How to write a good case study

There are few marketing tools more powerful than the humble case study. This is particularly true for businesses who sell products to other businesses. Potential customers will resonate with a story about how a business just like theirs, with problems like theirs, solved those problems with your solution.

But there’s a catch: case studies are very easy to mess up. If you don’t tick a few critical boxes, you’ll produce less of a case study, and more of a fairly bland and tired story that isn’t going to persuade anyone to do anything. Not only will you have wasted your time, you’ll have also foregone the opportunity that a good case study could have brought you.

So, with that in mind, here are a few common case study mistakes - and how you can fix them.

Mistake 1: Not doing your homework

Lots of organisations produce case studies reflexively. By that, I mean they produce them because they produce them. It’s just one of the tasks that keeps people busy.

Put the “study” in “case study”.

Put the “study” in “case study”.

This process might generate a valuable case study, but if it does, that’s by sheer luck. Rather, your case study production process needs to be much more deliberate. You need to audit your current case studies, and ask yourself where the gaps are. Is your sales team currently spending lots of time talking to construction firms, but all your case studies are about jam factories? If that’s the case, another jam factory is not going to be useful - you need to get on the phone with a construction firm, ASAP.

You also need to look at the benefits that are coming across in each case study. If your product has two main features, but all your case studies talk about the first feature, there’s no sense in producing another case study about a company that loves that feature. You’re covered in that area.

So before you pick up the phone to contact a customer, you should have a really clear idea of what kind of story you want to tell. The decisions you make are going to affect which customer you talk to, and what you ask them, so unless you’re producing case studies for the sake of it, you need to think about these things ahead of time.

Mistake 2: Ignoring context

This is highly related to the first mistake. When you decide to do a case study, you should have a clear view of what’s going to happen to it when you’re done. If you’re looking for some quantitative proof points, you’re going to make different decisions than you would if you were going to shop the case study around to the press to get some free advertising.

Making these decisions can be kind of scary, because there’s an opportunity cost. If you’re building a series of quantitative proof points, the end result is probably not going to make it into the press. If you’re writing a nice story about a family business who spend their profits on a sanctuary for three-legged dogs, that story is probably not going to be very useful for your sales team.

So in order to avoid these decisions, organisations just kick them into touch, and don’t make the tough decisions they need to make. That is a terrible approach, though, because it ends up creating banal case studies that just go to your website to die.

Mistake 3: Getting caught up in the love fest

A case study needs to be very specific about what kind of problems your customer had, and how you solved them. This sounds obvious, but it’s very easy to miss this detail.

That’s because your case studies will usually be with customers who absolutely love you. When you get them on the phone for an interview, they’ll often gush about how great your product is, how great you are to work with, and how they wouldn’t dream of working with someone else.

Too much of a good thing.

Too much of a good thing.

This is all really nice, and the resulting case study will be a cute story.

But the underlying message of that story will essentially be “this customer loves us.” That’s nice, but potential customers don’t really care if some customer loves you or not. That has no effect on their day-to-day life.

So you need to look past the nice words, and really dig into the details. When you’re interviewing customers for a case study, dig deep into their business problems. What was the situation before they met you? What were the implications of that situation on their business? What was it costing them? How did those costs manifest themselves?

From here, you can segue into your solution, and how it helped them to resolve these problems.

If you do this, the case study you end up with will be less effusive and full of love, but much more full of real facts that potential customers can relate to. That’s the gold you want in a case study.

Mistake 4: Over-valuing the imagery

Cool shot, but what does it do for my business?

Cool shot, but what does it do for my business?

This is particularly virulent in video case studies, but written case studies are not immune. I’ve seen case studies that pull out all the visual bells and whistles - drone shots, Go-Pros, the whole deal. And the end result is visually stunning - but it doesn’t have those “boring” quantitative details that make a case study truly resonate with a potential customer.

This is fine if your audience is not a potential customer. If you’re just trying to get some media attention, or boost your team’s morale, then by all means, go ahead and make a visually stunning case study. But if you do that, it’s not really a case study anymore. Rather, it’s just a nice story.

Mistake 5: Publishing and forgetting

It’s very very easy to wipe your hands of something once you’re done. After all, you’ve got other stuff to do and impending deadlines. I get that.

But, if you publish your case study and forget about it, you’re destroying at least half of its value. Every case study has three main components:

  • The overall story

  • The proof points (the quantitative data - stuff like “we increased conversions by 140% in two weeks”)

  • The testimonials (these are the quotes straight from a customer’s mouth, and they’re pure gold)

When you finish your case study, you need to file these somewhere accessible, along with the same information from other case studies. That way, people can easily find a whole library of testimonials, proof points and story summaries that they can repurpose in any way they need to - whether that’s to add some oomph to a client presentation, support a campaign, or something different entirely.

If you think people will trawl through a library of case studies to find this information, think again - nobody has time for that.

Mistake 6: Scrapping your notes

Anytime you write something up based on an interview, you need to scrap some of the stuff they said. That’s just part of the process of crafting a narrative.

But that’s not to say that the other stuff they said has no value. The opposite is true. The other things they said in your conversation will absolutely have value of some variety - maybe not for this specific project, but certainly further down the track.

So write up your notes as well as a case study. Again, put these in a central place that everyone can access. This is especially useful once you start to build up a library of case studies, because not only will you have a library of case studies, you’ll also have a library of notes that give you even more content ammunition to use in the future.

What to do?

The solutions to these problems are all pretty straightforward. They just take a bit of foresight before writing your case study.

  1. Do your homework before you do your case study. Where’s it going? How will it be used? What’s the best possible outcome this case study could generate? Use the answers to those questions to guide your choices about which customer to talk to.

  2. Make decisions about what kind of case study you’re going to write. The worst decision you can make is no decision. You should have a very clear idea in your head about what your end product looks like. That will inform not just the questions you ask your customer, but also the kind of case study you write once you get off the phone.

  3. Ask the right questions. Since you’ve made clear decisions about what you want, you can guide your conversation towards the information you need to create that product.

  4. Forget the imagery. You’re not a news director. You’re producing a tool that helps close sales.

  5. Organise the information. You should have five things at the end of your case study writing: a list of proof points, a list of testimonial quotes, a story summary, the case study itself, and some clearly-written notes from your conversation.

  6. Make the information accessible. Take all the information from step 4, and put it somewhere where everyone can access it.

  7. Download the cheat sheet: The interview is the most critical part of the case study. The decisions you make here are going to set the course for the rest of the case study. If you forget to ask certain questions, you’re going to have to either muddle through without that information, or annoy your customer by scheduling another call. I’ve put together a cheat sheet you can print off. This cheat sheet has four questions you can ask yourself as you talk to your customer. Answer them, and I guarantee you’ll have the information you need to write a solid case study. Get the cheat sheet.

Finally, don’t be intimidated. This might seem like a lot to think about, but it’s really not that big a deal. Just set aside half an hour to figure out what you need your case study to do, and the rest will flow easily from there.

And enjoy! Talking to customers is always fun - especially the ones who want to be involved in case studies.

Photo credits

Cover photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Studying photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Heart photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

Drone shot photo by Anita Denunzio on Unsplash