How to write an effective case study

How to Write an Effective Case Study

By: Rob Toon

Communication is the key to successful innovation. You need to communicate your struggles, communicate your progress, and communicate your successes to bring people along the journey.  

For this blog post, I want to focus on that last piece – communicating your successes. A great way of showing off and highlighting your successes is through case studies. By using case studies to detail your successes, you can create a wealth of content that proves the work that you are doing is adding value and should be celebrated by others. So, here’s how to write an effective case study.

What is a case study? 

Case studies are self-contained stories. Just like a good story, they need to follow a structure and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. More importantly, they need to have a main character who overcomes a goal to achieve a solo or shared objective. 

Any reader, by the end of the case study, should be able to imagine themselves in that story – just like the reader of a good book. They need to be able to visualize that it is actually them that the case study has been written about and be able to relate the story to their own challenges. 

Why write a case study? 

Other than it simply being a great way to easily share the work you have been doing, it is actually proven that case studies are one of the most powerful pieces of communication or marketing you can create and share. 

In a 2015 report pulled together by B2B Marketing, they found case studies to be the most effective content format amongst those interviewed. The report found that 66% of the marketers surveyed found case studies to be ‘very effective’ while 32% thought they were ‘quite effective’. This research also highlights that case studies are even more effective than whitepapers, infographics, and video!

How to Write an Effective Case Study

The following items are not an exhaustive list, but will certainly get the creative juices flowing to allow you to create some truly impactful content. Here’s how to write an effective case study.

Where, when, who? 

Prior to creating any case study (or piece of content for that matter), you need to take a step back and think about the following: 

  • Where will the case study be shared? First and foremost; will the case study be an internal or externally facing piece of content? If external, then which platforms will you be sharing it and how often? If internal then the same goes. Will it be on an intranet, on an email, or on posters for around the water coolers? What mechanisms and processes are you going to use to get the case study out to the masses? Are you going to target certain peer groups or customers? Are you going to have a big launch at an event? 
  • When will the case study be shared? Think about timings. Too early in the process and the benefits you are claiming may not be realized and the case study may not have any credibility. Too late and you may simply be reminding people of a forgotten project that is no longer relevant.  
  • Who is your audience? More than just internal vs external, you need to give some thought as to who your reader is. Will they be industry experts or simply passers-by? Will they be new or existing customers? Alter your case study style to fit whatever audience it is targeting. 

Leave the sales pitch at home 

A case study is not a press release or an advertisement. It certainly isn’t a sales pitch. Your case study should all be about showing rather than telling. An effective case study will tell the story of your successes, to help show your audience that what you are doing is making a difference and leaving an impact. You are reporting on what has happened: facts not promises.  

Compare this to a piece of advertising or a press release, where you are trying to broadcast what you could offer to your audience and selling an idea of what can be achieved. This is all about promises and the art of the possible, not what you have actually done. 

Make sure your case study is about facts, real events, and learnings. Get away from over-inflated truths. 

Case studies are not about you 

It is absolutely key that you don’t make the case study about yourself or your organization. To write an effective case study, you need to focus all of your attention on the success of the customer or employee you are celebrating. Use the case study to lift them up and put them in a position where they are being celebrated.  

To make this even more impactful, you need to practice some empathy. Empathy is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. So your story needs a detailed understanding of your hero’s challenges and reasons for carrying out the work highlighted.  

Finally, you need to always remember that different people consume different content in different ways. Don’t just assume that people want to read pages and pages of information or that people will sit and listen to a podcast or watch a vlog. Don’t just create a case study in a medium that you understand and enjoy – think about the audience you are reaching out to. 

Don’t be afraid to tell the whole story 

I always get asked about quality vs quantity when creating a case study or piece of content. The response I usually give is… well… aim for a balance of both. An effective case study is as long as it needs to be.

So, don’t restrict yourself to a word count or page limit. If you are really concerned about the length of your case study, then why not serialize the written version or make it into a video to shorten the format?  

Always play with the format before you reduce the quality of the content contained within your case study. 

If you have quality content then always ensure you pull this together in a style that shows it off as best as possible. Remember the art of storytelling and follow the standard template for narrative writing – this is a handy guide for how to write an effective case study: 

How to write an effective case study: Narrative structure

Always start by introducing the problem statement and the subject matter – whether that is a customer or an employee. Then introduce the proposed solution to the problem statement and begin to flesh out your story. Include quotes, anecdotes, and facts around what you were trying to solve to build the story to a crescendo, before stating what the results were. Build this last point out with facts and figures as the action falls and reaches the resolution.  

Take your audience on a journey. Allow them to feel as though they are part of the story as the action unfolds. 

Use both soft and hard content 

Don’t just focus on hard facts and numbers in your case study – use it as an opportunity to add some real personality and emotion to your story. 

The emotion will usually come in the form of a problem statement from the customer or employee. When gaining this information always make sure you focus on why the problem statement was set in the first place and what started you on this journey together. Get away from improved profit and efficiency being the only reason- make the story distinctly personal to add feeling to the piece. Making a case study more human instantly makes the story more relatable and interesting. 

That said, you still need some cold hard facts to prove the success of the subject you are writing about. 

Make your hard facts jump out of the page. Make them bold, honest, and impressive. Don’t allow them to be lost in mountains of text. Use them to link into the emotion within the story and help tell the tale of what was achieved and how your combined efforts made a real difference. 

Make your case study format both structured and unstructured 

Make the whole structure and format of your case study interesting and easy to read. Play with the use of different fonts and colours. Make the whole thing a piece of art if that works, just avoid dense pieces of text that will lose your audience’s attention. 

If you sacrifice a boring format you need to make sure your case study isn’t illegible. By this, I mean think carefully about your audience and what you are trying to get across.  

For example, if your case study is all about a piece of innovation that had huge financial gains for a company then it may not be appropriate to have a pink font and cartoon unicorns all over the page. A bit of an odd example, but you get my point. You can see some examples of case study layouts in our downloadable case study collection and dedicated web pages.

Finally, don’t think you have to stick to one structure or medium per case study. Why not experiment with a written piece combined with a video interview or set of graphics? Think of different and fun ways to tell your story to make a lasting impression on your audience. 

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself 

Don’t be afraid to take your case study and repurpose it time and time again. I am a huge advocate of the ‘Gary Vee Content Model’, which provides you with a clear way of turning a large piece of ‘hero’ content into many smaller pieces of content that you can use again and again over different platforms and in different formats.  

For example, if you write a case study of say 1500 words, then this will be full of great stories and anecdotes along with hard facts and figures that celebrate the amazing work you have done. Within this piece why not look for some key quotes and facts that you can easily pull out and turn into graphics to share across your social media platforms?  

Or, you could pull a few key themes out and create blogs off the back of them? Say if your case study focussed on the use of a specific piece of tech or strategy, then why don’t you turn this into a thought leadership blog? This blog can then, itself, be broken into smaller quotes to be shared in the same way outlined above. 

Further to this why not recreate or discuss your case study as part of a recorded interview with the customer or employee? As well as providing a fresh take on the case study, this will allow you to create further short-form content as you can break the video up into ‘Voxpop’ type video content to, again, share far and wide across all channels. 

To repeat an earlier point, different people consume content in different ways, so making one piece of content stretch as far as possible in many different forms will enable you to have a much greater reach with much less effort. 

Final Thoughts: How to Write an Effective Case Study

Innovating can be a lonely task sometimes, so we all need to learn how to be our own cheerleaders in order to get others to buy into the great work we are doing on a daily basis. 

If we understand how we can accurately and interestingly report on our successes, then we will begin to gain more and more traction and our projects will begin to gain momentum. 

To make this a success, you need to understand your strategy for compiling and sharing the case study, make sure it is a great story, make sure it is well laid out and full of hard facts and soft examples, and make sure you use that content time and time again to keep banging your own drum.  

Above all make sure you use this as a platform to celebrate and lift up others. As someone that is leading an innovation project you have the opportunity to bring organizations and be a visionary – don’t do this on your own… bring everyone along on that journey with you. 

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