Case studies have been a staple of good small business marketing for decades. There is no doubt that they are effective – when they are done right.
So, what makes a good case study?
If we’re going to keep it real here, most case studies are, well, boring. I mean they are real snoozers.
Now, that doesn’t mean yours can’t be captivating and engaging page-turners, but you will likely have to work a little harder.
No sweat. That’s what this guide is all about. Here’s what you need to know to create a case study that will have your audience glued to the page.
Let’s do this.
What is a business case study?
A business case study is a summary of a real-life business scenario where steps are taken to solve a problem effectively. Case studies are not just for business school students. They can also be used to show how your business has made a real and significant impact on your customers. Also called customer stories, these scenarios can help show potential customers what your brand is able to do for them.
The biggest, most important thing you need to keep in mind when developing and creating a case study is that it is about your customer’s journey, not about your company. It needs to have impact, to be interesting, engaging, unforgettable. It needs to leave a lasting impression.
That sounds like a pretty tall order – and it is, but if you aren’t going to create marketing products that stand out and cause your brand to rise above your competitors, what’s the point? What are you even doing here if you aren’t interested in creating something special and lasting?
As special and lasting as your business – as your brand. It puts your product or service squarely in the hands of the person reading and walks them through how your company made a difference. It gives your brand life without ever tooting your own horn. It lets your satisfied customers do that work for you.
So basically, a case study is a story, your customer’s story about how they overcame certain problems or challenges thanks to your products or services. At its core though it is an in-depth analysis of problems and solutions. It examines the challenges and presents answers that tie back to your company.
To be honest, too many case studies miss the mark.
They are treated like advertisements or press releases which they definitely are not. While they can be used in a product launch, they are not intended to promotional in that manner. It brings us back to the focus. While advertisements and press releases focus on your company, case studies focus on your customer.
Just the fact that they focus on a real person with real problems should give you plenty to work with as you create engaging, enthralling content. After all, people make the most interesting stories!
What are the types of case studies for business?
Case study is not just a generalized term, a one size fits all marketing ploy. It is a highly specialized type of content that can breathe new life into your brand and become a vital part of your business strategy.
There are four main types of case studies:
- Critical Instance Case Study – This type of study answers cause and effect questions. It examines a situation in a very detailed manner with a key characteristic of avoiding generalization and universal assertions.
- Cumulative Case Study – This type of study aggregates information from several sources that occurred at different times.
- Exploratory Case Study – Also known as a pilot case study, this is a condensed version that precedes a more in-depth analysis. It is primarily used to aid in determining types of measurement and identifying questions before launching the main research.
- Illustrative Case Study – This type of study is mostly focused on being descriptive and is the type that is most commonly associated with case studies. It outlines the problem, usually one or two situations to illustrate the challenge, then move on to the solution.
Within each of these types, one or more areas of business may be explored, including:
- Growth Plan or Strategy
- Industry Landscape & Competitor Dynamics
- Market Entry or Expansion
- Merger, Acquisition, or Joint Venture
- New Product
- Pricing Optimization
- Profitability Optimization
- Start-Up or Early Stage Venture
There are also types of case studies that are developed internally and used to analyze various areas of the organization, market, or industry. They are used to assess problems within a company and find viable solutions. These are not used for marketing purposes. Instead, they are used as a way for a business to maximize profitability, optimize growth, and determine the suitability of an industry for entry or exit.
Business case studies used for marketing purposes are shared with the public. Marketing teams create these types of client stories specifically to show prospective customers how a business may solve their problems just like they did for the company in the study. This type of case study provides real-world illustrations of how a company’s product or service can solve a customer’s specific problem.
Advertisements tell people about a product or service. A case study puts that product or service in the hands of the customer and demonstrates how it can be used and be beneficial. The advertisement tells. The case study shows. And most consumers are more likely to be impressed or connect with a piece of content that shows the product or service in action.
How can case studies benefit your brand?
Consumers have become very savvy and today’s modern consumer wants to do their own research and make decisions without a salesperson or advertisement telling them what to think or what to buy. Around 96% of people in the U.S. shop online and more than 63% do online research prior to making a purchase. This opens the door for your brand to put educational material in the hands of consumers, providing them with the information they need to make informed decisions regarding your business.
Case studies can be extremely beneficial for this purpose in a number of ways.
They turn your product or service into a story.
That’s what case studies are, after all, a story about how your product or service solved a customer’s problem. While that is a very simplified version of what case studies do, it is still very accurate. The characters in your story are the customers with the problem. The case study walks the reader through the conflict the customer experienced, what they tried, and how they ultimately used your product or service to solve it. A good case study is an engaging story that is very relatable – and that is what makes it so effective.
They provide indirect endorsements of your company.
Testimonials are considered direct endorsements while case studies are indirect. Both are a type of peer review which is of interest to consumers. Of course, any type of endorsement has some value, and case studies are no different. The more details you provide, the more qualified leads you will attract, and the more customers you will have.
They help identify your brand evangelists.
When you begin the process of finding customers to participate in the creation of your case study, you will naturally discover which are your biggest fans. From there you can identify those who are willing to be your brand evangelists. Having customers who are excited about your company and are eager to speak out about your brand is a true testament to the quality of not only your product or service but of your business and customer experience as well.
They put your product or service value into action.
A case study takes your reader on a very specific journey that is centered around using a specific service or product. It takes that value and puts it into action. This is what your prospective customers need to see because they can then envision how your product or service will work for them.
They attract more qualified leads.
Research surrounding case studies and related types of peer recommendations shows that they are very effective in not only attracting customers but attracting the right types of customers. 97% of B2B customers rely on peer-recommended content, including case studies, citing them as the most reliable type of content. When it comes to consumers, 88% trust case studies and other types of peer-recommended material as much as they trust recommendations from their family or friends.
They provide the word of mouth validation.
The best marketing strategy that a business can have is word of mouth. Customers in the United States are far more likely to purchase from a brand that someone they know has recommended. Word of mouth marketing is what marketers work hard for, what they seek, and what can propel a brand from obscurity into a household name.
They are outstanding sales tools.
There are so many ways that you can use case studies as sales resources. Incorporating them into your marketing campaigns will allow your prospects to see real-world scenarios showing how your products are being used to solve real problems. If a customer or prospective customer is having trouble in a certain area, one of your representatives or salespeople can refer to the case study that lines up the best with the prospect’s problem. The prospect can then see how others have handled the problem utilizing your products or services.
They can boost SEO.
Case studies that are published on your company website or blog can give your site a solid SEO boost. Case studies are rich in relevant keywords and key phrases, making them an outstanding SEO tool. The beauty of this type of content is that it is naturally optimized so it will lead prospects right to you.
They allow you to highlight certain benefits and features of your product or service.
Nearly every product or service has several specific benefits and features. Each of our customers may use your product in a different way, taking advantage of those features and benefits. Case studies that are focused on a particular feature can show how your customer benefitted from it and how they used it. This gives you more real-world illustrations for the application of your product or service.
They open the door for conversations with the media.
Case studies have the human component in their corner. When an editor or journalist gets their hands on your case study, they can see your company from the human point of view. It’s a human story, not a business one. From there they can tell the human stories with your business as the hero. They can weave a story around the case study or include the information in a related story. Either way, it’s a win for you.
They elicit trust and credibility using peer influence.
This is probably the most significant benefit you’ll reap from using case studies. They put the focus on the customer, not your business. Many other types of content are typically self-serving, but case studies are all about the customer. While promotional content may be well received, there is still a degree of skepticism surrounding it. But when an actual customer opens their mouth, they become a third party brand endorsement which encourages trust and loyalty.
Case studies are very unique marketing and sales tools that can be very beneficial to your brand. They don’t operate like other marketing components and fill a distinctive role in the sales and marketing areas of your organization. When done well, they are absolutely invaluable.
The Anatomy of a Business Case Study
A business case study tells a story about your company. Now, like any story, there are all the usual elements. You have a beginning or introduction that draws the reader in and gives them an idea of where your story will go. There is the middle where the story itself is told, and the end or conclusion that sums up the whole story and tells readers what to do next (your call to action).
Also, as with any story, you have the protagonist which in this case is your customer, and they encounter a challenge or problem and eventually find a solution. Through the course of the story, the reader should be able to relate to your hero or heroine. They should be able to visualize themselves in that same position and see your products or services helping them achieve their objectives.
People love stories, especially with happy endings. And that’s what case studies provide, a good story. A successful case study goes something like this:
There once was a business owner who had a problem he (or she) needed to solve because it was impacting sales, production, or another area of business. This was costing them money and was hindering the growth of their company.
The business owner found a company that had the product or service that was exactly what they needed to solve the problem.
The business owner teamed up with the company and put the solution to work. It was very successful, increasing their profits and boosting their growth.
And they lived happily ever after.
The anatomy is simple. There are three parts to any story:
- Problem – An introduction that describes the problem
- Solution – A body that tells the story of how the customer utilized your product or service to solve their problem
- Results – A conclusion that ties it all up to show a successful outcome while specifically highlighting areas like profitability, production, or growth
Within that framework, there are several vital elements:
- Just be human. Toss out the business speak and buzzwords. Just talk like a human being. A language that takes on a business tone is off-putting to the consumer. It makes the content look like a piece of marketing material or an advertisement and that is the last thing that you want.
- The angle is also crucial. Think about your intended audience. What are their hot buttons? Speak to that as it relates to your product or service.
- Narrow it down. Identify one or two features of your products or services that would have the greatest impact on the problem or situation that is the basis of your study.
- Illustrate the success in detail. You want to showcase how your customer achieved success as the result of using your organization’s service or product. Pinpoint it and describe it in detail.
- Show value. Chances are, your product or services costs money so when a company chooses you to solve their problem, they must make that investment. Show the value in that investment that extends beyond the actual solution.
- Keep it focused. Identify up to three things that you want a prospect to learn about your company through the case study. Before you publish the case, make sure that these three things are clear after reading the story.
- Use dollar amounts and statistics. Numbers have a big impact. Anywhere you can include actual and verifiable dollar amounts, percentage of increase in profitability and other facts, you strengthen your case study and give it credibility.
- Show humanity. People have lives that include family, friends, even commitment to their job. Was the dad finally able to take his family on vacation because your solution provided that much efficiency? Was the team experiencing a drop in morale because they were working so hard to overcome their problem? Showing the humanity in the situation to draw readers in.
- Add quotes if you can get them. Quotes from the customer can bring even more of a personal element to your case study. It makes the story more tangible.
- Avoid direct praise for your company. Even if it is a direct quote from a customer that is praising your company, it still feels too salesy for a case study. Save it for a testimonial.
There are other elements that may be incorporated into the case study as is appropriate. As you may realize by now, a case study is not something you just throw together. It takes research, careful planning, and attention to detail in order to be a well-executed study.
10 Questions to Ask Before You Begin
Before you begin writing your case study, ask these ten questions.
1. Did you get permission from the subjects of the case study to use their names and information?
This is absolutely essential before you begin. While it may be tempting to move forward with your case study without first talking with the client, you should not. Talk to them first to ensure you have permission. This is also a good time to get a couple of quotes.
2. What steps do you need to do to prioritize the various areas of work?
Conduct an audit of your digital materials, research, and other components of your case study. Prioritize them and outline your layout.
3. Is it the right time to create and release this case study?
Look at what you are doing and where your company is going. Is this the right time to move forward with the study? Are your products or services ready? Would it be better served to release it at a different time?
4. Is your organization ready to release this information?
A well-placed case study can bring an influx of growth in production, sales, and expansion. Make sure that your organization is prepared to handle it.
5. Who are your stakeholders?
Analyze your stakeholders and advocates, subjects of your case study, as well as those who will be working on putting it together.
6. What are your objectives?
Define the objectives of your case study, identifying the scope, aim, and outline your content so that it supports your objectives.
7. What are the benefits of your product or service that you want to highlight?
Identify the product or service benefits that you want to bring out in the study. In other words, instead of simply citing your product or service, hone in on the specific feature or features that were key.
8. What additional information do you need to strengthen your case?
Analyze your research and supporting material to determine if you need any more information that will make your case study stronger.
9. How will you distribute the case study?
Decide how you will get your case study into your prospective customers’ hands. There are a number of potential ways to do it, as a free download, on your blog, or sent directly to your prospects are just a few of the distribution methods.
10. When will the information in your case study become obsolete?
Sometimes it is evergreen information, meaning that it is never outdated. Most of the time though, the study becomes outdated when a product is upgraded or changed.
Good organization is key for any marketing project, but because of the unique nature of case studies, it is essential. You have to get everything right, the voice, the tone, the angle, it must all be carefully analyzed.
12 Tips for Creating Captivating Customer Stories
As you dive into creating your case study, whether it is your first one or you have dozens under your belt, here are a few tips that will help you make it even better.
1. Write with your ideal customer in mind.
Create a profile of your ideal customer, the customer you are trying to attract. When you create your case study, write it for them. Consider what their pain points are and how your solution could impact their business. Consider what they might be thinking or feeling as they read your case study.
When choosing a customer to write about, choose someone your ideal customer can relate to. When people can relate to a person, they trust them a lot easier.
2. Identify your sample customer and create a profile.
The sample customer is the individual or business who appears in your case study. Once you have identified who you will use as the subject of your case study, create a profile about them including some basic details that you will be able to use in the customer story:
- Who are they?
- What do they do?
- What are their needs?
- What was their problem when they first encountered your company?
- How did you help them reach their goals by satisfying their needs?
- What was the result of the solution you created?
3. Make sure your study has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This is a story, remember? Every great story has a beginning, middle, and end. You will need to make sure that your case study starts with an introduction to the subject business or individual and their problem. Then, show the steps they took to solve this problem and where your product or service fits into the solution. Then, make sure you conclude with details about the result of implementing this solution.
4. Keep it simple and easy to read.
Avoid flowery writing and business language. Real people don’t want to read romantic, flowery copy any more than they want to read dry, formal copy. Write for humans, but keep it real and keep it simple. Format the content so that it is easier to read, using short paragraphs and white space and images to break up the text. Also, utilize bulleted lists when applicable, and use italicized and bold text to create emphasis.
5. Use real numbers and statistics.
Numbers speak and people are attracted to them. Statistics and dollar amounts lend credibility to the copy and provide another level to the copy that gives it rich, engaging depth.
6. Be specific when describing the solutions.
Don’t gloss over any areas of the case study. Be as detailed and specific as possible, diving into the details, drawing a picture with the words you use. Your prospective customer (your reader) should be able to experience everything in your study because of the way you describe it.
7. Offer case studies in different formats.
While some people prefer to read content, others may prefer video or audio. Make sure that you creating your case studies in a way that appeals to the largest audience by using different formats. Create written documents, but don’t forget to also include video, audio, and images in your case study presentation.
8. Don’t skimp on the writing.
Case studies are highly specialized content and you can’t afford to skimp when it comes to writing it. Not just anyone has the skill or talent to write a great case study, so either, do it with great care or hire an experienced writer to do it for you. Investing in a content professional to create your case studies will more than pay off in the end when you see the leads start to roll in.
9. Make it easy for prospective customers to find your case studies.
Since case studies are a powerful way to show your products or services in action, it’s important that you make them easily accessible to your prospects. Many companies will have a separate page on their site just for case studies. Other companies might include case studies in the resources section of their site. You can also post them on your blog so that they are available to everyone. Wherever you decide to put your case studies, make sure that customers can access them without jumping through any hoops.
10. Repurpose your case studies.
Case studies don’t have to live in just one place. While you may have a formal web page dedicated to case studies, you should still make this information available in as many places as possible. Here are some ways you can repurpose your case studies:
- Write a blog post that tells the customer story in a different way. If your case study is short and to the point, you might use the blog to tell a more detailed story. Or vice versa.
- Take quotes from the case study to use as social media teasers. If you got quotes from your customer for the case study, you can post these quotes across your social media channels with links to the longer case study document.
- Create an infographic. Use the data and information from your case study to create an infographic that you can share across your channels.
- Turn it into an email. You can tease the case study in an email or tell the story over a series of email, targeting the email to your list segment that is most like the customer in the case study.
Using case studies is a wise business decision. They are great marketing tools but they do require a little more work and careful planning because while they perform like a marketing tool, they don’t look or act like one. Case studies provide an exceptional opportunity to tell stories about your products or services and tap into the human element of your organization and how you do business.
Attract more qualified leads and watch your brand grow. How will you tell your company’s story?
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Stephanie M works with businesses to create web content that leaps off the page (or screen) to inform, educate, and engage, leading to social sharing, conversion, and return visits. She does this through blog posts, articles, social media management, website content, press releases – you get the idea. Her work as an analyst/disaster response specialist with FEMA in Washington, D.C. gives her a unique insight into disaster prep, response, and recovery. She helped individuals and businesses recovering from major disasters (including hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) and provided educational material for disaster prep.