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Building A Good Case Study

Case studies are the short story of the business world. You could  say a case study is a portrait of a profitable relationship between your company and a customer.

They create credibility. They showcase a real world example of a product or service in action. If they are so great, why do marketing directors complain about how difficult it is to get great case studies? Here are some ways to help you get the opportunity share amazing stories from your customers.

Build trust with your customer.

The first issue in writing a great case study is to abandon the notion of a “case study” altogether.  You don’t need “a case,” right? Heck, that sounds like something you’d litigate. You want a STORY–something compelling, authentic, and real. So start by asking your clients to “help tell their story.” Don’t use the “case study” word at all. You aren’t going to court with this.

Modern stories are the new case studies

Most of your customers really do want to help you provide real information; they just balk at the formality of the theoretical “case study” structure because we inherently know conditions change so fast, they may not be the same in a year.  They don’t want to be “on the record” when inherently we all know that relevant record is a dynamic relationship. So start talking about your story instead . .  .

Call script for a killer case study

Imagine calling your client and saying something like this:

You: “Our agency just let us know that the most respected journal in our industry wants to do a feature article on how well we’re doing with this solution. I think we should do it–it will position your firm as the leader you are, and it definitely looks good for us to be part of your success, too. Can we make it happen?”

Your client: “Our approach is maybe thought leading– are you sure? You’re doing okay right now too, but I’m not sure we want to give away the whole recipe to our competitors or tell them about a company we work with.”

You: “That makes a lot of sense–you know, we could talk about the results, and talk a bit about the approach, but leave the details vague. That way, you remain a thought leader but your competition is in the dark. I thought taking a leading position in this space would help you . . . ”

Your client: “Sure, but we can’t endorse you either–we work with several firms like yours.”

You: “I get it–we’re just happy to be one part of your story. Let’s help each other out and find a great way to shine a light on your leadership that looks good all around. Can I set up an interview with our Write2Market writer? If you don’t like the piece, we don’t have to submit it, but I think we can tell the story, make you look like the leader you are, and not give away the secret sauce. Worth a shot?”

Your client: “Well…it is a really big trade journal. I’m working on my career, and we’re working on our thought leadership position–this might be a good idea.  As long as we can keep it open around who we work with and the details of how we do it, I don’t mind sharing some of the story–let’s take next steps.”

3 things you need for a modern case study

Now you’re cooking with case study grease! To write a great case study fast, you’re going to need a few things.  Let’s start with the three things you need:

  • Context. What’s the larger business trend in play? Is there third party research that validates the trend?
  • Organization. The reader is your next customer, so organize your story around their pain points and their journey.  The NEEDS of your reader provide the outline of your case study. Use the information that is important to the reader because it addresses their “pain.”
  • Objective facts.  Put a dollar on the value of the solution you provide and define the ROI in detail. Often the customer loves your service or product for reasons we don’t even realize. Encourage the customer to brag about themselves and their sharpness in finding, and buying, your offering. Probe for the real reasons why working with your company is so satisfying. This will create buying triggers.

Once you have these three biggies, you’ll only need to format in the next six critical case study elements:

6 essential case study format elements

1. A lead quote or testimonial. Use a quip from an interviewed source–your client or customer–that is repeated within the body of the text.

2. A results summary. This includes three or four benefit or advantage statements—high-level bullets that explain the meat of the case. These should showcase how your company helped the firm in the case study. These points should appeal to the prospects actual pain points.

3. A challenge or problem summary that explains the problem to the reader (a prospect), using a point of view that empathizes with the reader’s perception of the problem.

4. A compelling, interesting title – the answer to a need you KNOW the reader has. Even better–make sure this has a keyword in it and you can tweet it with a relevant hashtag.

5. “About Us” section. This is one paragraph about your company, including a few notable facts and contact information.

6. A call to action. Each case study should encourage the reader to respond to something specific. Many times, these are in the left or right margin of the case study or at the bottom.

Want to see some case study examples?

Case Study Samples

Case studies – love ’em or hate ’em – remain a critical part of the content marketing mix for almost every B2B organization. To some, they may seem stodgy (or dare I say boring?), but CMI research shows more companies are using them – 77% in 2015 – and 58% say they’re effective.

But, let’s be honest. Case-study creators’ opinions probably fall more on the hate-’em end of the spectrum. The tried-and-true formula – challenge, solution, benefit – doesn’t exactly inspire creativity or good storytelling, and the fallback – to pack them full of bad business jargon – can make writing a case study a huge chore.

Life is short; you shouldn’t waste it laboring over case studies. Fortunately, a few simple steps will allow you to not only create your case studies faster, easier, and less painfully, but can help make them sound better, too.

1. Interview a real, live person

A good customer interview is the lifeblood of a good case study. Before you write a case study, do yourself a huge favor and actually talk to a real, live customer. In the past, I’ve been asked to write case studies based on quotes taken from videos, testimonial quotes, emails from sales teams – anything and everything but a customer interview.

“But wait,” I can hear you saying, “it’s hard to find customers and get time on their calendars. And get sign-off on the final product? Forget it.” Yes, it can be difficult and time-consuming, but trust me when I say that trying to use secondhand sources makes case study writing 100 times harder than it needs to be.

Case studies are stories. They have narratives and need to be rooted firmly in the experience of the customer. You can get all of these things by talking to one. The end result is a strong case study with a clear beginning, middle, and end, as opposed to a Frankenstein-assembled story that you put together from random parts.

2. Edit the heck out of your quotes

You are a case-study writer, not a reporter. You are not being held to some journalistic standard that says you must reproduce all customer utterances word for word (not even journalists adhere to this standard, by the way). You can – make that should – edit and embellish quotes to make their point more effectively. In all my years of writing case studies, I have never had an interviewee take me to task for altering a quote. In fact, most people appreciate being made to sound better.

You can’t go crazy and just make up stuff for the fun of it. You have to retain the spirit of what a customer says and make it sound plausible. If you take a quote like, “Yes, on the whole, I would say the WidgetTron 2000 is a pretty good product,” and turn it into “The WidgetTron 2000 is the best product in the whole wide world and its awesomeness brings me to tears every time I think about it,” you’re going to run into problems.

A better way to shape the original quote would be something like this: “The WidgetTron 2000 is a really good product. It is easy to use and allowed us to streamline our operations.” I deleted the “on the whole” and changed “pretty good” to “really good,” which removes the lukewarm tone. I also extended the quote to make it sound well-rounded. A few small, completely OK tweaks make a big difference, and with customer approval, you are secure in knowing your updated quote works for everyone.

3. Blow things out of proportion

When you get right down to it, most businesses aren’t too terribly concerned about the challenges other businesses face. This may be short-sighted, but more often than not, businesses are too knee-deep in their own issues to worry about the other guy (aside from giving lip service to outpacing the competition, of course).

This thinking is a big problem for case-study writers because exploring the case study’s problems – the challenge section – usually makes up at least a third of the story. To effectively hook readers, take a step back and think about why a broader audience might be interested in the one business’ challenge.

Let me show you. In this case study, the challenge is written as: “Luigi Mozzarello, CEO of Pronto Pies, needed to sell more pizzas, but his point-of-sale technology was slow and buggy.” Clearly, Mozzarello has a problem, but as written, the challenge isn’t compelling.

Here is a more broadly detailed challenge that has greater appeal: “Operating a restaurant is fraught with challenges, from demanding customers to razor-thin margins. Luigi Mozzarello, CEO of Pronto Pies, thought he could rely on his point-of-sale technology to give him a competitive edge, but it was slow and buggy.”

The revised challenge situates Mozzarello’s specific problem – bad technology – in the context of the larger restaurant industry and a universal business theme of competitive differentiation. The first sentence of your case study should always speak to a broad business issue and provide context for the reader. This provides a better chance that readers will identify with the broader challenge even if they are not in the study’s specific vertical or business.

I think crafting a first sentence like this also makes case studies easier to write. After all, if you have bigger, meatier issues to explore, you are less likely to simply go through the motions to craft the case study.

Conclusion

When you implement these three tips into your case-study process, you will be able to create an authentic, easy-to-understand voice that sets the stage for a meatier and more effective case study that is appealing to a wider audience.

Looking to score big points with your target audience? CMI’s 2016 Content Marketing Playbook has tips, insights, and ideas that can help increase your success with 24 of the top content marketing tactics.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via pixabay.com

Author: Gretchen Dukowitz

Gretchen Dukowitz has spent more than a decade writing case studies, white papers, and other marketing content for some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Symantec and Cisco. She currently works as a writer and content strategist for a tech startup in the Bay Area. You can find more writing tips like these at her blog, DIY Content Marketing, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Gretchen Dukowitz