Effective case studies for your agency (featuring Rachel Jacobs)

Why every agency should be producing case studies -- and the six key elements that go into a good one.
Rachel Jacobs

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In this episode, Rachel Jacobs explains why case studies are critical to the scale and growth of agencies. Rachel, founder of Ecommerce Partnerships, reminds agency owners that their number one client is their own agency.

Step by step, you’ll learn how to integrate a case study opportunity before a client even signs the contract, who the audience should be, and the six key elements that make up a basic case study.

Quotes

  • Rachel: “There needs to be data, data needs to be at the core, there’s no point in telling a beautiful story. The data is what the results are. That’s where the value is.”
  • Chip: “You described a case study as a story. And you need to tell a story, there needs to be a plot to your case study, you need to really set up what the challenge is that you had at the beginning, you need to go through what it is that you did, and you need to talk about the results. And if you follow that arc, that’s what makes for the good case study, not just spewing out facts.”
  • Rachel: “A word of caution, though, the case study is not about the agency. And I think that’s a mistake, I see time again, agencies seem to think that a case study is an opportunity for them to show how amazing they are. And the reality is that your end customer doesn’t really care about how amazing you are when it comes to the case study. What they care about is connecting with the actual hero of the case study, the customer, and seeing if they can relate to them.”
  • Chip: “The reality is that the whole name of the industry, the agency industry, we are the agent, we are in service to the client, we are not telling the client what to do. We are not the driver, you know, we are that trusted advisor if we’re doing our jobs effectively.”

Resources

Transcript

CHIP: Hello, welcome to another episode of the Chats with Chip Podcast. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Rachel Jacobs. She is the founder of Ecommerce Partnerships. Welcome to the show, Rachel.

RACHEL: Hi Chip. Thanks for having me.

CHIP: It is good to have you here. And I know that some people describe you as the Master of the Universe, but perhaps you could give us a more accurate representation of what it is that you do.

RACHEL: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Oh, that’s just view. Yeah. So what I do is, I used to run a leading ecommerce agency based in London. And since then doing that for a couple of years, now I work as an agency advisor, I work with agencies across the US, the UK, across Europe, just to basically help them implement better strategies and better systems. On the topic we’re covering today around case studies is a really crucial part of some of the work that I do with agencies.

CHIP: and case studies are so important. I know that you said that, you know, if a picture paints 1000 words, a good case study, can get actually make you thousands of dollars. So explain what you mean by that?

RACHEL: Well, I mean, it’s something that I really struggle to get my head around, because I’m a content writer by trade, but so many agencies that I speak to, they seem to, they seem to forget that their number one client is their agency. And the best way to showcase their skills and their value to a potential customer is by documenting that in a case study format. And most of the agencies that I work with, when I talk about, you know, what’s your portfolio, like? What is your case studies look like? What does that look like in your sales deck and have them say, Well, I don’t really have any, I don’t really have any time, or maybe the client doesn’t really want to share some of the data, which is a really common challenge that a lot of agencies have. But, you know, a well written case study is something that you can repurpose time and time again. And some of the case some of the clients that I’ve worked with that have fantastic case studies where I’ve done it for them, or they’ve done it themselves, there is a direct return on investment. An actual fact, research shows that the case studies are actually the third most effective growth strategy in terms of profits for agencies, and that’s next to face to face events, and webinars. So it’s It’s so high up there, that it’s an absolute necessity for any agency that wants to scale.

CHIP: I think the The other advantage with case studies is it’s not just about showing to your prospects, what it is that you can have for results, but it actually, as you’re creating them, it helps you think through that connection between the work that you’re doing and the results that you’re producing. So it really, it can clarify a lot of your strategic thinking as an agency owner leader.

RACHEL: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And that comes down to positioning again, another challenge that a lot of agencies have, it’s the jack of all trades, master of none kind of approach. And a lot of agencies, agencies that I work with, for sure, when I come in, you know, it’s I come from military background. So for me, it’s all about, you know, looking at the process and being very pragmatic about things. A lot of agents owners are agency owners three default and very creative, and have a lot of ideas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lend itself very well to structure. So when it comes to really understand who is your ideal customer for a lot of agencies, like whoever’s going to pay you the most. And the reality is that that doesn’t help you scale. So by doing case studies, and allows you to really narrow your focus on with these are the projects, we did really, really well, these are the projects, they’re very profitable for both us as an agency, that the customer, the client, and the brand, whoever it is you’re working with. And these are the areas that we can be thought leaders and experts, we can really double down on this niche and be the go to agency for this particular service. And then obviously, your case studies are a way for you to showcase that expertise.

CHIP: And so when you’re thinking about case studies, what is the best format for them to take? Is this. Are you talking about putting together one pagers Are you talking about putting together videos? Are you talking about getting client testimonials, as part of them or is it really about the data, talk a little bit about what you think makes for an effective case study?

RACHEL: Well, I mean, I have an outline here, which will run through later. And what are the key elements of a good case study. But to be honest, it’s all of the above. I think that we’re living in a day and age where people are bombarded with, you know, phones and technology and emails, and everything’s online, people are bombarded with information. So, video, testimonials, video case studies are amazingly powerful, because rather than sitting and reading a four or five page document or a 10 page, blog post or case study, actually being able to connect eyeball to eyeball with a brand or a customer that has the same story and have the same challenges that you’re currently having. And to be able to hear their story and how they he was able to help them. I think that that really works very well. But a case study content can be repurposed in many different ways – blog post is great, social media content, LinkedIn posts, landing page content, absolutely, there needs to be data, data needs to be at the core, there’s no point in telling a beautiful story. The data is what the results are. That’s where the value is. But yeah, I have a guideline that I recommend to my agencies that they should follow. So more than happy to share that as well.

CHIP: Sure. And so and I think that’s a key part of it, right is to make sure that when you’re thinking about putting together case studies for your agency, that you have a process, you have a checklist for the different components and the different ways you can use it. Because if you if you assemble all of the information for a good case study, you can actually produce content in different forms, whether that’s for your website, or for your capabilities deck, or for samples to provide and targeted ways to prospects at some point in their pipeline process, there’s a lot of different ways that you can use it if you’ve got the material assembled in a smart way.

RACHEL: Absolutely. And it also comes down to the relationship that you have with your clients, from my point of view, to have a good case study, it starts with sales, to be able to build that rapport with the client from the very start. To be able to make sure that you have in your contracts that on the back of completing a project, that you’re able to then showcase the work that you’ve done with them and making sure that’s embedded into your contract, the client is aware of that. And then whilst you’re implementing and delivering the project, that you’re making sure that the client is happy every step of the way, that’s only going to further empower the case study that you’re going to produce at the end. But

CHIP: yeah, so what you’re saying is for an effective process, the case study can’t be an afterthought that can be scrambled to produce at some point it really, you want to make sure that you’re thinking about it, even at the very beginning of the relationship. Because that’s that’s how you’ll end up with the best case study. And actually, you’ll also end up with a better result for the client, if you’re thinking in those terms.

RACHEL: To be honest, when I run my agency, I actually hadit built in as part of the delivery process internal. So we use a CRM system and there would be a client facing board and they were be an internal board that the project manager the rest of the team that would work off, and then that the senior the C level stuff, then would be able to dip in and out and see what progress was being made. So what I had done is I had made it, I had made boards that as part of your delivery process for the PM, that around 75% of the way through the project, it was the PMs responsibility, then to ensure that some of the information, some of the story behind the case study was starting to be built. So as we were delivering the final delivery of a project, we were getting it signed off with a client at that stage, then on the condition that the client is happy, if you’ve really pissed the client off throughout the project, the chances are getting a case study is not going to happen. But when you’re you’re finishing your project, then doing the case study and doing that as part of almost as part of the signup process was was high hand. But so it meant that the team knew it was happening, the client knew it was happening. If you have the luxury of being doing a face to face of it, you can do it over video call. But if you have the luxury of being face to face, if geography allows, then meeting with a client going for coffee and doing some sort of video, testimonial and turning that into a case study, ultimately the priority the responsibility of writing and producing the case study 100% falls on the agency, you can’t expect the client’s going to do that for you. But it’s your job to make sure you have those KPIs and metrics and key things that you’re measuring, outlining the challenges, the problems, what the solutions were what that looked like, any technical aspects. And then of course, the the results.

CHIP: If case studies are so valuable. And I think certainly you and I agree with that. And I think most frankly, most agency owners that I talked to believe in the importance of case studies. And yet so many agencies are not doing them or not doing them very well. What do you think are the the main obstacles to agencies creating good case studies?

RACHEL: One word answer: resource. That’s that’s the obstacle. And I think the challenge that a lot of I know for myself, when I was running an agency and all the agencies that I work with the number one challenge that agencies have is, in many cases, a lot of agencies are very reactive. So it means that they’re at the beck and call of their client, so you’re almost a little bit sort of on the back foot all the time. And you know, trying to keep the clients happy and trying to keep the wheels on with multiple clients, that doesn’t really leave much capacity, physically or mentally for you to kind of figure out, Okay, how am I going to repurpose all this brilliant work that we’re doing all this effort, and then turn that into marketing collateral that I can use to attract more of my ideal customer, all you’re doing is thank God that we kept the wheels on and that client was happy. And we over delivered on that, and yay for us. And now we’re going straight into the next project. And you get basically caught up in this kind of project rat race, where it’s just project project project. And it’s exhausting. So to do case studies, like I said, I’m a content writer by trade, you need to have that space, you need headspace to be able to kind of put it all together and create the story. And running an agency involves an incredible amount of noise. So I feel like that’s where the disconnect is, it seems like it’s at the bottom of a very long list. And like the famous expression, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, the squeaky wheel are all your customers. A case study is not a squeaky wheel at all. So that’s just something that slips below and slips down, slips down. And sometimes it just never gets done or never gets nicked up many agencies. I know. It’s been years since they’ve, they’ve updated case studies. And then when you look at the case studies, they have they’re so broad that they don’t really do the agency any justice. And they’re either too broad or too vague. They say here’s a website, we built a website, there was a marketing strategy, we implemented a marketing strategy, but it doesn’t actually serve have any value to the customers that they want to reach.

CHIP: Well, I think you used a very good term, a minute or so ago, where you described a case study as a story. And it really does, you need to tell a story, there needs to be a plot to your case study, you need to really set up what the challenges that you had at the beginning, you need to go through what it is that you did, and you need to talk about the results. And if you follow that arc, that’s what makes for the good case study, not just spewing out facts, it really needs to paint that picture we were talking about for the prospective client so they understand the results you provide. And frankly, as you’ve I think also said you can use it with your client at the end of the project to be able to help tie it together. For them, they may realize it was successful, but the case study can often put it in even better words, and perhaps they might have to begin with.

RACHEL: Absolutely. And ultimately when it comes to an agency agencies are very different. You know, I’ve been in the SAS world and I still work with SAS partners on specifically on partnerships, but agencies and SAS are two completely different things with SAS, it’s a product, it’s something you know, I’m paying and this is what I’m getting agencies, it’s all about the relationship. That’s how you grow an agency by the relationships you have with your client. So nurturing those relationships, building trust with your audience is fundamental to being able to build a long term relationship. A huge thing that I do for my clients is help them build retainers, because that’s retention is the key to agency growth. And the way to get those retainers in place is to initially start by building the trust with the audience. And the way that you build the trust with that audience is showcase all the other examples of clients you’ve worked with and problems you’ve solved and how you’ve built their trust and how much they trust you to take care of their growing business.

CHIP: Well, I think, you know, one of the other obstacles to case studies is that there are a lot of folks in the agency world who are reluctant to ask permission from their clients to share their stories. But if you if you’re thinking about the case, study almost as a project recap. And so you’re starting out your first audience, for what you’re putting together is the client, you can then start creating something for them, you show it to them, and then you say Is it okay if I share this with other prospective clients who might want to learn from this, and you can then at that point, work in the feedback from the client, their testimonials, those sorts of things and build upon it. But it gives you a more natural way to have that conversation, if you’re reluctant to just call up a client and say, Hey, you know, we’d love to share your story. And frankly, most clients are fine with having their story shared. It’s not, you know, it’s not something that they’re nearly as reluctant to share, as I think most agencies tend to believe.

RACHEL: Yeah, I think that’s an easy copout to be honest, I’ve never come across, unless you’ve pretty pissed a client off. But that’s, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether, I’ve never come across a client where they haven’t been happy for you to do a case study. On the project you’ve done. The only issue, the challenge with a lot of clients is how much data they will allow you to reveal, especially when it comes to numbers, a lot of clients don’t have an issue of saying I increased the conversion rate from 2% to 2.7%. The where they have the issue is saying that it increased their revenues by you know, six figures on a monthly basis, or whatever it is. Um, so it’s being sensitive. But like I said earlier, I think the key to making sure, it’s just that awkward conversation, you get to the end of a project, Oh thank God, that went well, that’s the worst time to ask, because that’s the stage that you know that you should be thinking about the next steps, the retainer, the long term relationship with that client, you finish the project, now, we’re going to take that project and we’re going to help you grow, we’re going to, you know, we’re going to show you how this growth strategy that we have in mind over the next 12 months, that shouldn’t be a time that you kind of let’s pause those conversations. And let’s figure out this case study, really what should be happening is that conversation or the notion or sowing the seed for that idea should start at the very start. And it should be built into your contract that you have at the proposal stage of the client. So client is aware that as part of doing this project with you, on the back of it that there will be a case study. And then that content is slowly built. Now different agencies do it in different ways. Some agencies so for example, I come from the ecommerce world, building, designing and scaling and growing businesses, online businesses. So you start with the build project, sorry, the design project first, at the end of that design project, what I would do is I would have a series of two or three questions, these are the problems these solutions and get it signed off by the client and include it in their the CRM of the project management tool that I was using. So they’re not part of the case studies done that we would do the design bit that the build bit, and then give them the questions for that. And then that part was done. And then we would get to the final but the sign off bit: this was your problem, this is now the solution. And then I would complete that bit. And usually it takes a couple of months to see what the data is usually with a build and design, it’s usually not immediate data. But on the condition that the client is working with you on an ongoing basis, I would then have it scheduled for a follow up in two or three months to actually get the data and include it and then all I have to do then is just get the client to sign it off. One word of advice, though, sign off on a call, don’t don’t do it over email. I mean, that sort of stuff, clients would just ignore people hate emails anyway. But get them scheduled in a call if they’re on a retainer with you should be having monthly calls with them any way. So that should be fine. But But signing it off over call and running through doing a screen share with them and making sure they’re happy with everything, sharing the document with them, but just actually running it through should take 30 minutes max and make sure they’re comfortable with the with the information you’re sharing.

CHIP: Well and the data really is a key part of this, right. So you know, if you’re doing in the modern agency environment, there’s no reason not to be tying your work closely to data regardless of what you’re doing from a case study perspective. So making sure that you’re getting baseline data upfront, you understand what it is that your work is impacting and and continuing to collect that data after the project is completed will really help you not only tell the story on the case study, but really help you make your business better and make adjustments to the work that you’re doing. Because the data tells you how successful your work has been.

RACHEL: Yeah, I mean, if you’re not, if you’re not operating, operating a data driven agency that it’s going to be very difficult, you’re going to have a lot of churn with your clients. And it’s going to be very difficult for you to justify the invoices that you’re sending on a monthly basis. Doing the case studies, especially for doing case studies where you’re iterating it so I like to if you’re working with clients and ongoing basis, I always recommend to agencies that they review their data, the results on a quarterly basis, and then you update them. This also in a strategic way, it gives you an opportunity to remind your clients of how much you’re doing for them and how much value you’re bringing. So if each quarter you’re like, Okay, Chip, I just have a look at your data. And we started off last quarter and your increase in conversion was 2.5. And we’re now at the end of this quarter and we’re actually 3.2, the difference in your business is X amount of dollars, I’m reiterating to you that you should still keep paying me because I am growing your business, you know, you’re getting value for money for me. So it kind of is like a win win.

CHIP: And it’s you know, I think the more that you understand, you know what needle the client is trying to move, the more effective you can be. And so obviously, you know, there are somewhere, it’s really obvious, obviously, with your expertise in the ecommerce space, those tend to be a very direct connect between the work the agency is doing and whether it’s sales or leads, or those kinds of things. Other agencies depending on what it is that they’re doing, you may have to think a little bit harder to make sure that you’ve got the right metrics to use but using it and constantly checking back against it throughout the course of the relationship is really how to make sure you stay on track.

RACHEL: Absolutely. And again, all this stuff, you know, you have to start as you mean to go on all this, all that sort of stuff should be outlined at the start. At the end of the day business is all about managing expectations. And that’s especially true when it comes to a relationship between an agency and a client. So the really during the discovery process before you actually signed the paperwork and agreed to start working together, you should really be hundred percent crystal clear on what they expect what that client expects from you, and how they measure your success. Because you never want to be in a position where you’re not really sure how they’re measuring success. And all of a sudden you get a notice that they’re they’re leaving, and they’re giving you 30 days before they leave, because you haven’t met their expectations. So that’s why, like I said earlier, a lot of agencies, they seem to be on the back foot. My approach when it comes to the agencies I work with very, very proactive, I think it’s imperative in order for agencies to be successful, you need to be authoritative, you need to be in the driver’s seat, not to control your clients, but very much be proactive, be the one responsible for making data driven recommendations, rather than waiting for your client to come to you because then they’ll see you as a commodity as versus a valuable partner or extension of their team.

CHIP: Well, before we run out of time here, one of the things that I would like to make sure we cover here is your outline for the key things that you ought to include in a case study, because I think that’s very helpful for listeners. So they can walk away with this, from this podcast with some specific action items for how they should put together a good case study. So if you could share the basic elements that you think needs to be included.

RACHEL: Okay, we’re going to base a case study. And there’s lots of different ways that you can do this. But a basic case it has roughly six key elements, obviously you have your introduction, your headline, know when it comes to doing your headline, you need to you need to think about who you’re trying to target. So let’s just say you are a marketing company, but you specialize in SEO, and you specialize in SEO for fashion apparel, and you specialize in SEO for fashion apparel for startups, let’s just say that’s your ideal niche. Then when you write your case study, you’re always thinking, who am I trying to target? Who is my ideal customer, and wrap your headline, create your headline around that. Once you’ve done that, then you’re going on then to the background of your customer and who you’re writing the case study about these, this is no more than three to six sentences, introducing the company talk about their products, their services, the size of the team location, their ideal customers, anything that’s interesting about that particular client. So small introduction on the customer next step, then, which is super crucial, is going into bit more detail on the challenges. So picking out two or three key challenges and talk about the impact. This is super important, not just the challenge, this is a case study is not an opportunity for you to be narrative, you need to talk about the impact that those challenges have on the business. So let’s just say for example, the SEO client, they have a massive drop in conversions, or their organic search rank is massively dropped, it used to on the first couple of pages. And now they’ve dropped off to page 10, what impact does that have on their business, the impact is going to be getting less traffic to the site. As a result of getting less traffic, they’re getting less profits and their profits are dying. So it’s affecting their bottom line. Where possible, according to the key challenges, use client quotes, that’s the area where you need your clients involvement, you need your clients to kind of give you some quote or some sort of a snippet as to the impact that those challenges were having. When you’ve done the challenges, then the next step is this is where the story kicks in. And more. It’s actually talking about the journey. So it’s the journey about…. It’s not your journey as an agency. It’s your client’s journey. It’s the journey that they went through, when they were going through these challenges, how it made them feel, how the struggles that they went through their decision to find somebody to come and help them what that decision making process look like. And when they were then choosing an ideal partner to work with how they decide between the, you know, mountain of different providers out there. So you’ve run through the challenges you run through the impact, you’ve run through the journey, again, journey use as much quotes from the customer as possible. And the next step then is the solution. This is where the agency steps in with the caped hero coming in to save the day. I will – A word of caution, though, the case study is not about the agency. And I think that’s a mistake, I see time again, agencies seem to think that a case study is an opportunity for them to show how amazing they are. And the reality is that your end customer doesn’t really care about how amazing you are when it comes to the case study. What they care about is connecting without the actual hero of the case study, the customer, and seeing if they can relate to them. So the solution, introduce your solution, what service what your recommendations were and what the journey looked like towards implementing that. The key features, the benefits, any of the challenges you faced, coming up with that solution. And then second to last thing is your implementation or your onboarding. So this is where you paint a picture for your ideal customer, of what a process and what journey your client went through when you were implementing. So what your involvement was, what their involvement was, what your communication was like, how you agreed what your metrics were. And once you’ve gone through that, you’ve you’ve outlined the headline, you’ve given a bit of a background on the customer, you’ve outlined their main challenges and the impact in the business, outline the journey that they went through to find you as an agency, then what you did to find a solution, you then outlined what the implementation of that solution looks like. The final stage of the case study is all about results. This is where you talk, you get down to brass tacks, look at the numbers, you look at the data and figure out these were the KPIs. This is what we’re measuring. And these are results in the back of it. And that’s where you show the direct return on investment. And essentially, what you’ve done is you’ve walked the reader of the case study through a story, a journey of how you got from this is my problem. This is a solution. And this was the win at the end. So that’s my simple six step guide to building a case study.

CHIP: What and I like that it’s it’s very practical, it’s very to the point. And the fact that you have underscored that this is not about the agency’s ego, this is not, it’s not about self aggrandizement as an agency. This is about showing the progress that your customer has made, because they are really the hero of the case study, you are simply the facilitator that got them there. And if you if you think about it in those terms, you will be much more compelling in what you’re creating, than if it’s just all about me, me, me, and all the brilliant things that you did as an agency. Yes, those are important. But those are just part of the journey.

RACHEL: I had a great analogy from somebody before. And they said that when it comes to agencies and clients, it’s like Batman and Alfred. The client should always be Batman. And as the agency you should be the trusted advisor, you should be like Alfred, who sits in the background, nobody really sees or hears from him. But when stuff hits the fan, Batman, he always comes to Alfred to get advice and gets wisdom and get support. And that’s the role that you should play, particularly in case studies, you were there as a safe pair of hands a concierge service to pick them up wherever they fail. But the client was still front and center. They were the star of the show. And I think that’s super important.

CHIP: When the reality is that the whole name of the industry, the agency industry, we are the agent, we are in service to the client, we are not telling the client what to do. We are not the driver, you know, we are that trusted advisor if we’re doing our jobs effectively.

RACHEL: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CHIP: Well, well, you’ve been a great, trusted advisor to the listeners. On this episode, you’ve given a lot of really good practical advice on both why case studies are important and how to do them effectively. If someone is interested in learning more about you, Rachel, where should they go?

RACHEL: You can either find me on LinkedIn, Rachel Jacobs, my website is Ecommercepartnerships.com or they can just drop me an email, [email protected] I have plenty of templates around case studies. So if somebody is not quite sure or didn’t catch all of the information. You know, my Irish accent is so strong, didn’t catch all of the information. I’m more than happy to email over a couple of templates that they can repurpose.

CHIP: Great and we’ll include links to all of that in the show notes. So if you are on the treadmill or in your car, please don’t crash and fall down or anything like that. Because it’s all there just go to the show notes. Click on the link and it’ll be right there for you. And Rachel, I really appreciate you taking the time today to share your insights. Again, my guest today has been Rachel Jacobs.