Your Guide to Creating Compelling Case Studies

This guide will provide you with the how-to basics you need for creating quality case studies that build your brand and generate leads.

case studies

When it comes to gaining trust and proving your value to prospects, case studies are among the most effective content marketing tools out there. By presenting real-life examples of your company’s product or service in action, case studies help establish your credibility, convey your value proposition, and improve your sales productivity.  

Furthermore, case studies can showcase your success to investors, partners, analysts, and key influencers, creating massive PR value.

When putting together a case study, clarity and brevity are the name of the game. Typically just a few pages long, most case studies follow a simple format/narrative structure broken into three distinct parts: the challenge or problem, the solution or action that resolved it, and the definitive result that doing so created.

Before You Get Started

As with any content initiative, for case studies to be effective you have to have the right people, processes, and goals in place to drive their creation. Before you dive in, make sure you’ve considered each of these items:

A Solid Understanding of Your Audience and Customer Interests: Before you do anything else, you should ask yourself the following questions to pinpoint your target audience and sharpen your case study’s focus:

  • Who do you want to read this document?
  • What are that person’s responsibilities, general characteristics, and pain points?
  • How does your product/solution address those issues?

Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities: While there are many ways to organize your resources to create case studies, there are four key roles to consider:

  1. The initiative owner (internal): This person will drive the entire operation and manage case study creation from start to finish.
  2. The participants (internal and external): These are the stakeholders from your company and the company you worked with that will be interviewed to help shape the case study’s story.
  3. The writer (internal or external): This person will conduct phone interviews and compose the narrative.
  4. The graphic designer (internal or external): This person will take the written content and design an eye-catching case study.

Getting Started

From start to finish, executing your case study can take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks or even months. It’s up to you to establish expectations with your stakeholders, and to adhere to five universal steps involved with case study production:

Step 1: Answer the Four W’s

In other words, who will the case study be about, what will it cover, why will your target audience care, and when will you publish it? To answer those questions, you need to first generate case study ideas, choose a topic, outline the structure, establish deadlines, and identify the participants whose contributions will make it tick.

As Hubspot points out in its Ultimate Guide to Creating Compelling Case Studies, your most obvious customers are not always the best case study subjects, either. In fact, some of the best case study stories are those that are a bit unexpected, because they show other customers and prospects that your product/service can solve a variety of complex or unique problems.

Step 2: Create an Outline

“Quite often, B2B companies have these products or services that are kind of amorphous. It’s not like you sell iPhones, or My Little Ponies, or Vitamin Water. So I think case studies are a great way to show how your product or service lives in the world. How does it help people in their lives and jobs? How does it help them accomplish their goals?”

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs

Before engage the customers and employees who will be featured in the case study, it’s important to draft an outline that will explain the scope and purpose of the project, and the roles each person will play. That will ensure that everyone is on the same page as you begin the writing process.

In your outline, be sure to cover these three important things:

  • The high-level points or themes the case study will focus on
  • The timeline for the case study, including draft and publication deadlines
  • The specific topics each interview subject will be asked to contribute to

After you’ve drafted the outline, send it to everyone who will be involved in the case study and ask each of them to sign off on it before you go any further.

Step 3: Schedule and Conduct Interviews

Interviews can make or break your case study. If you don’t ask the right questions or don’t prepare well enough, you’ll likely come away with very little relevant or compelling information. If you do your homework and provide your interview subjects with helpful prompts, however, you stand a far greater chance of coming away with the narrative you need for a compelling case study.

To make sure you achieve the latter rather than the former, Ten Ton Marketing’s Stephanie Tilton recommends you do the following things:

  • Research the interview subject/business being featured. Study each interview subject’s professional history and read recent company press releases or annual reports to find inspiration for your questions. That will allow you to compose unique, relevant questions for each person, and draw out far more detailed insight.
  • Go with the flow during the interview. While you may have established a focus for the case study before the call, a customer or employee may bring up some new information or data points that could add to the case study’s narrative. If that’s the case, feel free to veer from the script and ask follow-up questions that draw out more information.
  • Ask open-ended questions. You won’t be able to tell a story with a bunch of “yes” or “no” answers, so pose questions using prompts like “how” or “why” that encourage the subjects to elaborate on a certain point or explain something more deeply.

It’s important to be flexible when scheduling interviews, too. The last thing you want to do is annoy your customers by interrupting their schedules or wasting their time.

Step 4: Write, Review, Edit, and Design the Case Study

A great case study should be composed of five acts that:

  1. Provide an overview of the situation
  2. Explain the problem and introduce the narrative’s characters
  3. Detail how your company helped the customer
  4. Describe the changes, results, or return on investment that ensued
  5. Wrap the story up and describe the current state of affairs

Those five acts will almost invariably lead to a more compelling narrative by providing proper context and guiding readers through the various stages of the story. Before you begin writing, however, it’s critical to once again ensure that everyone involved in the production of the case study shares the same vision. Reiterate to your staff what you want the case study to look like, how long you’d like it to be, and what, at a minimum, you want it to include.

Once the case study is written, be sure to review it and give it a thorough edit before sending it on to any of the case study’s participants for their approval. If they have any feedback that needs to be incorporated into the case study, be sure to make those edits and send a revised draft back for one last review.

After those rounds of edits are complete, you should be ready to submit the case study to the designer and go through the same process that you did with your writer — confirming your vision and executing a series of reviews.

Step 5: Market and Distribute Your Case Study

Once your case study has been designed and approved by all of its participants, it’s time to put it in the hands of your customers and prospects. One of the best ways to do that is to deliver it to your sales team and encourage them to use and share the content. You might also consider:

  • Including it in your e-mail newsletter
  • Posting it via your social networks
  • Uploading it to content hosting sites like Slideshare
  • Writing a short blog to promote the case study
  • Creating a press release and sending it to your key influencers

To ensure your sales team is able to use and distribute your case study most effectively, brief them on the purpose of the content and why you ultimately decided to create it. The better they understand the problem that your company solved, the easier it will be for them to convey that to their prospects.

Examples of Compelling Case Studies

OpenView Case                    
OpenView Venture Partners            HubSpot
Uncovering the Needle                      Lynton Web Solution
in the Haystack

                   
Harvard Business Review                Content Marketing Institute
Target the Right Market                   Proof of the Power of 
Content Marketing

Additional Resources

6 Steps to Successful Case Studies by Stephanie Tilton, principal at Ten Ton Marketing

Making Your Case: Everything You and Your Colleagues Need to Write Compelling, Lead-Generating Case Studies by Jonathan Kranz

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Compelling Case Studies by Hubspot

Don’t Miss the Other Guides in our Content Snapshot Series

photos by: mpclemens & A. Germain

Share Your Thoughts

  • Jonathan Kranz

    Great article! It’s important to remember that the case study gets its strength by combining the narrative flow of the story with the first-person credibility of a client testimonial. That’s why it’s very important that you not be “afraid of the dark”; your case should include the difficulties, glitches, and challenges that add a welcome note of realism — and make the outcome all the more dramatic.

    • Kevin Cain

      Glad you enjoyed this article, Jonathan! Thanks for your feedback and great point. You’re right, case studies need to be portrayed realistically to be credible, and including some of the glitches and challenges is a great way to do this.