How to make sure your case studies have happy endings.
Updated: Apr 20
Let me tell you a story about a business in a land not so far away. They had a dazzling website that attracted customers from miles around.
But, the customers didn’t tarry. They got bored of being dazzled and left for the website down the road which was full of great stories called case studies – which they loved reading. If only they had read this blog post and learned how to craft case studies that showcased all the brilliant things they did. Then there would have been a happy ever after instead.
Storytelling. Everyone goes on about it. So much so that it’s starting to lose meaning. But, while much of your website is more copy than story, case studies are real opportunity to use the power of storytelling. Like stories, case studies have a beginning, a middle and an end. Like some of the best stories ever, they start with a problem that needs to be overcome, a journey in which the problem is solved, and a transformation which is the happy ending. We love this Kurt Vonnegut’s Man in a Hole diagram. It’s safe to say after writing 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction, he knew what made a great story.
And just like a story, your case studies should tell the tale of a client who encountered a hole, how you helped them get out of the hole and what life is like outside the hole. Our brains are wired for stories. That’s why case studies are a great way to persuade. They appeal to our emotions and bypass the rational – so we’re more susceptible to their message. What many businesses tend to forget is the beginning and end are as important as the middle. They focus on the solution at the expense of the context and the results. You need all three to make a powerful case. Define the hole: the problem People absolutely love talking about themselves. So, naturally they get swept up in what they did, rather than why they did it. Always start with the problem. Problems are dramatic and engaging. And probably shared by the very customers reading your websites. Writing a case study, your challenge is to convince them that you can get them out of their hole. In this snippet, web designers at ClearLeft successfully define the hole that Penguin faced.
Not sure what the issue is? While there probably aren’t any dragons or princes in your story, there are challenges you can dramatise. Sometimes the problem is obvious. Maybe they had a PR disaster, sales are failing or their customers aren’t happy. Sometimes you have to find the problem outside of the obvious. For instance, the market just got tougher, Brexit’s made a difference, the colour purple is no longer popular. Anything that puts your solution in context. Getting out of the hole: the solution Here’s where you come along in the nick of time and save the day. You’re a superhero. They couldn’t have done it without you. It’s your job to highlight where you added value and how you found solutions. Now is the time to mention the practical details and how you did it. Avoid technical jargon, but be specific about how you applied your knowledge. At Foolproof, a design agency, they explain the process they took to help Dominoes get out of a hole.
The right level of detail Too much detail and you risk making your reader switch off. Always bear in mind how your reader might relate to your story. You need to create the lightbulb moment where they think, “Oh, they could do this for me too!”. But always be specific. Don’t just say “our team created a whizzy new design”. Instead, say “the team, led by Design Head Jonty Green, based their design on fonts favoured by New York subway graffiti artists – and referenced the undyingly hip Andy Warhol.” Make sure you emphasise your expertise throughout, feature names if possible. When people read your case study, you want them to feel confident you have what it takes to help them. Life outside the hole: the result After telling your reader about your marvellous solution, it’s your job to explain the lasting impact the work made. Think of it as the happily ever after to your story. Your reader is on the hunt for proof. And, in an ideal world, results would be statistics – you increased open rates from 100 to 100,000, Facebook likes increased by 20% or sales rocketed by £800 a day. Writing studies for Gleeds, we helped highlight key facts, meaningful numbers and awards to help the reader gain a better understanding of the project success.
The Helix has created a green space everyone can enjoy. Having attracted well over 200,000 visitors since its opening, it’s fast becoming a new Scottish landmark. No wonder, then, it’s started to attract awards, too.
No numbers? No problem But sometimes it’s too early to have results and you need to be inventive about what your results look like. This can make it the toughest part of the case study to write. You just need to find a way to show that they couldn’t have done it without you. Or even think about things on a bigger scale. Results could be:
Testimonials – a powerful quote from the person you helped get out of a hole. For your quote to be credible, you’ll need to include their name and who they are.
Impact – explain how you have made a difference to the lives of others or the future.
Deadlines – hitting a deadline might have been crucial to getting out of their hole. Especially if it’s a big project.
Next steps – tell your reader what happened next. Maybe off the back of this work you got another project.
Customer experience – how has your solution made the customer happier
And, don’t think that you need to write a lot. Look at this quote from LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. A simple quote sums up a successful relationship.
Ultimately, use anything that helps bring your case study to life, add persuasive power or help the reader develop a stronger understanding. Tell the story before you tell the whole story You can never assume that your reader has the time, attention span or motivation to read your entire case study. Unlike a traditional story, you need to give your reader a quick overview that summarises everything. Even the ending. Don’t worry about spoilers. You need to quickly cover the issue, resolution and results. Your job is to gives the reader an incentive to scroll on. Ragged Edge, a branding agency, sum up their work for Zego by clearly mentioning the issue, what they did and the result.
Grab their attention with your title Many case studies are titled, “how we helped X do Y”. And that’s fine. But we know you can do better. You could pose a question which makes your reader want to read on. Or, you could use a headline with an element of surprise. An intriguing title could make the difference between them reading your case study or leaving the web page. Overview Getting case studies right can take time. But they’re worth thinking about as they have the power to win clients or increase sales.
In a rush? Here are the key things to remember when writing your next case study:
Define the hole – identify the problem your client was facing
Getting out of the hole– explain how you applied your expertise and reassure the reader you’ve got what it takes
Life outside the hole– clearly tell your reader what the difference was that you made with results
Quick overview – imagine a reader in a hurry and think about what they want to know
We practice what we preach. Have a look at our case study page to see how we tell the world what we do. And with any luck your website will have many more happy endings. The end.