How to Write a Marketing Case Study, Step by Step
Social proof on steroids—that’s how Neil Patel describes the marketing case study.
A well-written case study highlights how your solution works, whom it works for, and what actual, named clients have to say about the solution. Keeping a few—or a bunch—of these in your tool belt fuels sales conversations and drives marketing engagement. What’s not to love?
Well, the process of writing them, that’s what. For many marketing teams, the idea of a library of case studies is much more appealing than the process of creating them. From choosing the right clients to highlight, getting them to engage in the process, conducting multiple interviews, and crafting a compelling, unified story from the chaos… well, it presents some pretty unique challenges.
Fortunately, while writing a great case study will always require some time investment, it doesn’t have to be painful. A streamlined process—and a few well-chosen tools—can make the whole thing simple and fun (well, WE think it’s fun, anyway!).
In this article, we’ve laid out for you the stepwise process we’ve developed over fifteen years. This is our own internal process that we use to write about some of the most complex of B2B solutions, involving multiple layers of stakeholders. We’ve used it to create case studies on global supply chain optimization, peak demand inventory management, and omni-channel order fulfillment. We’ve written about executive leadership training, employee engagement platforms, and SaaS solutions for fleet management. Our case studies have supported multi-million-dollar sales, and played important marketing roles for dozens of lead generation programs. The process works.
Along with our step-by-step process, we’re also offering a template and samples as a free download (see below), along with a printable version of this article for quick reference. Go ahead, make your life easier. Read on.
Step One: Understand Your Goal
Yogi Berra said it best: If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.
This is true for all forms of marketing content, and especially for the case study. Understanding what role the piece will play in your sales and marketing efforts will guide everything from client selection to what questions you ask.
The case study’s purpose should be tied to what the organization is trying to accomplish at the strategic as well as the tactical level. Is the organization repositioning itself to serve a new or larger clientele? Is it launching new service lines or planning significant growth? Is your sales team in need of proof points for a particular solution? Does your market need to understand a complex element of your services? Does your marketing lack effective social proof?
Answering these questions will help you define a purpose for this particular case study, which will guide the rest of your process and ensure the final product adds genuine value.
Step Two: Understand Your Audience
Many companies make the mistake of thinking only about what they want to say, and not about what the audience wants to hear. Taking the time to understand your audience’s point of view makes the difference between a vanity piece, and a case study that actually does its job. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What are your audience’s biggest questions about the topic?
- What are their biggest pain points around the solution you want to highlight?
- Do they have any objections for you to overcome?
- What competing solutions might they be considering?
- What do they hope to gain from reading your case study?
- What do they have to gain from choosing your solution?
You can get much of this information by talking to your sales team and any principals in your company who interface regularly with customers. Customer surveys and interviews are also useful tools.
Take good care of your audience, and they will readily consume what you have to offer.
Step Three: Choose a Great Subject and Angle
Now that you know your goal and your audience’s needs, you can choose a customer to profile. For the rest of this guide, we’ll refer to the customer whose problem and solution you’re writing about as the “subject.”
Clearly, you want to choose a subject who is happy with your solution. But that is not the only concern. You also want to ensure that:
- Their story will illustrate the points you want to make based on your business goal.
- Their size, industry, and needs are relevant to your audience.
- Their story is an outstanding example of the solution you want to highlight.
- They are likely to want to participate and approve the finished product.
Once you’ve chosen your subject, give thought to the angle you’ll focus on. In many cases, a top client will use multiple services and solutions. Trying to cover everything in a single case study can dilute the case study’s purpose and reduce its effectiveness. Stay focused on the specific goal you have in mind, and build a story angle around that purpose.
The angle may evolve during the interview and writing process, but starting with a preliminary angle will help to keep your case study process focused.
Step Four: Ask the Right Questions
Once you’ve settled on a good subject and angle, it’s time to schedule your interviews. You’ll want to speak with at least one principal from each of the key companies involved in the project, and possibly a few people who were “on the ground” during the implementation process.
Make good use of your interviewee’s time by doing your homework prior to each call. As much as possible, you should understand:
- What their company does
- What their role in the company is
- How the solution fits into their business
A well-organized interview saves everyone time and ensures you get everything you need straight out of the gate. In fifteen years, we’ve fine-tuned our interview process and nailed down 8 core questions to ask. Here they are:
- What were the challenges or problems faced by the subject company prior to seeking a solution?
- What had they done previously to attempt to solve those problems?
- How did they learn about the solution provider (your company)?
- Why did they choose this specific solution?
- How was the solution implemented? Ask for step-by-step, nuts-and-bolts information.
- What did the final result look like?
- What benefits were derived from implementation of the solution?
- How is the company better now than before the implementation?
This last question always gets an interesting reaction from the subject. Some smaller organizations will rave about everything they’ve accomplished directly because of the solution. Try to get them to name some numbers—sales, revenue, growth, percentages, productivity, etc. Don’t fret if you can’t get numbers, though—it’s fine to focus on results like “saved time” and “better quality.”
Individuals in larger organizations will usually have a slightly different reaction to this question. In these cases, one solution is usually part of a larger initiative, and for that reason specific results can’t be attributed to any one piece of the puzzle. In this case, ask them these additional questions:
- Which aspect(s) of the result can be tied to the particular solution?
- What have been the results of the larger initiative of which this was a part?
Again, if you can get numbers, that’s great. For larger organizations, you will usually be able to get percentage growth numbers, or something similar. However, conceptual gains are worth talking about, so pay attention to what your interviewee considers important, and make a note of it.
Step Five: Use a Proven Structure
Congratulations! Once your interviews are complete, you have all the raw material you need. And, by asking the eight questions in the order provided, you have already put the material mostly in order. Now it’s time to massage it into a solid structure.
Do you remember high school composition classes, when the teacher talked about “block structure” and “alternating structure” and “chronological structure”? No? I don’t blame you—I mostly remember it because it was boo-ooring. Useful, though. In this case, the structure you’re going to use is the simplest of all (hurray!): Chronological.
You’re going to follow the story from before the implementation to after, one step at a time. Easy peasy, right? Lucky you, it’s also the most effective structure for a case study. Let’s take a closer look before getting into the nitty-gritty of how to do it.
This section establishes the quality of the subject organization, and discusses the challenges it faced prior to the solution.
Warning: A common mistake in this section is to focus on what was wrong with the subject company, which can make the subject company look bad. This mistake can undermine the credibility of both companies (nobody wants to work with the company whose other clients are all dummies). If the subject company looks bad, you’re also going to have a hard time getting their approval to publish it.
Instead, frame the challenge in a way that demonstrates the subject company’s strengths, and their proactive approach to seeking solutions. This helps to show that the solution provider (your company) works with competent, successful clients, and it will make it much easier to get subject company approvals.
The before section may be broken into multiple parts, depending on the complexity and length of the total case study. You may have sections titled “The Client,” “About [Subject Company],” or “The Challenge,” for instance. The key is to use a chronological order, and carefully set up the challenge before diving into the solution.
This section will contain the nuts and bolts of the case study. It begins with the subject company, and how they selected the solution to be highlighted. It will work its way step by step through how the solution was implemented. Include information on why the solution was selected, how it was customized and tailored, and what the process of implementation looked like.
Many writers make the mistake of talking about big results early in the case study. Spoilers make the rest of the story less fun, right? So save the results for this section—the big reveal.
(Exception: Sometimes you want to include a quick “before and after” snapshot at the top of the case study—in this case, you definitely want the big spoilers included in that snapshot.)
Keep this section as concrete as possible. Numbers, percentages, and glowing quotes from subject company principals all belong here. Remember that in any complex organization, big picture results often cannot be attributed to a single initiative, and that’s okay. It’s still impressive to point out that the company grew by 30% in the 12 months following implementation. B2B buyers will understand this as a sign of a healthy organization that made smart choices—including choosing the highlighted solution.
Step Six: Write the First Draft
You’ve got your raw material, you’ve got your structure, and now… it’s time to get a draft down. We’re about to make this so easy for you. Ready?
Cut and paste.
Open your notes, and open your template (hey, you can download one at bottom!). I like to print the notes out and do the first step on paper (sorry, trees!), but you can do it all on your computer by opening the two documents side by side.
Now, read through your notes. If you’re working on paper, circle each section and make a note of where it belongs in the structure of the case study (before, during, or after). If you’re working from your computer, you can simply copy and paste a section at a time into the template (you’ll do this second if you start on paper). Be careful to save your document under a new name so you don’t overwrite your template! (But if you do overwrite it, you can always come back and download it again. Or, you know, versioning—thank you, Dropbox).
When you are done with this stage, you will have what we call the SFD, with a nod to Anne Lamott and the Sh*tty First Draft concept. In other words, it will look like crap. That’s okay. You’re doing fine.
Take a look at what you’ve got, and move bits around inside each section until it is more-or-less chronological, and makes some kind of sense. It’s okay to delete sections.
Note: Keep your eyes open for exact quotes you want to keep, and retain them by putting quotation marks around them. You’ll want approximately one per section (this can vary dramatically—take this as a guideline, not a rule). Everything else can be rewritten at will. And now…
Step Seven: Rewrite, Revise, and Edit
With your content essentially in order, take it firmly in hand and mercilessly rewrite each section so it hangs together neatly. Add transitions and context. Start with the big picture first, and gradually work your way down to the word choice and syntax level.
Important: The final tone of your case study should be journalistic rather than salesy. Think of this piece as a report, rather than as marketing. Overly cheery and ‘boosting’ language will turn readers off and undermine your credibility.
When you’re happy with your final product, send it to a new set of eyes for editing and proofreading. Even best-selling professional authors need an editor to tell them what they can’t see.
Step Eight: Secure Approvals
Because they impact the reputation of multiple brands, case studies require more due diligence than most forms of content. If you’ve been clear with all of your interviewees, and done a good job in representing all the relevant companies, securing approvals will probably be a simple matter.
Even if your subject has already said yes to the case study, get written approval for each one. While your organization may have an outstanding relationship with individuals within the subject company now, over time job shifts and company transitions can change the relationship. Written approvals won’t protect against all potentialities, but they make it much easier to continue using the asset when things change at the subject company.
Occasionally, despite all your due diligence, you may find a case study fails to gain final approval from the subject company. Perhaps they had a leadership change while the case study was in process. Maybe they just got cold feet. In this case, all is not lost. While it won’t have the impact of a fully co-branded piece, a case study can be transformed into a solution paper by removing the subject company’s identifying information. It will still be a useful piece of collateral, and you won’t have wasted your time.
Step Nine: Brand and Design
As always, the look of your collateral matters. A simple, clean design in Word with branding elements in the headers and footers will often be quite sufficient. Some companies prefer to have each case study individually designed for a high-end, custom look. If the case study has supporting photos, such as for a civil engineering or architectural project, include them in the design process.
Step Ten: Promote It!
Don’t let your hard work languish. By all means set up a resources section and a landing page for case studies, but don’t stop there. A case study that sits alone in a corner will never live up to its full potential. Once you take the time and invest the resources to produce a compelling case study, make sure everyone knows about it.
- Include it in your client newsletter
- Promote it on social media
- Educate your sales team on how and when to use it in sales conversations
- Blog about it
- Use portions of it in other forms of content (repurpose, repurpose, repurpose!)
- Refer to it in webinars and presentations
- Create an SEO-optimized landing page to grab search engine traffic
- Share it with influencers in your industry
- Ask the subject company to promote it via their channels
Creating a valuable marketing case study is certainly not easy, but it is well worth the effort, and with this process (and our template—download below) it is achievable. Download your kit below.
(Or, you know, you could just hire us to take it off your hands. Let us know.)
You can also find out how much it costs to outsource case study writing here.
Heather Head is an author, as well as the founder of Scopcity. When she is not writing, running the business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen.