By Vinay Bhagat published February 9, 2014

B2B Marketing: Why (and How) to Focus on Reviews, Not Case Studies

ready for change-colored arrowsCase 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.

content marketing trends graph

Source: LinkedIn B2B Content Marketing Trends survey

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.”

b2b buyers start-colorded circle

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

In addition, the in-depth review has:

  • 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

If you were a prospective buyer of Marketo, which would you trust more and find more helpful?

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.

Do you have experience creating or using in-depth user reviews as part of your content marketing efforts? Please share your thoughts on where they succeed, and where they need improvement, in the comments below.

For more guidance on how to choose the tools and techniques that will take your content marketing to the next level, read CMI’s guide, How to Choose Content Marketing Technology. 

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Vinay Bhagat

Vinay is Co-founder and CEO of TrustRadius, the leading independent site for professionals to share candid insights about business software through in-depth reviews. Follow Vinay on Twitter; on his blog, or on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Vinay Bhagat

  • gordongraham

    What a surprise: another pop-up guru proclaiming that one marketing format will replace another… the only thing missing was a declaration that “case studies are dead!”

    Of course, in-depth reviews are great. But like anything else, they have drawbacks and limitations: in-depth reviews take resources to create, they can expire over time, they can be blocked by a no-endorsements policy, and they can’t always be trusted.

    Recorded music, the telephone, radio, TV, movies, e-mail, the internet, social media, and now in-depth user reviews were all supposed to “replace” older and “obsolete” forms of communication. But they didn’t, did they? The more sensible view is that each new format nestles in among existing formats and finds its most useful niche. Mark my words: both user reviews and case studies will continue to be used where they work best.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Gordon – thanks for taking the time to read my article and comment. I’ll address the issues you raise:

      1. In-depth reviews take resources to create.
      The distinction is that the effort is carried out by the product user and does not pose a burden on internal company resources. Yes it could be considered an imposition on a customer, but I’ve found that many customers are more than willing to share their opinion, especially if allowed to be fully candid and balanced. Customer advocates regularly take reference calls, speak at events etc. Reviews open up the podium to many more to participate.

      2. They can expire over time.
      Yes this is a challenge with any form of customer story and most review sites. We’ve designed TrustRadius so that a customer can update their review at any point, changing their ratings and comments, adding more sections. Here’s an example:
      http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/apptio-technology-business-management-2012-12-31-17-25-24

      3. They can be blocked by no-endorsement policy.
      It’s important to offer reviewers privacy options where can have their identity obfuscated. This allows reviewers who would otherwise not participate to share their opinion. Here’s an example of someone who wrote a review on TrustRadius from a company that had a no-endorsement policy and opted for a private profile:
      http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/workday-2012-10-31-15-46-13

      4. Cannot always be trusted.

      While no system is 100% full-proof, we take extraordinary measures to ensure trustworthiness. Every reviewer is authenticated via their LinkedIn credentials. We validate that their LinkedIn profile is legitimate and congruent with the product they’re reviewing. We stage every review for vetting by a researcher to further ensure its legitimacy and also to strive for balanced commentary. Every reviewer accumulates a reputation score as they participate. Much like shoppers on eBay buy from people they don’t know, consumers of content can determine who they want to trust based upon their reputation score and of course their content. Additionally, rarely do people rely on a single review.

      As to whether in-depth reviews will augment or replace case studies, I believe the answer will be decided by customers. Some formats co-exist whereas others do get replaced when there’s a superior alternative. When was the last time you bought a vinyl record or cassette?

      As to being called a “pop-up guru” – that’s a first for me :-). The vantage point I speak from is that of a serial technology entrepreneur. Prior to TrustRadius, I built a software company from zero to $80m. I would have welcomed an alternative to having to invest in developing case studies. As a buyer of over 30 different enterprise systems, I would have welcomed a much easier channel to get authentic feedback on those vendors and a chance to avoid some of the mistakes we made.

  • Keir Rothnie

    Tough love there Gordon, but the balance you bring to the topic is refreshing, especially for instance TV, which continues to gain in viewership (not so valid for B2B IMHO, but anyway, you get the point).
    Also, looking at the sheer effort of creating ‘in-depth user reviews’ and the willingness of quite who in a client oraganization would ever agree to spend the time post-purchase of monitoring all the parameters suggested, is beyond me.
    This is an advertorial anyway for TrustRadius, but not a bad one (only two mentions in the body copy) and it is well written (we both read it, right?). Seems also to espouse the ‘new’ focus on long format coming back as opposed to 140 characters, etc.

  • Magnetude Consulting

    Interesting perspectives, thanks for the article. I agree the customer feedback and prospect purchase decision loops are evolving, though I don’t think case studies and testimonials will decrease in importance anytime soon. That said, I agree social research (and therefore, user reviews) will become increasingly important–just look at what’s happened in consumer markets. I would venture a bet that more B2B oriented review platforms will start to emerge.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that case studies and testimonials will not disappear, but I do believe that given constrained (non-infinite) marketing resources, a mix shift will occur. Today, few B2B marketers place a strategic emphasis on end-user reviews, and I believe that will change, driven by the consumption preferences of buyers.

      The consumer analogy is apropos. How many B2C product marketers invest energy in creating case studies?

  • Ian Dainty

    Gordon & Keir, well said. It is difficult enough trying to get a simple testimonial from a client, never mind asking them to spend 3-4 hours working their way through an ‘in-depth user review’. Although they would be good if you can get them. They would be good for a high ticket item, but by the time the user company had enough experience with the product/service, the vendor would have had a number of upgrades and other changes. Nice idea however.
    Vinay why didn’t you point us to a couple of reviews, as examples, for TrustRadius.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Ian – thanks for your comment. It is indeed challenging to get testimonials
      and case studiesfor many of the reasons stated – legal review, no endorsement policies/lack of privacy options etc.

      We however find that product users are much more apt to contribute to an independent forum motivated by:
      1) A desire to share their experiences (much like travelers on TripAdvisor), 2) A wish to demonstrate their expertise (much like LinkedIn); and
      3) Gamification/ incentives

      Since our launch in May, we’ve assembled 2150 reviews across 340 products. and are adding ~150 reviews per week currently and scaling fast. 77% of our reviews are derived from our outreach to product users, 13% from vendors referring their clients, and 10% from existing community members either reviewing additional products, or those who’ve benefited from other people’s reviews electing to contribute.

      Per your request, here are a few examples beyond the Marketo Navicure review (http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/marketo-2012-11-29-20-07-06that was discussed and linked to in the article:

      1) Review of Quotewerks, a UK based quoting/pricing/proposal tool by the CEO of an IT consultancy:
      http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/quotewerks-2014-02-06-05-22-05

      2) Review of Yammer by a marketing strategist at a Swedish company:
      http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/microsoft-yammer-2014-02-05-12-57-20

      3) Review of Qlikview BI tool by the VP of IT at Rackspace
      http://www.trustradius.com/reviews/qlikview-2012-11-13-21-10-12

      These are some of our longer reviews. The average review on our site is about 500 words and the average reviewer spends 18 minutes on their initial review. A reviewer can update and augment their review at any point. Unlike hotels where you generally have a one time experience, most software users have an on-going and deepening relationship with software, so we believe it’s important for them to be able to add to their review over time. That also serves to keep ratings fresh.

  • antonio susta

    Good insight. Personal search is already changing the rule of the game. Search and white papers made by vendors are usually only written to sell their products whereas reviews and opinion searched on the web are, on average, much more independent and without need to sell something

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Thanks for your comment Antonio. Search is truly changing the game.

  • B2Bstartupmarketer

    Interesting TrustRadius lead gen article :) That aside, I find review-based information as important and glad someone is trying to evangelize it. But as with any marketing medium, it all depends on the purpose/audience you’re trying to reach. Well done case studies/testimonials are valuable because they provide easily accessible, concise information across the board. Reviews are great for folks who want/need more detailed dives (e.g., product, functional sponsors) further down the funnel. But executives in charge of buying decisions and signing the check will fly by reviews as they aren’t concerned by end-user level detail–they just want to know if the product in question will affect positive change in the business, bring rational ROI, and actually work.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      You’re correct that many executive buyers generally prefer a synopsis vs.diving into the details. I would however posit, that they still value unbiased, balanced insights. Getting to those unbiased insights is challenging and that’s where reviews play an important role. About 10% of our users are executives. We’re also working on curation efforts to distill aggregate opinions across 100s of reviews.Moreover, B2B purchasing is done in teams, and an executive often leans on another staffer to do more rigorous due diligence and present a summary.

      At my last company, we made a $100k/ year investment decision in an HR package based largely on vendor supplied reference checks, and the word of the sales person. The product was also rated as a leader in the Gartner magic quadrant. After beginning implementation, we realized that the product functionally failed to meet one of our core requirements despite assurances made during the sales process.

  • Kasia Jazdzewska

    That is a very interesting article and I have to agree that reviews on relevant sites can be very powerful. In the case of our business – cloud business solutions, however, we noticed that case studies are still pertinent and in fact, potential customers ask for them. What I find very difficult at the moment though is getting existing customers to actually provide some reviews. Any ideas on how to encourage people to leave reviews?

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Kasia – thanks for your comment. Prospective customers ask for case studies, as they want to hear about the experiences of other customers. Most are unaware that accessing independent reviews is an option. I think you’ll find that given the choice between an in-depth balanced review and a typical case study, they’d prefer the former. Reviews are a new phenomenon in B2B while they are of course prevalent in B2C.

      To address your question about getting customers to write reviews, there are a few best practices:

      1) There are key moments in the customer life-cycle when they are most apt to write a review – when newly deployed, after a positive customer service incident, upon renewal etc.

      2) Invite open, honest feedback.

      3) Offer privacy options. On TrustRadius, reviewers can elect to be private where just their demographics are exposed – even though they are authenticated using their LinkedIn credentials.

      4) Cast a wide net. It’s tempting to just pick key executive contacts at cherry picked accounts, but to have a successful, robust review program, you need to invite broader participation. You’ll be surprised by your ability to identify new advocates, so long as your product and service is strong.

      5) Some vendors use incentive programs or customer advocacy software programs where clients earn rewards for participation in programs. If you do this it’s critical to not tie the earning of an incentive to a positive review.

      I’d be happy to send you the language we share with participating vendors to use in their customer outreach.

  • http://www.manageyourleads.com/ Brian

    @Brian Nice article, As B2B products are complex so the buyers are very less. The prospect carry out more research for the leads and I can use the reviews that help me to track the Traffic and then I convert them to Leads.

  • http://BrianHansford.com/ Brian Hansford

    Nice article Vinay. I see value on both case studies and customer-driven reviews. Companies that are willing to provide their information for a B2B case study usually have credibility. There are exceptions, of course. It’s important for me to see results, and open testimonials. Many companies have policies that prevent them from providing information for any case study. The more a company is willing to share on how they use a solution and the results they have garnered is very valuable, regardless of the source. As with most things in B2B content marketing, quality is more valuable than quantity.

    Independent testimonials from customers are also incredibly valuable. I like to see a review that is provided by an identifiable individual that can be found on LinkedIn. Anonymous submissions mean nothing to me. I also like to see the details and honesty that lead someone to provide a genuine review. Pros and cons also lend a ton of credibility. Quite often I see employees reviewing their own company in order to hijack a thread. Not good.

    There are other types of reviews I view with increasing scrutiny. Major analyst firms for years have reviewed companies or industries, seemingly without bias. However, it’s clear that many reports clearly have a bias, depending on who asked for a study or report to be written. Stack ranking certain companies simply because they subscribe to an analyst, etc. isn’t credible. Sadly it happens way too often.

    Even if people don’t agree with your post I like how you have opened this up with broad feedback. Customer feedback is incredibly important to the success of B2B marketing.

    Cheers,
    Brian Hansford

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Brian – thanks very much for your insights and feedback. I hear you on anonymous submissions being of less value – however, I do think there are ways to make them more trustworthy – like a secure authentication process (and assurance they’re not the vendor or a competitor), sharing demographics, giving visibility into their profile of what other products they’ve reviewed.

  • http://www.tonyzambito.com/ Tony Zambito

    Good article Vinay and it aligns well with what I see changing in the world of buying behaviors. As you know, I have written as well about the rise in consumer-like buying behaviors in B2B and the rising importance of B2B user marketing. User reviews will continue to grow as a significant part of the equation in the future as the blending of consumerization takes place in B2B.

    The nature of B2B complexity today means it could be hard to wrestle with absolute truths. So, case studies may not be replaced entirely by user reviews. They may become a different part of the equation and serve a different purpose. If we compare to Amazon book reviews as an example, we know people put stock in customer reviews. But some, will also put stock into the reviews provided by the publishing house from high profile names or authors. Blending the two into their thinking about whether to purchase a book.

    I could see the same behaviors here when it comes to prudent use of case studies tackling the broader issues and user-reviews giving the granular sense from a user’s perspective. Serving different audience needs. This very well could be a case of not an “either/or” proposition but more of the case of an “and” proposition.

    You’ve presented a good articulation of why B2B companies must begin to take user reviews seriously. And, learn how to blend the concept of both case studies AND user-reviews providing a compelling picture to potential buyers.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Thanks for sharing your perspective Tony. You raise an interesting point about the potential for a hybrid approach of critic/ expert reviews vs. crowd sentiment. A good example in the B2C space is the movie review site Rottentomatoes.com which incorporates movie critic comments from the NY Times etc, along with crowd sentiment.

      I think a distinction in B2B is that in many ways the true experts are the users – though not all users are equal in their level and breadth of expertise. We’ve tried to solve for this problem, with elevating/promotion what we consider to be “A” reviews, and giving individual reviewers a chance to elevate their prominence by accruing reputation points. Those points serve to elevate their visibility in leaderboards for different categories.

  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne – NoteTakingNerd

    Vinay, that bullet list of things to seek out from your customers is GOLD! PURE GOLD!

    You have cut to the core of what I always tell my clients when they’re seeking testimonials – vague, abstract, and blurry sucks. Specific, tangible, and measurable RULES.

    The testimonial that says, “Vinay is an awesome guy to work with. I really like him. He helped me make a ton of money” is akin to just having only a review of five stars – it tells me, the perfect prospect, nothing except that they like you.

    But five stars with answers to the questions of . . .

    1. What happened?

    2. How are you feeling about it?

    3. What did you learn?

    4. What did you learn about yourself?

    5. How will this help you in the future?

    AND THEN . . .

    . . . The micro items that fall into each of those questions from your “In-depth review” bullet list above will provide RICH insight as to what the full experience was for the client/customer. It gives you a story worth reading.

    Here’s something else . . .

    Statistics show that less than 1% of a blog’s audience will make a comment on what they’ve read/watched/listened to. Not because they don’t have feelings or thoughts about it, but, I believe, primarily because they’re paralyzed with fear about public writing just the same as they are about public speaking.

    What I love about your list of inquiries to make is that it prevents your customers/clients from experiencing the deer-in-the-headlights look that shows up on a person’s face when you ask them to write something for you from scratch and they don’t believe themselves to be a “writer”.

    My hat goes off to you Vinay for amassing a world class list here that will be filed away and referenced every single time I ask a customer or client for their opinion of something they bought from me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. :)

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Lewis – thanks ever so much for your kind comments. Glad that you found the list of value. Echoing your comment, we’ve definitely found that structure helps people write better reviews. It also makes for a better/ easier information consumption experience. As a user of sites like TripAdvisor trying to find specific info like how’s the pool, the lack of structure was always an issue for me.

  • mogden24

    This article certainly brings up two major challenges with case studies: cost and getting legal approval. However, I see serious challenges with recommending reviews instead. Reviews have their place. But what exec with a company that has a strict policy against endorsing vendors would fill out a review? Also, a B2B review could be extremely long. What exec would sift through pages of customer written text to find the nuggets? Or if it’s a video review, sit through to minute 8 to find the nugget? At Case Study Experts, the process we recommend includes customer interview(s) to get the real story. The testimonials collected are more emotional connecting and pair nicely with technical data. This gives case studies a longer shelf life–more like 3-5 years. It depends on the industry and the companies involved.

    • Vinay Bhagat

      Thanks for your comment. Perhaps you’re right that an exec at an org with a strict no endorsement policy won’t write a review, even given a privacy option, however, end-users and administrators will. Enterprise software is no longer bought, and certainly not just used by executives. The trend is clearly towards team based purchasing.

      I disagree that execs will not read reviews. 10% of members on our site are VP or C-level. If you’re making a critical decision for your company, why would you not elect to read the details. Moreover, in large enterprises, team members due detailed due diligence and then summarize findings for execs. Reviews are a critical resource for them.

      Another reason why reviews will ultimately displace case studies, is objectivity. The review is not produced by the company – it’s candid, it has pros/cons. It’s what the buyer really wants to see.

      • mogden24

        I think the major difference that we’re talking about here is B2B vs. B2C. With B2C, reviews are key and read by execs. With B2B, a review sounds like a reference letter written by the customer. That takes time, which execs don’t have. A case study, good ones anyway, have story and quotes that reflect a review. Yes, case studies are produced by the company or on their behalf by a company like Case Study Experts. But facts are facts. I’ve never had situations were prospects didn’t believe the data. They can always check too. Authenticity and transparency come to mind. Until I see a credible survey result showing reviews being favored over case studies in the B2B world, I’m not buying it. In the B2C world, I do buy it because reviews are everywhere.

        • http://influitive.com/ Abdallah Al-Hakim

          I think you need both but a few well structured reviews by your advocates on different sites will impact the prospect. The challenge many B2B businesses have is in communicating with their advocates and then mobilizing them. Sometimes all it takes is a simple ask of an advocate and you get amazed by what they are willing to do. This is exactly the sort of thing that Influitive helps its clients to do via Influitive’s AdvocateHub.

  • Hyoun Park

    Reviews vs. case studies are the classic Wisdom of Crowds vs. Specific Instance problem. Both have their case, but vendors need to learn how to think of the demographics of a case study (mid-market manufacturer that is low on the technology and compliance maturity path, for example). Also, vendor-based case studies are less credible than third-party case studies.
    Case studies are actually more specific than a review can be. Reviews are good for initial/top-of-funnel solutions analysis, but case studies are for specific end-of-purchase decisions to help seal the deal. They are both important parts of the solution purchasing process, but comparing them is a false dichotomy.

  • Guest

    as