"Once upon a time there were three bears and they lived in a little house in the woods……….."
You know what's coming don't you?
It's story time.
How did you react? Did you relax, just a fraction? Stories connect with us at a deep level. Many of us heard them as children from our parents, in Church, through song. Stories bring us good things: entertainment, escapism, travel to new places, they help us understand our world, our feelings and our place in the world.
Case Studies: stories for business
In business we can use the power of stories through case studies. Case studies are a powerful, often overlooked tool, in your marketing kit. By telling a story, case studies help to answer customer objections and show how products or services can solve their problems but more than that, they make a connection between the reader's situation and your case study subject. That connection makes the reader feel more curious about what you are selling.
They are similar to testimonials or reviews, but case studies go further into the story behind the sale. They let the reader peek behind the scenes and see into the world of a real customer . They work particularly well for service providers like door drop companies. Here you can use a story that shows the cumulative effect of multiple letter box drops. Yes you use specific details about which leaflets were most effective and how many initial enquiries were generated. You can include specific figures to show the return on investment (ROI), of course.
But there is something more. These facts and figures can be made many times more powerful if you profile the business before and after. We want to know what kind of people are running this business? What are they doing well? What challenges are they facing? How do they make decisions? How did they make this buying decision?
Case studies aren't just a good tool for service providers they are a good awareness raising tool for new, unusual or niche products too.
Creating demand for niche food products
For instance if you are selling e.g. goats milk ice-cream you may need to overcome certain pre-conceptions about the flavour of goats milk. Perhaps your product is going well amongst those with dairy intolerances, asthma or eczema but you want to get it out to a wider audience on the strength of its flavour. You believe it competes well with cows milk ice cream.
If you have a restaurant who rave about your ice cream, especially if they've never stocked goats milk ice cream before, then this would be a powerful story that could help get customers to try it and other catering and food retail outlets to stock it. The story would focus on what persuaded them to try it e.g. tasting some at a food show, how they did some blind tastings against other ice creams in their restaurants, the customers' reactions, how they use it, and why it has become a firm favourite. Again we want to know what kind of restaurant it is, what kind of diners go there, but also what kind of people run this business. Are they quirky, highly professional, traditional or innovative?
Why case studies are so powerful
The main reason why case studies are so powerful is because of something called 'social proof'. This is simply the process of people looking over their shoulders to see what their peers are doing in order to inform their decisions on how to act or in this case what to buy.
It's also known as the herd instinct (rather appropriate in our goat example above).
The roots of this go back to a time when survival depended on social inclusion. To be shunned, would mean losing the warmth, shelter and protection of the community, leading to certain death.
Connecting with your peer group
The key to employing social proof is to understand how we recognise our peers. Basically your peer group consists of people like you. People who share your environment, your values, your likes and dislikes or your hobbies. For customers this is people who share the same taste, income bracket, fears or aspirations.
When you write your case study you need to give enough background so that readers can recognise if this business or person is one of their gang, one of their peer group or not.
Using the powerful elements of story telling
Stories have survived over the millennia because they are a powerful teaching tool. Before there was widespread literacy, information could only be conveyed orally. In the same way that social proof draws on our desire to be accepted by others like us, stories work so well because we can all relate to them. The story of our lives, the story of others' lives. You only have to look at the huge consumption of stories about celebrities to realise the scale of the fascination with other peoples' lives particularly those lives we aspire to live. You can employ this device in your promotions and interaction with customers or would be customers.
How do you construct a case study?
You were probably told that a good story had a beginning, a middle and an end. This holds true for case studies. The easiest way to build a case study is to interview your subject with a set of questions you've prepared before hand. Keep in mind, you want to show how a problem or series of problems were solved by your product or services. Describe the before and after scenario and enough background about the subject so we get can share the journey.
Think of it as a detective story. Set down the problem and then lay the trail of clues.
Questions for case studies
Here are some general case study questions you can adapt
Position/role in that business
What is your background?
What drives you/what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Where would you like your business/life to be in 5 years time?
What keeps you up at night?
What was your situation before you used this service/product? What were your main concerns, issues, difficulties that you wanted solved?
What outcome did you want?
What had you already tried?
Why didn't that work?
How did you find out about this product or service?
What persuaded you to buy this?
What did you find after you used this product or service?
In what way has this product or service made life easier/better/more profitable? Can you give specific examples?
How do you feel about this product or service now?
Would you recommend this product or service? If yes, why?
Do I have your permission to use what you've said in my publicity material?
The questions are grouped into 3 sections. In the first section we want to get under the skin of this organisation or individual and find out what makes it tick. You may not use all the detail you get here, but it gives you plenty of material to draw on.
The next section focuses on the problems that your product or service could solve. Finally you ask about how your product or service made a difference. Here you need specific detail. As in all copywriting the more specific you can be the more powerful the writing.
"As a result of the advice we increased our profit by 14% last year."
Finally the all important 'permission' question. Even though you will no doubt explain why you are interviewing your subject, it is polite and good business practice to get explicit permission.
Tips on writing the case studies
A good tip is to record the interview. If you are face to face you can use a low cost dictaphone or an app on your iPhone or Android phone. There are recording devices you can plug into land line phones if you are doing the interview by phone. For international calling, Skype is ideal. It is free if you call other Skype users or you can buy credits to call landline numbers. Easy to use, low cost, recording software is available: Pamela for Skype on PC or Call Recorder for Skype on Mac. Always ask if it is okay to record the conversation before you start recording.
The reason for recording the interview is that you can concentrate entirely on your subject's responses rather than trying to take notes and you have a chance to listen again at your leisure. It also means you can quote directly from the interview.
Starting to write
The questions above give you an outline. Take the answers and remember you are telling a story. Think about connecting one piece of information to the next. Break up the information with sub heads. You could leave the questions as the sub heads.
This can also provide a house style which you can repeat every time you use a case study. You'll notice weekend supplements often have an interview with a celebrity and each interview follows the same format.
How happy faces attract the same
This brings me on to images. Smiling faces attract people. That reminds me of a classic slogan that the Canadian volunteering organisation, CUSO had in days gone by,
"Happy faces going places."
Corny but undeniably true.
A photo of your subject smiling is excellent or it could be a photo of them 'at work' but avoid boring shots of warehouses or groups of people in suits. Like your story, your image needs personality.
Who can you approach for case studies?
If you are just starting out then you can ask trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce or support organisations like Women In Rural Enterprises for some relevant subjects who may in time become customers. This works particularly well if you provide a service like helping people with employment issues and you want some stories behind the legislation. Ideally though you should be using your own customers so that your specific products or services can be showcased.
When can you create case studies?
Just as collecting testimonials should become a weekly or monthly habit, so creating case studies should be part of your process whenever you are launching a new product, promotion or you want to boost sales in a particular area. When you are launching a new product or service, moving into a new geographical field or even moving into a new media such as Facebook or Twitter. Finding case studies from people in or using those new areas will help your credibility.
So remember, "once upon a time….". Case studies are powerful selling tools they also mix up your writing and bring other people into your overall story. You'll find most people are happy to help you if you ask for an interview and explain what it's for.
'Til next time……
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