Compelling Case Studies – Another 5 Quick Tips

August 15, 2012 by

Case studies are one of the easiest types of marketing content to write.

They can also be among the most difficult.

They're easy, because they all follow the same, simple formula case study readers are familiar with, namely: background -> problem -> solution -> results.

They can be difficult for the same reason. Hidden along that formulaic path are a number of pitfalls that can trap unwary writers and drain the vitality from your case studies. The following five tips will help you avoid some of those pitfalls and make your case studies more compelling.

Tip #1: Craft a compelling lead

Do most of your case studies start something like this:

"Company X is a leader in gas detection technology. With more than 30 years' experience and penetration into 65 countries, Company X leads the way for a broad range of applications — anything from sport and commercial diving to carbon dioxide in beeverages and gas sensing"

If they do, there's a good chance you've lost your reader by this point.

This is one of those pitfalls I alluded to. The formula says you need to begin your case study with some customer background information. And while you do need to introduce your main protagonist – the "hero" of our story – right up front, that doesn't mean you need to start with a cut-and-paste of your customer's About Us page. That'll make your case study sound just like everybody else's: boring.

Once you've gotten you readers' attention with an eyeball-grabbing headline, you need to draw them into your story. You need to compel them to keep reading. That's the purpose of the opening lines of your case study, the part journalists and copywriters call the lead.

As it is for any story or promotional piece, a good lead is critical to the success of your case study. Compared to the middle and end of any promotional piece, "the beginning (or lead) is the most important," write Michael Masterson and John Forde in their book, Great Leads. "It is the first thing the prospect reads and the one chance you have of persuading him emotionally. If you don't do that in the lead, you will lose him, regardless of what you do later on."

Fortunately, there are a number of easy ways to start your captivating lead. Here are just a few:

Ask an intriguing or provocative question: "Did water on Mars persist long enough to provide an environment capable of supporting life?"

Pique your readers' curiosity: "When they signed up, they didn't know if what they'd agreed to was even possible."

Make a bold assertion: "You don't maintain a reputation as one of the world's leading research institutions by mismanaging your assets."

Forge a link between your company and your customer: "When one of the world's most prestigious universities needs an IT consultant, they seek out the best."

Leads like these set you up to talk about your customer in a more interesting way than the normal company backgrounder.

Tip #2: Use a summary box

A summary box – also called a snapshot or executive summary – is a text box containing a brief overview of your case study. It's usually placed along the left-hand margin of the front page.

I used to think summary boxes were unnecessary. After all, case studies are short. Why summarize? A summary box seems to just take up space. But as I've written more case studies, I've changed my mind.

Client background information is an important part of a case study. As with any story, readers want to know and identify with the main character. But as we've just seen, starting your case study with a customer background blurb will probably put your reader to sleep. And trying to stuff all those details into your lead can make it feel cumbersome.

That's where the summary box comes to the rescue. It's a great place to put any customer background details that are relevant to your prospect, but don't fit into the flow of your lead. It gives your reader those details right up front, but without bogging down your story.

Arrange your summary under a series of concise headings. These can include the standards, like Background, Problem, Solution and Results. But you may also want to include sections for a Quote, Company Size, or headings specific you your market or application.

Summary boxes also increase scanability. They help busy executives quickly decide whether they need to read your case study or forward it to a subordinate. And they give your first page a reader-friendly appearance, which helps turn scanners into readers.

Tip #3: Supply plenty of concrete details

Details are key ingredients in case studies. They are the spices that lend flavor to all good writing.

You need to give your customer story specific, concrete details. By that, I don't mean product features or other technical information. I mean things the reader can see, hear, smell and feel. You want to paint a vivid picture of both the "before" and "after" scenarios. It's the sensory details that will make your story lively and hold your prospects' attention.

Where do you find those concrete details? They reside in the minds of the people who were involved in the project – the project thatt's the subject of your case study.

That's where good interviewing skills come in. The person who interviews your customer – your writer, in most cases – must bt be prepared to dig beneath the generalities, abstractions and jargon that business and technical people tend to use in their business conversation. Your interviewer needs to ask probing questions that will get to the juicy meat of the story. It's those details that breathe real life and credibility into your case studies, as in the following excerpt from a case study I completed recently:

Finally, surgeons often had difficulty following up with the original caller due to errors in the information the answering service provided. Says Watson, "It was so cumbersome – and they would always get us wrong. They would get our name wrong. They'd get the on-call surgeon wrong, even though we were very diligent about getting them the right information. It just seemed like it was beyond them to be efficient and effective in providing this service."

It's detailed descriptions and quotes like these that help your prospects identify with the customer in the story.

Tip #4: Shoot your customer

When I say "shoot," of course, I mean in the photographic sense.

Photos increase interest, credibility and scanability in your case studies.

Readers like to see who and what they're reading about. Photos engage their attention and help them fill in the blanks as they read. Photos draw the eye, leading scanners to captions which help them get the gist of the story quickly. And nothing says "real world" like a photograph.

Surprisingly, many companies don't think to use customer photos in their case studies. For those that do, budget is often a concern. But there are many low-cost and even no-cost ways to get a photograph of you subject into your case study.

Ask you customer to dig into their PR resources. Larger companies may already have publicity shots that will work. If not, the PR department may have a photographer on staff. A small company may have an accomplished amateur in house who helps with PR shots. Ask your contact if they can set up a photo shoot.

If no in-house resources are available, contact a newspaper in your client's area. A newspaper photographer will usually be happy to make some extra money, and you'll get professional results.

An even cheaper option is a local college or university that offers photography courses. See if the course professor can send a promising student to take some shots in exchange for a small honorarium.

Regardless of the source, be sure to get the quality you need. Low-resolution (72 dpi) photos are sufficient if your case study is destined only for the Web. If you plan to print, you'll need at least 300 dpi. And always make sure the photos you use are clear and well-composed.

Tip #5: Craft a satisfying ending

The end of a story can be the hardest part to write. You don't want to leave the reader hanging, like a movie that leaves you expecting a sequel. You need to provide a sense of closure.

Here are several ways to end your case study on a high note:

Quote your customer. One of easiest and most powerful ways to close your case study is with a strong quote that underscores a principal benefit. "Don't be afraid to end a customer story this way," says case study specialist Casey Hibbard, author of Stories that Sell.

Go out where you came in. Circle back to your lead. Answer that provocative question you asked. Affirm that bold assertion. "If you can return to the drama you used for your lead and show how everything turned out, your reader will feel satisfied at the end," says case study and white paper expert Gordon Graham.

Set up your close at the beginning. A trick I like to use is to break my "Problem" section into three specific sub-problems. Then, when I get to the "Results" section, I address each of those sub-problems in the same order, describing how each was solved. Often, I'll top it off with a quote that follows logically from the final result.

Look to the future. It's always a good idea to ask about the customer's future plans. If they're excited about extending your solution, you may want to conclude your case study with a "Looking Ahead" section. Some companies even make it a part of their case study template. It's usually easy to cap of a Looking Ahead section with a quote, like this one:

"Anyone who needs to get a hold of us right now should use this service," said Watson, describing his vision for the future. "We're planning to make this one of the key factors in our marketing message."

Take-Away Points

Keep these five tips in mind as you develop your next case study.

1. Craft a compelling lead

2. Use a summary box

3. Supply plenty of concrete details

4. Shoot your customer (include a photo)

5. Craft a satisfying ending

Use them to avoid the pitfalls of the case study formula, and to make your customer's story more exciting for your reader.

For more "Quick Tips" on case studies, see these posts:

5 Quick Tips for Case Studies that Captivate

5 More Tips for Crafting Captivating Case Studies

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