The Anatomy of a Great Case Study
At Ogilvy, I was a member of the four-person case study writing committee. Our main target was the Effies, the premier awards show celebrating advertising effectiveness. We won Most Effective Agency Office in New York relying on the tried and true case study framework: objective, strategy, results.
Quantifiable objectives headlined every case study we wrote. Then, after detailing the approach, the results would align 1:1 with the objectives. By addressing each point this way, we described how this success could only be attributed to the campaign at hand (and not any other marketing efforts from the brand).
Because of my role, I saw firsthand why a good case study is arguably the most important piece of content you can create. It arms sales teams with creative ammunition and provides proof for what you can do without the need for a hard sell.
While most people already use the challenge/results model, there are other factors to consider. I’ve written dozens of case studies for the experiential marketing agency Mirrorball, and now do so weekly as part of my full-time job as a sports marketing writer and content strategist for Facebook. Let’s look at the elements that take a case study from good to great.
Get permission first
This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often companies leap to publicize their top campaigns without asking their customers first. Don’t do this! It’s a quick way to lose trust and future revenue.
HubSpot does a nice job emphasizing this process in its eight-step case study guide. Not only do they make a point to ask for permission, but they also cover the legal components of getting the go-ahead and navigating possible NDAs in contracts. It’s a good idea to coordinate what data and information you can use. Visuals need to be on brand. And you’ll want to discuss distribution so everyone is comfortable with how to share the finished product.
Simplify, then simplify more
Good writing should speed readers along, not confuse them with industry jargon. Rely on succinct sentences and short paragraphs, and cut anything inessential. You’re writing a case study, not an essay, so make your points and wrap it up.
Also think about simplicity from a design perspective. Sometimes the best case studies don’t get the attention they deserve due to crammed spacing or too much text.
A great example of case study design done right is this urban farming piece from global design and innovation company IDEO. The clean layout makes the narrative very easy to follow. (Given that the brand specializes in design, this isn’t shocking.)The case study outlines short versions of the challenge and outcome right at the top and neatly breaks up the text with pull quotes and images.
Another way to start strong is to highlight the shiny data upfront in case people skim the case study and don’t make it to the end.
The example below from performance marketing platform AdRoll hooks the audience right away with appealing hero imagery and bright, impressive results that will get the attention of any executive. It then goes on to tell the rest of the story in detail—but for some audiences, those first few lines will be enough to prove the campaign’s worth.
Don’t force the narrative
Since case studies are so valuable, some marketers produce them simply to check a box or hit a quota. Don’t create one unless you have a legitimate story worth sharing, because people will see right through the forced efforts.
The big thing to focus on is matching the objectives to the results. Don’t reverse-engineer a story just because you want to highlight a particular client logo or product feature. Additionally, wait for genuinely impressive results. If you have a good story to tell but limited data to back it up, just wait for everything to line up. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience, because they’ll look at the case study and be upset that you wasted their time.
Think about the medium
All case studies should tell a cohesive story that seamlessly links the challenge, strategy, and results. But the manner in which you tell that story can vary greatly depending on the format. Instead of a text-heavy article, visually appealing PDFs and slides work well when presenting case studies in-person.
In today’s media climate, consumers are gobbling up engaging videos, so if you can tell your story through a series of interviews and b-roll clips, that may be more effective than the standard post. Check out this video case study on bag manufacturer Herschel Supply Co. created by social management platform Hootsuite:
“If you didn’t know this video was a case study for Hootsuite, you’d assume it was simply an artsy video capturing Herschel’s startup success,” Caroline Forsey writes for HubSpot. “The Herschel marketing team mentions Hootsuite, but they … remain primarily focused on the appreciation they have for their social media community.”
Promote, promote, promote
For case studies to lead to recognition and revenue, the right people have to find them. Once the assets get approved, promote it wherever you can—company blog, social profiles, website landing pages. A lot of companies set up a dedicated case studies page on their websites, which is a good start. But go out of your way to distribute it as well.
If you have budget, put paid spend behind the case study as well to boost it across social. A few dollars in ad spend can go a long way–if you think the results in your case study are impressive, imagine the ROI when the paid boost leads to a few new clients. Almost sounds like grounds for a case study in its own right.Image by Terrade