How to write a case study in 2021 that attracts new customers

You have to get good at telling your own story….

If we've talked, or you've spent enough time on this blog, you've likely come to the conclusion that I care about storytelling more than anything else. You wouldn't be wrong. One skill you have to learn, in the storytelling space, is how to write a case study that tells someone else's story in such a way that it helps you too.

To be clear, the protagonist of the story is your customer. It's never you. You're Yoda, not Luke. But most of the time, the issue is that you don't even write case studies at all. So today I'd like to walk you thru my process for crafting the story that goes into a case study.

What's a case study? And what isn't a case study?

Before we talk about how to write a case study, let's get clear on what it is and what it isn't.

  • A case study isn't a product or service description.
  • It is not an advertisement.
  • It is not a testimonial.

A case study (regardless of whether it's written or on video) is a story, from the perspective of your customer, that highlights their journey and the results of working with you (or with your product).

  • It's a story.
  • It's about a customer, not you.
  • It highlights a journey (has a beginning, middle, and end).
  • It presents results (with the suggestion that others can enjoy the same benefits).

Maybe the most important part of that list is that it's a story. Lots of folks will say that all different kinds of marketing efforts (presentations, landing pages, home pages, Facebook ads, etc.) are all stories. But that may be a stretch (even for me). Case studies, on the other hand, are completely, 100%, stories.

So most of the things I've told you about creating a compelling talk also apply to case studies. That said, let's dig into the specifics on how to write a case study.

Writing a case study? It's all about contrast…

The first thing you have to get right is choosing your subject. And the best way to choose which customer you want to work with, is to find the story with the greatest amount of contrast.

Let's step into that for a second.

Contrast is the part of a story that makes it compelling. It's the resolution of a conflict. It's the way the protagonist has been changed by what happened to them on their journey. If the conflict was small, or the change was negligible, you don't have contrast.

Contrast is what pulls us into a story. Contrast is what makes us think we can experience the same transformation.

Without contrast, you don't have an interesting story – and there's really no reason to write your case study.

What kinds of questions give you the best contrast?

If you're writing a case study, and have several customers you could interview, how do you decide which has the most contrast? For me it comes down to the answers to a handful of questions.

The first set is about previous efforts:

  • Before we started working together, what had you tried?
  • How much had you spent already, trying to get these results?
  • How frustrated were you by the time we met? Why?

The larger the spend, the greater the efforts, the higher the pain – these will create the greatest amounts of contrast when we get to the end of the story. They'll also give you great statistics, which are helpful when you're writing the case study title.

Another set of questions is about change:

  • Once we started working together, what were you able to stop doing?
  • After you started using our approach, how was your mind changed?
  • Looking back, what has been the biggest change in your perspective?

You're looking to tell an interesting story when you're writing a case study. And sometimes it is pure math – you saved someone $50,000, or 2,000 hours. But other times it's an internal transformation – because a customer has changed their mind simply experiencing your product or service.

That's an important storyline because it suggests your prospects may also need to experience that shift, and this story can help them.

The last set of questions I might ask, if the first six haven't gotten me an interesting angle, is about results:

  • How has your revenue changed since we started working together?
  • How much money have you saved by changing how you do things?
  • What are you able to do now that you're not doing what you were before?

Thinking about the case study structure

Most people who want to teach you how to write a case study will introduce you to the classical way of telling a story. You introduce your protagonist, then focus on their challenge (or conflict), describe their journey, and end with how things have changed.

Problem >> Solution >> Results

Is there a problem with that structure? Not at all. But let me ask you a question.

How many times do you start watching a movie, and within the first 20 minutes, you can predict everything that's going to happen?

That's because you know the frame. You know they have to introduce the main character, introduce their limiting belief or struggle, and show you the antagonist. They're on the clock. And you know the rest from there.

That doesn't mean we stop watching the movie. But the frame is so predictable that we may not be on the edge of our seats.

Writing a case study is all about telling a compelling story. So that means you may want to change up the structure.

I'm not saying you have to read books like The Seven Basic Plots or 20 Master Plots, but I found that the more I read about structure, the more I thought about changing how I tell a customer's story.

How to assemble the case study

As I do an interview (collecting answers to the questions above), I likely also collect one or two testimonial quotes that might (or might not) fit into the narrative. I am collecting as much as I can because I haven't written anything yet. But writing the case study is about picking the perspective – the angle I'm going to use. And that's what will help me assemble the case study.

Here's how I structure a case study:

My opening is the results that a customer experienced. I do that because I want to grab someone's attention right away (not make them wait until the end). I want to pull them through the case study asking,

  • Does this relate to me?
  • Can I get these results?
  • What did they do?

I then jump back to where the client was – the “before.” Because a reader is asking if it relates to them, I want to make sure that they answer that quickly. The “before” story helps them know if they're in the same situation. The case study structure should highlight that the customer's past matches the reader's present while suggesting the reader's future could be the customer's present.

Now you can focus on the transformation. This is where the contrast becomes really compelling. It's also where you can introduce your solution – which is your product or service and how it helped. But remember, you are not the main character. Your customer is the main character and you're the supporting cast. Focus on the specifics of the change – whether it's process, spend, or effort.

End with the data of the transformation and an invitation. We started with the results that a customer experienced, but normally that's one data point. In the conclusion I recommend bringing along the rest of the data so that you end strong. It's also the moment to invite the reader to learn more about your solution to see if they can experience the same kind of transformation.

It's a call to action and you shouldn't be afraid to be helpful. You've told a really compelling story. Wouldn't you want others to experience the same thing?

How long should a case study be?

The last thing I would tell you if we were sitting at a cafe, across from each other, talking about how to write a case study, would be the value of brevity.

You can't leave out any critical information, but if it takes someone 20 minutes to read it (or watch it), it's likely too long. Unless you're in a space that is so complex that it warrants that long.

Imagine we were talking. I went to tell you about one of my coaching clients. When I'm telling you the story of their transformation, it would normally take me 3 minutes to get the main stuff out. Then you might ask a question or two, and I'd add 2-3 more minutes. But if I can't make the case clearly in 5-6 minutes, I likely need to get more clear and more focused.

My suggestion is to not worry initially about it as you're writing the case study. But once you're done, edit it ruthlessly so that you know you have everything critical, and nothing more.

I hope that makes sense. And seeing as I try not to write crazy long posts, I'll wrap it up there and let you know that if you want to talk more, you can always reach out on Clarity (see the bottom of the page).

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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