I don’t know about you, but I rely on reviews on Amazon.com when I’m shopping for products – especially if it’s something I’m going to use for years. Case in point: I’m currently on the hunt for a powerful handheld vacuum cleaner (pet owners, I know you know what I’m talking about). While I’m not planning to drop big bucks on this purchase, I will go outside my budget if most of the reviews promise amazing results.
Doesn’t that sound great from a business perspective? People buying your product or service, even if the price is more than they were planning to spend, because they know of the amazing results it brings?
That’s what case studies are for. They’re the glowing 5-star reviews of the business world. A vital tool in converting prospects who are near the end of their sales journey, case studies are one of the last things a potential customer reads before clicking “Add to cart” (okay, before getting in touch with your sales team).
Of course, a case study that converts readers is quite different from an Amazon review by “Bekka M.,” “Don B.” or even “Anonymous.” Let’s go through the ins and outs of case study creation, from what you should include to what you must avoid.
(Before we get started, however, this list has all you pet-lovers out there covered in terms of vacuum cleaners. You’re welcome.)
Case studies: Amazon reviews in business suits
Even though I just compared case studies to Amazon reviews, there are some key differences.
First, they’re a lot more professional. No spelling mistakes, dubious usernames or terrible cell phone photography here. Second, they’re written by your marketing team, not your clients, so they’re not user-generated content. Instead of publishing a first person account that may not align with your marketing strategy (by ignoring your target personas, for example), a case study retells a success story where you bring major results to the customer.
Let’s go over that last part again.
A case study is a success story.
In marketing terms, it’s a tale about how your business does what it says it will do: bring excellent results to your customers. This is your chance to show off how great you are and how your product or service actually works.
Case studies vary in length and specifics, but they all should have at least three distinct parts:
- A customer has a problem.
- You implement a solution.
- The customer has exceptional results.
Case studies are important to the final step in the buyer’s journey, compelling potential customers to choose you over a competitor. They’re where you prove to your customer, “Yes, these are the kind of results you can get with us.”
And what kind of results are your customers interested in? Well, they probably involve at least:
- Reduced time.
- Better efficiency.
- Improved revenue.
- Reduced costs.
- Increased customer acquisition.
If you can think of a customer who experienced measurable benefits, you’ve got a pretty good, well, case for your case study.
Getting your case study off the ground
Every case study says something different, but the process to create them is generally the same. After choosing a suitable client, interview the stakeholders, analyze their responses and associated metrics, then write an engaging story.
Case studies are your chance to show off your best work, so you want to choose clients who are satisfied with your results and are willing to give you a glowing review. Make sure its one that saw tangible results from directly working with your business – you want to take all the credit rather than split it with another vendor.
Interviewing clients for case studies can be tough as they either can’t or won’t tell you enough details to make a compelling story. This isn’t exactly their fault. Sometimes, your client contact won’t have authorization to share certain metrics with you. Other times, they simply don’t realize how much information you need.
In my experience, it takes a little bit of prodding and some targeted questions to get enough answers for a good case study. Also, it’s better to get too much information and parse it down as you write than to start creating your case study with too little. Remember, your clients are telling you their stories from the perspective of an insider, not one of your potential customers. You may need to dig deep to draw out the necessary context and put the story into perspective.
Here are a few sample questions to get you started:
- What challenges was your company struggling with before you consulted our business?
- How did you find us, and what convinced you to work with us?
- What was the onboarding/implementation process like?
- How soon did you start seeing results?
- What specific metrics can you provide that show these results?
- Would you recommend us to another company? Why?
Analyzing the information
Once you’ve got all the facts and figures, you need to craft these details into a compelling narrative. What do the metrics say about the state of the client’s company, both before your help and after? What quotes or data points contribute to framing the initial problem?
It’s also okay to do some outside research to help craft your case study. General industry statistics do a great job of framing the state of your client’s business before and after your company came on board.
Help yourself by writing an outline before diving into the copy of your case study. This ensures you have a consistent story with a clear beginning (the client needs help), middle (your company comes on board) and end (the client experiences success). It also allows you to determine which data points go where in the story.
If your outline seems empty at parts, reach back out to your client for another interview to fill in the gaps.
Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start writing. Your style should be approachable yet professional, so avoid listing and endless stream of facts and figures. Instead, weave these details into the rest of your narrative. If there’s a particularly significant point you want to call attention to, highlight it as a sidebar or quote.
What to include in your marketing case study
If you’re familiar with case studies in psychology, know that marketing versions are a bit different. You’re not observing here, you’re proving. Therefore, you’ll only want to include information supporting the idea that your business is the best in the industry.
Also, because case studies are part of your marketing strategy, you’ll want to write them in a way that appeals to your target audience. Frame them like you would any other piece of content aimed at your target personas, not like a piece in a psychological journal.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the absolute must-haves for your case study.
Like I said earlier, a case study is a story, and every story needs details: characters, setting, plot points, etc. These details not only enrich your narrative, but they add credibility to your claims.
Including the following points will make for a compelling read every time:
- Names: What company did you help? What industry is the business in? What are the names or titles of some of the people who helped implement your solution or use it on a daily basis? Knowing the name of the featured company helps readers in the same industry envision their business partnering with yours. If the company doesn’t want you to mention them by name, at least refer to their industry and status (“A high-profile personal finance advisory company” or “a local fitness studio became the go-to spot in its community,” for example).
- Metrics: How exactly was the customer struggling before you swooped in to save the day? What numbers where they using to judge your success, and how well did you beat those numbers?
- Anecdotes: These go hand-in-hand with metrics, adding credibility and a humanizing touch that allows readers to relate to the problem at hand. How can you describe the data points so readers truly understand the initial struggle and the success at the end?
- Quotes: Interviewing customer contacts and including their statements helps reduce bias. You’re not exaggerating or making things up; the contact herself said you were the best vendor she’s ever worked with.
A title with specific results
- How MarketMuse Brought Us to Page One of Google
- How Brafton’s multiasset content strategy delivered 5 years of results for Jagged Peak
- Survey & Ballot Systems finds success with site overhaul
- Longevity Centres: PPC Management Leads to More Calls, More Efficiency
If any of the above titles sound familiar, it’s because they’re all from our blog and case studies page (and thanks for being a dedicated reader!). If not, no worries – we’re not taking the opportunity to brag here, but these are all great examples of how to title a case study.
Okay, so maybe that was a tad bit bragging.
Regardless, these examples all contain three things to include in your case study title:
- The client in question (Jagged Peak, Survey & Ballot Systems, Longevity Centres, us).
- The change implemented (new content strategy, site overhaul, PPC management, MarketMuse).
- A summary of the results (5 years of value, success, more calls and efficiency, page one on Google).
Like with emails and subject lines, a brief yet informative case study title catches the attention of your readers and makes them more likely to read the rest of the text.
Again, if the client doesn’t want you to name them directly, you should at least refer to their business or industry in some way. Giving your case studies as much context as possible increases their credibility.
Furthermore, identifying the business/industry, the strategy and the outcome helps readers relate to the content within. In the examples above, if one of our readers is thinking of revamping their website, then the Survey & Ballot Systems case study will pique their interest. Similarly, if a reader wants to get to the first page on Google, they’ll probably check out our case study with MarketMuse.
If a third-grader who was surprisingly well-versed in your industry’s terminology read your case study, would he or she be able to write a book report on it?
Sentence structure aside (please don’t write at a third-grade level), this is the idea you’re going for. You want readers to come away with a clear understanding of what happened.
For example, in a case study on Mount Sinai Health System’s efforts to unify its marketing and communication approaches, the American Marketing Association created a separate sidebar summarizing the issue, the solution and what organizations should do now that they have this knowledge.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the same sidebar format, but it doesn’t hurt to make the key takeaways visually distinct in some way. A few options include:
- Emphasizing important text.
- Using headers or stylized captions.
- Creating illustrations.
In fact, you don’t even have to point out these takeaways (though I do recommend it). Stylistically, you can weave them into your case study like the rest of the text. The important thing is that readers finish your story with a clear understanding of what happened.
You can mirror Mount Sinai’s approach and describe the action readers should take, or you can simply summarize the outcomes again.
What to avoid in a case study
Think of the worst book you’ve ever read, either fiction or nonfiction. I’m not going to suggest one here because I’m afraid of insulting your taste and I’m not here to judge, but chances are, the book you thought of was some combination of the following:
- Already done by someone better.
These, of course, are all traits you don’t want associated with your case study. As you’re preparing the content, avoid the following:
Selecting an average case
Choosing an average customer experience for your case study is like wearing sweatpants to an 8 p.m. dinner date. Sure, sweats may be your typical attire after work, but they’re not what you pull out to impress people. Case studies should detail your best success stories, describing impressive – not average – results.
Publishing a story without the customer’s consent
Not only is this horrible for your business relationship, but you risk getting your company into legal trouble. Make sure you get consent from the customer to feature their story not only on your website but in other publications as well.
Publishing a story before the customer reads it
This also concerns the client-business relationship. You want to make sure your customer is on board with whatever information you include, lest they be blindsided when your case study goes live.
Discussing metrics your customers don’t care about
Sure, it might be really cool that a customer discovered your handheld vacuum emits a sound not unlike a white noise machine and therefore boosts sleep quality by 20 percent, but that’s not why everyone else is shopping for it. (Also, we already have a white noise machine). Tell us how many allergens it removes from the carpet or how much cat hair it holds in the bag.
Repurposing your case study
Many case studies are created as long-form blog posts, gated assets or live video infographics, but the great thing about them is that they can easily be repurposed into different forms. Case studies can take on – and then be recreated into – any of the following formats:
- A long-format blog post.
- A series of shorter blog posts.
- A gated PDF.
- A live video.
- An animated video.
- An infographic.
- An industry conference presentation.
Where to post your case studies
On a landing page
All of your case studies should be archived on their own landing pages for easy access, regardless of where else they are published. Not only does a landing page make it easy to find your studies, but it also helps keep users engaged on our website. In one example, a company’s portfolio of case studies fell second only to the homepage in terms of number of visits.
On your company blog
You want as many eyes on your case study as possible, and it always helps to cover your bases. Even if you don’t make the entire study a blog post itself, you can create a short post calling out its publication with a CTA that directs people to download.
While not recommended, if you plan on gating your case studies, optimizing a blog post about them can bring in new leads from search.
On your social media
Don’t forget about your Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles! Even Instagram can be helpful – share snippets of your case study infographic or break your video into short, Insta-friendly clips.
To sum it all up, case studies capture potential customers who are near the end of their sales journey, giving them objective proof that your company can deliver results above and beyond what they need.
Now we want to hear from you! Have you published a case study recently? Have any customers you think make for a great success story? Any design or structure tips? Share your thoughts!