How to Write a Case Study
- Find the right case study candidate.
- Reach out to case study participants.
- Ensure you're asking the right questions.
- Lay out your case study.
- Showcase your work.
Earning the trust of prospective customers can be a struggle. Before you can even begin to expect to earn their business, you need to demonstrate your ability to deliver on what your product or service promises. Sure, you could say that you're great at X, or that you're way ahead of the competition when it comes to Y. But at the end of the day, what you really need to win new business is cold, hard proof.
One of the best ways to prove your worth is through compelling case studies. When done correctly, these examples of your work can chronicle the positive impact your business has on existing or previous customers.
To help you arm your prospects with information they can trust, we've put together a step-by-step guide on how to create effective case studies for your business -- as well as free case study templates for creating your own.
Listen to an audio summary of this post:
How to Write a Business Case Study: The Ultimate Guide
1) Find the Right Case Study Candidate
Writing about your previous projects requires more than picking a client and telling a story. You need permission, quotes, and a plan. To start, here are a few things to look for in potential candidates.
It helps to select a customer who's well-versed in the logistics of your product or service. That way, he or she can better speak to the value of what you offer in a way that makes sense for future customers.
Clients that have seen the best results are going to make the strongest case studies. If their own businesses have seen an exemplary ROI from your product or service, they're more likely to convey the enthusiasm that you want prospects to feel, too.
One part of this step is to choose clients who have experienced unexpected success from your product or service. When you've provided non-traditional customers -- in industries that you don't usually work with, for example -- with positive results, it can help to remove doubts from prospects.
While small companies can have powerful stories, bigger or more notable brands tend to lend credibility to your own -- in some cases, having brand recognition can lead to 24.4X as much growth as companies without it.
Customers that came to you after working with a competitor help highlight your competitive advantage, and might even sway decisions in your favor.
2) Reach Out to Case Study Participants
To get the right case study participants on board, you have to set the stage for clear and open communication. That means outlining expectations and a timeline right away -- not having those is one of the biggest culprits in delayed case study creation.
It's helpful to know what you'll need from the participants, like permission to use any brand names and share the project information publicly. Kick off the process with an email that runs through exactly what they can expect from you, as well as what is expected of them. To give you an idea of what that might look like, check out this sample email:
You might be wondering, "What's a Case Study Release Form?" or, "What's a Success Story Letter?" Let's break those down.
Case Study Release Form
This document can vary, depending on factors like the size of your business, the nature of your work, and what you intend to do with the case studies once they are completed. That said, you should typically aim to include the following in the Case Study Release Form:
- A clear explanation of why you are creating this case study and how it will be used.
- A statement defining the information and potentially trademarked information you expect to include about the company -- things like names, logos, job titles, and pictures.
- An explanation of what you expect from the participant, beyond the completion of the case study. For example, is this customer willing to act as a reference or share feedback, and do you have permission to pass contact information along for these purposes?
- A note about compensation.
Success Story Letter
As noted in the sample email, this document serves as an outline for the entire case study process. Other than a brief explanation of how the customer will benefit from case study participation, you'll want to be sure to define the following steps in the Success Story Letter.
First, you'll need to receive internal approval from the company's marketing team. Once approved, the Release Form should be signed and returned to you. It's also a good time to determine a timeline that meets the needs and capabilities of both teams.
To ensure that you have a productive interview -- which is one of the best ways to collect information for the case study -- you'll want to ask the participant to complete a questionnaire prior to this conversation. That will provide your team with the necessary foundation to organize the interview, and get the most out of it.
Once the questionnaire is completed, someone on your team should reach out to the participant to schedule a 30-60 minute interview, which should include a series of custom questions related to the customer's experience with your product or service.
The Draft Review
After the case study is composed, you'll want to send a draft to the customer, allowing an opportunity to give you feedback and edits.
The Final Approval
Once any necessary edits are completed, send a revised copy of the case study to the customer for final approval.
Once the case study goes live -- on your website or elsewhere -- it's best to contact the customer with a link to the page where the case study lives. Don't be afraid to ask your participants to share these links with their own networks, as it not only demonstrates your ability to deliver positive results, but their impressive growth, as well.
3) Ensure You're Asking the Right Questions
Before you execute the questionnaire and actual interview, make sure you're setting yourself up for success. A strong case study results from being prepared to ask the right questions. What do those look like? Here are a few examples to get you started:
- What are your goals?
- What challenges were you experiencing prior to purchasing our product or service?
- What made our product or service stand out against our competitors?
- What did your decision-making process look like?
- How have you benefited from using our product or service? (Where applicable, always ask for data.)
Keep in mind that the questionnaire is designed to help you gain insights into what sort of strong, success-focused questions to ask during the actual interview. And once you get to that stage, we recommend that you follow the "Golden Rule of Interviewing." Sounds fancy, right? It's actually quite simple -- ask open-ended questions.
If you're looking to craft a compelling story, "yes" or "no" answers won't provide the details you need. Focus on questions that invite elaboration, such as, "Can you describe ...?" or, "Tell me about ..."
In terms of the interview structure, we recommend categorizing the questions and flow into six specific sections. Combined, they'll allow you to gather enough information to put together a rich, comprehensive study.
The Customer's Business
The goal of this section is to generate a better understanding of the company's current challenges and goals, and how they fit into the landscape of their industry. Sample questions might include:
- How long have you been in business?
- How many employees do you have?
- What are some of the objectives of your department at this time?
The Need for a Solution
In order to tell a compelling story, you need context. That helps match the customer's need with your solution. Sample questions might include:
- What challenges and objectives led you to look for a solution?
- What might have happened if you did not identify a solution?
- Did you explore other solutions prior to this that did not work out? If so, what happened?
The Decision Process
Exploring how the customer arrived at the decision to work with you helps to guide potential customers through their own decision-making processes. Sample questions might include:
- How did you hear about our product or service?
- Who was involved in the selection process?
- What was most important to you when evaluating your options?
The focus here should be placed on the customer's experience during the onboarding process. Sample questions might include:
- How long did it take to get up and running?
- Did that meet your expectations?
- Who was involved in the process?
The Solution in Action
The goal of this section is to better understand how the customer is using your product or service. Sample questions might include:
- Is there a particular aspect of the product or service that you rely on most?
- Who is using the product or service?
In this section, you want to uncover impressive measurable outcomes -- the more numbers, the better. Sample questions might include:
- How is the product or service helping you save time and increase productivity?
- In what ways does that enhance your competitive advantage?
- How much have you increased metrics X, Y, and Z?
4) Lay Out Your Case Study
When it comes time to take all of the information you've collected and actually turn it into something, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Where should you start? What should you include? What's the best way to structure it?
To help you get a handle on this step, it's important to first understand that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to ways to present a case study. They can be very visual, which you'll see in some of the examples we've included below, and can sometimes be communicated mostly through video or photos, with a bit of accompanying text.
When it comes to recommending written case studies, we recommend focusing on seven sections, which we've outlined here. Note -- even if you do elect to use a visual case study, it should still include all of this information, but presented in a different format.
- Title: Keep it short. Focus on highlighting the most compelling accomplishment.
- Executive Summary: A 2-4 sentence summary of the entire story. You'll want to follow it with 2-3 bullet points that display metrics showcasing success.
- About: An introduction to the person or company, which can be pulled from a LinkedIn profile or website.
- Challenges: A 2-3 paragraph description of the customer's challenges, prior to using your product or service. This section should also include the goals that the customer set out to achieve.
- How You Helped: A 2-3 paragraph section that describes how your product or service provided a solution to their problem.
- Results: A 2-3 paragraph testimonial that proves how your product or service specifically impacted the person or company, and helped achieve goals. Include numbers to quantify your contributions.
- Supporting Visuals or Quotes: Pick one or two powerful quotes that you would feature at the bottom of the sections above, as well as a visual that supports the story you are telling.
To help you visualize this case study format, check out this case study template, which can also be downloaded here.
When laying out your case study, focus on conveying the information you've gathered in the most clear and concise way possible. Make it easy to scan and comprehend, and be sure to provide an attractive call-to-action at the bottom -- that should provide readers an opportunity to learn more about your product or service.
Business Case Study Examples
You drove the results, made the connect, set the expectations, used the questionnaire to conduct a successful interview, and boiled down your findings into a compelling story. And after all of that, you're left with a little piece of sales enabling gold -- a case study.
To show you what a well-executed final product looks like, have a look at some of these marketing case study examples.
1) "New England Journal of Medicine," by Corey McPherson Nash
There is a difference between learning how to create a case study and learning how to create a case study that is memorable. That persuades. 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 are boring, self-aggrandizing, and uninspiring. That’s because most organizations know they need case studies, but fall terribly short in execution.
It’s kind of like that old saying, “It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.”
There is an art to creating a case study that will be the proverbial milkshake bringing all the prospects to the yard. So, today I’m going to teach you everything you need to know on how to create a case study that attracts the right buyer personas and helps you close deals.
(I'm also going to share my personal, free case study template with you that makes creating case studies a breeze!)
But First, What Is a Case Study?
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, as it will inform every decision you’ll make as you go through this process -- plus, it's never a bad thing to brush up.
We all know that case studies are critical when it comes to nurturing prospects through the buyer’s journey. This is particularly true since potential customers are usually about 70 to 90 percent 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 eBooks, 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.
Case studies are also indispensable during the sales process, once a brave prospect has decided yes, they crave the human connection only a sales rep can provide. So, every time you create a case study, ask yourself:
"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.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get to work on how to create a case study…
Step 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, there is some good news: 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 to avoid.
- The project should not still be in progress. 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, move on. 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 a case study. 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. 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.
Step 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 personas will this case study target?
- What problem did your client need solved?
- Why were you chosen to help them solve it?
- How did you approach the challenge?
- What was the ultimate solution, 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?
- Do you have a client testimonial?
The goal is to gather as much information as possible across the entire story:
First: Who is your client, and what is their problem or goal?
Next: How did you help them solve their problem?
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.
Step 3: Write Your Case Study
With your completed case study template, writing it should be a breeze. But like I said at the start of this, your case study will live and die by your ability to craft a narrative that is memorable.
There are two ways you accomplish this: 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 overeditorializing 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?
That only works if you write in a way that is both inspirational and compelling.
Persuasive copy is powerful. Here’s how you do it:
- Even though you’re telling a story about a specific client, include qualifiers about that 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 109 of them, waiting for you to choose them. Power verbs have momentum. Power verbs imply results. Power verbs aren’t wimpy.
- Don’t use passive voice. Use active voice. (What’s the difference, and why does it matter?)
- Spotlight data, client quotes and testimonials to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work.
Finally, don’t forget to proofread!
Step 3: Design Your Case Study
Okay, 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.
- Include visuals.
- Break up walls of text with headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
- Call out relevant data points and quotes you want readers to remember visually.
- Include videos (if you’ve got ‘em).
- Also, if you have a testimonial, include the person’s name, job title, and their 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 that is visually appealing enough that a prospect will actually read it. If they don’t read your case study because of 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 any 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.”
A Great Case Study Is Worth the Effort
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Man, Liz. This sounds like a ton of work.”
Well, yes. It is.
In the world of inbound marketing, it’s not enough to simply create content anymore. All of your competitors are now creating blogs, and case studies, and eBooks. In order to stand out today, you have to create quality content that clearly demonstrates you understand the problems of your buyer personas and how to solve them better than anyone else.
So, again, yes. This process is comprehensive, but only because I want to make sure that you are empowered to create case studies that make prospects want to call you instead of someone else.
Now, get to work!