Case Studies: Friend or Foe?
Red flags for using case studies in SaaS
I love a good case study. The keyword is good. Not every story or customer is proof or worthy of a case study. In SaaS, have we diminished the power of the case study by overusing it or thinking “good enough” will drive sales?
I have seen well-intended sales reps or AMs shout with joy that so-and-so customer LOVES the product and is super excited to do a case study. Intros are made, and then there may be radio silence. Or you plow ahead with the discovery call and gather information during which you discover that they are in fact not a good candidate for a case study.
Through these discovery calls, I have found some common red flags that signal it may not be the right fit for a case study. When you spot a majority of these red flags, your case study may lack action and the aspired results. Here are some red flags 🚩 :
Unwilling to use their brand name
This is the most common red flag with case studies. Not every large brand wants to align with a smaller startup (or any company for that matter). Some partnerships may require pay-for-play and strict criteria before it goes public with branding.
A case study should be treated differently from these brand partnerships or integrations. A case study examines how a company used your product to solve a problem and offers the solution in which that occurred. It’s not just two logos plastered on a billboard.
The brand identity in a case study helps others who may be of a similar size or industry understand how they can relate to that particular problem and why your product may be able to help.
If a customer has strict guidelines for doing case studies, you may still create generic fillers such as saying a “retailer” or “Fortune 500 customer” that others may be able to relate to, but the brand identity does go a long way in building your credibility.
If you are starting to serve a newer industry or have limited case studies, using generic fillers may help you get started, but in the long run, you will need to identify and build strong customer relationships that will align their brand with yours.
This is huge in SaaS! I have been in many conversations where the conversation sounded something like this: “but we don’t know how to measure ROI” or “it takes time to show ROI” or “ROI calculators are stupid”.
The greatest purpose of the case study is to show the result. Often the biggest disconnect from an AM saying a customer loves the product to being ghosted during the case study process is that there is no way to measure success.
This somewhat goes against what you think about in testimonials. A case study is not a testimonial! You can include a quote in the case study but it is much bigger and a deeper dive into the solution and outcome. You often think of asking someone for feedback or a review as soon as possible and when they are happy.
This becomes harder to do with case studies in SaaS because often you do need time to calculate the results or see the long-term effects that add up. You can still find clever ways to tell the solution story. Compare where they were before and where they expect to be or find smaller calculations or comparisons. How have employees saved time or where else have customers been able to focus their attention?
If your product has a feature that includes a dashboard or analytics, that helps customers see the results quicker. Otherwise, you will pull a data scientist or dev from your team to go in on the backend to find the data you need to support the study. This may also slow down the case study timeline.
Unclear approvals for the case study
Often the person being interviewed during the discovery call is a user or oversees users and they may not be the actual decision-maker of the company. This results in either delays or abandonment of the study.
When I talk to customers, I will often ask upfront what the approval process looks like. Who needs to be included, how long this typically takes, and brand guidelines. This process is different for companies. Some may casually run the study by a manager or director and get approval rather quickly. Others may need it to go through multiple executives as well as go through legal and that can add time to the process.
The brand guidelines are also important to consider. We discussed up above that branding a company name is preferred, but if not that, how will they want to be described. Not only the company branding but for any quotes you want to share — what is the preferred title and name for the quoted? Will it be “Bill S. — CEO” or will it be more generic such as “an executive in the retail sector”?
Do you know how widely used your product is within the company? You may be working with a larger brand, but only in one department or one location. This will impact the brand guidelines and not to mention the approval process.
Marketing isn’t included in case studies
Similar to not knowing the approval process and who to include, marketing getting left out of the case study is a big red flag! When I mention or ask about their approval process, I also ask if they have a marketing team or person.
If a marketing team or person exists, they may have a plan that this case study will either support or hinder. I always try to work with marketing to understand their goals and how a case study is mutually beneficial for both companies to market.
If marketing doesn’t know about a study until it’s time to publish, they may get antsy and annoyed that marketing activities were being done without any discussion of how it fits into the greater plan.
Marketers are usually the gatekeepers and tellers of the brand. If you can build a good relationship with them, they will want to shout your praise and solutions to the world. If you leave them out, you may miss that opportunity and the reach the case study could have.
When we think about case studies, we are inclined to view it as a sales tool that will help prospective customers want to buy your solution. It’s true that case studies are an excellent way to drive sales and influence the decisions of potential buyers. But when we think of case studies, we should acknowledge that rushing it or trying to force it to happen may devalue the study.
When we begin to think about case studies as a part of a greater brand strategy, we will intentionally seek out qualified customers who are solid partners, have a mutual benefit, have seen a positive ROI, and are willing to tell their story alongside you.
I have worked with many sales leaders and AMs throughout the years and we all want to see case studies perform well! My sales colleagues tend to want the direct ask and can take a simple compliment that the product works great straight out of onboarding and turn it into more than is ready at that time. As a nurturer, my marketing brain wants to understand and align so that the study has the best possible chance of showing results.
I have found positive results when sales or AMs identify a positive comment and they ask the user if they are willing to speak with a person on their marketing team (me!) to discuss any content ideas or tactics that may be a good fit, and also invite someone from the customer marketing team to join if that makes sense. This has sped up the case study process and turned into content that delivered more qualified leads.
By spotting some of these red flags, you can begin to identify better case studies that will truly showcase how your product helped solve a problem and the impact your solutions are having in the industries you serve.