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How To Write A Great Case Study

Find out more about case studies and learn how to write one using this easy-to-follow article.

Case Studies are one of the most effective tools you can use to promote your products and services, especially if you are on a limited marketing budget.

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According to market research, next to White Papers, they are the second most popular device used to advance the benefits of a product or service. In addition to this, they are read mostly by executives and those in the decision-making process.

A recent search on Google.com for the term "case study" showed over 15 million hits . Of those hits, almost 750,000 hits included references to Java, which demonstrates a phenomenal uptake in the IT industry. Like its close cousin the White Paper, case studies appear to be growing in popularity every year.

So, if you've been commissioned to write a case study, or are interested in starting a lucrative career as a marketing writer, this tutorial should give you a solid understanding of the fundamentals involved.

What is a Case Study?

A case study discusses a specific business situation which needs to be resolved. In general, it is comprised of four sections: situation; problem; solution; evaluation. These are discussed in more detail later.

"A detailed intensive study of a unit, such as a corporation or a corporate division, that stresses factors contributing to its success or failure." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

Let's take a look at some examples:

  1. An international airline may realize that its customer service is very poor, for example following an outburst of negative customer feedback. To remedy this it hires a specialist firm to examine their processes, recommend potential solutions, implement the most appropriate service, and then evaluate the results.
  2. Following new Homeland Security legislation, a local government agency needs to update its approach to staff training. To address this its brings in a specialist training firm to scope the project, prepare a comprehensive course syllabus, train its staff and review the success (or failure) of the implementation.
  3. In response to competitive threats, a high-street retailer may acknowledge that their distribution channels are out-dated and need replacing. It contacts a recognized consulting firm to discuss the business issues, impact on staff and customers, and the potential negative impact of NOT taking new measures.

Following these discussions it approaches an international specialist firm to rollout an upgraded end-to-end system. Once this project is completed the marketing department is tasked with drawing media and public attention to this strategic project. Part of the media plan includes preparing white papers and case studies as collateral for editors, journalists, and technology writers.

These three scenarios all offer potential case study material; in each situation, there is a specific problem that needs immediate attention.

IDEA: Include a benefit in the title of your Case Study. Rather than simply say, 'Aerospace Case Study', add a little punch: 'Case Study on How Product X Improved Performance by 300% in 30 Days'.

Why write a Case Study?

There are several reasons for a company to publish a case study, for example to:

  • Raise its market profile following the deployment of a major system for a prestigious client.
  • Following an alliance with a strategic partner, with whom its wants to cross-sell products and services, a case study(s) can serve as an essential part of the promotional drive and media kits.
  • Boost staff morale by demonstrating a commitment to advancing its new products. This may occur when a company has worked intensively for months to launch its flagship product and now want to 'bang the drum' about breakthrough features or radical new designs.
  • Generate media interest by illustrating how it resolves a major business issue for a high-profile client.
  • Provide journalists and technology writers with high-quality collateral to assist them when developing articles, special features and profiles pieces. Without white papers and case studies, even the most enthusiastic journalist will struggle to find material to build an interesting story.

The responsibility of writing the document is usually left to the solution provider as, for the most part, it stands to benefit most from the exposure, although the client will also receive due recognition for its role.

The benefit to the case study's authors is that it:

  • Positions them as a credible solutions provider.
  • Highlights their expertise and deep industry-specific knowledge.
  • Allows them to introduce products and services to potential clients by sharing lessons learned from previous deployments.

From the client's perspective, the case study typically presents them as follows:

  • Progressive organization that has proactively addressed critical business needs.
  • Successfully embraced a trustworthy solutions partner.
  • Responded positively to potential business threats and by listening to customer feedback.

Length, Format and Presentation

Most case studies are between two-or-three pages and in the range of 500-900 words , although some tend to run longer. Try to aim for three pages, and include one large graphic per page. Anything more than this and it begins to feel like 'hard sell' advertising; case studies adopt a more subtle 'soft-sell' approach.

Most case studies tend to follow the structure as outlined in the next section. There are situations where you can adjust this format, but for writers starting out in this area it's best to use this format until you are comfortable with it and then experiment accordingly.

As case studies are often printed out to be read offline, it's recommended that you choose an easy-to-read font, such as Arial or Times Roman, and allow a generous font size. Allow yourself plenty of white space.

You can put yourself at a considerable disadvantage if you use an obscure font, which makes it hard to read or by choosing color schemes that strain the reader's eye, such as violet text on a white background.

The classic black text on a white background is hard to fault. Although white text on black has its supporters, if you choose this you may find that many readers will not print out your document as the printing costs will be excessive, e.g. for black ink toners.

How to Structure your Case Study

Most case studies have four parts: 

  • Situation - the opening section describes the rationale for the case study, including the client's background, its current market position, and the areas of expertise that your company has contributed. You may also mention why the client selected you this project, e.g. previous deployments, awards, industry recognition.
  • Problem - the following section states the main problem which needs to be resolved, such as system performance, market expansion requirements, or new government legislation
  • Solution - this is heart of the document. It describes the solution in detail, how it was implemented, the impact on users, methodologies, and other factors that contributed to the overall deployment. Many case studies include sidebars, charts and graphs to highlight key points.
  • Evaluation - in the final section, conclude the document by evaluating the solution's impact (usually positive), discuss lessons learned, and the next steps to be taken.

Areas to Highlight

As mentioned earlier, a case study is a 'soft-sell' sales document. Its role is to highlight your abilities without resorting to 'market-speak' and sales clichés.

An effective approach to catch the reader's attention (who is frequently a potential client) is to explore how the solution helped end-users and the target group.

Support your argument with direct quotes (with their names, if possible) from personnel who've adopted your system or use your services.

To make this work, concentrate on how the solution resolved one very specific issue and then build the case study around this.

Warning: don't complicate the case study by addressing multiple issues - stick to one subject and explain how you solved the problem in measurable and quantifiable terms.

Support your case study with statistics, figures and tables. Areas to focus on include:

Return on Investments - how did the investment in your product pay for itself. For example, it increased productivity by 50% within 2 months. Explain how you can substantiate this; otherwise, your argument loses credibility.

Cost Containment - how does the solution help companies contain costs? This area is very important as budgets are always a sensitive issue. If you can illustrate how another company who adopted your solution saved money then you'll keep the reader's interest.

Reducing Barriers - explain how your solution improves internal operations and assists management planning. For example, how does it fit into a system's workflow and business procedures? Alternately, mention how your system integrates with other applications and business critical applications.

When compiling the final draft avoid making it too dry and overwhelming the reader with excessive figures. Rather, keep the tone light, easy-to-read while highlighting the key points.

Remember: case studies that oversell themselves by proposing to 'solve all problems to all people' aren't read. No-one believes such claims.

Last Words

Perfecting your case study takes hard work. But, once you refine the words and polish the edges, you have a very powerful marketing tool.

Indeed, those who download your Case Study will keep it on file and use it as a reference.

Once this occurs, the reader sees you as a credible, trustworthy and reliable source of information - the type of company people want to do business with.

BY IVAN WALSH

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