This article was originally published in 2014 – last updated August 2020.
A lot of people over-think case studies and panic at the mere mention of them.
I know this because as a freelance copywriter I’m forever gently nudging clients to collect case studies – a process that’s a lot like pulling teeth sometimes!
But a case study doesn’t need to be long — it just needs to explain the result that your product or service achieved for your customer. It can be as short as a paragraph or two, provided it checks all the boxes we’ll look at below. In fact, the shorter it is, the more people will read it. Who wants to sit down and read a 1000-word document about how great your business is?
I’m going to explain how to write a great case study quickly, and I’ll also include a simple template for gathering case studies you can simply fill in the blanks and present to your customers.
What are case studies and why should you use them?
A case study is like a testimonial on steroids. It takes random client feedback that everyone uses as “testimonials” and puts it into a real world, relevant context in the form of a story.
They work because they allow customers to see first hand how your product or service specifically helped others in the same situation as they now find themselves.
The format for a case study should be a story. It should follow a structure of beginning, middle, and end.
The “beginning” is the challenge facing your customer. The “middle” is the way you approached solving this problem or challenge. The “end” is the result experienced by the customer.
Where to use case studies
There are a few points to keep in mind when using case studies:
Terminology – Firstly, don’t call a case study a “case study”. Call it a “success story”. “Case study” sounds boring. Success story, on the other hand, promises not only a story, but a story about somebody’s success! We all love stories, and we all love success – especially when it’s success we too could be experiencing really soon (do you see where this is going?).
Placement – You should make your existing case studies as prominent as possible when making initial contact with prospects. This includes on important pages of your website and in sales and marketing collateral such as a price list or brochure. There’s also a place for creating separate case studies for lead generation – you can position these like a “How to” – showing the way you solved the client’s problem. In general though, case studies are best used when integrated with other material as supporting information rather than used in isolation.
Relevance – Ideally you’ll have more than one case study, and then you can figure out the best place to use them. For example, if you offer three distinct services, include a success story about a particular service on the relevant service page of your website (or when in sales conversations with that persona). Try not to lump them all in together (although there’s nothing wrong with also having a section on your website called “success stories” that repeats the information).
How to gather the raw information for the case study
There are three ways you can get the information you need to write a case study:
1. Phone – Calling your customer for a chat is going to yield great results. Make sure you use hands free so you can type notes, or better yet record the call so you can go over it later at your leisure. The great thing about a phone (or face to face) chat is that you can prompt them to go into more detail about certain points. Also, people are naturally more effusive verbally than they are when writing. Of course, explain you’re going to be using this information in a case study and make sure they’re okay with that before you start asking questions. Also reassure them they will get final say and you won’t put words in their mouth – this will make them more relaxed about what they say.
2. Email/Survey – This is not as good as using the phone, but if you can’t call your customers or have a lot of customers and simply want to ask them all for case studies (call it “feedback” though) then text/email will have to do. Use the questions outlined below, and when you’ve got the answers back, choose the ones you’ll be using and follow up to say thank you, we loved the feedback so much we’d like to use the information in an individual case study.
3. Video (advanced tactic) – this is where you film the customer answering the questions. Yep, this is the granddaddy of customer success stories. You’ll basically be making a mini documentary about your customer and how you helped them. Nothing beats that face to face connection of seeing and hearing the person talk about how you helped them achieve their desired outcome. If they are willing, you can do this via a Zoom call, or they can just record some video on their phone running through the questions below.
You can then upload this video to Youtube (with the customer’s permission of course) and use it on your website, in the footer of emails, in pitches/presentations, online PDFs, and anywhere else you can think of. If you have the budget then hire a videographer to make this as professional as possible, or just record it on your phone or tablet, which is still far better than no video at all.
Questions to ask
This isn’t set in stone, but this is the loose flow of questions you want to take your customer through:
- What challenge were you facing when you went looking for [name of solution]?
- What made you choose [business name] to overcome this challenge?
- What concerns (if any) did you have about using a [general product/service name]?
- What was it like using [specific product/service name]? Describe the process.
- What was the outcome of using [specific product/business name]?
- What would you say to other people considering using [specific business/product name]?
You might not want to use all these questions if they don’t quite fit. It’ll depend on the nature of your product or service, but you want to be asking at least four of the above six questions, and 1, 2, 4, and 5 are crucial for getting the whole picture.
Writing your case study
Once you’ve got the answers to the above questions, you want to put it all together in a narrative. It’s not going to work as well if you use a Q&A format because it takes away from the flow of the story, so this is where some creativity is required in putting it all together. You can use some creative license here, provided you capture the spirit of what the person was trying to say and don’t twist their intention. Remember, you’ll be getting their permission before publishing this so don’t worry too much about writing what they say word for word.
Another thing to consider is whether you want to make it first or third person. For example, first person would be from the customer’s perspective (“I found they were really easy to work with…”) and third person would be “Judy loved how easy ABC Widgets were to work with…”. I think first person is always stronger because it sounds like the praise is coming from the customer, not you. You might use third person for a more detailed case study and just include elements of the first person story.
Let’s look at a real world example for a client I worked with…
Here’s the raw data that the customer sent back to my client, a property investment and buyer’s advocacy firm, via email:
1) What make you seek out a Buyer’s / Vendor’s Advocate. What problem were you having?
To get an advantage over other buyers in the market. I engaged [business] due to their unique group block buying strategy. The strategy is market leading in my view as I was able to purchase an apartment below market value, in a blue chip location, and with the attraction of adding immediate value from renovations.
The issues I was experiencing prior to engaging [business] was competing against too many emotional buyers who were constantly driving up prices, particularly at auction. Using the services of [business] gave me an advantage over my competition.
2) What were your concerns about using a Buyers / Vendor’s Advocate to solve these problems?
Whether the apartment purchased would be renovated in a timely manner. My other concern was whether my apartment would be tenanted quickly given that other investors would be renting out their apartment (within the same block) at the same time. As usually these type of purchases attract investors.
3) Why did you choose Advantage?
For the reasons outlined above. Plus [business owner’s] reputation in the market. [business owner] has the runs on the board which makes my decision easy every time.
4) What did you enjoy about working together?
One word, they got the results over and over again. I have now purchased 3 properties via the group block strategy and each time they have outperformed the market.
5) What results did you get from the service?
Outstanding. This also includes the property management service [business] provide. The guys who manage my properties are sharp, proactive and treat my investments as if it was their own.
And here’s how we can weave this into a success story:
“They outperform the market every time…”
“As an experienced investor, I was looking for a way to get an advantage over the market. I found I was constantly competing against emotional buyers who were driving up prices. I needed to find an edge over the competition.
I chose [business name] because of their reputation. They have the runs on the board, which made the decision easy. My only concerns were whether the apartment we purchased would be renovated fast, and whether we’d be able to rent it out, given that there were several other investors in the same block.
But not only did [business name] get a great return for me, they even managed the property for me! And the guys who manage the property are sharp, proactive, and treat my investment like it was their own.
I’ve now used [business name] three times, and they’ve outperformed the market for me every time.”
See how putting this into a story format makes it much more engaging and easy to read?
You could approach the “story” part in any number of ways, leading with whatever is most important to your customers. But the important thing is that it has a clear structure: problem, solution, result.
Points to keep in mind
Note the headline – you want to take the most impressive (or relevant) quote from your entire case study and use it as the headline to grab attention. Keep your customer in mind. In the above example it’s property investors, so they’ll be most interested in a strong return on their investment.
Stick to the structure of the questions – use the original questions to guide you. The customer will often answer the questions out of order and add irrelevant information, so it’s up to you to do some fancy editing and just keep the good stuff, sticking to the original flow of questions as you go.
Include the customer’s concerns – you might be wondering “why add the negative concerns the person had?” It might seem counter-intuitive to do this, but it’s important to keep them in. Here’s why: it’s likely the reader has the exact same concerns, so acknowledging these objections and addressing them will help overcome them. It’s important to address your customer’s objections in any type of sales or marketing, not just ignore them and hope the’ll go away.
Come back with fresh eyes – as with any sort of writing or editing, it’s important that you come back to your case study a day or two later and just make sure it all makes sense and you haven’t left anything out. Better yet, show it to a friend or colleague for their feedback and ask them for any suggestions to make the story more compelling.
Add a photo and the person’s full name – You need to make the case study as real as possible. Anonymous success stories aren’t going to cut it, and neither will a last initial such as “John B.”. These look made up. So you need to at least add the person’s full name (and their company name/position if it’s B2B – suburb or city if it’s B2C). It can be weird asking, but also try to get a photo of the person to use with the case study. The worst that can happen is that they say no and you’ll be no worse off than you are now!
The bottom line on gathering and writing case studies
Case studies are a valuable and relatively cheap and easy way to convince customers that your product or service will work for them. These type of success stories should be part of your overall business story, and should be used strategically so that they’re relevant to the customer and used at the right stage of the buying cycle.
Share your own case study tips and experiences in the comments section below!