by Tim Sweeney
How to Write a Great Case Study
Writing a case study seems simple enough, but there’s a reason some are much better than others. And it starts with preparation. Following are tips for finding the right subject, drawing the best out of them, and then delivering useful insights to the reader, compliments of Tim Sweeney. A frequent contributor and case study author, Tim has experience in global marketing, content development, and communications for several global sports brands. www.timsweeneylive.com
Find the Right Subject
That old adage to measure twice and cut once has merit. (That’s why it’s an old adage.) Similarly, choosing the right brand for your case study in the beginning is crucial to how the interview will go and, ultimately, how the story will be told and whether it will be useful to your audience. Before you ask any questions, ask yourself: Is my case study candidate doing something different than their peers? Do they mind sharing their secrets, or at least their overall strategy, and some of their more successful approaches? If they’re afraid to share what they do because the competition might see it, they’re probably not the right people to help your readers learn from their actions.
Look for the Unexpected Story
Remember that the idea is to use a brand that others can learn from. If you write about a company that everyone would expect to be dominating their industry because they have more resources than everyone else, most of your audience is unlikely to identify with them. Brands that have done more with less have interesting angles worth sharing.
Context Is Crucial
To tell the story of how a brand came to be one that your readers might want to “borrow from,” the audience needs to know the problem the company solved. That’s why it’s important to set up the story by describing the brand’s overall situation and the obstacles they identified prior to taking action with creative solutions. How many resources were at their disposal? Did they use outside help? Was it costly? Readers will undoubtedly compare themselves to the subject and determine if the information applies to their own situation, so paint a full picture. Without background info, the reader can’t be expected to reasonably apply the actions of the case study to whatever they are working on.
Interview with the Reader in Mind
Ask yourself: What would the guy running his own small business—probably with a limited marketing budget—want to know that he could apply to his business and turn into sales? What is your case study example doing that isn’t obvious? In all likelihood, much of what your subject is doing is not revolutionary. It might be the combination of things they do that sets them apart, or choosing the best simple executions. For example, in the case of smaller companies, it’s often the little, personal things they do to connect with consumers that big brands either don’t bother to do or don’t think of doing. Ironically, small brands do creative things because limited resources force them to. Dig deeply and see if the little guy is doing things the big guys can learn from, too.
Report on Mistakes Made, Too
You really do learn more from failures, and the brand you use as your picture of success undoubtedly learned a few lessons the hard way. What were they? How did the company adjust and move on? If your audience is to learn anything from your subject matter and apply it to their own business, reporting on failures is crucial. Your audience needs to be able to avoid the pitfalls that the case study had to wade through on their way to success. Simply explaining how great they do things and how successful it was helps only so much. And, if your audience reads your case study, then gets surprised by anything outside of your case study, they won’t trust you in the future.
Deliver Easy Takeaways
Formats can vary, but the end goal should be to provide information in a digestible format. A sidebar or box of bullet-pointed items that your subject can pass along easily to the reader is a great way to go more in-depth on a topic that might not fit into the flow of your main story.
Don’t Forget to Ask “How?”
It’s tempting to share loads of statistical evidence detailing how successful your case study is, where they came from, and where they are now in certain areas. Certainly, numbers help make your point—and everyone loves metrics nowadays—but the most important question to answer is how they did it. That means showing examples of what they did, real ones that make it easy for readers to put themselves in the shoes of the subject and envision how they might apply similar strategies to their own business.
Talk to Their Clients
Speaking with someone who does business with your case study subject allows you to validate that they are, in fact, doing what they say. It’s also important for the reader to think not just about what success means to them, but also what it will mean to their own customers. In the end, that’s a big reason why they might undertake the same strategy. There is also the possibility that the same strategy won’t be right for them or only part of it will be. Putting themselves in the shoes of their customers is a great way to determine that.