How to write a case study that works – top tips from an industry expert

The most fulsome praise I ever heard about one of my former colleagues was always prefaced, sadly, by the words “though I say it myself”. 

If the praise had come from someone else – anyone else – it would have been a thousand times more valuable than his own assessment of his strong-points. 

And so it is in business, too. 

Tell your customers you’re the best thing since sliced bread and you can expect them to be sceptical at the very least – after all, you would say that, wouldn’t you? – but if someone else says something complimentary about you, people will sit up and take notice. 

In British culture at least, blowing one’s own trumpet is frowned-upon and likely to result in your audience ignoring everything else you say, too – but when the praise is coming from another’s mouth, especially an independent one, your audience will be all ears. 

That’s why case studies can be invaluable. 

Your clients or customers don’t have to say a single nice thing about the product you’ve sold them or the service you’ve provided, so if they do, their words will be a powerful testimony that others, including those you’d love to be doing business with, will take very seriously and be convinced by. 

But some case studies are more convincing than others. 

If the entire testimonial consists of “It was great” and it’s attributed vaguely to “Mrs Jones, Cardiff”, it’s not going to tell prospective customers much about your business, nor will people be sure that Mrs Jones even exists. 

But if the testimonial goes into some detail and the attribution is to someone identifiable, perhaps with a job title and company name, it will do a significant part of your marketing for you. 

In my 40-year career in the media, I’ve written hundreds of case studies. I’ve also read thousands – and the good ones all have one thing in common: they’re about the customer and his or her experience, not about you and your business. 

That may sound odd, as the whole point of a case study is to promote your business, but it’s the perspective and viewpoint the case study is written from that makes all the difference. 

Some businesses and organisations will never get that. They fill their case studies with corporate-speak, jargon and self-praise, and attribute a few unlikely-sounding or stilted quotes to the person supposed to be praising them. 

This is often because the case study is produced by a PR agency that’s more interested in pleasing its client – you – and whacking in its invoice rather than in ensuring the case study will be convincing to its real target audience: your prospective customers. 

The same can happen when an in-house PR person has to write a case study but is more concerned with pleasing you, as the boss, and your Mum. 

So long as you’re happy and sign it off, that’s that – even if the case study will appeal to nobody else and certainly won’t do the job it was intended to do. 

If you tell them you want to see your organisation’s name in capitals in every single paragraph, that’s what you’ll get, even though your PR person knows (or damned well should do) that that’s the best way to ensure that any newspaper editor worth her salt will bin it immediately, while your prospective customers’ eyes will glaze over at yet another unnecessary and avoidable interruption to what should have been (and could have been) an engaging narrative. 

The introspective approach can ruin a story in other ways, too. 

A further education college once sent me a case study, written by its in-house team, about a cleaning company that sent its employers there for adult literacy classes. 

They’d peppered every paragraph with the name of the college, in capitals, plus quotes, mostly uninspiring, from a long list of people it must have been politically prudent for them to have included. 

The cleaner who was the beneficiary of the adult education class barely got a look-in, as the college team clearly considered him to be far less important than pleasing the Principal. 

Unlike the target customers it was aimed at, I didn’t toss it aside in dismay and ennui but read on through paragraph after interminable paragraph until I reached the end – but that was only because I was being paid to. 

Glad I did, though, because the story – the real story – was tucked away there as a throwaway line. 

The cleaner, it turned out, had been illiterate all his life and had been sent to the college for adult literacy classes so he could read safety warnings on chemicals he was using. 

But the unintended consequence was that he was able to read bedtime stories to his three-year-old child for the first time in his life, and hers. 

I promoted that to the top of the story, where it should have been all along, which resulted in a case study that made numerous people including my boss, the college Principal and the head of the cleaning company cry… and that’s before the public even saw it. 

There was only one mention of the college in my version, but people read it right to the end and were full of admiration for the difference that the college had made to its client, the client’s employees, and to one little three-year-old girl. 

One of the most effective ways of writing a convincing case study is to interview the customer who’s putting his or her name to it, then writing it up in their own words. 

Most will be more than happy for you to do that, especially as they’ll be able to approve it or veto it beforehand, and you’ll usually end up with a much better result than if you asked them to do it all themselves. 

Not everyone can express their thoughts as a compelling and fluent narrative, nor do they have the time or the inclination to do so, so you will be helping yourself by helping them put their words in order. 

One final tip – and this may seem counter-intuitive: if you want the case study to be truly convincing and undeniably independent, try to include at least one remark from your client that you or your company would never, ever have written yourselves – ie, something that, while not derogatory, is less than 100% in praise of you, 

That honesty, that willingness to include more than just unqualified praise, is what will set your case study apart and make the people you hope to impress take far more notice of it.