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Going Beyond the “What” in Case Studies

by Hank Barnes  |  April 11, 2017  |  2 Comments

On a regular basis, I end up looking at case studies from tech providers.  It may be specifically requested for feedback, or it might be me digging deeper to try to understand nuances to their story.

And, I see the same pattern repeat itself over and over and over.  Even for good case studies that include quantifiable results.

The overwhelming majority of  case studies mirror provider messages —  They tell the what of the story.  Not the why or the how.

For example, we coach on storytelling–and starting with the customer situation.  When clients try to emulate that, I see situations like, “XYZ Corp needed a new e-commerce system.”     The story unfolds and eventually gets to “They deployed our product and saw a 15% increase in e-commerce revenues in 6 months.”   Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these stories.  Particularly with quantified results.

Unless they are the only story you are telling.  Or if you can’t go deeper.

“What stories” work for buyers that know what they want.  They help reinforce confidence that the path they are on could work for them.


But “what stories” dont work for people that are not that far along.  They need to know the why.  Why did they need an e-commerce system?  What was wrong with their old one?  What problems were they experiencing?    With “why stories,” you can help people sense and recognize issues they are facing that they had not identified a solution path for.  You can tie that in to the value of solving them.

“Why stories” help people build the case for change.

The next step is “how stories.”  How stories continue to be a missed opportunity.  How stories would talk to the steps to move off the old system onto the new one.  They would focus on the specific things that were done that helped drive the revenue increase. “How stories” guide others into the path to success.

And often, not understanding the how is what causes buying efforts to stall.

Take an inventory of your case studies (and your content for that matter).  If you are like most, I suspect you have an overwhelming amount of “what” content and case studies.   You are probably light on “why” and “how.”

If that is the case, I think priorities for next efforts should be pretty clear.


Additional Resources

Category: go-to-market  

Tags: buying  case-studies  content  proof-points  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Going Beyond the “What” in Case Studies

  1. Gordon Hogg says:

    I talk to sales reps and their customers every day about what prevented buyers from investing in their solutions.

    The word on case studies is always the same; “we downloaded it but never read it” or it was “another product pitch backed up with some happy quotes”. It did not influence their selection.

    What do they want to read? They want to know:

    (1)what triggered the search for a solution?
    (2)what business outcome were they trying to achieve?
    (3)what barriers and obstacles did they have to overcome and what would they NOT do the second time around?
    (4)and most importantly, what’s it like to work with the vendor?

    They want to read something that will actually help them with their decision. Any idea why this is so hard to grasp?

    • Mike says:

      That’s an excellent structure for a case study, Gordon.

      For #3 (“barriers and obstacles they had to overcome”), I suspect it’s a matter of fear. Marketers don’t want to publish a piece that competitors could use against team in a sale.
      Therein lies an opportunity. At a time when authenticity is in demand, a case study that tells the whole story, warts and all, will stand apart.

      What you’re proposing would take more time, effort and appreciation for (command of?) storytelling than the classic approach. Perhaps such a piece is perceived as not being worth the effort.’

      In which case, more companies should hear your insight.

      For myself, I would relish the chance to produce case studies for companies willing to be different in the way you describe.

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