A handful of tips for creating compelling case studies
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Case studies can be a fabulous sales tool. A great case study not only increases your leads but also increases the quality of those leads: the holy grail.
But all too often, case studies are crap.
Either they’re a brand feel-good exercise that everyone internal loves and nobody external gives two hoots about. Or they’re a shadow of their former selves, sucked dry by clients who (understandably) care about looking good and aren’t keen to air their dirty laundry.
In both cases, the primary audience – new prospects – are neglected.
That's fine, if your primary success metric is, say, internal stakeholder happiness or existing client loyalty. But it's a major issue if your primary success metrics hinge on convincing, compelling and converting new prospects – y'know, getting leads and making sales.
So. Here’s how to write case studies that actually deliver. To make the most of your customers' and prospects’ time when they spare it.
Follow these guidelines and honestly, you’ll see your case studies don’t have to be incredible to be better than almost everyone else’s.
Write for your reader
This isn’t so much a tip for writing better case studies as a tip for everything you write, ever. Don’t start writing – don’t even open Word, or whatever – until you know exactly who your ideal reader is.
In his legendary copywriting course, Andy Maslen recommends you pin down three core pieces of info before writing. When they’ve finished reading:
What do you want your reader to KNOW?
What do you want them to FEEL?
What do you want them to COMMIT?
It’s a simple formula, but a powerful one. (And one we still use during our research process, even after many years’ experience). It helps tether your case study to what matters most: the reader.
Choose the right customer
Often you see brands pick customers for a case study based on some combination of recency, good results and strong relationships. They’re all valid reasons but they can’t stand alone.
Because it’s a good bet you’re not always going after exactly the same type of client.
Not just that you probably work with more than one type of client, with more than one type of problem – like, say, struggling to get enough quality applications versus battling huge application volume.
But that your strategy’s probably evolved. You probably have some legacy clients (who you might have an amazing relationship with) who aren’t exactly your type today.
Put yourself in your audience’s shoes – they’re not interested in your amazing brand story unless it’s relevant to them. The easiest way to make it relevant for them is to choose a customer like them, facing the same problems.
Plus like attracts like. The wrong case studies risk attracting people who aren't a good fit, snarling up time disqualifying them.
Tell a story
Bad case studies are just regurgitated stats and brand messaging. Dig deep into the pain your customers were experiencing, why they came to you and how you solved it.
Problem, Agitate, Solve is an old-school copy formula that works well for case studies. As in:
What problem did the customer have?
Why was their problem really hurting them?
How did you take their problem away?
Also, here’s where people often go wrong – prioritise the story over the client, not the other way around. (Read this fantastic piece from Velocity on exactly that, and why sometimes your story is best served by going anonymous).
Normalise putting your story first: crucially, make those boundaries clear to your clients. Be clear upfront that you might go anonymous, so it’s not seen as a punishment move. You’re not creating free PR for them.
Conduct great interviews
Don’t wing it. Seriously. A good case study is only ~5% about writing the case study, and about ~95% about all this other stuff.
(That’s also why, when we help our clients with case studies, we’re involved from the very start. We *very, very* rarely write a case study unless we’ve gathered the material ourselves – because the material is the case study).
If you turn up to a call unprepared, you have no idea what your customer will come out with. It *might* be great. Or it might be totally unrelated to the story you're hoping to tell.
You want customers to speak freely (and you’ll hopefully uncover nuggets you never considered too) but prepare a robust question set too.
And don’t be afraid of silence. Silence can feel super uncomfortable but as good salespeople know, it's a powerful tool. Interviewees will often speak to fill the uncomfortable gap – and that's where the gold's often found. Listen more than you talk.
Define clear upfront boundaries
We mentioned this briefly but it’s worth emphasising. Setting boundaries with clients might be something you're less comfortable doing. The client’s doing you a favour, right? Which can put you on the back foot.
Don’t let it. Don’t learn the hard way.
You’ve been doing them the favour all this time, thanks to your awesome product taking all their problems away. They’re thanking you, not doing you a favour.
Any collaborative project can turn into an absolute nightmare, with endless people contributing to feedback rounds and asking for edits, endless chasing, endless missed deadlines and endless "ooo one last thing"s. And yes, we speak from hard-earned experience.
Most of that back-and-forth is avoidable with good expectation management upfront.
At their best, case studies are super compelling because prospects can see themselves in there somewhere. (That’s the relevance thing we mentioned a few points back).
If you over-sanitize the story – tie up all the loose ends into neat little bows – the risk is the whole thing starts to feel more like a marketing exercise than a one-to-one truth-telling exercise.
B2B life is complex. Enterprises are complex.
There are too many moving parts and lots of scope for error and confusion. You don’t want to tie up those loose ends too much, or prospects won’t see themselves anymore. They’ll see the idealised-but-fake story you’ve written to sell yourself.
B2B life is complex. Enterprises are complex. That opens another trap too, that there are heaps of stories you could tell buried within every client.
Like maybe they’re a great example of a small HR team having a disproportionate impact. And also, they’re struggling to realise their ED&I agenda. And guess what? They also had a super complex tech stack with bespoke integration needs. Oh and they went through a merger last year that put employee engagement on the line.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
Don’t tell all your stories in one case study. Either decide the most relevant story for your ideal reader or write several case studies. There’s no rule against using clients more than once.
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