How to Design Strong Case Studies

11/1/2018
Sarah Steimer
Key Takeaways

​What? Marketers should be mindful about how to build case studies.

So what? Case studies can be used to draw in new customers, highlight impressive projects and showcase new products.

Now what? Carefully craft case studies by determining their purpose, using examples that reflect the audience's needs and designing in a compelling format.

​A well-crafted case study can showcase a mindful marketing strategy

Reflection is hip right now. Personal and professional mindfulness trends hype the benefits of contemplating and celebrating. For some, the act of reflection might mean meditation or journaling. For marketers, reflection often means building a case study.​​

The goal of case studies may be to attract new customers, present a new idea or promote yourself to a potential employer. Whatever the purpose, these structured reflections can have major implications. For example, Marketing Charts found that case studies help convert the most leads for B2B companies.

But where to begin a case study can seem overwhelming—and what works for one won’t work for all. Sometimes, the best-designed reflections come from good preparation, with wiggle room to be surprised.

What Projects Are Worth Turning into Case Studies

Kristie Ritchie, VP of marketing at Upshot, says that case studies should be crafted anytime a marketer or company tries something new or innovates the brand, product or its approach. Case studies can be crafted for product launches or when project results are outstanding. “Really, anything can be turned into a case study if you have the right infomation and story,” she says.

Case studies are being used to attract new customers, so they should include examples that are relevant to the audience. “Case studies are meant to mirror the diversity of customers to make it easier for customers to see themselves or their use case,” says Sam Balter, senior marketing manager at HubSpot. 

Balter uses website building and hosting company Squarespace as an example. The company tapped well-known actors Keanu Reeves and Jeff Bridges to draw attention in its commercials, but then highlighted the actors’ stories to mimic how regular customers would use the product. The average Squarespace user hasn’t starred in a cult classic movie, but, the ad suggests, if Squarespace is good enough and simple enough for Bridges to make a website for his spoken-word and ambient sounds album, it’s good enough for the average user’s small business. ​​​​​

​​

“You probably want to focus on people who are slightly above average in terms of name recognition,” Balter says, but those high-profile spokespeople should still have a use case that will resonate with the most common customers.

When to Begin Working on a Case Study

There are at least two schools of thought on case study writing: Start as soon as the spotlight project or campaign ends, while the details are still fresh, or start even sooner. “Work on it throughout the process by having someone document milestones, program changes and results,” Ritchie says. 

There’s also an argument for postponing case study creation. Balter says that the hiatus depends on the type of project you’re highlighting. For example, a website redesign intended to improve traffic won’t show results for at least a few weeks. Balter argues that marketers should consider case studies to be evolving pieces of content that receive occasional updates rather than static pieces set in stone.

When to Use a Template

Reflection is nice, but when time is short, a prepared template for case studies can keep work on schedule. Ritchie suggests preparing different templates for different types of campaigns. “A brand campaign case study might look totally different than a shopper marketing case study,” she says. Many templates will include similar elements, such as business challenges, insights, strategy or tactics and results. Some may flow better as a story than a formatted report. 

Just as the same format shouldn’t be used for every type of project, Balter cautions against jamming a case study into an inappropriate template and missing what makes each project unique. Marketers should leave room for flexibility, as special stories can be the difference between a forgettable study and a memorable one. Marketers should include details that may only seem important to an individual client or company, Balter says, because they inject interest into the case study and provide relatable content. 


 
 

Steps to Build a Case Study

1. Determine its purpose.

Is the case study intended to lure new customers? Is it for an industry presentation? Determine the criteria that will make it successful. Knowing the target audience and what questions they need answered will drive the content and choice of template. 

2. Find the example that best fits the goal.

Use a case study from a particularly compelling client (especially one that is recognizable). If the case study requires reaching out to a company for approval or to learn more about the results, start with a pre-interview. “You don’t necessarily want to set expectations,” Balter says. “You want to reach out and say, ‘I’d love to hear about your story. I work on our customer success team, I’m just looking to learn more.’ Start with something that allows you to get that information without promising too much.”

3. Gather the basics.

Have a team member track core information as the project progresses. You’ll also collect final data and results—anything quantifiable. “It’s good to keep this information factual, so you can take a journalistic approach to writing case studies—find out what’s valuable to the reader and adapt the story to that,” Ritchie says.

4. Produce in a compelling format.

Some case studies will lend themselves best to video, particularly if the subjects are well-spoken. Don’t push a format that doesn’t fit the content. A technical-heavy case study won’t be visually interesting, and the important pieces may be best communicated with a chart anyhow.

5. Leave room for something unique.

As Balter suggests, a subject may give you a one-of-a-kind story. If the case study is internal, Ritchie recommends including lessons learned. Whatever the purpose of the case study, there’s an opportunity to inject something memorable.


https://auth.ama.org/PublishingImages/Steimer2018.jpg
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.

COMMENT: