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Businesses often rely on case studies to help them win new business, create compelling award submissions and achieve strong media coverage. Yet often, they are the last thing on an organisation’s business agenda.

Nothing sells your business better than your customer’s testimonials to how your product or service has helped them achieve their own business success. Unfortunately, not many companies have a dedicated individual or team developing case studies, nor the necessary formal processes in place to ensure these get done well.

By putting a few simple best practice processes in place to make sure that case studies can be created quickly and effectively, businesses could benefit hugely by having a healthy repository of well-written, easily accessible case studies that demonstrate the value of their propositions.

The fundamental 5W’s of wring good case studies: These include the following key questions: 1) Who was involved? 2) What happened? 3) Where did it take place? 4) When did it take place? 5) Why did it happen?

If you can open with these five questions, a case study introduction virtually writes itself. It’s important to keep this brief. Brevity is the soul of readability, and a sentence on each of these points is usually perfectly adequate.

The main body of the case study can be divided into three main parts:

1) The challenge that was faced, 2) The solution to that challenge, and 3) The benefits gained.

The challenge that was faced: Ask what the client wanted to achieve? What their exact problem was? This might not involve a client at all - it could be an internal problem that you solved, or an organisation-wide issue that the whole team had to pull together to solve.

It’s important to check with the client what they thought the problem was. When you have a hammer, all problems look like a nail. Use open-ended questions to elicit considered responses from clients as much as possible.

The solution to that challenge: Ask who was involved? How did it start? Did you have a clear solution in mind before you started? Or did it become apparent as you started to break the problem down? Was it even a problem that had a combination of solutions?

Again, check the client’s perception of what the solution was. If you’re a software provider, to you, all the solutions look like “providing software”. But for a client, that might only have been part of the solution.

The benefits gained: In much the same way as we define a business risk, the outcome is crucial. Was the benefit financial? Reputational? Of value to the client? Or perhaps of value to your own organisation? Was it a total solution, or perhaps part of a larger one?

You also need to focus on making it readable. It’s vital to avoid hyperbole. As soon as I see people talking about “Enterprise-class, world-leading solutions”, I switch off, and so will your readers.

Keeping it concise really helps people get to the end. Unless your case study features a multi-year, multi-workstream project that several hundred people were involved in, you need a word limit. Try a maximum of 750 words, then see if you can take 10 per cent of the words away.

Case study dos and don’ts

  1. Don’t throw it all together at the last minute
Do allocate some time to developing your case study. Writing is only part of it. You will need extra time to find appropriate images, liaise with your client, and have colleagues review the draft case study.
  1. Don’t pick a client at random
Do find a satisfied client for whom you have delivered interesting, high value, strategic work. Make sure that they are comfortable providing a testimonial and that all parties involved are able to discuss the work.

It’s a good idea to start talking with your client about a possible case study before you finish the project. This helps accelerate the case study development process by early identification of any potential issues with internal sign off processes.

  1. Don’t speak on behalf of your client or make assumptions about the benefits that you provided.
Do interview your client with open-ended questions, and listen to what they say. You may be surprised about which parts of the delivery they value the most.
  1. Don’t sell yourself so hard that you lose the narrative
Do use a clear structure that includes the challenge, the solution and the impact of the work you delivered.

Keep the focus on how you worked with the client to improve things for them, and never lie or exaggerate your achievements.

  1. Don’t confuse your audience with jargon or assume that they know what acronyms stand for
Do remember who your audience are and tailor your language appropriately. Avoid using business buzzwords or technical terms. Spell out any acronyms in full.
  1. Don’t sound the same as your competitors
Do use your case study to differentiate yourself in the market.

The solution section is the perfect place to describe the unique attributes of your project approach.

If you can, talk about how you collaborated with your client to tackle their issue in an innovative way. It will make you stand out from the crowd.

  1. Don’t forget to share the impact
Do include the positive outcome and benefits you delivered to your client and quantify them where possible.

Did you save the client money? Did you help them grow their business?

If so, can you give a number as to how much? If exact figures are confidential, consider using a percentage e.g. costs were reduced 25% in the first month. Include this in the title of your case study too. ‘Company A saves Company B 25% in costs’ has greater impact that ‘Company B cost reduction case study’.

Remember, case studies are used to provide evidence of your success to secure future engagement from your target audience.

  1. Don’t take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to writing your case study.
Do tailor your case studies to appeal to different purposes and audiences. Will you be using the case study for a proposal, pitch, bid or general marketing?

If it’s the latter, you never know who might find your case study, and see an opportunity to engage your organization.

  1. Don’t stick to text only case studies
Do consider creating a video case study. A client talking directly to camera about how you helped them is very powerful, and connects well with the audience.
  1. Don’t make it difficult for interested people to engage with you
Do provide details of your website, email and phone number on your case study.

Businesses really do need to start acknowledging the importance of case studies as business-critical assets that are essential tools for business growth. I hope these tips help set you on your way to creating compelling, well-written customer stories successfully.

By Sarah Dillingham, Founder of CaseStudyNinja