Case studies are a terrific bottom-of-the-funnel asset that creates value higher up, too. Back when I was starting out, one of my first gigs was writing case studies for SAS. In the intervening 31 years, I’ve developed some techniques that make creating strong case studies easier. This article includes my best advice and expert commentary from one of my clients.

How to create an effective case study

For many of us, a case study request lands on our desks without any more context than, "We need this right now". But more context makes more effective case studies. Beyond showing how the product or service performs in real life, the content has to be relevant to the intended audience and serve organizational goals. I create a brief using the People-Information-Goals Strategy™. 

Margot Lester's People-Information-Goals Strategy
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Completing this brief is an opportunity to solicit input from the sales and biz dev teams, as well as customer service. Those folks have a good handle on the questions and concerns customers have – and that information can guide the questions you develop for the case. See a step-by-step guide to using the PIG for case study planning.

How to tell a stronger story

The problem-solution, situation-before-and-after style is the most prevalent type of case study. It makes sense from an organizational point of view because we want to show how transformational our solutions are. And organizational performance data is a powerful motivator for sure. But it only tells part of the story.

Research shows that data moves people who are ready to decide, which may be why traditional cases are so dang effective near the end of the sales cycle. Including more stories from “people like me” or my users in your data story adds more context that creates more relevance. A blend of data, explanations and examples tells a fuller story.

“It’s one thing to talk about the problems your company solves; it's another to prove it through tangible examples showing the positive ROI of your offering,” explains Jenna Vassallo, director of marketing for Parentaly, a Word Factory client. The company uses cases and customer stories to illustrate the value of its benefits package that offers career coaching and content to help expecting parents before, during and after parental leave. "Case studies highlight how your product or service is doing what it's supposed to do for customers."

If you can’t build a solid data story because there’s not enough quantitative evidence, consider a customer profile, which leans more heavily on qualitative examples and explanations at human scale.

"People like hearing from and learning through other people, so showcasing personal stories and experiences builds trust and credibility with your audience," Vassallo explains. She speaks from experience. Parentaly built a cache of parent narratives to show the impact parental benefits had on employees and how that, in turn, benefited their employers. “These stories quickly became a fan favorite as we built our brand -- externally and with our parent participants, as the content is also baked into the product. They're also helpful from a sales perspective, providing real examples of the challenges folks face and helping prove why a solution like ours is a need-to-have versus a nice-to-have.”

3 case study examples

Here are some cases and customer stories I created for our clients:

How to craft better case study questions

One of the best tactics for writing better case studies is writing better interview questions. Beyond the basic "tell me about your business" and "what was it like before and what is it like now" queries, we can go deeper to uncover important details or perspectives that drive relevance and make our story stronger.

The first thing to do is trust your gut. If you ask a question and you don’t understand the answer or you want to know more about something they said, ask! One of the most common mistakes I see is people not asking follow-up questions. This is often because we feel compelled to stick to the questions we were given or we don’t want to look stupid or uninformed. I get that. But your job in a case study interview is to represent the audience, not be the subject matter expert. Asking follow-ups or for more insight is the best way to get information the audience needs and wants. (Still feeling weird about it? Tell them this ahead of the interview!)

The second thing to do is to add “how” or “why” to any questions that start with “what”. This gives us important context that often isn’t included when answering “what” queries. Here’s an example:

“What was the most notable increase in productivity and how did the solution help you achieve it?”

6 case study questions

To the questions you surface using the PIG, add other questions purpose-built to produce more robust answers, like:

  1. What was giving you the most heartburn or causing the most frustration before and how did the solution alleviate that?
  2. What surprised you most about the implementation and why?
  3. How has the product/service changed the way you work?
  4. What were three factors driving your selection and why was each one important in the decision-making process?
  5. What’s the most important thing other customers like you should know and why?
  6.  If you could only share one thing about our product/solution, what would it be and why?

Use these questions as-is or as inspiration for your own.

Get more tips for how to conduct better case study interviews.

How to generate higher case study ROI

Cases are a big investment in time and resources, so getting the most out of each one ensures maximum ROI. Here are eight popular and effective ways to use case study content:

  1. Create data graphics and testimonial quotes for use in other assets and on social
  2. Develop mini-cases or use cases
  3. Summarize for your blog or another platform like LinkedIn articles
  4. Use as contextual links in other content
  5. Excerpt and promote in newsletters and marketing emails
  6. Include click-to-download links on landing and pillar pages
  7. Design a slide deck version for LinkedIn or other platforms
  8. Turn it into a webinar or conference presentation

There are a bunch more, of course, but these are the ones I rely on the most and that are easiest to produce.

The final word

Case studies are a crucial part of closing the deal and, with a little strategic thinking up front, can deliver value earlier in the decision-making process, too. Changing your approach to this kind of big-rock content makes case studies an even smarter investment.

“Never underestimate the importance of social proof and real examples,” Vasallo concludes. “Case studies are one of  -- if not the most -- valuable content you'll create as a marketer because they serve as concrete evidence that your product or service works.” 

If you’ve got an upcoming case study or customer story project you’d like to discuss, let’s talk!

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