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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