How to write effective case studies

by Tom Albrighton 5 January 2010 Copywriting

If you deliver services (B2B or B2C) that are tailored rather than ‘off the shelf’, case studies are a great way to showcase your skills, experience and approach to projects. They work equally well for freelances, sole traders, SMEs and large corporates, giving potential clients a chance to see how your way of working actually pans out in practice, and what it could do for them. They also function as indirect recommendations, since the clients mentioned are giving their tacit endorsement.

Case study structure

The best case studies tell a story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the client’s need, the middle is what you did for them, and the end is how they benefited. In my view, every case study should follow this chronological approach, using some or all of the following sections in the order listed (though not necessarily with these headings):

  • Background: some general information about the client
  • Origins: how they found or approached you
  • Requirement: the client’s needs, situation or problems at the time
  • Approach: what you did that addressed their need, or solved their problems
  • Results: the outcomes of your work, at a practical level
  • Benefits: how the client benefited as a result of your work.

Medium and length

Case studies can be used almost anywhere: in brochures, as standalone printed handouts or folder inserts, on websites or in presentations. They may also form the basis for press releases. However, the length should be appropriate for the medium and format chosen.

A presentation version should be four or five slides at most, with three or four bullet points per slide. Each slide should cover a stage of the story as described above. If you can’t say what’s needed within those limits, choose a different medium. Don’t shoehorn narrative into PowerPoint – it’ll never get read.

A printed version might go onto a double-sided A4 sheet, in which case allow 500 words per side max (10pt text with some headings and illustrations).

If your case study is to be published online, you need 500 words per page absolute max; something closer to 150 is far more likely to be read. You can always do a concise web-page version and link to a longer PDF (designed exactly like a printed version, on A4) that people can download.

Length does not equal value, so don’t add content for its own sake. But conversely, don’t fall into the trap of cutting everything to the bone in the belief that it will maximise interest. Some people do still like to read, and it’s only in the details that the quality and value of what you do can be fully substantiated.

Case study content

  • Describe all the key facts, even those you feel are obvious. Your story needs to flow logically and make sense even to those not paying close attention.
  • Don’t get too bogged down in ‘what you did’. The point is the benefits delivered rather than the actions taken. If you want to wax lyrical about your craft, your blog is the place.
  • Don’t use industry jargon – or, if you do, define each term you use.
  • Give personal or business context that shows readers why the service you delivered was so important, or made such a difference. For example: ‘Our photographs were used in the key Christmas brochure, which is distributed to over 10,000 recipients.’
  • Include quantitative (numerical) benefits wherever possible: money or time saved, profit made or anything else that can be measured.
  • The sanity check for case study content is: ‘if I were a potential client or customer, would this point interest me?’ If the answer’s ‘no’, cut it. Don’t let B2B case studies turn into a love-in about the ‘relationship’ – it’s great that everybody got on well, but we need to see some concrete benefits too.

Quotes in case studies

Direct quotes from the client add both weight and colour to a case study. It’s always better to report people’s actual words, instead of you saying how happy they were. Also, people have their unique ways of expressing themselves, and their voice will bring a welcome change of tone to the content of the case study.

For B2B, you should seek quotes from the highest level of the organisation you can, focusing on the strategic, high-level benefits that your service realised or enabled, rather than the practical details of how it was delivered (which you can easily describe yourself).

Networking and directory sites such as LinkedIn and FreeIndex allow you to solicit and display client testimonials on your profile page. (You can also integrate FreeIndex comments into your own site, as I’ve done here.) If people have written enough words, you could use them in your case study.

You could also solicit quotes by email. If you want detailed answers in a range of areas, you could create a list of questions for your client to answer. Ask questions beginning ‘how’ and ‘what’, which invite the most expansive, expressive responses (‘how did the service benefit your business?’).

However, there’s still a risk of receiving telegraphic or even one-word answers, which can be embarassing if you can’t use them. So interview your contact if you can. Prepare a list of questions, and send it in advance, but arrange a time to talk on the phone and record the conversation. That way you can explore the client’s answers, get more detail and prompt them if they’re not very forthcoming.

Case study presentation

  • Use ‘crossheads’ (subheadings) so people can skim-read the case study or ‘cut to the chase’ if they wish. Your aim should be to provide detail for those who want it, without obliging casual readers to plough through everything.
  • A ‘standfirst’ (bold paragraph at the start) that sums up the whole story, including the key benefits delivered, makes for a punchy opening. Look at magazines for examples.
  • Another good tactic is ‘pulling out’ key content (such as juicy client quotes, see below) into highlighted boxes beside the text, or interspersed within it. Again, magazines will show you how.
  • Pictures are a great idea. Client logos, portraits of people, pictures of what you did – anything that’s specific to the case study will add significant value and interest. Try to avoid bland royalty-free photos, since the incongruence between the specifics of the narrative and the general, irrelevant imagery will be jarring. Remember, your case study is a story – and pictures included in stories should always reflect the narrative.

Finally, it goes without saying that working with a professional copywriter – ideally one with experience of interviewing, who can talk to your clients – is the best way to get a really effective case study.

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  • This is great advice. Too many case studies fall into the indescribably boring category, largely because they’re more about showing off than they are about creating the right impression in the mind of a potential client.

    I do think juicy crossheads are vital. I also like to add a brief outline of key personnel, dates etc in a box next to the text.

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  • An excellent summary. Lots of case studies fail because they describe what was done, rather than why, and forget to explain the results and benefits. I think you’ve captured the essence of what’s needed really well.

  • I must admit, i always tend to struggle drafting up case studies. I find myself slipping into the detail, getting technical and explaining way too much. When in fact at the end of the day a round up is all that’s needed.

    Great to have a reference to refer to back to, actually for next week 😉
    .-= Brett Pringle´s last blog ..brettpringle: Five characteristics of a classic cult film – Quite enjoyed The Big Lebowski actually 🙂 =-.

  • Chet Kamal Parkash

    I appreciate the structure of Case Studies as mentioned above. Simply and to the point.

  • Great info – I was looking for more direction on making our case studies for our clients’ work more effective, more appealing. Appreciate the detailed post here. Agreed, a good outline of what your clients can do for other clients is a great way to attract new business.

  • @John

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Glad you found this useful.

  • Margaret Daley

    Very useful-I’m just at the beginning of an MSc and new to writing case studies of my work with client’s found this very encouraging.

  • zaibi

    very helpull for me coz first time m making a case study

  • Nicky Howe

    Great article – very well written and gives me some really useful information – thankyou

  • Thanks for the info, Tom. You mention for a printed case study that it should be about two pages. In what scenarios would you write a longer case study?

  • I guess I’d do it when the source material justified it, i.e. when there was a lot of technical detail that (a) added credibility and (b) would definitely be interesting and comprehensible to the audience.

    There’s probably a case for including some detail that the audience doesn’t necessarily understand, just to impress them – but not too much.

  • Its a good approach in writing that you have posted here. I am so glad that I was able to find some great perspectives and info’s that help me write down all the possible techniques to have a good case study.

  • Dan

    It’s a good article. I am just trying to systematize my business so I am curious if it’s better to write my case studies on my own or pay for specialized service and get my case study delivered

  • I’d suggest getting a professional copywriter to do it. But then I am biased.

  • Dan

    Do you think case studies make more sense for agencies/freelancers – service industry or products like software for example?
    Is there any hard data highlighting the benefits of using case studies?

  • I think they probably work best in service industries, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t write about a product such as software. As long as there’s a story to be told, you can create a case study around it.

    I’m not aware of any hard data, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist.

    However, I imagine it would be difficult to establish a causal relationship since, in service industries, reading the case study would be just one element of a much longer and broader sales process, and very unlikely to close the sale on its own in the same way as, say, a landing page might do.

    Anecdotally, I recently interviewed one of my client’s clients in order to write a case study, and they mentioned that an earlier case study (which I also wrote) had been an important factor in their decision to work with my client.

    For what they cost to produce, I think professional case studies are a no-brainer for firms serving clients with very high lifetime values. They add detail to service descriptions, bring third-party authority to the sales message and can also function as long-tail SEO pages (e.g. ‘IT services norfolk charities’). Finally, they also differentiate from the rest of the market if your competitors have not bothered to write them.