Case studies offer a concrete, real-world look at how a product or service impacts a person, organization, process or event. As such, they’re prized by businesses, who prefer to buy things that already work.
But what makes a great case study? The answer is deceptively simple.
We say “deceptively” because case studies don’t appear to leave much room for creativity. The basic structure of any case study is always the same:
- Defining the problem
- Introducing the solution
- Revealing the results
But if you unpack those components just a little, you’ll see a story arc that closely mirrors Joseph Campbell’s outline for a heroic tale.
That’s the key. Great case studies tell classic, heroic stories. That’s the difference between a case study (and any B2B marketing, really) that imprints itself on our memories, and one that is quickly forgotten.
Here, we explore the science and art of creating a compelling case study that’s driven by good storytelling.
It starts where most great tales begin: With a little alcohol.
Tell Better Stories: B2B Marketers Can Learn a Lot From the B2C World
Businesses have understood the power of storytelling for years, and they’ve used it to their advantage. Budweiser’s 2014 Super Bowl ad took the top spot for popularity that year by telling the story of a puppy who makes friends with a Clydesdale.
Budweiser’s success doesn’t surprise Johns Hopkins researchers Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen, who analyzed 108 Super Bowl commercials to explain Budweiser’s success in a Fall 2014 article in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry tells Harrison Monarth at the Harvard Business Review, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”
Our neurology also plays a role. According to Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich, writing at Lifehacker, reading or listening to a list of bullet points activates the language-processing areas of the brain, two relatively small parts known as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. But that list of bullet points doesn’t travel much further: The rest of the brain is pretty quiet.
Not so when we hear stories, however. The language processing areas of the brain light up in response to a story — but so does every other part of the brain that would engage if we were actually living the story.
Tell a story about eating delicious foods or enjoying a crisp digital view, and a reader’s sensory cortex lights up.
Tell a story about zipping through traffic to deliver a perfectly timed package, and a reader’s motor cortex lights up.
Tell a story about an adorable puppy becoming best friends with a gentle horse, and our limbic system — the part of the brain that handles emotion — goes into overdrive.
The last one is particularly important, Shawn Callahan points out at Anecdote, because strong emotions tend to build stronger memories. Seeking to process and contextualize emotions, the brain builds a story around them that makes sense, and it remembers the story told.
Stories help us remember. Emotional stories stick around the longest. And an outstanding case study leverages both of these facts.
How to Weave Those Stories Into the Rigid Structure of a Case Study
Quesenberry attributes our love of stories to our need for socialization. But a case study “lives” on its own. Potential clients and customers often discover it online, with no human interaction attached.
To convey emotion, build connection and drive memory, your case study will need to stand on its own. And to do that, it needs the narrative body of a great story.
Every great story begins with a challenge or conflict that the hero needs to overcome. And every great case study begins the same way.
Start with the problem the customer or client faced. Robert Levin at Speak SMB offers a list of questions that can help a case study’s creator find a vivid approach to the issue:
- What is the biggest, most aggravating problem our customers have (that our offerings can solve)?
- What are one or two things we do that have the biggest impact on that big, aggravating problem?
- What does success look like when a customer uses what we offer?
- What are the top one or two things we want prospective customers to know about our product or service?
Since the challenge portion of the case study sets up the customer as the hero who will eventually slay the dragon, it’s important to avoid the same major pitfalls that make novel or movie heroes unlikeable.
For instance, avoiding making the hero too weak or helpless. Instead, demonstrate early that the customer had the skills necessary to solve this problem — critical thinking, budgeting, or passion — just not a particular solution.
The Search for a Solution
Once the hero knows what the challenge is, he or she typically sets out on a quest. The quest forms the bulk of most stories. It’s where the emotional stakes start to climb, and where readers start to identify with the hero.
In a case study, this means talking about the search for the solution, not just the solution itself. Amanda Zantal-Wiener at HubSpot recommends asking questions like:
- How did you (the customer) hear about our product or service?
- Who was involved in the decision process?
- What was most important to you when evaluating your options?
Once your hero customer knows their challenge and has journeyed to find the tools to defeat it, it’s time for the final epic battle. Or, in a case study, it’s time to discuss the solution.
In the solution stage, it’s essential to avoid a too-quick, clichéd ending. “And then we swooped in and saved the day” might summarize the end of the story, but it shouldn’t be the end of the story.
Instead, dig into the details. How easy was it to implement your company’s proposed solution? How long did it take? What did the customer do to get the solution up and running? What difficulties, if any, did they face? What advice does the customer have for anyone who might take the same path in the future?
“And then they lived happily ever after.”
In a case study, this classic ending looks less like a cozy castle and more like data, Dan Shewan writes at Wordstream.
“If possible, the data you include in your case study should directly reflect the challenges faced by your protagonist in Act I,” Shewan says. In other words, if your customer needed a way to decrease operational costs, the data should show how much those costs went down as a result of implementing your solution.
If the project isn’t particularly data-driven, Shewan recommends gathering evidence in the form of quotes, video or images — anything that shows the results at work.
Every great story has vivid, memorable details that speak to the sensory, motor or emotional centers of the brain, so don’t forget to weave these into your case study, as well.
Start with a summary, Breonna Bergstrom writes at CoSchedule. In three sentences, shorten the story to the problem, solution and results. Place this executive summary at the top of the finished case study, where it can operate like a book blurb or movie trailer, enticing readers into the story.
Add vivid detail, but do so sparingly. Levin at SparkSMB recommends focusing on concrete, specific details, especially in the use of titles and quotes. “X Corp. Finds Success With Our Product Y” isn’t as vivid or compelling as “How X Corp. Doubled Its Profits” or “How X Corp Reduced Operating Costs by 15 Percent While Improving Product Quality.”
For instance, Christine Parizo recommends offering advice to prospective buyers in the form of a quote from a key person on the customer’s team. Choosing thoughtfully also allows you to set up this person as another hero in the story, further building goodwill. As Parizo notes, “Who doesn’t want to be the IT Director that saved the company thousands a month?”
Next Steps: Introduce Your Case Study to the World
You’ve stuck to the story, polished the details, and produced a compelling tale of business adversity and eventual triumph, complete with pitch-perfect quotes from key connections within your customer’s organization. You’ve succeeded!
As Camille Rasmussen at TechValidate notes, a case study that isn’t distributed wisely isn’t any more valuable than a case study that was never written at all.
While your choices for case study distribution depend on the particular behaviors and customs within your prospective customers’ industry or industries, Devon McDonald at OpenView recommends considering popular options like email campaigns, press releases and displaying the finished case study prominently on a website or customer portal. Don’t forget to announce your case study on social media, as well.
Your story matters. Make sure the world hears it.