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What’s in a great Business Case Study and how to write one

The market for case studies is said to be exploding and for a good reason. A case study reinforces a company’s reputation as a business that solves a customer’s problems. It’s a marketing tool that is designed to convince prospects a product or service will be a good fit for their needs.

Everyone who can write, can write a case study, but in order to write a testimonial that grabs readers’ attention and keeps them interested — glued to the page, even — you’ll need to know how to structure the story, excel at spelling and grammar, and have a bit of a writing talent. The structure of a case study can be yours to determine, but in many cases, the client will have a template to which you’re expected to write.

Even then, though, you’ll need to act as if you were a journalist writing a background piece in a newspaper or a magazine and that includes covering the five “Ws” — who, what, when, where and why.

These pull readers into the story and keep their attention focused because they can relate to:

  • The case company being much like their own (who)
  • The reason the case company were looking for a product (why) and what they were after (another why)
  • When in their existence that question popped up (when)
  • The products the case company initially considered (what)
  • What they eventually purchased (what again)
  • Why that came out on top (why again).

You’ll also have to answer how they ultimately came to decide in favour of the client’s product and what the results were (another what to answer).

The ideal vs. the template

Ideally, you’ll start with the first Who — What — Why — When and then work your way chronologically down the timeline of the case, answering the subsequent “Ws” as you progress.

When a client asks you to write to template, you might struggle to fit in this basic structure, but in general, it is possible to find a way around that. If you can’t, you might try to point out the flaws of the template’s structure to the client.

As a journalist and a writer for technology businesses myself, I have written well over 200 of these case studies over the course of my 25 years in this business and most of the time I have managed to infuse them with an element of excitement. That has probably much to do with the journalistic approach I use, which is to interview my subject until he has literally nothing more to say on the subject.

Some case study customers, however, aren’t prepared to spill the beans or only agree to have a case study written because they don’t want to disappoint the vendor’s salesperson. That is why, in the first contact with them that I always point out that we can do this via email, phone or Skype, and that they shouldn’t worry me writing something that they don’t agree with.

It is your job as a writer to make them feel comfortable and make it clear to them the case study isn’t only going to benefit their supplier but them as well — if they don’t already see that clearly themselves.

Things you shouldn’t do

Making them feel comfortable implies you’re not going to write anything they don’t agree to in the first place. For example, if a customer tells you they purchased a device because they were up against growing competition, you shouldn’t twist those words into something like: “They were losing out against the competition…” That will immediately backfire.

One of my last experiences in that respect turned out a bit sour for my client when their PR insisted I should not send my contact the first draft for initial approval. “We’re changing your text anyway,” the PR said (and introducing style inconsistencies in the process — but that’s another matter altogether). It turned out she accepted their Product Manager’s comments too literally and easily without going back to the customer before declaring the edited text as final.

Luckily, I received a copy before they actually released the text which I immediately sent to the customer who equally quickly came back to me, angry about the hyperbole that he felt wasn’t what he had said. And so I assured him it wasn’t in my first draft and forwarded his comments to the PR. She was forced to rectify and ultimately the original version was released.

This, however, has damaged my client’s reputation with this customer who will think twice when in the future they would perhaps ask him for input again.

The secret to creating an exciting read

Some topics are boring to outsiders, so how do you make those into an exciting read? The answer is that you must be able to work your way into your client and their customer’s world. What looks boring to you as an outsider may not be for people who are active in the business the case is about. So, when you’re writing a case study, you should be able to place yourself in the client and customer’s shoes. Only if you can empathise, you can write a case that invites to be read.

That reminds me of a case study I wrote a couple of years ago about a carton converter, which is a company that makes, prints and folds cardboard boxes for other companies. I first looked up everything I could possibly learn about this industry, then I planned a call with them as my contact insisted on having a conference call with one of his technical managers sitting next to him.

The call lasted for an hour during which I was able to ask targeted questions thanks to the homework I’d done before. When I finished writing the first draft, both men said they were impressed with the level of comprehension that I seemed to have about their industry and the problems they’re up against for which my client offered a solution. The truth of the matter is, of course, that I only somehow understood what they were telling me from what I had read, not from my own experience. I would never be able to plan what they had to in order to organise and manage their manufacturing plant. I don’t have to either; it’s not my core business. My core business is to translate what they tell me into a nice read that shows how well my client’s solution fits in what the reader needs.

That case study structure, by the way, started with a description of the problem, went on to describe the process of finding the solution, covered the solution and the results, and closed with some general information in table format about my client and the carton converter.

I also included some callouts, which are eye-catching and/or thought-provoking one-liners that are used in the case study’s layout design as separate blocks that draw the attention of the reader to a key phrase.

A brief example

To wrap up this piece, let me finish by telling you about a case study on a large South-African business, a customer of one of my clients who is a global market leader in industrial printing equipment. This company had done business with my client in the past and they were very happy with their new acquisition. I conducted the interview by email entirely, exchanging about four messages in all.

My first email asked a lot more information than I actually needed. Some of the questions I asked were:

  • Which other presses did you consider before going with my client’s
  • Why did you choose this one — both from a business and a technical point of view
  • What did my client do to help you decide
  • How do you rate my client’s after sales service
  • Etc.

I’m including anonymised snippets from the study below as an illustration. I’m calling the customer “BD”, my client “AZ”, and the machine their customer bought “FV”.

After stating briefly why he went out looking to buy a new press, I started the “Solution” section as follows:

— From the pleasurable experience the company had during its previous purchases of AZ equipment, BD quickly turned to AZ again, or as the Managing Director at BD, puts it: “It was a no-brainer.”

For the soft signage printing needs, the company knew the deadlines were going to be just as bad as with their other large format jobs, so they needed a machine that could perform as fast as their existing roll-to-roll LED machines. To improve the business offering on the large format front, the new machine would have to be capable of a better quality combined with a higher speed.

It was quickly decided the soft signage machine would be an FV, which would enable BD to offer its customers the ability to print on virtually every type of fabric of up to 340cm. This machine would remove the restrictions BD had been facing up to that point. Xyz: “We used to use the LED technology from AZ to print directly onto the coated fabric. But we were limited by the materials.”

For the new high-quality, high-speed large format printing press, the company decided on the … — and then I am including a brief spec overview.

The “Results” section goes like this:

— BD has been especially impressed with the AZ FV in the areas of construction and print quality. Xyz observed: “These machines are robust and you can see they mean business. We call them “the tanks” because they are so solid and not much will hold them from giving us what we need to print. It’s a pleasure these days to know we can give a press a large building wrap or 400 large posters and all of them will be consistent throughout the print run.”

But that is not all. Xyz mentioned the FV has speed and reliability to spare. “And then there’s the cost of the ink,” he added. The BD Managing Director was referring to the AZ FV’s use of a new ink delivery system that allows 100% ink utilisation, so no ink goes wasted.

In addition, AZ inks have been specially formulated to offer a wide colour gamut and deliver consistent, repeatable results — another major reason for BD to invest in this machine. In combination with the low-heat LED technology of the FV, there’s the ability to print on thinner, heat-sensitive and speciality substrates, so BD isn’t limited by material choice at all anymore. It can now offer customers more applications and lower cost material options. A nice extra is that virtually no VOCs make AZ’s LED inks a greener printing solution.

— Etc.

I concluded this case study with the following quote the Managing Director agreed upon when I asked him to approve the first draft:

— He concludes: “We’re seeing business growth and already some higher turnover. We were getting 70% of the businesses from existing clients — now we are able to get 90%. We can proudly say we offer a complete turnkey print solution.” —

Written by

Editor, Writer/Subeditor for US & UK based IT-Photo-A/V publications. Ex-lawyer, Ex-law lecturer. Copywriter, Tech writer.

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