How to Write a Case Study Prospects Actually Want to Read
The case study has long been a staple of marketing departments everywhere.
However, despite the prevalence of marketing case studies and their potential impact, most of them are dull, boring, and forgettable.
In this guide, I’ll outline everything you need to do to write a case study that prospective customers will actually want to read. We’ll cover the structure and content of a typical case study, as well as common pitfalls to avoid and things to think about before you sit down to put proverbial pen to paper.
So, ready to write a case study that will leave your audience wanting more? Then let’s get started.
What Is a Case Study?
Marketers love using the word “storytelling” to describe their collateral. Everything is a story, if marketers are to be believed.
You are not a storyteller – Stefan Sagmeister @ FITC from FITC on Vimeo.
Warning: Some language in the above video is NSFW
However, the storytelling label most definitely does (or should) apply to case studies, because stories are exactly what case studies are.
Case studies are self-contained stories about how a real customer overcame their problems using your products or services. Just like a story, good case studies have a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as a protagonist – your customer – overcoming a problem and achieving their objective, just like the main character of a story.
By the end of a case study, the reader should be able to visualize themselves as the hero of their own story. They should be able to relate to the problems of your featured customer, and see themselves achieving their own goals by using your product or service.
What a Case Study Is NOT
Case studies are not press releases. Although case studies can be used to accompany new product launches, they are not merely vehicles to talk about new products.
Case studies aren’t advertisements. They can be used to advertise new products or features, but it’s not about you.
Good case studies are about the customer’s journey, NOT your company.
Help your customers embark on their own epic journeys.
Original art by Ry Spirit.
Most case studies are bland, instantly forgettable crap because marketers ignore the fact that case studies are stories in the most literal sense. They get preoccupied with things like brand voice or messaging matrices and forget to leverage the narrative form that makes stories so compelling. Or, even worse, they simply can’t stop themselves from harping on about how great their company is, the gravest of sins when case studies are concerned.
Why Create Marketing Case Studies?
Case studies may not be as sexy as a viral blog post, and as such they’re often overlooked in favor of other content formats. This begs the question – why create marketing case studies at all?
The answer is because they’re really effective.
In a recent report, B2B Marketing asked a cohort of marketers how they felt about various content formats, including case studies. The results were surprising:
- Of the 112 marketers surveyed in B2B Marketing’s report, two-thirds (66%) stated that case studies were “very effective” at driving leads and sales, and a further 32% found case studies to be “quite effective,” making case studies the most effective content format included in that report.
- More than half of the marketers surveyed in the 2016 B2B Content Marketing Report (55%) said they found case studies to be the single most effective content format.
- Approximately 31% of respondents questioned in Eccolo Media’s 2015 B2B Technology Content Survey Report said they found case studies to be the third-most influential content format, just behind white papers (33%) and data sheets (39%).
How to Write an Awesome Case Study (with Examples)
Now that we’re clear on what a marketing case study is (and isn’t), as well as why you should be producing them, let’s talk about how to actually write a case study worth reading.
To write a great case study that helps close deals, follow these seven tips.
1. Be Realistic About the Goals for Your Case Study
I’ve been working in content for many years now, and I’ve read hundreds – if not thousands – of marketing case studies. To date, there is exactly ONE case study I still remember and think of as the “ideal” example of a great case study.
Most people won’t have a “favorite” case study, or even be able to remember one at all.
Before you sit down to create your magnum opus, it’s important to realize that case studies aren’t that important to your audience. Yes, we want to create a useful, helpful resource for prospective customers, but let’s be real – nobody’s winning a Pulitzer for a case study, and it won’t be going viral on social media, no matter how well-written it is.
Case studies are little more than tools to be used by either self-motivated prospects researching your company, or by sales professionals as tools to help convince prospects to convert – nothing more. They’re designed for audiences that are already strongly considering becoming your customers, which is a smaller but more qualified group of people than your general audience.
As such, be realistic about your goals. Don’t be disheartened if a case study blog post doesn’t perform as strongly as your best content. WordStream publishes case studies regularly, but they never receive as much traffic as our most popular blog posts, and that’s okay. We don’t have unreasonable expectations about our case studies, and we know that both our sales teams and prospects find them useful.
2. Identify a Compelling Angle for Your Case Study
Last year, one of our Product Marketing Managers asked me to write a case study for a client that rehabilitates badly behaved and aggressive dogs. My first thought was whether there were any similarities between training difficult dogs and getting to grips with AdWords as a new advertiser.
This thought became the basis for the entire case study.
Bridget and Ray Murphy of Koru K9 Dog Training and Rehabilitation of San Francisco, CA
The more compelling your angle, the better the story. The better the story, the more engaging your case study will be.
Try to find an interesting customer for your next case study. How are people using your products or services? Are any of your customers using your business to solve difficult or unusual problems? Get creative when searching for someone to serve as the basis for your next case study. That said…
3. …But Make Your Case Study Relatable to ALL Prospects
Yes, you want your case study to be interesting and feature a compelling angle, but you also want the vast majority of your target market to be able to identify with it.
Using our dog rehabilitation example from earlier, we knew that the possible similarities between training difficult dogs and using AdWords as a newcomer to paid search was interesting. We also knew, however, that despite the compelling angle we chose to explore, the client in question had experienced many of the problems common to our core target market of small businesses with modest monthly AdWords spend.
Your angle is the “hook” that will catch your audience’s attention, but it’s essential that ALL prospects can relate to and identify with the problems encountered by your case study’s “protagonist.” This means catering to your core demographics and target markets, and solving the problems most commonly experienced by your customers.
4. Follow the Classic Narrative Arc in Your Case Study
Remember how we said that most marketers are obsessed with the notion of “storytelling” despite not actually telling many stories? Well, just as any good story has a beginning, middle, and end, so too do the best case studies.
Here at WordStream, we typically structure our case studies in a similar way every time. We introduce the protagonist of our story – the client – as well as the problems they are trying to solve. Think of this as Act I of your case study. Although I never use strict rules when writing case studies, this section usually runs between 200 and 300 words in length; just enough to introduce the hero of our story and tease the problems they face, but not too much that it would dissuade more casual readers.
The ‘classic’ dramatic arc of a typical narrative
In Act II, we introduce the solution, namely our software. I might include a brief explanation of what drove our protagonist to seek out our products, before going into more depth about how the client uses our software. This section will often include direct quotes from the client, and is usually strongly benefit-driven. This section is where the real meat of the story is, and is often the longest of the three sections.
Writers are often told to “show, not tell,” and the final third of our case study – Act III, if you will – is where the inclusion of hard data in your case study can be highly effective. If possible, I’ll try to include as much statistical data as I can to illustrate why using our software has been so effective for the client featured (more on this momentarily).
This rough formula can be distilled into the following structure:
Problem (Act I) > Solution (Act II) > Result (Act III) > Conclusion
5. Use Data to Illustrate Key Points in Your Case Study
Your case study is a story, but that doesn’t mean you should rely on anecdotes or whimsy to make your points. Cold, hard data is your best friend when writing a case study – more so than most other content projects.
Real performance metrics from a WordStream customer, as featured
in this case study
If possible, the data you include in your case study should directly reflect the challenges faced by your protagonist in Act I. In our example, this might be increasing click-through rate, which can be easily demonstrated by charts or other data.
This is why our sales teams love our case studies; they can listen to a prospect’s concerns on the phone, identify a common problem, and discuss how a customer just like them overcame the exact same problem using our software – oh, and here’s a handy chart showing exactly how they did it.
Of course, not every business is as data-driven as WordStream, and so “data” may not be relevant to your company. It may be more accurate to use the word “evidence” instead of “data” in this situation, and this evidence could include everything from time-lapse video to before-and-after high-resolution images.
However you choose to do so, be sure to include some data or evidence to support your major points and reiterate how your featured client overcame their problem using your products or services. Show, don’t tell.
6. Frame Your Business as a Supporting Character in Your Case Studies
If your featured client is the protagonist of your story, it’s tempting to think of your company (or your products or services) as an equal participant in how the tale unfolds.
However, you should instead think of your company’s role in the story as a supporting character.
People don’t buy things for the sake of buying them; people buy things to solve specific problems. Similarly, nobody uses a product or service for its own sake, but because a product or service helps them solve a specific problem. For this reason, your company should always be positioned as a helping hand that helped the real hero of the story – your client – overcome their obstacle.
There are two primary reasons this approach is so effective. Firstly, you want your audience to visualize themselves as the protagonist of the case study. This is much more difficult if you won’t stop talking about how great your company or product is. Secondly, adopting a more humble tone can help increase your credibility in the mind of the reader.
If in doubt, remember that your client is Batman – and your business is Robin (or Nightwing, depending on where you are in the Batman comics universe).
Batman and his loyal sidekick, Dick Grayson, AKA Nightwing. Image via DC Comics.
7. Let Your Clients Tell Their Own Stories in Case Studies
As a storyteller, it’s your job to craft a compelling narrative about how your featured client triumphed over the forces of evil using your product or service, but that doesn’t mean your protagonist doesn’t have their own voice.
Using direct quotes from your client is a great way to let them tell their own story in their own words. This not only breaks up the “expository” text of your case study, but also provides further validation and credibility by including the client’s perspective. This also allows you to draw the reader in using techniques similar to those commonly found in feature journalism, gradually revealing more of your protagonist using their own words in an almost interview-style format.
However, as effective as this technique can be, it does create certain pitfalls, namely the risk of repetition. If you’re planning to include a quote from your client about, say, time savings, don’t explicitly mention time savings in the paragraph(s) directly preceding the quote; let your client do the talking. Set up the segue and create room for your client’s quote, and let them do the rest.
Be a Quick Study
Case studies may not be the most exciting content you produce, but they can be among the most effective. No two businesses are alike, and case studies vary widely in terms of style, tone, and format. One thing that all marketing case studies share, however, is their purpose – to convince prospects that doing business with you is a good idea.