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Making the Case for Case Studies

May 01, 2012
May/June 2012
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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As a home performance contractor, your business thrives on new customers. Many of the services you provide can be one-time transactions, so keeping a fresh supply of incoming clients is imperative. When it comes to marketing, more and more contractors are using social media, while others rely on traditional tactics such as direct mail.

One marketing technique that you should consider is using a series of case studies. A case study generally follows a format that shows what the client's problem was, what solution you applied and why, and what challenges you encountered and overcame. Ultimately, the case study ends by demonstrating the positive results that your company got for the client. Without directly pushing for a sale, you've enabled prospective customers to relate to a common problem others have faced, and you've helped them to visualize the results they can expect if they use your company to resolve that problem.

If you go on the web sites of your product dealers, you'll probably find a professional section on case studies. Their case studies may be longer or more in-depth than a blog; some may include fancy graphics. The good news is that you can often take a cue from these companies and leverage this valuable marketing strategy for your business.

Right ImageHomeowners Rob and Amy Dudley in Saco, Maine, used Evergreen Home Performance to improve their energy efficiency. (Evergreen Home Performance)

Right Image Astrum Solar installed panels for homeowners Wayne and Vanna Altman of Woburn, Massachusetts. (Astrum Solar)

Advantages of Using a Case Study

Case studies are a viable way to engage prospective clients, secure more customers, and increase sales. It takes time and money to develop a case study, but doing so has many benefits.

  • Relate to customers. The case study helps your business forge a connection to possible customers because it highlights a real home that you have worked on and shows how you got positive results there. Prospective customers relate to the homeowner's needs, see the before-and-after results, and know that you can do the same for them.

  • Spend a little, get a lot. Although you may prefer to hire a freelance copywriter to create the content, you may be able to use someone in-house who knows how to write well. The case studies can be printed out and distributed at trade shows and other events, and also posted on your web site.

  • Make nonintrusive sales. If you don't want to knock on doors to get business, the case study is a great tool that does the selling for you as prospective customers come to your web site to find out about your services and fees. They can click on the prominently displayed banner for case studies, and then be lured to contact you after reading it.

  • Increase web traffic. If you add a few case studies to your web site and optimize them with solid key words, a case study can also attract more traffic to your site.

Case Study or Customer Story?

Some energy contractors use a softer form of a case study: the customer story. This is very similar to a case study, but it is more of a narrative or magazine article (and longer than a testimonial), while a case study follows a problem/solution/results model (including quotes from the customer).

The storytelling approach has worked well for Astrum Solar. This Massachusetts-based solar-energy company has a section on its web site devoted to customer stories. These stories differ from the typical case study in that they focus more on why the customer chose the company above others.

"The folks best able to communicate 'why Astrum Solar' to our prospective customers are the folks who walked in their shoes and made the switch to solar power themselves," explains Michele Waldgeir, the company's vice president of marketing, who manages the more than 50 stories posted on its web site. Waldgeir says it continues to add more stories in order to show the range of customers it serves, so every prospective client can find a success story that he or she can relate to.

In Astrum's case, the stories are working great to hook prospects and cultivate credibility. But you'll need more than a good story to create a compelling case study.

How Many Case Studies Do I Need?

Don't plan on writing just one case study. That's really not enough. Your business probably has several products and services—not to mention interesting customer stories—to highlight, so there's no reason to stop at one. The rule of thumb is to have at least one case study for each specific service. A series of case studies for each service works best to show that there are several success stories and that you can exceed expectations in a variety of scenarios.

"The quantity of case studies is a credibility thing... the more the better," says Glenn Murray, an Australia-based copywriter who has written several case studies. He says that when you have a lot of case studies for prospective customers to view, they'll be more likely to find something they can relate to.

Choosing the Right Customer to Highlight

Susan Egerton Griggs, the marketing manager at Evergreen Home Performance, based in Rockland, Maine, says her energy efficiency auditing and contracting business has always been very customer focused and uses platforms, including Google Places and Facebook, to solicit customer feedback. So when the company president wanted to write up some case studies to tell the customers' stories, it fit perfectly into Evergreen's existing marketing campaign.

The firm hired a copywriter to create the case studies. Because Evergreen had direct contact with its customers through energy audits and contracting, they were able to easily find customers with interesting stories to tell.

"[After we'd done our audit or service] we'd simply ask if the customer would mind sharing his or her story," says Egerton Griggs. Be sure to get permission to publish the article or photos online, and let the customers know if their quotes will be used in other marketing collateral.

Case studies can go on a web site, but some pieces, like the customer testimonials, along with images of the customers, their homes, and the work you did can also be used in brochures and advertisements.

Ed Gandia, a Georgia-based copywriter with several case study writing credits, says it's important to select a case to feature that has a strong hook. "Potential customers don't just want objective proof that someone else benefited from the product or service; they also want to read the story behind the purchase," he says. "That's what really moves people to buy."

Right Image The Littlestown Veterinary Hospital in Littlestown, Pennsylvania, switched to solar power with Astrum Solar. (Astrum Solar)

Right Image Homeowners Jay Astel and Rebecca Lincoln cut their home's energy use in half with Evergreen Home Performance's help. (Evergreen Home Performance)

Mechanics: Writing a Case Study

If you're up to the task of writing your own case study, here are some tips to help you pen a winning piece:

  • Use a professional, conversational tone. Egerton Griggs says a professional tone will help establish credibility. Write professionally, but make sure the customer's voice comes through too, she says.

    Murray says a conversational tone is a must. "That doesn't necessarily mean casual," he notes. "It means use normal words, shorter sentences, [and] contractions. In other words, your goal should be to make it easy and pleasurable to read."

    It's standard to use the third person when writing a case study, but that doesn't mean it has to be dry. Use the customer's story or problem to connect to the reader—that way, the writing will be livelier.

  • Ask in-depth questions. Speaking of the customer's story, some customers may not have dynamite quotes to share. That's why asking the right questions is key. You want to avoid getting one-word answers, so be prepared to nudge a more in-depth response from a customer. Sometimes just asking, "Can you elaborate?" is enough to get more information. Other times, you have to ask specific questions as you go along during an interview.

    When you approach your customers, make sure you explain the purpose of your inquiry, and give them time to prepare their answers. You can even send a few questions ahead of time via e-mail to get their creative juices flowing. That way, they know what to expect and may give you more details or better quotes.

    When it's time for the interview, Murray suggests starting by asking what problems the customer had before the solution was implemented. "People love to complain," he notes. "This will get them warmed up, and in many cases, they'll naturally move on to discuss the entire process without much prompting from you."

    "Some people aren't very conversational; others will divulge a lot," Egerton Griggs adds. The challenge is to edit their responses. Murray says it is imperative to speak to the right people to get the information you want. If you are working with a large company, the CEO probably isn't the best go-to guy when it comes to day-to-day operations—instead the project manager may be a better fit.

  • Add some quotes. Whether you want to use actual quotes, like the ones you would see in a magazine article, is up to you; but most copywriters integrate dialogue into the case study. If the quote comes from the client, it also serves as a testimonial that can be used in additional marketing pieces. What's more, quotes break up the piece and allow you to include the human side of the story, Murray adds.

  • Record your interview. If you are writing a case study on your own and don't hire a professional copywriter, make sure to record the interview (and get the customer's permission to do so first). "Having a recording enables you to concentrate more on what the customer is saying, rather than on trying to capture everything on paper," Gandia says. "Being present allows you to ask better follow-up questions and be more engaged in the conversation."

    Gandia recommends sending the audio file to a transcriptionist. The transcribed document can act as the raw first draft from which you can start gleaning information for your case study.

  • Structure your case study. Some companies simply use a narrative format to tell the story, but breaking the case study up into sections that cover the problem, the solution, and the results is really what makes it a case study. The right format is vital; it lets the customer peruse the case study, see what the issue is, and—you hope—become interested enough to read more.

Murray finds the following structure useful:

  1. Client overview. Start with a one- or two-sentence overview of the client's company.

  2. Client's problem. State the client's problem; provide enough background so readers understand it. Without this, they won't see the value in the solution your business offers. Perhaps the client's company was overspending on energy or perhaps the client's house was inefficient. In subsequent sections you'll describe how you came to the rescue.

  3. Solution. Provide the technical details of the solution. Describe how this solution solved the client's problem. For example, a solar provider would recommend a specific number of a certain type of panel and would show the cost savings that the client realized from the installation.

  4. Implementation. Describe how you implemented the solution. Give practical details. Talk about how you assigned manpower, overcame problems, and managed logistics. Give the specifications of the equipment you used. If you are an HVAC company, you could mention some features of a new heating or A/C unit. This is a great place to add photos and use numbers to quantify what you did.

  5. Results. Did the solution solve the client's problem? Discuss the benefits to the client. This would be another ideal spot to include numbers—cost savings or increased floor area—anything related to the positive results of your implementation.

  6. Future. Discuss the client's future plans with regard to the solution. How did the solution enable the client to improve his or her home or enjoy life more?

  • Use really sharp photos. Including photos in a case study makes it easy to scan and helps you to tell the story even better. Jay Irwin, president of Irwin Design and Build in Potomac, Maryland, relies on high-resolution before-and-after photos to demonstrate his work and add perspective to his case studies. "Customers want to see, not just hear about, the work you've done recently," Irwin says. Irwin adds that when he approaches new customers, he uses case studies to earn the customer's trust. "The more we can point customers to recent examples of our work, the better," he says.

  • Remember the reader. Think about your reader before you determine the length of your case study; it should be based not on your company's size but on what the reader will be drawn to. If you think your readers won't spend a lot of time reading a long case study, you can certainly create a solid one in under 400 words. If you want to go longer, you can go well over 2,000 words. Obviously, the bigger the project, the more details there will be to share. But whether you're a large solar supplier or a mom-and-pop building company, the length doesn't matter as much as the writing. Write to your readers. "If the readers need a lot of info, give them a lot of info," says Murray. "If they want small, bite-sized chunks, give them that. If they want lots of technical details, geek it up!"
Potential customers don't just want objective proof that someone else benefited from the product or service; they also want to read the story behind the purchase. That's what really moves people to buy.
  • Use really sharp photos. Including photos in a case study makes it easy to scan and helps you to tell the story even better. Jay Irwin, president of Irwin Design and Build in Potomac, Maryland, relies on high-resolution before-and-after photos to demonstrate his work and add perspective to his case studies. "Customers want to see, not just hear about, the work you've done recently," Irwin says. Irwin adds that when he approaches new customers, he uses case studies to earn the customer's trust. "The more we can point customers to recent examples of our work, the better," he says.

  • Remember the reader. Think about your reader before you determine the length of your case study; it should be based not on your company's size but on what the reader will be drawn to. If you think your readers won't spend a lot of time reading a long case study, you can certainly create a solid one in under 400 words. If you want to go longer, you can go well over 2,000 words. Obviously, the bigger the project, the more details there will be to share. But whether you're a large solar supplier or a mom-and-pop building company, the length doesn't matter as much as the writing. Write to your readers. "If the readers need a lot of info, give them a lot of info," says Murray. "If they want small, bite-sized chunks, give them that. If they want lots of technical details, geek it up!"

Getting the Word Out

Once you've created your case study, you need to promote it. You can do this effectively by pointing out your case studies on your web site's home page. You can have a tab that says Case Studies or include a photo of a happy homeowner with something like "hear her story" in a sidebar.

Whether your case studies are all in the body of a web page on your site or open up as a PDF from a main page of case studies, optimize the page. Talk to your web site administrator about creating a META description, which appears in the browser window on the top left and usually has some key words to drive traffic to the site. You can go further by creating META tags, which don't appear on the web site but work behind the scenes to drive traffic to the page. Key words include the name of your business, the type of services you offer, and a nod to your location (think "solar panel installation in NJ" or "New Jersey solar panel installation," for example).

When printed out, case studies are a great marketing tool for trade shows, Gandia notes. If you have an e-mail newsletter, share the link to your case studies in your next issue. You may also want to write a short press release announcing the case study—send that to relevant trade publications or your local newspaper.

learn more

To view the case studies on Astrum Solar's web site, visit www.astrumsolar.com/
customerstories
.

To read Jay Irwin's case studies, visit www.irwindesignandbuild.com.

Read Susan Egerton Griggs's case studies at www.evergreenyourhome.com.

Slow, Steady Success

The great thing about well-written case studies is that once you post them, they basically do the rest. A good case study can help add more interesting, searchable content to your web site; provide the foundation for your company's marketing strategy; transform prospective clients into customers that will rave about your service; and improve revenue.

Using case studies in your business isn't a direct, hard-sell technique like making a cold call. Instead, as you develop more case studies and drive web traffic to them, they will gradually help to improve your company's image and propel sales.

It doesn't all happen overnight, but a few good case studies are a big step in the right direction.

Kristen Fischer is a copywriter living in New Jersey. See her web site, www.kristenfischer.com, for more information on business best practices.

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