The five elements of a successful case study

02 September 2015 Colin Bradbury

The case study is a powerful marketing tool when used effectively. But what is it that differentiates it from other forms of marketing collateral and how can you use that to inject more ‘oomph’ into your case studies?

Sherlock Holmes said that “emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning”. The great detective may have been correct that emotion had no place in his cases, but when it comes to case studies, emotion is a key ingredient.

Sherlock Holmes with a pipe

The case study sits at the top of the marketing funnel. Its function is to educate, inform and project expertise. Beyond that, it aims to build trust and comfort, providing a solution to an anxiety-raising problem.

What do these all have in common? They are emotions and it’s this human, personal element that makes the case study a unique weapon in the marketing arsenal. Case studies move the story from the general to the specific. Their power emanates from the elements of personal experience and personality which are lacking in many other parts of the funnel.

So what are the five key features which give a case study those essential human elements?

1. Use interviews to highlight the customer’s personal experience

Frost Nixon

Case studies are basically about a vendor providing a solution to a customer’s problem. But they need to humanise the transaction and the best way to do this is to structure the case study around an interview. Successful case studies can be done without interviews, but they are much harder to pull off.

Placing an interview with a key decision maker at its heart differentiates the case study from all other marketing material in two ways.

First, it puts the focus on the user rather than on the vendor. Since most marketing copy is of the ‘product features and benefits’ variety, it’s refreshing for readers to see the transaction from the perspective of the purchaser for a change.

It also helps with the ultimate goal of converting the case study reader into a customer. The story of how a customer found the solution to a problem leaves the vendor which provided the ‘magic bullet’ product or service basking in reflected glory.

Secondly, the interview provides independent validation of your marketing claims. Buyers are naturally sceptical of standard marketing blurb. So confirmation by industry peers that your product really is as good as you say gives your credibility a big boost.

This focus on the customer is so important that case studies could be called ‘user stories’.

2. Appeal to the emotions

Some say that there is no place for emotion in business. Nonsense! Business decision makers are individuals, choc-full of human emotions. That’s why the emotive term ‘pain points’ is used to identify a customer’s most pressing issues.

People are relieved to find that they aren’t the only ones facing a particular business problem. The practical benefit of this group therapy is that a potential client who sees that your product has helped another company facing similar issues will feel more positive towards you.

The case study also stimulates the human tendency to seek safety in numbers. It may be a cliché that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, but being able to point to others who bought the same solution as you does provide something of a career safety-net.

More positively, the case study provides comfort that the product a buyer is considering has been chosen by other respected companies in their industry. It’s natural to seek peer validation for important decisions, but it is also good business practice to check whether others have put the product under the microscope and found it worthy of expenditure.

‘Peer validation’ is a pretty good definition of what a case study is. So make sure there is plenty of that in everyone.

3. Quote, quote and quote again!

Just as strong dialogue is the key to a compelling novel, real words from real people are the beating heart of a case study. Customer quotes do the same thing for a case study as the lightning bolt did for Frankenstein’s monster. They jolt it into life.

So gather quotes assiduously and use them wherever possible to illustrate your points. You can write all you want about how great your outsourcing service is. But a customer CEO saying: “outsourcing our HR function has delivered a more reliable service at a lower cost and freed me up to focus on growing the business” will make a much greater impact.

Unfortunately quotes can be the most difficult part of a case study. Some interviewees are a fount of quotable quotes, but with others it can be like getting blood from a stone. Make sure that whoever is doing the interview knows the areas in which it’s most critical to secure a good quote.

If the interviewee is not forthcoming, try crafting a quote and offering it to them to see if they agree. “So, would you say that…?” If the response is “yes, absolutely” then that’s a useable quote. Just make sure it sounds like something a normal human being would say rather than the product of a marketing department.

So quotes give personal engagement, authority and authenticity. Use them. Then use some more.

4. Make the customer the hero

We’ve established that the customer needs to be at the centre of the case study. But more than that, they need to be the hero of the story. Why?

  • From a practical perspective, you’ll need approval from the customer to use their name in the study. So you want them to look good.
  • Showing how smart the customer is, reflects well on the vendor. And any customer who chooses your product must be smart, right? It’s a virtuous circle.
  • Existing customers are also future customers and nobody is averse to being made to look good. So while the main goal of a case study is to attract new customers, a nice side-benefit is the goodwill – and maybe future business – it generates with existing customers.

So portray the customer as one who makes measured, logical decisions and who cares about the service they deliver to their customers.

One potentially tricky area is the ‘before’ of the before and after. While it’s fine to identify the need which your product met, no company is going to want to say “our business was a total shambles before we bought Acme’s product!” You can be honest about the problems the customer faced, but sensitivity is vital.

5. Write a compelling story

All these different elements need a wrapper; the story.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”  – Philip Pullman

Stories are common to all cultures and all times, they are how we have made sense of our world for tens of thousands of years. Just because we now wield Smartphones rather than spears to make a living doesn’t diminish the role of stories in our lives.

Personal journeys make the most powerful stories which is why, 3,000 years after it was written, the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy remains the archetypal epic. The classic story arc has a hero striving for a goal. Along the way, he encounters obstacles and meets characters who either hinder or help his quest. Ultimately he reaches the goal and enjoys the fruits of success.

This journey-based story arc is just as relevant in business writing, though it is typically expressed through a problem/solution/benefit narrative. And well-worn though that path might be, as with the Odyssey, it has remained dominant because it works so well.

So make sure that the emotional, personal insights gleaned from the interviews and expressed through the quotes, are used to bring the customer’s journey to life in the case study.

One example of how the humanised case journey narrative works relates to parts of the process which didn’t go smoothly. Don’t be frightened of talking about the problems you and the client faced in implementing a solution – everybody knows that this is part of business life. A case study isn’ t a standard marketing pitch. Your story will be much more credible if there’s something that didn’t go quite right in the process but which the vendor dealt with successfully.

By thinking of the case study as a human story, customers will see you as honest, transparent and trustworthy. Case studies can do that for you if you’re prepared to ‘get personal’.