Case studies: Every brand has them, every marketer craves them – and more than a few writers dread them. But does anyone actually read them? What makes a truly compelling case study?

How often does a case study surprise you? How often does one make you sit up and take notice? I’m guessing not that often.

Like me, most of the case studies you’ve read over the years probably amount to the same thing: A customer bought this product and it did what the box said it would. “It was really good,” they say. Here’s a link to the product page or to book a demo. The end. 

This all-too-common kind of case study doesn’t deliver much value to someone considering whether to buy. After all, you’re unlikely to ever read a case study where the product doesn’t function as intended. You may as well dedicate a page of your website to proving water is wet.

When a potential customer clicks on a case study, I’m guessing they’re hoping to learn something more than whether the product clears the absolute minimum bar by, y’know, working. That’s not proof; that’s repetition. 

Presumably, they’ve already encountered much of the sales information about the product elsewhere on the website. So all the case study has done is make them read the same information again, rephrased as a not-that-interesting story.

I think this kind of low-value case study is so common because so many businesses misunderstand what they’re for. Speaking of which …

What is a case study for?

Yes, case studies are valuable marketing and sales collateral – part of the standard content toolkit. Yet, I’ve worked in more than a few places where case studies were created as much out of habit than out of any concrete strategy. 

This can lead to quite a few misconceptions.

  • A case study provides a form of social proof. But it’s far more than a testimonial.
  • A case study describes a key use case. But it’s far more than a bunch of sales copy designed to frame features as benefits.
  • A case study adds more keyword-rich copy to your website. But it’s far more than a webpage for your copywriter to knock out between landing pages.

Instead, consider for a moment how a case study is supposed to add value to the sales journey. What is it for?

A good case study provides the reader with a different, relatable perspective on your offering; not the perspective of your brand or sales team, who are hardly impartial, but that of a satisfied customer. 

However, every one of your competitors will have similar stories of happy customers claiming their product is the best. Your stories have to demonstrate why yours really is the best, showcasing your unique value proposition in relation to a specific customer with a specific use case in a specific scenario.

As such, the case study presents the experience of a successful customer as a template for others to follow. This is the power of storytelling once more, tapping into the way the brain uses experience to interpret the world, predict outcomes and make decisions.

This is your opportunity to tell a compelling story of your product or service in action, so that anyone in a similar situation can imagine how they might achieve the same outcome.

And every good story needs a hero.

TIP:  Writing good web copy and writing good case studies are two very different skills. Instead of assigning them to your web team, include them on your content calendar alongside the blog posts and white papers, assigned to writers familiar with writing engaging long-form content.

The hero of the story

You might be the one telling the story, but the customer is very much the hero; the familiar character the reader can identify with.

Therefore, your ideal case study candidate is someone representative of your target audience.

Your ideal case study subject is someone who represents a key use case; someone who can demonstrate what the experience is really like; someone who can give potential customers the real skinny – with as much personalised, relatable detail and candid honesty as possible.

Yes. Honesty. 

Trust me: People are less inclined to believe case studies where everything is sunshine and rainbows from the off. 

One of the things people most want to know about a potential product or provider – particularly for long-term purchases or ongoing services – is how the brand responds to and resolves issues. Case studies allow you to tell that story.

Obviously, you’re not going to talk about that surprising incident that resulted in hospitalisation. But being honest about any hiccups along the way not only gives the case study more authenticity – it feels truthful – but also allows you to showcase how quickly and successfully you resolved them, to the delight of the customer. 

Resist the urge to smooth out the rough edges.

TIP: Don’t publish case studies based on who is easiest to contact or which projects were completed most recently. Instead, create a spreadsheet of the different use cases and capabilities you want to showcase, as well as the customer personas you want to target, and then seek out those customers with stories to match.

Who, what, when, where, why?

As with any story, detail is essential. 

Making that use case and scenario crystal clear – and relatable to readers – requires detail. Lots of it. And that means the detail you need to include is about them, not you. 

What was the problem? What finally motivated them to act? How did they decide on the right solution? How did they implement the solution? Did they encounter any issues along the way?

Ultimately, it’s the results achieved for the client that really matter. Saying some version of “things improved” does nothing to create that experience template your reader is looking for. These details need to be quantified and qualified as much as possible.

How much faster? How much cheaper? How much more productive? How long did it take to achieve these results? 

TIP: If possible, seek permission to produce a case study as a standard inclusion on every engagement agreement. Then you can build the necessary information gathering into your BAU practices, capturing more information with less effort, such as benchmarking before and after improvements.

Suffering for the art

I’ll be frank: case studies can be a bitch to write (or, rather, write well).

More often than not, the writing is the easy bit. The real work is in identifying which stories to tell, gathering and validating the necessary information, quantifying and qualifying data, conducting interviews and piecing together an accurate chronology.

So that’s another piece of advice I can give: allow the time to get your case studies right.

Even so, however difficult they can be, I do love working on case studies. When done well, they’re not only interesting and informative but also massively influential. And when you find a good story with an interesting, engaging person at its heart, the telling becomes a joy.

Some day, I might have to write a case study about writing case studies … Now that would be something!