Tailor your customer reference programme to suit your client

Customer reference programmes are a great way to promote your product or service to potential new customers and overcome any objections they may have. However, the amount of time your reference customers are willing budget for this may be limited.

If that’s the case, you can still deliver value for yourself, and them, without investing too much time. Ideally, you’ll offer them a range of options and allow them to choose the level of involvement that best suits them. For example:

Level 1: Logo and name only

Use of your customer’s name and/or logo on your website and in marketing collateral requires the least amount of commitment. But, remember, you still need their permission.

Level 2: Testimonial

Customer quotes that endorse your company’s work are valuable when you have to work that little bit harder to engage with your audience, such as when using direct mail or PR activity, for example.

Level 3: Text-based customer success story

In an ideal world, your customer will be willing to participate in a telephone or in-person interview and to review the copy before publication. This can take the form of a press release, newsletter article or printed case study.

Level 4: Video story

If your story is one of real human interest, why not exploit  audio and video for your customer reference programme to show the emotion behind the words? A three-minute video interview can be used at conferences or seminars, published online and promoted through social media channels.

Level 5: Speaking engagement

If customers have a very high level of goodwill toward your company, they may be willing to speak at a conference, trade show, seminar or similar event. Get the most value you can from this commitment: such presentations can be recorded and broadcast on your website as a video or podcast.

Level 6: Reference visit or telephone reference

The highest level of commitment a customer can make to your company is to agree to be a reference site. The customer will agree to take telephone calls or host visits from your qualified potential customers to allow them to discuss their experience with you and see elements of the solution in action.

Which customer reference activities have worked best for your company? Let us know in the comments field below, or through Twitter and LinkedIn.

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4 ways anonymous case studies work for you

Does a case study still work if you can’t name the customer?

Some people, would say no. At best, they say, the story feels bland; at worst, people might think you’ve simply made it up if you can’t name names. At HN, we take a broader view on the value of customer stories.

The confusion lies in the fact that, over the years, the different types of ‘customer story’ – testimonials, use-cases and the traditional ‘deep-dive’ case study to name a few – have become synonymous with each other. Of course, for some of those a name is necessary: a testimonial quote must have an attribution to be of value. And clearly, if you’re working with a household name, being able to call on that association is tremendously valuable. But, for example, a deep-dive case study provides such a detailed business case for your product or service, that the name doesn’t add any validation to the story. And historically it’s always been the case that there are situations where the customer’s name is, for one reason or another, off limits – but we don’t believe that makes the story worthless or less believable. Here are some examples of when we think anonymous customer stories are just fine:

When the name simply gives context
Sometimes the name is simply a shortcut that helps the reader or viewer understand the context and backdrop to the story we want to tell. If that’s the case (or if the name isn’t one that’s particularly well-known in the industry), then we can achieve the same result by describing the business and the attributes we believe make the story meaningful to our audience. We might use descriptors such as ‘a financial practice with three partners who are always on the road’ or ‘with a dispersed operation covering offices and manufacturing facilities in sixteen countries’ to give a sense of scale.

When it’s the results that tell the story
Take this quote, for example: “We helped a financial services company reduce their IT costs by 60% in three months.” With statistics as powerful as that you don’t need a name in order to grab attention. What you do need, however, is the detail to back that stat up – so make sure you capture that when you’re gathering information for your story.

When you’re going deep
Traditionally, a case study or application note was an in-depth analysis of a situation, including figures, facts and commentary to help the reader or viewer learn from the experience of others. In that circumstance, the name of the organisation doesn’t add to the lessons learned. In other words, when you can tell a story in depth, naming names becomes less important.

When you’re coaching, not promoting
Who says a case study is only for your customers? There’s huge value in sharing best practice and helping teams across your organisation replicate success. You can share stories from the front line – how the deal was won, mapping solutions to customer needs and competitive positioning or the deployment challenges that were encountered and overcome by your technical specialists. In doing so you create valuable training material to use around the business.

What do you think? Is there value in an anonymous case study? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment, or getting in touch on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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What the Royal Variety Performance teaches us about customer references

It’s the Royal Variety Performance this week, so of course there’s only one topic on our minds at HN HQ — customer reference programmes! If you can’t see the connection, read on and all will become clear…

What’s the connection?

As we’ve said a few times before, customer references and case studies are fantastic ways to communicate your company’s qualities and achievements to prospects. The Royal Variety Performance does the same thing: it showcases the achievements of the UK’s entertainments and arts sector to help promote interest in the performing arts. (It also raises money for the EABF.)

Interestingly, customer references and the Royal Variety Performance share the same measures of success: quality is essential, and — our focal point in this post — you need variety.

Variety is the spice of life

If the Royal Variety Performance booked only singers, or dancers, or dogs, it would appeal only to people who enjoy that type of act – and those people would soon get bored of watching the same thing over and again. The same can be said of a customer reference program: if it covers only one aspect of your business, or only one type of customer, you risk limiting its appeal and effectiveness.

So, you may well ask, what’s the best way add variety to your case studies (assuming that you can’t recruit a dance troupe to perform it?)

Get to the story

When we conduct a case study interview for a client, we dig as deeply as we can into the customer’s story to find out what challenges drove the need for our client’s solution, why the customer chose our client over the competition, and the specific ways in which the solution has benefited the customer’s business. It’s that level of detail that helps to give case studies variety — even when you interview a number of customers who are from the same sector or are using the same solution.

Make your own variety performance

By taking the time to get detailed information about your customers and crafting a unique story about each one, you’ll end up with a set of case studies that have more impact, offer more insight, and are just more interesting. You could use them to sell different elements of your solution, or present them as a pack to show how you can help a variety of customers overcome a range of challenges. Most crucially, you’ll have something for everyone; an act for every taste.

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Counting the cost or the contribution of customer references

There’s no doubt that customer references are a hot topic in marketing these days and with good reason. We all understand the power of word of mouth and the contribution that customer advocacy can make to the sales process. But how do you actually measure its worth?

As more money is invested in harnessing the good will of happy customers and putting it to work in case studies, video testimonials, at events and in support of the bid process, questions are being asked. What’s the return on this investment and is all this money well spent?

Counting programme deliverables

A common approach is to set targets for each category of reference you want to create and then measure progress towards these goals. Targets are agreed according to the strategic aims of the business, taking account of where sales effort will be focused over the next year and what marketing campaigns are planned. It’s likely that a range of stories are needed to showcase capabilities by different product lines, geographic region and industry sector and to feed different communications channels: written stories, videos, individuals willing to talk to analysts or the press, and those who’ll speak at a conference or host a visit.

These targets mean you can take a proactive approach to supporting the business and qualify story opportunities, rather than chasing everything that moves.

Tracking outcomes

Some of our clients are moving up to the next level and it’s hard to say whether this is down to the beady eye of corporate accountability or the availability of new marketing technologies that actually facilitates outcome tracking. Every time a reference is called upon to support a bid process, it is noted and the outcome of the bid later recorded. By tracking the bid outcomes, the discount policy and the length of the sales cycle, the beneficial contribution of the references can be assessed. Was there greater success where referencing was used? Did referencing help maintain margins? Were deals closed quicker when references were used?

We suspect the answer is ‘yes’. Now the numbers can speak for themselves.

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Stretching your video budget further

Everyone is under pressure to do things better, cheaper, faster these days. It’s no exception here in agency land and we continually look for ways to improve our processes and deliver more value for our client’s money. When it comes to video — customer stories in particular — this means getting the most out of each and every day of filming. After all, if you’ve invested to get a crew on site, it makes sense to capture everything that looks useful all in one go — or is that my thrifty northern upbringing at work?

If it adds a view, shoot it

When the crew is on site they are there to capture a story and it’s crucial that they get time with the main sponsor. To provide context for the interview they can also shoot footage of your customers’ operation: the busy shop floor, the checkouts, the contact centre or perhaps show the vicinity and the outside of the premises as employees arrive for work. This B-roll is useful to provide a change of pace to the mini movie you want to create and can be a valuable cutaway to hide zooms and cover any of the presenter’s verbal or physical tics that are distracting.

While on site, it would also be helpful to get other beneficiaries of your solution in front of the camera. You could consider interviewing users, line-of-business managers, finance, technology or the CEO. Anyone and everyone who has an opinion on how your solution has impacted their lives and their way of working.

Assemble and repurpose

Back in the editing suite, this footage can be turned into several assets: different styles of deliverable for different channels, for different messages and to support different points on the buying cycle.

For example, we could create a collection of short talking-head clips that address key issues, each perhaps no more than a minute in length. Sales guys love them as a way of livening up their standard PowerPoint and tailoring the presentation to their prospect’s needs by incorporating customer testimony in a subtle way.

From the same shoot we could assemble the solution story talking about the benefits your customer has seen; we can also create the delivery story and how integration and implementation challenges were overcome; we can build the support story and show how, by working with you, your customer now has one less thing to worry about. If we put the footage together in another configuration, you have the cost saving story, or the one that tells how growth was supported, productivity was enhanced or how customer service was improved.

For early stages of the sales cycle we might want to keep it short with snippets to whet your prospects’ appetite and get the conversation started; further down the line we may need to provide more detailed or candid studies of your capabilities.

By digging for insight with your customers at the shoot and exploring how the deal was won and their opinion of the sales approach, we could even develop video footage to coach your sales teams and that’s not designed for customers’ eyes at all.

Many from one

From one day’s shoot you can create all these stories, sliced and diced for different purposes. They are available to be sprinkled across your website and social media channels, and to support conversations with your customers and prospects — be that for lead generation or thought leadership.

That’s a lot of impact from one day’s shoot.

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Looking for insight? Try the coffee machine

In my early career I worked for an IT service organisation. There were engineers everywhere: in their cars; out with customers; at their desks; by the coffee machine. You couldn’t leave the confines of the marketing ‘ivory tower’ without bumping in to them—and they were a friendly bunch so there was always a smile and sparky conversation.

Customer insight: off the record, uncut and uncensored

This banter told me what kinds of problems our customers were facing; and how we were solving them. It told me who were our most vociferous supporters—and detractors—and precisely what they thought about us and our products and services.

This insight cost me nothing—well little more than the price of a coffee and the occasional bacon butty. And okay, it wasn’t rigorously collected and statistically relevant but it was valuable, nonetheless, and fuelled a pipeline of customer references for our case study programme.

Relying on the insights and observations of your frontline folks

The HBR post on engaging with frontline staff , brought back memories. Within many organisations there’s a similar goldmine of insight that may be untapped.

We talk a lot about the voice of the customer in our line of work. We can run interviews, panels, focus groups and surveys to get close to this opinion—and do. We would always advocate involving one degree of separation and talking to sales and support staff, too. They spend every day with your customers and what they know costs you very little to find out.

How to write a case study for translation

So you have a great case study, it’s been well-received in your region and it makes sense to have it translated for use around the world. How do you know that it will have the same impact in Lisbon as in London?

A great story can be made average, or worse, if not properly tailored to the local market. Readers will perceive that you are remote, out of touch or simply not interested—and business could suffer as a result.

By following some simple steps, you can craft case studies—in fact any customer-facing content—with global appeal.

1. Write with your foreign readership in mind

Don’t avoid local flavour, but do ensure that you write with your foreign readership in mind. For example, ‘the recent floods in Fleet’ implies prior knowledge both of the location and recent news events. Provide context for non-locals by writing ‘recent floods in the UK village of Fleet’ instead.

If you have reason to believe that this approach will jar with local readers, leave out the context for the local audience and provide your translator with an alternative as a separate note, for example: ’the recent floods in Fleet’ should be translated as ‘recent floods in the UK village of Fleet’.

2. Unleash your creativity

When you know that a case study will be translated it can be tempting to write in a very measured way, avoiding complicated words and colloquialisms. But the result can often be bland and uninspiring.

  • Use complex or non-literal language if it enhances your writing, but provide a brief explanation for the translator of what it means so they can use an equivalent local-language phrase or a more generic translation that captures the meaning. Ask them for a back-translation—this way you can make sure the phrase hasn’t been translated verbatim and that your message hasn’t been lost or diluted.
    For example:

    English phraselike chalk and cheese
    Spanish translationcomo el día y la noche
    Back-translationlike the day and the night

  • As with any kind of writing, avoid jargon that hasn’t become part of common parlance or isn’t universally understood by the audience you’re writing for.

3. Choose a good translator

Choosing a good translator is as important as choosing a good writer because, unless you’re fluent in the target language, you must be able to trust them to tell the story on your behalf. Questions you need to ask are:

  • Does this person understand my business?
  • Does this person have local knowledge of the region they will be translating for?
  • Do I need to bring in somebody with localisation skills to deal with subtle differences between, for example, Spanish as it is spoken in Madrid and Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico City?

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Three ways to turn an average case study into a great one

Case studies, perhaps more than any other piece of collateral, can help a potential client develop interest in your product or service. The trick is to connect with the reader by presenting them with a story that could easily be about them.

1. Capture imaginations

What are your clients talking about right now? What’s happening in the news? By exploring topics that people are talking about, you can really tap into their emotions to generate desire, need, discomfort or fear — although preferably not terror! If they’re topical, your case studies will be read with more enthusiasm and, because they’re current, they’ll be picked up by search engines as well.

The River Hudson plane crash is a great example of a case study, based on a dramatic news story from 2009, that still generates as much impact now as it did when it was a hot news story.

Mozy backup service – a really effective case study

When flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River in New York, the only thing the passengers were thinking about was getting out alive – and they all did, thanks to the crew’s quick thinking. When a story emerged of two passengers, one who backed up his files with Mozy and one who didn’t, the number of users converting from Mozy’s free service to its paid one jumped by 107%. Mozy further capitalised on the story by creating a video case study with Paul Jorgensen, the Mozy customer (you can see it here).

This case study works because:

  • It’s connected to a dramatic news story
  • It makes readers uncomfortable enough to act
  • It clearly demonstrates the consequences of not acting, as well as acting
  • Nobody was killed or seriously injured in the crash – otherwise it would have hit the wrong note

2. Keep it believable

Sometimes, promising case studies fall down. Areas to watch out for are:

  • Anonymous case study subjects. You don’t need to avoid anonymity but you’ll need to take extra care to paint a picture for your readers so they don’t get hung up on the anonymity and can visualise and identify with the subject.
  • Intangible benefits. Again, no need to avoid them — in fact they can be a great way to communicate people’s feelings, opinions or insights. But to use intangible benefits believably you’ll need to tie them into a story that’s specific or detailed enough to communicate how these benefits have affected the business or its people in real ways.
  • Quantitative detail. It’s easy to make claims — your product saves people money or generates extra revenue — but you’ll present a much more compelling proposition if you substantiate those claims. Collecting quantitative data can be time-consuming but you’ll reap the benefits when your readers buy into your story.

3. Work on your delivery

If you just download and populate a traditional case study template — you know the kind of thing, specifying that you must have 100 words on the customer profile followed by 200 words each on the challenge, solution and results — there’s a risk you’ll end up with the same case study over and over and that it will be ‘OK’ at best. By focusing on the story, however, and imaginative ways to tell that story, you can really grab your readers’ attention and trigger an emotional response.

Exploring new and exciting ways to deliver the information, such as video, animation, a presentation format or even a storyboard, can add an extra dimension to your storytelling.

Tip: Don’t just choose presenters based on their job description; find people who are confident, camera-friendly and fun!

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Case study copywriting: tips for getting the intro right

As customer reference programmes become more important to our clients, many of them are reassessing the way their case studies are written, looking for a more engaging style of storytelling. Sometimes this leads to a tension between the old way of doing things and the new. That’s what lay behind a call I took recently from a client looking for advice on a case study opening.

The problem: context vs moving the plot along

If you’re trying to draw a reader into a story, starting with a paragraph that is effectively a bit of company boilerplate is hardly designed to capture the interest and imagination of the reader. You know the type of thing:

AnyCo is the world’s leading supplier of widgets to this industry and that industry. Its thousands of staff operate in dozens of countries to generate annual revenues of so many millions of dollars.

Our instinct as storytellers is to dispense with this kind of background unless it really is directly relevant to the core narrative; and if it is relevant, we aim to make that relevance more immediately obvious and express it in a more interesting way.

The client recognised this but was concerned about alienating readers. Not only are people used to case studies starting with a bit of blurb about the subject company, but it’s also arguable that the context creates a picture in the reader’s mind that they’d feel slightly lost without, even if it’s not necessary to the story. It’s no good if you start telling a gripping story but all your reader wants to know is: ‘Who are we talking about here? Tell me something about them first.’

The solution: weave context into story

Our solution to this problem is twofold:

We recommend designing a case study template that has a small ‘about the company’ section, readily visible on the front page, for those who want that kind of anchoring context. This lets you dispense with unnecessary company background in the narrative flow.

Secondly, we certainly don’t recommend leaving the reader without an answer to the question ‘who are we talking about here?’ But the answer should be much more personal and relevant than the boilerplate approach can achieve.

For example, if we’re writing about the importance of communications technology to a police force, we wouldn’t start with: ‘[AnyPolice] is responsible for protecting the 100,000 citizens of [Country] from crime’.

We might start with something more like: ‘The recent capture of dozens of criminals in a massive nationwide police sting in [Country] could never have happened without the ability of [AnyPolice] to operate in complete synchronicity with the customs and revenue services.’

No doubt there are other ways to reconcile the need for context and good storytelling. Do you have any useful tips? Tell us in the comments.

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