How to write an anonymous business case study that doesn’t suck
One of the great parts of my job is helping talented people tell good stories about the cool stuff they’re doing.
But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve seen marketers stay silent about their most valuable, useful and impressive work because the end customer won’t sign off on a public reference.
B2B marketers are so reluctant to write anonymous case studies their best business stories go untold.
Now obviously, customers vouching for you is important. Social proof is just about the most powerful resource available to marketers, whether it’s:
- A customer blurb evangelizing the value inside an ebook
- A home-page testimonial snippet singing your praises
- A customer success story about the big-picture results of a single engagement
- A full-fat case study that goes deep on the nuanced response to a complex challenge
The reason all these things are valuable is because they’re ostensibly disconnected from the profit motive. Each one is an objective vote of confidence from someone with nothing to gain.
When you introduce anonymity though, that disconnect disappears. Suddenly it’s ventriloquism without the puppet—and no amount of stagecraft will convince the audience you aren’t talking to yourself.
But simply not using anonymous customer stories creates other problems. You end up short on references, and over-invested in securing new ones that get shelved, sidelined and shit-canned all too easily.
In both cases, the result is the same: you don’t have the stories you need to activate your prospects.
This dynamic is present in every company I’ve worked with. Here’s how to fix it.
Why business case studies need to focus on what’s most valuable for prospects
Marketers are wary of anonymity because they don’t think the market will believe them.
But believability isn’t a good measure of worth here—we need to think about value.
Just like the best stories, the best case studies are about conflict and desire—about overcoming the obstacles on the way to an outcome. But most public references are all outcome and no obstacle.
That’s stupid. For prospects, business case studies are a window into what their lives might be like as customers. They’re trying to do due diligence and you’re showing them a trophy cabinet of impressive logos, big statistics, and manicured pull quotes.
And not to get all Good Will Hunting on you, but it’s not your fault.
There are tacit rules to public references that dictate the stories we tell (and the way we tell them.
No customer is going to attach their logo to a case study that reflects badly on them. That’s just the reality of the transaction.
And that means public references all start to sound the same:
- They diminish the initial conditions that created the need
- They make everyone involved sound omniscient
- They smooth out any friction that doesn’t fit the positive narrative
In other words, they tell a story with all the depth and insight of a press release.
But what if you did something braver—by becoming an advocate for the buying decision your prospects are wrestling with?
What if by writing business case studies, you exposed what it’s really like to be a customer—good and bad?
There’s a universe of customer stories we’re not telling because we’re constraining ourselves to public, positive stories.
But anonymity grants marketers permission to explore the juiciest parts of customer stories they’d never normally touch.
Like we said in When bad is good, B2B’s allergy to negativity misses out on one of the most powerful human emotions.
B2B buying decisions are too long, multi-faceted and nonlinear to be effectively served by two-dimensional Good News stories. Getting insanely honest about the obstacles and friction along the way to the results you deliver signals confidence and builds trust in a way that most public references never achieve.
Let’s take a look at why, when you’re not constrained by someone else’s approval, there’s an infinite horizon of problems, solutions and benefits you’re suddenly free to explore.
What makes a good anonymous business case study?
A good anonymous case study isn’t just a public reference with the names taken out. You need to fill the customer vacuum with a different kind of social proof: vulnerability.
Acknowledged hardship is the necessary source of conflict that both provides value for prospects (because they get to see what you’re like under pressure) and bypasses the question of believability.
The tacit agreement with a public reference is with the customer: we’ll make you look good.
With an anonymous case study, it’s with the reader: we’re confident enough to tell the truth.
So how do you expose the right kind of vulnerability? By asking bigger—potentially uncomfortable—questions that uncover what’s usually left unsaid.
Here are some business case study writing tips to get you started:
What was the reality of the problem you solved?
You don’t need to sand the edges from the pain of the old world. Get specific about the inefficiency holding them back, or the weak spot in their customer experience. Write something brutally honest (but compassionate) that prospects recognize from their own reality.
|Once we worked with a brilliant software provider with a chronic blindspot in their cloud spend. They had a brilliant product, happy customers and a totally unnecessary cash flow haemorrhage jeopardizing everything.|
Where was the friction in the sales process?
Did you help the customer better understand the business problem they’re trying to solve? Or conversely, were you doing something you’d never done before? Maybe you accepted aggressive pricing terms because there was a bigger upside for you? This is a chance to show your comfort with curveballs.
|We love working with companies as ambitious as we are. Which is why when one manufacturer asked about refactoring our process optimization software for the sensors in their delivery trucks, we had to say yes. The whole thing was a leap of faith—and one that paid off for both of us.|
What happened during implementation?
Were you hand-holding way more than you expected? Did you need to bring all hands on deck to handle sudden obstacles? Did the scope explode or focus pivot halfway through? Successful companies are always learning from the past—show your prospects the gnarly problems you’ve already solved.
|We were two months into designing new network infrastructure for a chain of retail stores when news of the acquisition hit. The new owner brought in a whole new list of technology integrations we had to support. We had to develop emergency processes from the ground-up to get the project back on track. And now we’re ready for anything.|
How did the results stack up?
Did the customer need to change some expectations or behaviors in order to achieve their goals? Were there any unexpected benefits or side effects? Did the project hit a road bump that you’ve since recovered from? Prove that you only win when you customers win.
|We helped one construction company rationalize and consolidate over a decade of customer data, dispersed across countless legacy systems, into a single view. This created a different problem: they were overwhelmed with business development opportunities.|
What does the future (actually) hold?
When you get to the good news, go beyond traditional financial and performance metrics and use anonymity as a license to get personal. Whose life is easier now? How are their customers impacted? Did someone impress their boss? Do you have exciting plans to keep them improving?
|This story has a bittersweet ending. Three months after we finished deployment we got an email from the IT director saying they were leaving the project team…to start as CIO. We’re sad not to speak every week anymore—but now we’re focused on getting the next person promoted.|
B2B case study best practices for anonymous stories
Anonymous business case studies are a license to do some cool stuff that public references can’t. You can:
Tell better, more real, more valuable stories (and have fun doing it)
And because no-one else is really doing this, they’ll stand out to prospects
Build trust and credibility and look like a no-bullshit realist in the process
Only an experienced expert would have the confidence to tell it like it is
Expose the hard problems before they’re real
And get customers to buy-in to your process as a consequence
Foreshadow a transparent and accountable working relationship
And get vivid about an exciting future together
Mine your best accounts for multiple case studies
Customers rarely only have one story—now you can tell them all
Skip all the headaches of public references
No weird handshake agreements, no unnatural positivity filter, no sign-off hell
This is a whole new way to think about customer references. There are some common sense health warnings here—don’t jeopardize your customer relationships, don’t forget to balance negativity with upside and don’t use these as a wholesale replacement for traditional case studies.
But if you think the stories at the bottom of your funnel might not be working as hard as they need to, give this a try. You’ll be surprised how refreshing and freeing it’ll feel—for both you and your prospects.
Now—we’re a big advocate for eating your own dog food. And we’re still working out how we’d showcase brilliant (and highly visual) client work anonymously.
So here’s the deal: once we do, we’ll try something out on our own B2B case studies page. In the mean time, check it out anyway to see how we approach public references.
Henry Cazalet, The SMS Works Ltd | June 10th, 2020
Terrific Luke, thanks.
This has given me an idea for an anonymous case study where everything went horribly, horribly wrong. The monumental stuff up was partly, though not entirely our fault.
This case study will document what happened and how we fixed things. What did we do to get that customer back on board and happy again?
What changes did we make to ensure the same thing can’t happen again.
It’s often how you behave when things go wrong that people will judge you by.
I think our prospects will be interested to learn about that.
Luke Gain | June 10th, 2020
Yes! That sounds great Henry—exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. It might make sense to *over*signal what customers are getting in the title to tee up their expectations: “What happens when things go wrong (and how we fix them)” sorta thing. Good luck!
Ross, PortSwigger | June 22nd, 2020
Velocity Gods, thank you for helping me to understand what I’ve always felt. Most case studies suck and are not reflections of the true, messy reality that we all (and particularly our future customers) live in. Forget the named study – leave that for getting your customers on video! Tell the true, yet anonymous story of the challenges and aspirations our help-needing prospects face.
Luke Gain | June 25th, 2020
Thanks Ross, that’s super kind. You’re totally right about sanitized stories – if the cost of a logo is that your case study ends up *less* valuable then the trade isn’t worth it!
Tracey James, Tech Torque | September 2nd, 2020
Your piece is so true: by the time they’re approved it, a case study is bland, boring and useless – but I have 2 q’s for you, Luke.
1. If you’re brutally honest, you can’t give any background that could ID them. How do you provide context without something about the org’n?
2. If you want your clients to be referees (take calls from genuine prospects) how can you be so honest and detailed without compromising them?
Shayur Maharaj, CloudApper | September 8th, 2020
As a student who is trying to hone their critical thinking ability I found this piece to be very beneficial
Bill Maslen, The Word Gym Ltd. | January 13th, 2021
Ah, so much of this resonated with me! It’s such a tricky area, and so many of the best stories do indeed involve the overcoming of obstacles and misunderstandings. Excellent work, Luke.