Why your “case study” may not really be a case study

Case studies can be powerful marketing tools, particularly for consulting and technology firms that deliver complex solutions to equally complex business problems. Most of these folks know that case studies are a great way to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise, but it’s also clear that many don’t understand what a case study actually is, and what makes a good one. A bulleted list does not a case study make.

In fact, a qualitative review of representative professional service firm websites reveals that a good portion of the content labeled “case studies” were not case studies at all. They were collections of bullet points, each with a couple sentences describing a product or service, the client that used it, and a vague description of the result. A bulleted list, however, does not a case study make.

So then, what is an actual case study, and what makes a case study good?

Merriam-Webster tells us that a case study is “a situation in real life that can be looked at or studied to learn about something.” And how do people learn? Through stories.

Better and faster mobile technologies along with social media have fostered a culture of sharing many, short snippets of information. Despite this, “Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience,” says Pamela Rutledge, an expert on the psychology of storytelling. Humans think in terms of stories.

Given that our brains are hardwired to connect with and respond to stories, one can imagine that offering a bulleted list of services, and a vague description of the “global manufacturer” that used them, will fall flat almost every time. The absence of transitions and context—that necessary connective tissue we need in order to relate it to our own experiences and aspirations—forces readers to draw those connections themselves. They have to work harder to understand main messages, which results in waning attention and lost readership.

[pullquote]What is an actual case study, and what makes a case study good?[/pullquote] Experts in the craft of case writing have produced entire books and taught classes on the subject. So to marketers who dabble in this sophisticated art, a word of advice: first and foremost, a case study should tell a compelling story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end and describe in detail a real business challenge, the complicating factors and decisions that needed to be made, and the results of those decisions, using actual data points—for example, cost savings, additional revenues, or other tangible impact.

How do you ensure that your case study is memorable? By leaning on the aspects of storytelling that have always separated art from mere chatter. If you offer a case study without a compelling narrative, you’re missing a golden opportunity to connect with potential customers by telling your company’s story.

Heather Ploog

Heather is the managing partner of Leff. Her background in business coupled with her experience in editing and user-created content has given her a unique skill set and advanced insight into both the management and editorial fields. She enjoys expounding in the Leff blog on the business writing tactics that bring clarity to complex ideas and make your content distinctive.

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