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  • Writer's pictureBen Oliveri

Why and How: Customer Stories vs. Case Studies

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

Case studies have generally relied on reason and quantifiable results to appeal to the target audience.

You know a case study headline when you see it:

Sony Music Boosted Their Creative Production Capacity by 4x with Asana

How Livestorm Captures 200 Extra Leads per Month with Shorter Forms

130-Year-Old Business Kakuichi Boosts Decision-Making Speed by 4X with Slack

Each contains the key ingredients:

(1) A recognizable customer name

(2) A quantifiable metric

(3) A reference to the product or company

Nothing wrong with this! Case studies are a great way to demonstrate social proof and present the type of results your product or service can deliver. The only problem is, case studies aren’t right for all audiences at all stages of the marketing funnel.

Let’s use dating as an analogy.

How would you feel if, on the first date, your counterpart started talking about the type of car you should get as a married couple, or the number of family vacations you would take per year? You’re at least going to be a little overwhelmed—but more likely, you’re never going to go on that second date.

This is akin to trying to win over a top-of-funnel prospect with a case study, and it's the reason you need customer stories.

Customer Story vs. Case Study

The terms customer story and case study have often been used interchangeably—but failing to distinguish between the two could indicate a gap in your content marketing strategy.

In his 2009 Ted Talk, Simon Sinek famously said, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” He uses his Golden Circle to illustrate the concept: first explain why, then how, and finally what.

Sinek concludes his talk saying, “It’s those who start with why, that have the ability to inspire those around them.”

By starting with why, you show your audience your beliefs, which forms a much stronger basis for the brand-customer relationship than metrics and numbers. Later you can explain how your product works.

Customer stories are the WHY. Case studies are the HOW.

Why: Customer Stories

At the awareness-stage, sharing an abundance of evidence or results can be counterproductive. The customer, like your date, wants to get to know you. Before you can tell them HOW you are going to live happily ever after, you have to catch their interest.

Through customer stories, you can demonstrate your brand identity and show prospects that you have shared values.

While customer stories can acknowledge general problems and solutions, the real focus should be making a case for WHY the prospect should learn more about you. At this point, there is no need to do a deep dive on your product and its quantifiable benefits.

Instead, start to build a connection by sharing the stories of other customers and WHY they sought you out.

What problems were they experiencing? Why do these problems deserve attention?

A good customer story includes:

  • The pain points the customer was experiencing

  • The individual and organizational impacts of those pains

  • Why they sought out your solution

  • Why they decided to work with your company over others

Customer stories will most likely be based on interviews with your clients. And since people relate to people more than they relate to abstract concepts, it’s ideal for the subject of your customer story to be a specific person in a specific job role. This is an opportunity to let the customer speak for you—to the greatest extent possible, retain the language, verbiage, and emotion of the customer. By doing so, your content will be more relatable to new prospects.

It's easier to form a connection when we can see and hear each other. With that in mind, consider including a video along with your customer story write-up. Be mindful that the order things were discussed in raw video outtakes may not be the most fluent way to present ideas to your audience—have a video editor handy.

Once you capture the interest of a prospect, you need to win them over. Now is the time to tell them HOW you are going to make their lives (and business) better.

How: Case Studies

Case studies are a continuation of the customer story. Here, you need to move from WHY a customer should work with you, to HOW they are going to work with you. Show them how you work and what you’re good at.

As the name “study” suggests, case study content may provide an in-depth discussion of HOW a client used your product and the results they achieved.

The goals of a case study are often two-fold. First, to convince decision-makers that the solution will help the organization perform better and make them look good. And second, to convince individual users that the solution will make their jobs easier or their lives better.

Effective case studies do this by sharing:

  • The stories of customers that trust them

  • The practical utility of the product

  • The quantifiable results achieved

  • A compelling call to action

At this stage, your prospect should be ready to get down to the nitty-gritty a little more. They are likely asking themselves, “Okay, what are you really offering?” It's therefore appropriate to communicate value through quantifiable results that your customers have experienced.

Metrics cited can and should vary by product and industry, but some useful measures include:

  • Cost savings

  • Time savings

  • Growth

  • ROI

  • Revenue

  • Accuracy

  • Efficiency

  • Productivity

Now, we’re “talking business!” But that doesn’t mean you can neglect the personal connection you started building with your prospect. Especially in a B2B scenario where millions of dollars may exchange hands and hundreds or thousands of stakeholders may be affected, decision-makers need an emotional connection with the brand throughout the buyer’s journey. In fact, according to Google Research, B2B buyers are 50% more likely to purchase a product when they see personal value in it, and 8x more likely to pay a premium.

While a case study explains HOW the product delivers value, it’s important to continue nurturing the WHY and the emotional connection that underpins the relationship. To do this, consider again making the subject of your story a person. Team leaders make for a great fit here.

As you present the quantifiable results achieved, try to approach it more from an angle of sharing the value experienced. This will help to keep your case study more personal and relatable.

What’s in a Name?

While the terminology you use for content initiatives doesn’t actually matter, the strategy you deploy to connect with your audience does. To that end, adopting the terms customer story and case study can help you stay on track in communicating the why and how of your offering at the right time.

Every good relationship is built on shared values and an emotional connection. Begin by building the connection through customer stories focused on general information, values, and brand identity. Strengthen the connection with case studies that share quantifiable value through stories that carry the thread of your brand identity.


Connecting Musicians and Instrument Brands - A customer story I wrote for ArcDev a few years back.

Small Business Innovation? This Manufacturer is a Step Ahead - A targeted, relevant, and highly relatable customer story by Cisco.

Sony Music Boosted Their Creative Production Capacity by 4x with Asana - A winning structure for a case study by Asana.

130-Year-Old Business Kakuichi Boosts Decision-Making Speed by 4X with Slack - A story-centric case study by Slack.


Want to explore your content strategy? Get in touch!

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