Testimonial, case study or customer success story – what’s the difference?

August 22, 2011

When Mandy Rice Davies was giving evidence during the notorious Profumo affair (see the film “Scandal”) she was challenged by the prosecuting counsel.  Her reply has gone straight into every good dictionary of quotations.  The lawyer pointed out that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her, and claimed he had never even met her – the teenager replied, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

What has that got to do with marketing?  Just this – that whatever you say to promote your own products and services is suspect.  You would say that, wouldn’t you?

That’s why some form of independent endorsement carries so much more weight.   And why businesses that fail to use third parties to recommend their products and services are missing a trick.

These endorsements come in different shapes and sizes – so I thought I’d just review the three main types.


A testimonial is a formal statement paying tribute to someone’s character, qualifications and achievements.  You see them a lot on personal profiles posted on Linkedin, and they are often scattered liberally across the pages of company websites.

Methinks he doth protest too much

Although testimonials have the benefit of independence I have a couple of problems with them.

On the one hand they seldom provide any context.  Here’s a real example, picked at random from Linkedin: “Xxxxx is wholly reliable and extremely bright. Great at creating, developing and implementing business strategies.”  Good stuff, but there’s no detail – what strategies were they, what industry are we talking about, what challenges were overcome, and what were the results?

Secondly, when I’ve asked people for a testimonial, they tend to come back with “no problem, what do you want me to say?” or “You write it, and I’ll put my name to it.”  That’s not always the case, but there’s still a suspicion that a testimonial is not entirely to be trusted – you asked your mate down the pub and they wrote a few words on the back of a beer mat.  Think about it – you are unlikely to ask someone to give you a testimonial if you know they think you are a total prat.  And, turning this around, if you are asked to provide a testimonial, you feel obliged to accentuate the positive and play down the negative.  It’s a kind of you “scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” strategy.

This uneasy feeling is reinforced by the fact that there are some people you just want to be rid of.  On their employee appraisal you wrote something like “this individual should not be allowed to breed”, or “his team merely follow him out of curiosity”, or “she only opens her mouth to change feet.”  And yet you gave them a glowing reference.  Why?  Because you were grateful to them for leaving, and you never know when the two of you might meet again.  It’s a lot smarter to be economical with the truth.


Wikipedia defines a case study as “an intensive analysis of an individual unit (e.g., a person, group, or event) stressing developmental factors in relation to context.”  Preparing a case study involves systematically “looking at events, collecting data, analyzing information, and reporting the results”.

Most business case studies tend to follow the classic problem-solution format.  For example:

  • Company x makes widgets for the aerospace industry (you provide the context and background)
  • Foreign competition meant that their prices were being savagely undercut (you introduce the problem)
  • Our software program enabled then to introduce a number of efficiencies (you explain how a solution was provided)
  • As a result cost per widget has been reduced by 27%, and sales over the last twelve months were 5% up on the previous year (you report results)

This is very persuasive, because it becomes abundantly clear exactly how your product or service adds value.  It is based on hard evidence, underpinned by details and supported by data – much more credible than one of your mates giving you a fulsome thumbs-up out of a sense of obligation.

Sometimes a case study just won’t cut it

Case studies tend to be very dry, cold and analytical.  This works well in a situation where the problem can be clearly defined, where the results can be accurately measured and reported, and where the target audience tends to be very logical (engineers, finance, operations).

But what if you are selling to people who are less technical – in the creative industries, or sales, marketing, HR and hospitality?   This number crunching approach will prove grindingly boring to many of them.

What’s more, the classic case study approach relies on having impressive results, based on hard data.  But what if your solution doesn’t lend itself to this analysis?  How do you prove what effect the new corporate identity you designed had on your client’s bottom line?  Maybe the full benefit of using your outsourced HR solution simply cannot be calculated numerically?

That’s where the third type of endorsement comes into play.


This approach takes the case study structure (background, problem, solution, results) but overlays it with third person testimony – the words of the satisfied customer.

Instead of just containing facts and figures this approach lets the customer relate their own feelings and experiences – it’s like a case study, but with the added elements of human interest and emotional warmth being used to create an engaging story.

The customer success story is especially good in situations where there is little or no data to make a compelling case with, and where the target audience will respond well to a more anecdotal approach.  Even when you do have some tangible and quantifiable results there’s no harm in giving them greater emotional weight with some quotes from satisfied customers.

Need help preparing case studies or customer success stories to promote your business?  Get in touch!  [email protected] 

Picture credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/what_id/5371673830/

  1. David Baker September 13, 2011 Reply

    When I reflect on how business has come to us it usually goes this way:
    1. Contact via a website or a referral
    2. Extended discussion about the client's needs, their reasons for contacting us, and empathising with their business enthusiasms. During this phase we achieve credibility and demonstate our expertise by responding to their questions in an informed way or to tell them that this is not our area of expertise. We have all been put off by the secretary who says the boss is too busy, or the sales executive who is only intent on the sale and not your needs !!
    3. A quotation which is at a competitive price
    Stage 1 clearly requires the client to be sufficiently interested to make the contact. This is where it is necessary for the website to be found (!), and to be convincing enough to encourage that contact. Customer testimonials, recommendations, case studies can be most effective at this stage. Just the fact that a potential client could talk to one of your existing clients is a demonstration of confidence. The bigger the contract the more reassurance the potential client will need. I do agree that stories need to be convincing to sell but they need to be as short and as pithy as Mandy Rice Davies !
    Just a few musings from a long time SME owner.
    David Baker

  2. Sam Finlay September 24, 2011 Reply

    Picking up on your points regarding customer success stories and the power of case studies. I'd just like to add that film or video have long been recognised for being the most effective way of conveying a real sense of honesty and genuine emotion.

    Video is also incredibly efficient at conveying complex information or stories in a memorable way.

    The fact that Google currently favours websites containing video content to the degree that it does makes using it, to demonstrate customer case studies as stories, seems a bit of a no brainer to me and should be forming a core part of everyones marketing strategy.

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