Practical steps to successful case studies

18th March 2011 | Posted in Content creation

I’ve been writing case studies for a long time. Even before I started being called a copywriter, I was a journalist and writing up real-life stories for magazines. Over time I’ve developed strategies for getting the best story down on the keyboard with the minimum of struggle. These are tips from my experience.

[But before we get started, a couple of quick definitions to avoid confusion. I have clients. My clients have customers.]

Be careful who you ask

I once conducted an interview with a customer who seemed to hate every single thing about my client. Apparently my client was only given the work as the best of a bad bunch of choices. The first cut was so bad the client had to be told to do it again. In the end the customer fixed the problems himself …. and on and on. Why had he agreed to take part in the case study if he was so disgruntled? My guess is he just wanted to be difficult, have a rant, and cause my client to lose time and money on a failed project.

Priming and timing

One of my technology clients writes agreement to a case study into the sales contract on the basis of “You agree to take part when the time comes and we’ll give you a discount now”.

If you’re not quite that organised, then the customer needs some gentle persuasion. Let the person with the best relationship make the suggestion. And time it right. Wait until major issues have been resolved and the customer is feeling jubilant (or at least a little relieved).

Keep to a format

Similar structure and look-and-feel for all your case studies help deliver complete stories and build up a portfolio that looks impressive. My clients are generally happy with a structure something along the lines of:

  • Background to the customer
  • Customer challenges
  • Solution
  • Benefits
  • Future plans

Usually we go for double-sided A4 too, so it can be printed or downloaded easily. We don’t usually add pictures though. Buildings are boring, while people tend to move on the moment you’ve printed the story.

Keep the customer informed

Avoid customer doubt and anxiety by letting them know exactly what’s going to happen when – especially the reviewing and approval process.

Introduce your writer properly

Give the customer a heads-up on how the conversation is likely to run, and for how long. I like to provide a list of areas that I want to discuss.

Explain the review and approval process from the beginning

Be a good listener

This is one for the interviewer. Have you ever shouted at the radio because an interviewer is ploughing on regardless with a list of questions when the interviewee is saying something quite interesting?

A good rule of journalism and therefore case study writing is to listen and respond. That way a proper conversation takes place, making the interviewee more relaxed and willing to tell their story in their own words.

Get good quotes

Quotes really make a case study. If you’re reading true life stories anywhere, don’t you just go straight to the quotes because they stand out and tell a story themselves?

If you’ve followed the previous suggestion, you’ll have got plenty of comments from the customer that you could use in the case study.

Some clients suggest making up quotes and getting the customer to agree them later. In my experience, neither the marketer nor the copywriter can dream up quotes that are half as good as those that an enthusiastic customer can provide for themselves.

Get written permission to publish

Trust me on this one – it can be important. And think in advance about where you might want to use the story. Case studies or parts of them can be used in brochures, presentations, magazine articles, press releases, on the web and in print, locally or globally. Get that all written into the permission-to-publish. You can give your customer the chance to opt out of any of these, but make sure everyone knows about these choices. Once a piece of copy is out there, it will be used anywhere and everywhere unless you take control.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

If you think you can get a case study written and approved in time for an event in two weeks’ time, be prepared to have your heart broken. A month from beginning to end is a fair estimate, even if your copywriter is willing and able to get on to it straight away. Remember that the content has to do the rounds at your company and at the customer’s. And if anyone mentions legal departments, start thinking long term. Very long term.

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