello, CEO of Pronto Pies, needed to sell more pizzas, but his point-of-sale technology was slow and buggy.” Clearly, Mozzarello has a problem, but as written, the challenge isn’t compelling.

Here is a more broadly detailed challenge that has greater appeal: “Operating a restaurant is fraught with challenges, from demanding customers to razor-thin margins. Luigi Mozzarello, CEO of Pronto Pies, thought he could rely on his point-of-sale technology to give him a competitive edge, but it was slow and buggy.”

The revised challenge situates Mozzarello’s specific problem – bad technology – in the context of the larger restaurant industry and a universal business theme of competitive differentiation. The first sentence of your case study should always speak to a broad business issue and provide context for the reader. This provides a better chance that readers will identify with the broader challenge even if they are not in the study’s specific vertical or business.

I think crafting a first sentence like this also makes case studies easier to write. After all, if you have bigger, meatier issues to explore, you are less likely to simply go through the motions to craft the case study.

Conclusion

When you implement these three tips into your case-study process, you will be able to create an authentic, easy-to-understand voice that sets the stage for a meatier and more effective case study that is appealing to a wider audience.

Gretchen Dukowitz has spent more than a decade writing case studies, white papers, and other marketing content for some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Symantec and Cisco. She currently works as a writer and content strategist for a tech startup in the Bay Area. You can find more writing tips like these at her blog, DIY Content Marketing, or connect with her on LinkedIn. This post originally appeared on the Content Marketing institute Web site.  

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

What? You Skipped These In Your Case Study?

content marketing think like publisherWhile revising a series of case studies for a global IT services company, I found myself asking them over and over:

  • What did you do for your client that was different or better than what either the client or your competitors could have done?
  • How did your work help your client’s bottom line?

These two seemingly obvious questions were often very hard for the “in the trenches” account and project managers to answer. But without that context, any case study is just a “so what?” list of tasks you accomplished. Here’s what’s worked for me in making these case studies matter to prospects.

Why We’re Better

Account and project managers are stuck in the weeds because they’re paid to meet internal processes and delivery goals. To them, implementing an application upgrade, server refresh or shift to an offshore location are successes in and of themselves. The business-level benefits (such as cutting software licensing costs, speeding problem resolution or reducing support costs) are often hammered out several layers above them and long before they started work.
As a result, when I ask “Why are you better?” I hear things like:

  • “Global delivery of seamless service for database, compute, storage, network and applications…”
  • “Performed on-time and on-budget migration of Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010, VPN upgrades, XP to Windows 7 and self-service password reset…”
  • “In Q! completed offshoring of Level 1 and Level 2 services to Mumbai, Prague and the Philippines for 24/7 help desk coverage…

By repeatedly asking a) specifically what they did differently than others and b) the specific process-level benefits of their work, I can often drive them to cough up more useful details. For example:

  • “Using our proprietary transition methodology, we provided global delivery of seamless service for database, compute, storage, network and applications…” in half the time competitors had promised in their proposal.
  • Using our custom configuration scripts and customized server imaging tools, we “performed on-time and on-budget migration of Microsoft Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010,
    VPN upgrades, XP to Windows 7 and self-service password reset…” without interruptions to applications or employee productivity.
  • The intensive pre-engagement training of our staff in the client’s systems allowed us, in half the time the customer expected, to “complete offshoring of Level 1 and Level 2 services to Mumbai, Prague and the Philippines for 24/7 help desk coverage…”

How It Helped

It’s also important to dig for quantifiable details about how the service engagement paid off to the business. The first time through, I’ll often hear vague descriptions such as:

  • “Transformation of server, network and application pillars increased agility and optimized operational costs.”
  • “Moving from siloed SLAs to a scalable business services model aligned IT and the business.”
  • “Automation-related efficiencies led to reduced demand, greater performance and improved agility.”

By pushing for a) definitions of these terms and b) quantification of the business benefits we can come closer to something like:

  • “Virtualizing the client’s servers, networks and applications allowed the client to scale their servers 2,000 percent to meet the holiday crunch. Our timely completion of a mobile app generated $2.5 million in additional revenue. Reducing the number of physical devices saved $125,000 in one time equipment upgrade fees and $50,000 a year in heating, cooling, space and management costs.”
  • “Rather than siloed SLAs that track the performance of only part of the IT infrastructure, our business services model lets senior executives track how essential business services (such as order tracking and customer support) are operating. This lets them focus IT spending on the areas most critical to the business.”
  • “Automation in areas ranging from password reset to server monitoring reduced the number of trouble tickets by 46%, increased availability from 97.6 to 99.99 percent, and made it easier to roll out upgrades to their CRM system.”

The earlier in the content production process you can get detailed answers like this, the sooner your internal, or external, writer can turn out compelling case studies. If you can’t get this quality of answer, ask yourself if it’s worth doing the case study at all.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

When Content Turns Off Buyers

best content B2B buyers Recent research  from on-line IT marketer Spiceworks says yes.  Their users don’t give a hoot about spray-and-pray email blasts or mindless product promos on Facebook. What does keep them caring about and buying from vendors, says Spiceworks, are personal, technical responses to their questions from someone who sees them as a person, not just a number.

It’s important to note that Spiceworks sells infrastructure-oriented (not business focused) tools to a fairly tactical audience. Close to two-thirds of their respondents are manager or director level, rather than the C-level execs that sign off on the biggest purchases. And just over half work in companies with fewer than 100 employees, with only 25 percent at enterprises with more than 1,000 employees.

But even if you’re selling higher-level business-focused software or (shudder) “transformational” business-focused business services, you can learn from Spiceworks’ findings.

Tip #1: Lecture, No. Discuss, Yes.

The survey showed that Spiceworks users rely heavily on peer recommendations, ratings and reviews and free product trials. Several respondents said they listen most to people that respond personally to their specific questions in a technical way. (Emphasis added.)

In the typical enterprise sale, this is where vendors rely on a sales rep, cite case studies, or arrange a one-off call with the reference customer if the prospect is serious enough. Another option, taking a page from Spiceworks, is to get that reference customer to do a Webinar answering questions from multiple prospects. To ease the path with their PR folks, stress that they will not endorse your product, but just describe their experience, the factors that went into their evaluation and their lessons learned. The resulting themes and tips can be repurposed into blog posts, white papers or “Top Ten” checklists.

An even easier way to get the conversation going is to have a product manager, technical lead or (in professional services) engagement lead do a Q&A on trends in, say, health care regulatory compliance, stress-testing for banks or the use of Big Data in retail. Begin with the questions or pain points bothering your current clients, and then open it up for questions. Make sure your subject matter expert comes across as a real person, treats the attendees like real people and can drill into either technical or business details. Again, mine this for “top tips” or “industry trend/thought leadership” content.

Tip #2: Facebook, No; Forums, Yes

Spiceworks found that while close to 90% of marketers use “mainstream” social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to build brand awareness and promote products, only 16% of IT pros turn to these channels to research new products or services. For them, Facebook and the like are or entertainment or other non-work topics.

“On the flip side,” Spiceworks found, “nearly all IT pros (92%) are using IT forums during the buying cycle, while only 61% of marketers are investing” in them. Just like a good survey should, these results neatly showcase Spiceworks’ differentiator: A large and active community built around its free cloud-based IT management software. Users provide the valuable, technically rich answers for the satisfaction of helping others, to make human connections in a sometimes-lonely profession, to gain “expert” status and (most importantly) so they can in return get fast, free and expert help.

If you’re selling very high-end or customized software, or very “customer-specific” service engagements, you may not be able to create such a community. (Or maybe Spiceworks has one for you.) At the very least, Spiceworks says, “invest the time and find out which social destinations your customer uses…” and don’t waste your efforts on blatantly useless networks. However you network (see Tip #1) keep the focus on answering specific questions from real people, not one-size fits all marketing messages.

Tip 3: Tell? No. Show? Yes. 

Spiceworks’ users scored videos and Webinars higher than any other content type in every stage of the sales cycle. This figures, since their users are the ones who have to live with the “look and feel” of apps that must deliver specific, well-defined functions.

In emerging, less well-understood area such as the use of Big Data in analyzing new health care models, or the impact of DevOps on databases, longer-form written text such as white papers is still essential, especially in the research and awareness stage.

What Content IT Managers Want, Throughout the Sales Cycle (left-hand columns)) and In Specific Phases.

What Content IT Managers Want, Throughout the Sales Cycle (left-hand columns)) and In Specific Phases.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t illustrate concepts with an illustration or video every chance you get. Don’t just claim the new reports you provide help uncover business trends – show it, with screen shots that are big enough to actually see. If you’re a high-level business consultant, do a quick video comparing the “before” and “after” of the process flows you simplified. Keep whatever you do short, sweet and clear. Finally, don’t be afraid to mix up your formats with variations such as ebooks (heavy on illustrations, short on text) and to tease longer-form print from shorter-form video and vice versa.

Marketing Must-Haves

In my view, Spiceworks’ findings hold most true for sales of tactical products sold relatively far down in the organization. For prospects further up the org chart, more of the care and feeding would need to be done by a sales rep, backed up by more conventional content.  But getting more interactive and personal, showing rather than telling, and choosing social media channels carefully are musts to all prospects groups.

What’s your take?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

case studies thought leadership While developing a thought leadership white paper for a client, they asked whether customer case studies or “use cases” (examples of how a technology or process would be used to help the business) have a place in such “non-sales” content.

My answer: You bet, if they’re used right.

Yes, “thought leadership” means giving prospects a new, insightful way of thinking about a common business or technology problem without a detailed sales pitch. But case studies and use cases are an ideal way to tease your expertise without giving away the store. Here’s how.

We’ve Handled That

Case studies belong in thought leadership collateral if they are presented as illustrative examples of a general problem faced by many customers, and contain valuable advice that can be used by any reader without making a purchase from you.  

For example, “At one global pharmaceutical company, our data architecture evaluation discovered hundreds of potentially sensitive databases the compliance staff wasn’t even aware of. Issuing a blanket edict against use these valuable data sources would have been ineffective and hurt the credibility of the IT organization. Instead, we worked with the client to develop a series of incentives and approved processes to successfully nudge the business units towards compliance.”

This is a valuable lesson that will impress prospects with your smarts, but doesn’t give away the “secret sauce” of how you pulled this trick off. The prospect still needs to call for specifics such as:

  • What neat technology and processes did you use to find sensitive data stores the client’s own compliance staff couldn’t?
  • How did you navigate the corporate power structure to steer the business owners away from a heavy-handed response that could have backfired?
  • How did you figure out the right incentives and processes to convince, rather than force, business units to do the right thing?
  • And how did you balance the business units’ legitimate need for data with the corporate need to prove security compliance?

The Use Case for Use Cases

 More general business use cases – what I think of as “the problem, whether we have a case study or not” are also extremely valuable because 1) they tell specific stories rather than lay out generic challenges, and 2) demonstrate how you’re developing approaches to meeting them.

Some examples, based on recent projects I’ve done:

  •  Many of our clients want to automate testing to meet consumers’ demand for more apps, on more devices, more quickly. We recommend, among other things, carefully choosing which tests to automate, developing standardized, centralized test processes and understanding how much manual test effort is still needed.
  •  With the combination of mobile social apps and Big Data analysis, many retailers want dashboards that show changes in consumer behavior and sentiment in near real-time. To deliver those, you’ll need to combine structured data such as customer IDs with unstructured data such as blog posts, and to present the analysis in user-friendly formats.
  •  The shift from hosting applications in-house to buying software as a service (SaaS) forces software vendors to not only code great apps, but to become service providers. Making this transition requires new capabilities such as meeting service level agreements, creating real-time usage monitoring and billing platforms, and meeting strict security requirements.

Bottom line: I will happily take either case studies and use cases and put them to good use. In each case, they give the prospect a new way of thinking about a common problem, but force them to contact you to learn how to solve their specific problems.

If anything, my clients usually err on the side of being so vague (“We found multiple opportunities for optimizing IT operations”) their promises sound like vague marketing fluff. Trust me: Every client’s IT environment, culture and business needs are unique enough you’ll have plenty to talk about once you’re in the door. You’re better off telling them more, not less, to get in that door.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Government Shutdown? Try Editorial Shutdown

how to handle customer reviews of trade press stories This week, a bunch of intelligent, well-meaning people managed to waste a lot of time and wind up frustrated.

No, I’m not talking about the government shutdown. (Remember, I said “intelligent and well-meaning people.”)

I’m talking about a smaller logjam you’ve probably all run into. It’s the question of whether, and how, a reference customer could review their quotes for a story in a trade publication. Because neither I, nor the customer, nor the PR firm involved was specific enough about what sort of review the customer would get, all three of us ended up spinning our wheels for no reason.

How We Got Here  

Here’s how it played out: The PR firm for a vendor put me in touch with an insightful, informed user at a prominent company. We had a great conversation, at the end of which he asked if he could review his comments before publication.

I checked with my editor, who said it was OK to send just the comments I would use, but not the entire story. So I spent an hour or so reviewing the source’s comments, pulling out and cleaning out what I thought usable, and sent them to him.

He replied that he and his internal teams needed to see the entire story to understand the points of view, how I was positioning the user’s company, what other sources I would quote, and “the context where the quotes would be used.”

While the user has generously offered to run at least one quote by his internal review process if I can put it in context, I (and the user, and the PR firm and vendor) won’t get nearly the value out of the interview we all should.

One Editor, Please

Sure, the user is right that context matters.  By clever positioning, a writer can make even an accurate quote make a customer look bad. But letting a source, in effect, edit the full written draft of a story opens unmanageable can of worms.

Suppose, for example, the user made an entirely valid point about the shortcomings of virtual private networks. Their legal department might say that implies their company’s security is weak and the comment has to go, even if it was accurate and presented in context. Or, how about if their PR department didn’t like the fact we quoted one of their competitors (again, accurately) in a way that made the competitor look like it had a competitive edge? How about if an analyst made a provocative prediction in paragraph four that made the customer, quoted in paragraph five, fear they’d be associated with something so negative?

Imagine the back and forth negotiations it would take to satisfy both the PR and legal teams in this one customer. Now, multiply that by the dozen or more sources I might quote in a story. Like the government, the editing process would pretty much shut down. What’s worse, once everyone sanitized and prettified their statements so no one could possibly take offense, the story would put readers to sleep and say nothing.

Can’t We All Get Along?

I’ve found a useful compromise (if my editors will go for it) is to read back direct quotes over the phone, with a verbal general description of where the quote fits in the story. For example: “In this section I describe the challenges of e-mail archiving, and this quote illustrates the pros and cons of deduplication.” That give the source a comfort level for what they’ll say and the context for it, without giving their legal and PR teams fishing rights to find other potential problems.

At the very least, it’s up to PR firms to ask reference customers exactly what level of spoken or written review they or their teams will require of quotes used in stories, and to make the reporter aware of those requirements before scheduling an interview.

Otherwise, you might find yourself compared to — horror of horrors — a member of Congress. Let me know what’s worked for you in avoiding quote review gridlock.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Your seamless solution delivered significant benefits to...hah?

The lowly topic of case studies is getting a lot of buzz on LinkedIn. It’s all about a study Peter Smith, CEO of Hot to Trot Marketing, did for a client who “wanted to make sure that their case study output matched the level of quality prevalent in the industry.” (Where do the Brits get the nerve to come up wit these names, and what client has the money to spend on such a survey?)

As you might guess, Peter’s study found “a frightening amount of formulaic writing. We actually took ten different stories, from ten different vendors, took out the customer name, vendor name and technical description, swapped them around with those from another vendor’s study and no-one could spot the difference.”

Bless the vendors who pay me to write case studies, as they help pay the bills, but it’s no surprise the turn out the way they do. Vendors ask for, and sometimes insist on, formulaic, bland case studies. Some even have a strict template, down to the number of words in each section and the order in which quotes appear. Between that, and the temptation to stuff them full of marketing fluff, it’s no wonder case studies seem to cookie-cutter.

Having said that, some good ideas came from the discussion. Michael Hope not only highlights “the commercial value and business benefits of the project but then reuses and repurposes (my italics) the case study for everything from speaking opportunities to building ROI sales tools, spread the word on social media, build into an industry lead generation campaign and producing partner specific versions of the case study. A good example of re-purposing/reimaging content.

There was also a lot of comment on how, or whether, to measure the effectiveness of a case study. Daniel McCarthy suggested “more formal approaches” such as limiting access to readers willing to provide an email (or other contact info), or providing a trackable phone number or website in the document’s call to action. But again, this only works if the case study is compelling.

Stephanie Tilton had great tips on how to convince customers to do case studies for you in the first place, something that’s harder and harder in this risk-averse age.

And I get the last word, since it’s my blog. Don’t scrub your press releases until they’re so inoffensive they’re dull. And if you can’t find something interesting and instructive in a customer’s story, don’t tell it! Customer A buys Product B to solve Problem C, and it works, is not news – it’s the way the world is supposed to work. Find something newsworthy (in either the customer’s problem, how they implemented the product, unexpected benefits they found).

Remember: No news, no drama, no story, no readers, no sales.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.