How to Write a Case Study (Without Shooting Your Eye Out)

Have you seen the classic holiday film A Christmas Story? Ralphie-Christmas-StoryThis memorable comedy features Ralphie, a 9-year-old boy in the 1940’s, who desperately wanted an Official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. However, whenever Ralphie even hinted about getting one, his mother always said, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” 

Ralphie refused to give up, though. For a school essay assignment, he wrote all about the BB gun he yearned for and why it was so important that he get one for Christmas. Ralphie was certain his teacher would be so enthralled with his essay, she’d give him an A+. He could then show off his grade – and essay – to his parents, and earn his BB gun.

Unfortunately, Ralphie’s teacher was less than impressed with his writing:

Poor Ralphie felt the same frustration experienced by anyone who has ever written a case study that failed to gain the interest and curiosity from the intended target audience.

By following a customer-focused, time-focused template when researching and writing case studies, we can instead impress readers with our customer’s success, and motivate them to learn more.

When developing a case study with an existing customer, I work through a simple series of questions focusing on the customer’s experience at three key points in time:

Before your product or service: the drudgery your customer had previously endured.

The customer’s “moment of epiphany”: when the customer realized your product or service was the right one.

After your product or service: the old drudgery is gone, replaced with success!

First, what was the customer doing before your product or service? The more intolerable drudgery we can genuinely convey here, the better. Quantifying the drudgery our customer experienced in this “before” stage is also essential: how many dollars or personnel-hours were being lost by your customer? Less tangible but no less real consequences of this drudgery are welcome as well; for example, what business decisions might have been compromised due to the unacceptable status quo?

Next, ask your customer how and when they realized, “Yes! This is the right solution for us! The dark days of our drudgery are over! Help is on the way!” I’m only half-kidding here: we must convey to the reader what triggered the customer’s decision to buy; what led the customer to confidently conclude that our product or service is uniquely capable of solving their problems. Identify the unique features and functionality relevant to this moment of epiphany, and how they translate into providing business benefits – a process Pragmatic Marketing calls marketecture.

Now, focus on the “after” phase: your product or service has been implemented for the customer, leaving a trail of roses in your path. Again, I’m only half-kidding: we must convey that the customer now knows their decision was a winner. What new success has replaced the old drudgery?

Take the time to carefully walk through with your customer one or more specific, mission-critical, and previously costly and frustrating business processes. How has your product or service resolved the drudgery that once plagued this business process? What measurable savings in money or time has the customer since realized, thanks to those previously noted unique features of your product or service?

Good questions to wrap up the case study research process include: what plans does the company have to expand the use of your product or service? Are there any other thoughts or points the customer thinks are important that were not yet raised?

When writing the actual case study, quote the customer directly wherever possible. Direct quotes from the customer declaring in their own words how valuable your product or service is to them will always earn more attention and credibility from readers than any narrative text.

Also very importantly, avoid using generic case study sub-headings like The Problem, The Solution and Results. They provide no value to the reader and offer nothing in the way of SEO. If your reader only reads the sub-headings; they should still get a TL;DR summary understanding of your case study. Here is an example from some previous work of mine.

Even those who have never seen A Christmas Story can probably guess whether Ralphie, in spite of his unsuccessful writing effort, still got his prized BB gun on Christmas Day (no thanks to Santa, though). Of course, product marketers must rely on more than good fortune to get the favorable attention of potential new customers. Compelling case studies are a great avenue to do so. By asking your customer time-focused questions and actively listening, the customer will essentially tell you what relevant information belongs in the case study – before, during and after their decision to select your product or service.

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