The Personal Touch: Writing Case Studies that Get Read—and Results (Part 1)

"So prove it!"<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> That's what they're thinking on the other side of the desk. Chances are, they've heard your pitch before. Same benefits, pricing, and commitment to flexibility and responsiveness. Maybe they like you better or believe you'll actually stick around and deliver. Otherwise, it's blah, blah, blah&#x2026;just more chatter. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Sure, we leave behind glossy brochure, in desperation. We hope they stand out from the other clutter. Believe it or not, your prospects sometimes do scan these materials&#x2026;right before they toss them. Why? They don't tell a compelling story. Sure, they list your capabilities and accomplishments, but they don't stir the imagination. They don't reflect the real you. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> That's why case studies are such a valuable tool. They reveal <i>how</i> you do business, beyond your generic platitudes. They create images and set expectations. So rather than nattering on in your collateral, reinforce your assertions with a case study. Here's how:<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Target.</b> Money is tight and mistakes are more costly than ever. You can sell on price and range, but your prospects want to know if you've worked with people like them. With case studies, specific is better. That's why the most effective studies focus on a particular industry or problem. Even more, they speak their targets' language, conveying an understanding of their professional experiences and daily challenges. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Start with a problem.</b> Isn't that why customers open the door to you, anyway? Time is always short, so get to the point. Kick off your study by succinctly outlining the issues. Write about these difficulties within the context of your subject's vision and needs. Share how these challenges impacted their operation, such as losing accounts or draining dollars and labor. Identify the internal or external solution being used, and why it wasn't up to snuff. Don't forget to note influencing factors&#x2014;such as industry trends, internal limitations, and competitor shifts&#x2014;which exacerbated the problems. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> But that's only the start. To keep your readers' attention, and make your study truly memorable, you need to elicit an emotional response. Whether you're targeting limitations in staffing, capital, capacity, time, or expertise, your readers must realize just how bad the problem is in their own work lives. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Take an issue like centralizing data gathering and storage. How can you make that problem so real it forces action? Take a page from the copywriters. Get permission to use an employee in your study. Create a character by including a name (Carol) and brief background (analyst with 10-year tenure). Describe how Carol wastes two hours each day pulling data from multiple applications. Specify the total hours Carol loses each month, along with how this time could've been invested for a higher return. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> More importantly, examine how this issue impacts larger operations. In this case, you could detail the headaches experienced by the CFO when he reviews incomplete data sets or is unable to access real-time data. You could even outline how this limitation cost them a major opportunity, and the resulting fallout. Bottom line: humanize your study. Your readers must experience what happened, preferably in the words of people like Carol. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Tout your partner.</b> There are many reasons why you might interview specific clients for your studies. They may have high brand recognition, or their circumstances could illustrate key points about your unique selling proposition. Either way, devote some space to touting your business partners. And that goes beyond citing what they sell or service. Name their customers (or use sequiturs like "contracts with over a third of Fortune 500 companies"). <br clear="none" /> Bolster their credibility by plugging special recognitions, market position or rate of growth. Look at tying them to something larger, such as current events or larger social themes. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In addition, consider narrating how you met these partners, including the courting process. In particular, what gave you the advantage over other potential suitors? Remember, you're giving your partners free publicity. Compliment them as much as possible. It only makes you look good. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> At some point, you'll want to integrate a synopsis of what your company does, who you serve, and why you're different or superior. While it's tempting to highlight this, less is actually more. A crude sales pitch simply distracts readers from the larger themes. Always remember: A case study's spotlight should stay on your partners and their challenges. Your company's actions in the study will ultimately speak louder than anything else. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Outline the solution.</b> Now that you've summarized the who, what, where, when, and why, it's time to detail how you solved the problem. Start with your main priorities: What benchmarks ultimately revealed success or failure? And what metrics did you use to measure them? Describe your overarching strategies, along with the tactics you implemented. Justify why certain solutions were selected over others, and how your plan addressed the underlying logistic, technical, operational, and political challenges. Include timelines, too. Prospects aren't seeking out band-aids; convey how you provided a long-term solution (on time and within budget). <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> While you want to focus squarely on strategies and results, there are ways to add a sales touch. For example, emphasize specific features, with broad or segmented appeal (depending on your reader). Do you offer anything proprietary? Are your solutions customized, using strong input from the customer? <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Remember, whatever you highlight, subtly points out where you hold an advantage. It can also demonstrate why your solution is a superior to cobbling something together in-house. For example, you can allude to other solutions that were considered, before noting why they fell short. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In part 2, we'll look at how integrating specifics and design elements can separate your case study from the rest. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> SMM <i>columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at <a href=""></a>, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.</i>