Case studies are the stories that inspire future business. Pure and simple. We’re in a demand-generation, deal-closing economy and good customer evidence is the laser-guided bomb of marketing.
Used well, a case study is a powerful piece of targeted marketing. Your case study database on your website should reflect this.
For those just getting to know your business, case studies provide a brief, relevant overview of what your product or service offers; they give those further down the funnel the final push with a story they can relate to; and they delight your existing customers by exhibiting their success.
With a great case study, you showcase the value of your product or service in a more tangible way. You can check out some of Articulate's own case studies on this page here.
At Articulate Marketing, we write many case studies for different technology companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others. So, we've learnt a thing or two about how to do them well.
Watch the case studies webinar
Before you go on to read our article, why not check out this video? It's a webinar we did back in 2020 all about building better case studies. View the recording and slides below:
Why are case studies important?
In business-to-business marketing, the case study is king. For Articulate Marketing, it's also vital, regular work. (We have written hundreds of case studies for big tech companies over the last decade.)
First and foremost, it’s all about the story. This requires interviewing the right person. You need a case study champion – someone in the company who’s been successfully using your product or service.
Your prospects don’t want a rejigged press release or a list of facts – they want a story that they can relate to. This means finding the unique heart of your customer's story. Don't just write the story you want to hear. Write the story they tell. This could be how they expanded into new markets, saved time and money on paperwork, or increased productivity without an increase in personnel. Whatever it is, make sure this personal, person-led story drives the case study.
How to write a case study
- Do your groundwork. Understand the product or service being sold and research the companies on both sides of the deal. This can be as simple as reading the ‘About Us’ section on a company website, or their company news page. You need some context for the deal you’re writing about.
- Get some background. Try to get hold of the person who was on the ground and made the deal and get them to tell you what happened. Get some background so when you speak to the client you aren’t wasting their time with obvious questions.
- Interview the right person. The real story will come from the people actually involved in procurement, implementation and customer relations. Avoid interviewing marketing or PR people, as they will only tell you a repackaged story, which will sound hollow when you write it up. You want the real customer, preferably a champion of your product. Ideally, they have the authority to approve it, too. At Articulate, we prefer to make first contact with this person, interview them, get their feedback and their signoff. This way, every contact builds a friendly, one-to-one relationship between us, the writer, and them, representing the company.
- Find the story. This is the crux of the case study. There has to be a story: a struggle before, a journey to improve, and a benefit in the present. This doesn’t always mean profits. It might be improved employee retention, saved time or a new business model. The focus is on what matters most to the person you interview. And make sure you tell the real story – no inflated figures.
- Create a template. Once you have your basic story you can build a structure. Most case studies fall into company biography, challenge, process and benefits. Structures are there to emphasise the story, not shackle it though. Tweak it to the story and give yourself four or five subheadings.
- Clean it up. Don’t use too many marketing phrases or clichéd product explanations – keep it human, but make sure you are referring to products correctly, and types of implementation or acquisition in the right way. Keep the story accurate. And be sure to include specifics.
- Cut your copy. A case study shouldn’t be longer than 500-750 words. Any more and people just won’t read it. Cut out repetition, shorten quotes, and make sure everything you write is vital to the story.
- Go for the story, not the name. Most marketing people lust after the hero case study that has the big brand recognition factor. The reality is that these guys rarely want to give case studies and, if they do, they rewrite everything and take a long time to approve it. Better to find the willing customer with a good story. When it comes to PR, the most successful case studies we’ve written have been about unknown, niche companies with a great spokesperson and a neat angle.
- Use case studies to support sales. If a case study has a good story – ‘our client cut costs by 25 percent’ – use it to show potential customers how they can do the same. Arrange case studies on your website by benefit or topic rather than company name, so that sales people can find the right story when they need it.
- Be specific. Details matter. Not only do they make the case study more credible, they answer the reader’s questions.
- Speed is everything. Case studies have a short half-life. Technology moves on. Companies change. Ideally, a good case study should take a week from first contact to approval. If it takes longer, it increases the risk that the case study champion will lose interest. It should be a crescendo not an endless low humming.
What to do when a case study goes wrong?
You will put a lot of time and effort into your case studies, to create a tool that you can use again and again with your business. Sometimes, being so deeply involved in this process doesn’t enable you to be objective about the quality of your work. We are fortunate enough at Articulate that we get to work on a lot of case studies for our clients, and there are a few things we’ve learnt to look for when determining whether a case study works or not. Here are a few ‘red flag’ characteristics to look out for when reviewing your case studies:
- They are lifeless. You get little sense of person or place.
- They are formulaic: problem, solution, benefits.
- There is no story. No feeling of tension, suspense, progress.
- The results are hard to measure.
Having been through the process, we think the problems lie in the way they are created:
- Too many cooks. Some of the case studies we write get reviewed and edited by at least seven people on the client side. This is like taking a new shirt and washing it seven times before you can wear it – it’s hardly going to feel like new after that!
- Too many steps. For one client, we had a tracking spreadsheet that ticked off 11 discrete steps in finalising a case study. Each one required a few emails, some uploads, some checking and, of course, some cost. That’s a lot when you put it altogether.
- Overzealous brand policing. Typical feedback: ‘You can't say that in a case study, it's too informal.’ OR ‘All headlines have to be ten words long but can't mention the customer or product by name.’
- One-size-fits-all. No sense of different audiences and different media - what works online for a customer is different from what works by email for a journalist.
- Over-loaded content. Typically, clients want 500-word case studies, but they also want them freighted with a paragraph about the product, a paragraph about the reseller who implemented it, a paragraph about the customer then details of the problem and the benefits. It's too crowded in there.
- Unrealistic expectations. A marketing manager's dream is that every case study ends with this sentence: ‘Because we installed Widgetiser 3.0, my company saved £2m in three months and increased sales by 128 percent’. The real world doesn't generate statistics like that.
Examples of excellent case studies
We've hand picked a couple case studied that are perfect examples of what great looks like. Have a read of some and get inspired:
1) Adobe: The Royal Bank of Scotland
This case study focuses on the solutions that Adobe provided for the Royal Bank of Scotland. Their top challenges included fostering a culture of data driven decision making, eliminating disjointed systems, and delivering digital experiences that are relevant and easy to use.
Adobe's approach and delivery resulted in a 20 percent increase in conversion, as well as improved internal communications, faster optimisation, and a reduction of their content management footprint.
2) Bitly: Vissla
Vissla is an online eCommerce company with a need to understand big data across multiple marketing platforms.
Bitly provided a a way to consolidate data and literally link channels together to display all information on a single dashboard.
3) LinkedIn Marketing Solutions: Hubspot
HubSpot, in search of high quality leads, turned to LinkedIn Marketing Solutions to engage with marketing professionals in small to medium sized businesses. Targeting them with ebooks, webinars, and how-to guides. Sponsored organic content appeared in members' LinkedIn feeds.
The result: 400 percent more leads within their target audience than efforts on other platforms.
What to do with your finished case study
So, you’ve written a case study, got it approved and it’s live on your (or your client’s) website… now what? Well that’s the (sort of) easy part over. Next, comes the hard part – getting it out there, letting it be seen and generally making a fuss of the wee thing.
- Remember the audience. We wrote some case studies for an ecommerce company. They were 1,000 words long but we were only allowed to mention the product in one paragraph. The rest of the piece had to be a proper story designed to appeal to the company's target audience. In terms of PR coverage these case studies were - by far - the most successful we have worked on. Why? Because journalists could see the point and people actually wanted to read them.
- New delivery media. What about a customer evidence blog? How about turning the source interview into a five-minute podcast? Perhaps combine three or four case studies in a particular sector, say accounting, into a single feature article about technology in that sector. What about the Q&A format? Put the interview up on YouTube?
- One case study, multiple presentations. The source interview and research don't change, but perhaps you could write a traditional case study, a bullet point summary for the web, a killer quote for an email newsletter and a longer more journalistic story for PR purposes. The incremental cost of the extra writing is marginal compared the cost of going through the process to produce the basic case study. Twice the content for just 50 percent more money.
- Build a database. We use Notion as an extranet to allow everyone involved - client and agency - to access our work. This means that past case studies are always available and searchable for our use, even if that’s just for referral for formatting future content.
- Build in measurability. Too often, people seem to think that the end of the process is getting the case study signed off and uploaded to a central customer evidence website. That is only the beginning of the process. It must be possible to build in more measurability. We work with Hubspot, which offers a boatload of analytics tools so you can track visitors that view your case study, showing where they can from, and if they clicked on a CTA or contact page.
Your case study strategy doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be effective. Utilising just ten percent of the advice we’ve given you above will help you seriously improve your case studies. At Articulate we eat, sleep and breathe case studies because we’ve seen first-hand just how powerful they can be for business. If you need support and help then don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.
This article was originally written in 2020 and has been updated in 2022.