How to write an epic case study

A well-written case study is a powerful tool. It demonstrates how your business has helped an organisation similar to the reader’s. The implicit message is: “we can help your business too”.

However, the emphasis of the story is about the customer, not you. It should describe a challenge or opportunity the customer faced; how, with your help, they met the challenge.

Marketing campaigns make ideal material for short punchy case studies. But what about longer projects — the business transformations and global web roll-outs? They demand something more befitting their epic nature.

Heroic arc

The best long case studies are stories of triumph over adversity following a narrative arc that dates back to Homer:

  • The hero — the customer. Not just a business but a person or team within the business.
  • The challenge — a threat to the customer’s business, or opportunity to grasp.
  • The quest — the journey the hero undertakes to meet the challenge, assisted by you.
  • The peril of the wrong path or of inaction: the resistance to overcome, the dangers of the wrong solution.
  • The triumph over adversity: the favourable and measurable business result.
  • What happens next — based on this achievement, what does the customer plan next?

Dos and don’ts

1. Do tell the story from the customer’s point of view, not from your point of view.

2. Do include direct-speech quotes from key actors, especially the hero(es) of the story. Don’t include quotes written for press releases or other marketing collateral.

3. Write as if you were telling the story to a friend. Cut extraneous details. Don’t bore the reader with ponderous detail.

4. Prioritise. Don’t hide the best bits of the story to the end. Readers may not make it that far.

5. Don’t be confined by chronology: it’s less important than the narrative flow: the hero; the challenge; the quest; the peril; the happy outcome.

The formula

Write the headline and intro paragraph last. First, set the scene for the drama of the business challenge. Introduce the customer’s hero or team personally.

Don’t clutter the opening paragraph with an inventory of facts about the customer’s business — number of employees, annual turnover, number of countries it operates in. Few readers will make it past such a dull list. Find ways of working these facts into the narrative naturally.

Once you’ve set the scene, add more colour with a sentence or two about the business environment in which the customer operates. Is the sector emerging, steady-state or in decline? Is the customer a sector leader or left behind? Is a new entrant snaffling its customers? Include only background that relates to the challenge.

Make the dangers of the wrong path explicit. What would have happened to the customer’s business if this challenge had not been addressed? Jeopardy — the risk of failure — creates contrast with the happy outcome, emphasising the eventual triumph.

Create drama. At what stage in the hero’s journey do you enter the scene? How did the chosen solution meet the challenge?

And set the scene for the sequel. What future plans exist for collaboration between the customer and you?

You’re almost done. Go back and read the story. Cut asides and see if the story still flows. Good editing is about how much you can omit while maintaining the fundamental integrity of the story. Rewrite anything you trip over. Rewrite any business-speak.

Now you can craft the intro paragraph, a summary encapsulating the challenge. Tease the reader into exploring your story further.

Finally write a headline primarily for human comprehension and also for search engines. This is the article’s label, so opt for Ronseal style over abstruse, enigmatic or erudite.

The end

Have you read enough about case studies now? This article is about 700 words. Your case studies should be no longer, unless you’ve got a truly ripping yarn on your hands, in which case you may use 1000.

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