Editor-in-Chief, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
May 12th, 2021
How to write a case study
Pick your subject, which should be a completed project with measurable results and a client who agrees with your assessment of success.
Gather the information you require to write your case study, including background information, first-person analysis and accounts from your client/buyer, and any testimonials you have.
Write your case study. Minimize editorializing, use active language and lean on power verbs to make your case study extra persuasive.
Design your case study document or web page with modern readability and web design best practices in mind.
Film a customer journey video to include with your case study, since video is proven to build trust faster than text.
If I were to tell you I am physically incapable of getting any less than 38% of every meal I eat all over my shirt, you’d respond with something like:
“That’s a very specific (and high) percentage, Liz. I’m going to need some data or proof to back up that statement.”
To which I would reply:
“Fine. Before sitting down to write this article about case studies today, I changed my shirt three times.
“My first shirt succumbed to injuries sustained from a breakfast sandwich I dropped before it reached my mouth, for seemingly no reason. The second was killed in action during lunch after I bit into a tomato and it burst all over my front.
“We’ll see how this third one fares. The day is still young.
You see, as a species, we’re not the most trusting bunch. When someone puts a claim forward as fact – especially if they immediately follow up whatever statement they made with “trust me” and a wink – we almost always respond with the exact same request every single time with some version of:
“Can you prove you have the abilities and experience you say you have?”
“Can you demonstrate that you’ve helped someone like me (or in my industry) in the past and gotten great results?”
“Can we trust that you’re going to deliver on your promises?”
If you’re in a services-related industry or sell specific kinds of products, you’re often going to answer those questions with one of the most powerful pieces of assignment-selling content on the planet: a case study.
There's an art to crafting a great case study
"Look, anyone can write a case study, Liz. You just slap some data together, throw in a few testimonials, and voilà! You've got a convincing case study, right?"
Eh, kind of. And by that, I mean no.
Yes, data and testimonials are both very important pieces of the proof and trust-building puzzle in your case studies. But there is a difference between learninghow to write a ho-hum case studyand learning how to write a case study that ismemorable. Thatpersuades. That sings from the rooftops:
“Just look at these results – you know you want to work with us!”
Unfortunately, many of the case studies I’ve read in my seven(ish) years as a digital marketing content creator are boring, self-aggrandizing, and uninspiring. That’s because most organizations know they need case studies, but fall terribly short in execution.
So, how do you avoid becoming a case study cautionary tale? By understanding what exactly a case study is, knowing the precise steps you need to follow in order to create one, and discovering the one thing all show-stopping, convincing case studies have in common.
And those are the three points of knowledge you're going to be able to check off by the end of this article.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of pulling together your case study, I want to give you a quick refresher on what a case study actually is.
I know, I know. You’re a pro. But in order to write a killer case study, you need to understand its purpose, asit will inform every decision you’ll make as you go through this process.
If you're looking to nurture a prospect, case studies are a powerful way to nurture them through the buyer’s journey. This is particularly true since potential customers are usually about 70% to 90% of the way through the buyer’s journey before they reach out to someone in sales – and by that point, they’re still going to ingest about 11.4 pieces of content before they make their final purchasing decision.
That’s why your content strategy needs to cover more than just e-books, blogs, and podcasts targeting the awareness and consideration stages.
When done well, case studies can be invaluable inbound marketing tools during that critical decision stage, when prospects are evaluating who is going to help solve their problem– and you want them to choose you.
"Would my sales team consider this case study valuable and compelling enough to send to a prospect to help them close a deal?"
If the answer is no, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
OK, with that out of the way, let’s get to work on how to create a case study.
1. Pick your case study subject
In my experience, one of the most common reasons a client’s case study has gone off the rails is the foundation of their case study was flawed from the start. In other words, they chose the wrong subject to spotlight.
That’s why you need to vet the focus of your case study before you begin work on it. Fortunately, I have some good news for you in this category. When it comes to the scope of the work you choose to feature, size doesn’t matter.
One-off projects (infographics, branding), a short sprint campaign (promoting an event, new content offer), or a long-term, strategic endeavor that took months to complete (website redesign, software implementation) … they’re all viable candidates for your next case study.
But what do the most successful case study subjects have in common?
Well, the easiest way to answer that is by telling you what you should avoid:
If a project is still in progress, it's not case study material. You can’t write aspirational case studies, where there is “hope” or “intent” to bring about certain results. That would be like Michael Crichton ending Jurassic Park while the dinosaurs were still running around, eating people. “Don’t worry, I’m sure someone will get the power back on and save the day. The end.”
If your client is not happy with the work you produced, they're not case study material. This should be obvious, but given that we were once put in this exact situation (and our client’s client was more than happy to share how unhappy they were during our case study interview), I’m going to throw in this reminder. When it comes to your case study, you should not be the only one satisfied with what you delivered. Even if they are happy, however ...
If you don’t have results to share, you don't have case study material.It’s that simple. So, if you’re still in a pilot phase, waiting for results, hold off.
If any of this rings true for a project you’re considering for a case study, set it aside. Even if it's a project that's going amazingly well, but the results just aren't there yet (although you know they will be), wait a little longer. It’s not case study material.
The best case studies highlight completed work supported by measurable results that show how you solved a problem for a now-happy client. Most of all, both you and your client need to be on the same page in considering the products, work, or services you provided were successful.
2. Gather your information
Once you’ve identified your case study subject, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and go on a fact-finding mission. There are a lot of questions you’ll need to answers before you start working on a draft and you’ll probably need to talk to a number of different people in order to get them.
Which of your ideal buyers will this case study target?
What problem did your client need to be solved?
Why were you chosen to help them solve it?
How did you approach the challenge?
What was the ultimate solution, how did you arrive at it and how long did it take to implement?
What benefits or results did your client see as a result of your work immediately?
What benefits or results did your client see as a result of your work over time?
Are there any anticipated outcomes they expect to see in the long run?
The goal is to gather as much information as possible across the entire story:
First: Who is your client, and what was their problem or goal?
Next: What was the process of uncovering the solution and how was it, ultimately, implemented?
Finally: Did everyone live happily ever after? Great! Prove it.
"Wait, how do I know all of the questions I need to have answered?"
I am so glad you asked!
To make your life a bit easier, I’ve pulled together this free case study template. It contains every single question you should ask when gathering information for your case study.
The questions are also grouped by where they fall within your “story," and I've included prompts if you feel stuck or need inspiration for certain questions.
One of my favorite things about this case study template is that you’ll be able to spot gaps in your story immediately. Are you light on results? Did you forget to ask for a testimonial? It’ll all be at your fingertips, in a single, well-organized document.
3. Write your case study
With your completed case study template, writing it should be a breeze. But like I said at the start, your case study will live and die by your ability to craft a narrative that is memorable.
You accomplish this in two ways: tone down the fluff and be persuasive.
Minimize your editorializing
Whenever I’ve worked on a project I’m particularly proud of, I have a tendency to provide way too many superfluous details.
It’s just because I’m excited, but in the context of a case study, this kind of over-editorializing can make it look like you’re trying to fluff or pad your case study because your results are flimsy.
Instead, streamline your narrative and your language.
Every detail you include should serve one purpose: to support the thesis of your case study. If it doesn’t, cut it out.
(No one cares if it was raining when you came up with that brilliant idea to drive website conversions, or that your shirt was blue when you thought up that ideal tagline for a new product.)
Also, avoid words or phrases that attempt to influence an opinion, such as unnecessary adverbs or adjectives.
For example, if you’re showcasing a branding project, don’t say the final logo was “beautifully designed.” That kind of statement should only be shared if it’s a testimonial from a client— the client's opinion of your work is the one that matters, not yours.
Put your persuasive writing skills to work
Your case study should inspire people to take action. They should want to immediately pick up the phone and call you because they feel compelled to work with you, right?
Persuasive copy is powerful. Here’s how you do it:
Even though you’re telling a story about a specific client, include qualifiers about them (industry, size) – or their situation (pain point, objective) – that allow a reader to feel like you’re speaking directly to them and the problem they’re trying to solve. They should be able to easily step into their shoes and say, "Hey, that sounds like me."
Comparisons, such as metaphors and analogies, can be your best friend in a case study, as they can help a reader accept a certain scenario as being true if it’s related to something they already understand. However, there is one caveat: Don’t use clichés. While they may exist for a reason, science says we are trained to ignore them.
Use power verbs. In fact, here are 185 of them, waiting for you to choose them. Power verbs have momentum and imply results. Power verbs aren’t wimpy.
Spotlight data, client quotes and testimonials to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work.
Finally, don’t forget to proofread!
4. Design your case study
OK, so you have your case study draft in hand, filled with persuasive phrasing and glowing client testimonials. Now it is time to send it to design. Of course, the end result at this step will probably depend a lot on your brand’s visual standards, but I still have a few tips for you.
If you’ve been blogging or creating content for any amount of time you— and your designers— probably already know the basics.
Whitespace is your friend.
Break up walls of text with headings, subheadings and bulleted lists.
Call out relevant data points and quotes you want readers to remember visually.
Also, if you have a testimonial, include the person’s name, job title, and photo. It shows you solve problems for actual people.
When it comes to case studies, design is just as important as the copy itself.
A well-written case study will only be persuasive if you create a piece visually appealing enough that a prospect will actually read it. If they don’t read your case study because of an ugly, unfriendly design, all of your hard work will have been for nothing.
The format of how you present your case study is up to you, but keep in mind they should be easy to find and read. Our success stories are on our navigation and they're ungated. (We don't have barriers between prospects and proof that what we do delivers results.)
However, if you decide to go a similar route of creating a case study that lives as a website page, create a PDF version that is easily printed as well. It should be a document a sales rep can bring to a meeting and walk through in person, instead of having to say, “Oh, I’ll shoot you a link when I get back to the office.”
5. Create a customer journey video for your case study (bonus!)
Video is one of the most powerful ways to build trust and shorten the sales cycle with a business. In fact, there are seven types of video for sales and marketing that are proven to drive more traffic, leads and sales than any other. And one of them is the customer journey video.
The key to a successful customer journey video is right in the title. It's about their journey. It's not simply a gushing video version of a testimonial – it tells a story, from beginning to end. It showcases where your client started, the problem when it finally reached its breaking point, how they finally overcame those obstacles and how things are now.
Most of all, this type of video makes your client the hero, not you. Which brings me to my final point.
If you remember nothing else, let it be this
Yes, we started this conversation by talking about the fact that a case study is meant to be the "proof of life" for your capabilities and what's possible should your ideal buyers choose you as their solutions provider or partner.
That being said, the best success stories make their clients the hero of their own success stories. They do not paint the solutions provider as the white knight who swoops in to save the day, with a client demonstrating no agency, ownership, or ability to overcome their obstacles.
If you want to convince an ideal buyer of your worth, your value and what you can do for them, show them what's possible for themselves. Don't be the hero, be their pathway to success.
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