Case studies have long been a staple of B2B marketing — particularly in the tech industry — and are still among the most popular tactics used today. In fact, a 2013 survey of B2B marketers by LinkedIn indicated that customer testimonials and case studies are considered the two most effective content marketing tactics (with lead generation being the primary objective). In addition, the latest B2B research from CMI and Marketing Profs found that 73 percent of marketers use case studies, and 65 percent feel they are an effective tactic.

However, with B2B buyers increasingly conducting independent research via search and social media and new information sources proliferating, does B2B marketing’s unchallenged love affair with case studies always make the most sense?

High up-front costs, limited shelf-life: It’s common to spend $2,000 to $5,000 of internal resource time to produce a case study. Approval can be arduous, particularly when dealing with a large client’s legal review process, and some companies have no-endorsement policies that prohibit their participation. These factors can make it difficult to produce a high volume of case studies, and even more difficult to keep them current. Technology evolves quickly, and a case study written 18 to 24 months ago may lose relevance before it really has a chance to reach a mass audience.

Vendor-produced content can suffer from lack of trust: Prospects can view vendor-produced case studies with some skepticism. While there is strong interest in hearing user stories, case studies are all too often seen as “chest beating exercises,” created for the sole purpose of extolling the virtues of a particular product. While prospects do very much care about hearing the benefits of a product, they’re just as interested in its limitations. A case study that omits these details will not be considered fully credible.

In a 2013 report by DemandGen, 98.8 percent of B2B marketers surveyed said they “place a higher emphasis on the trustworthiness” of the content they view, yet less than 30 percent place strong trust in vendor-created content.

Why in-depth user reviews are positioned to replace case studies

In-depth user reviews provide information seekers with a more trusted alternative to vendor-produced case studies. Prospective buyers want to hear user stories, but want them to be unvarnished and provide a balanced discussion by including cons as well as pros. They want to hear what it’s really like to work with a vendor on a day-to-day basis, and they want to access multiple perspectives from peers with similar business needs and challenges.

I use the term “in-depth” review to distinguish them from software reviews on sites like the AppExchange, which focus on star ratings and provide very limited commentary. Such reviews provide buyers some level of guidance on sentiment about a product, but are not sufficiently informative to substitute for a robust case study.

Moreover, per the 2013 State of Demand Generation study by Pardot, almost 80 percent of B2B buyers use search to begin their information discovery process for a business purchase. As in-depth review content proliferates, it is likely to rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs) than case studies will, when prospective buyers type in common discovery search terms like “Product A vs. Product B.”

Where B2B buyers begin their research for purchases

A head-to-head comparison

To illustrate why I believe in-depth user reviews will replace case studies, I’ll share an example of a vendor-produced case study and contrast it with in-depth end-user reviews of the same product, (Marketo) by the same company (Navicure). The case study focuses on benefits, whereas the review gives a detailed perspective of what it’s really like to use the product. Below is a list of the key features of each content effort:

The case study:

  • A quote from the client’s CMO
  • Key numerical benefits
  • Marketing challenges faced by the client
  • A general description of the Marketo implementation
  • Recap of business benefits

The user review:

  • A quote from the client’s marketing database & analytics manager
  • A numerical score of the likelihood of recommending the product
  • Articulation of what the product does well, and where it could be improved
  • An explanation of specific ROI/business benefits achieved
  • A numerical score of the client’s likelihood of renewing, and an explanation of reasoning
  • A description of how the product is used inside the client’s company
  • A summary of resources required to use and maintain the product
  • The three to five most important use cases for the product in the client’s organization
  • Unexpected/innovative ways the client has been able to use the product, and additional ways it expects to be able to use it in the future
  • Which product the client switched from, and why
  • Other products the client considered, and the reasons it selected this product vs. the alternatives
  • How the client might change its evaluation process, were they to do it again
  • An explanation of the training the client received, and rating score for the training
  • A customer support rating, and a selection of positive/negative attributes
  • A usability rating and positive/negative factors contributing to usability, as well as a brief discussion of functions that are easy/difficult to perform
  • Ratings for product scalability, availability, and performance, and the reasoning behind this rating
  • An ease of integration rating (and its reasoning); systems the client integrated the product into, the technology it used, and general advice
  • An overall rating for the vendor relationship
  • Principal terms the client was able to negotiate, and advice for dealing with the vendor
  • Details on the client’s satisfaction with the upgrade process
  • A link to the reviewer’s profile, including what other products they know/have reviewed, and their reputation score on TrustRadius (based upon the community’s perspectives of their reviews)
  • The ability for buyers to request a connection with the reviewer on LinkedIn to have a one-on-one conversation

Four immediate steps to take advantage of in-depth user review content

  1. Pick a venue to focus on: While multiple review sites exist, it’s not effective to dilute your efforts. Focus on the site that you believe your prospects will find most valuable — i.e., has the most insightful content and can be found easily through search. You can evaluate the popularity of a site by its Alexa ranking, and the effectiveness of its search presence among your prospects, by running searches for your own product under the terms “product X review” and “product x vs. competitor product y.”
  2. Invite authentic in-depth feedback: Prospects are more trusting of balanced insights. It’s not sufficient for reviews to only talk about the positive aspects and benefits of your product. They also need to include honest accounts of where a product can be improved and what it’s truly like to work with a product and its vendor. As you invite customers to review your offerings, express that you are looking for honest feedback. Give them the option to review you anonymously should they prefer. Software review sites like TrustRadius offer this option.
  3. Comment on the reviews of your business: Inevitably not all feedback will be positive. Sometimes there will even be factual errors that need to be corrected. Just as managers for great hotels like the Ritz Carlton acknowledge feedback and respond on sites like TripAdvisor, it’s appropriate for vendors to also appropriately respond to reviews posted in relevant business review forums (where permitted). Responses should acknowledge issues and discuss resolutions without being defensive. Not only does commenting signal to customers that you take their feedback seriously, but it also demonstrates to others reading your reviews that you listen and adapt to feedback.
  4. Encourage prospects to read your reviews: While many prospects will stumble upon your reviews through search, you should actively share your reviews through your other content marketing efforts. Doing so demonstrates that you have nothing to hide, and helps strengthen your reputation as a business consumers can trust.