What makes a great case study?

The case study is the short story of the business world. It’s a one-to-two page business story that compels the reader to contact you because they now desire the same experience – the same result that the case study presents.  You could also say a case study is a portrait of a profitable relationship between your company and a customer.

Case studies create credibility by showcasing a real world example of a product or service in action. At Write2Market, we’ve had clients who remarked that our case studies make the difference in winning large RFPs with national clients such as GE and Boeing. That’s the gold standard in case study writing, and it’s the method we recommend.

Key elements of great case studies

Research the context of the case. How exactly did you help the customer? What did the customer need? How did your solution affect them?  What’s the larger business trend in play? Is there third party research that validates the trend?

Interview your customer after you are well prepared. Go straight to the source. Happy customers make the best interview subjects. Let them feel good about what they got and brag about the decision they made.

Organize your case study around the reader’s pain points—the reader is your NEXT customer. Why would this example be important to anyone else? Which solutions are being provided?

Quantify the business scenario, using solid numbers when possible. Put a dollar on the value of the service you provided and define the ROI in detail.

Eliminate any information that will not directly appeal to the reader. Boil down a successful client-customer interaction so that readers will be interested in your company.

The professional approach to case study writing

PROCESS OVERVIEW:

1.  Research and background gathering – includes interviewing the customer
2. Organizing the information around the reader’s pain points
3. Drafting, revising and editing 

RESEARCH

Don’t be afraid to double back and take your time. As you start asking questions, new, valuable, informed questions will occur to you. Trust your instincts and remember that too much information is a good problem to have.

A. Determine your ideal reader and their needs. Readers want meat from beginning to end. Your case must be compelling, relevant, and interesting to the reader over all. The reader is your target market.

• Who is your market? The CEO or the accountant?

• What is their work life like? Are they constantly pulled in a million directions?

• How stressed are they, and about what? What are they responsible for? What is going on in their market right now?

• What pains them about their work day? What aspects would they like to change?

• What are the PAIN POINTS for our target audience?

• What is their ROLE in buying your product or service?

• How much TIME do they tend to spend on a purchase like this?

• What sorts of things are most likely to DISTRACT them?

CEOs, for example, NEED confidence in their relationships with the board of directors. They NEED more TIME because their days seem OVERSCHEDULED. They NEED clear and accurate reports about their company. State your readers’ NEEDS and tune the story to those needs. If your audience are CEOs at midmarket firms, cite the features that save time, make it easier to communicate financial data, make it easier to see warning signs, and make it easier to see real time company financial performance with simple reports. The NEEDS of your reader provide the outline of your case study. Use the information that is important to the reader because it addresses their “pain.” Inform the reader, without wasting their time. Keep it relevant to them.

B. Read up on the industry. Every industry has its buzzwords and concerns. Arm yourself with any top of mind issues facing your industry and customers. Also read your competitors’ websites.

C. Develop questions for the interviews.  Focus on the reader’s needs, and how your client meets them in the specific case of “this case study.” Ask how your company solved their problem in both tangible and intangible ways. Quantify the solution.
• Did our solution save you time? How much time? Get a number.
• Did our solution save you money? How much money? Get a number.
• Did our solution protect an asset or mitigate a risk? How disastrous?
• Did our solution allow you to redeploy some of your workforce on core?

Your case study will only be as good as the answers to your questions. Often the customer loves our service or product for reasons we don’t even realize. Encourage the customer to brag about themselves and their sharpness in finding, and buying, our offering. Probe for the real reasons why working with your company is so satisfying. This will create buying triggers.

Don’t leave an interview without some quantifiable number. You do not want a case study filled with phrases like “a lot” of money. Readers are suspicious of language like this and numbers give you credibility.

D. Schedule and Conduct interviews.  While some interview subjects are so laid back all you have to do is pick up the phone and get an interview, others are busy and prefer you schedule them a week in advance. Go with the flow—remember the interview subject is making time as a favor to you. Gently let them know the case will reflect well on them, their industry, and their employer. 

Remind your interview subject with a friendly email before the call and include some of your interview questions in the email so they are able to mentally prepare to talk with you. Never quote someone without approval. Even if your interview does not specifically ask to see what you’ve written, send an email containing the quote and a request for permission.

ORGANIZATION AND MUST HAVES

As you review your case study, make sure you have incorporated some of the following hallmarks of superior work:

1. Good storytelling. While you don’t want to waste time with superfluous exposition, you also don’t want a dry story with nothing happening. You can hear how proud the interview subject is, of him or herself, for choosing your company. Use that to tell a really great motivational story.

2. A lead quote or testimonial.  Use a quip from an interviewed source that is repeated within the body of the text.

3. A results summary.  This includes three or four benefit or advantage statements—high-level bullets that explain the meat of the case. These should showcase how your company helped the firm in the case study. These points should appeal to the READERS’ needs.

4. A challenge or problem summary that explains the problem to the reader, using a point of view that empathizes with the reader.

5. A compelling, interesting title – the answer to a need  you KNOW the reader has.

6. “About Us” section. This is one paragraph about the company, including a few notable facts and contact information.

7. A call to action. Each case study should encourage the reader to respond to something specific. Many times, these are in the left or right margin of the case study or at the bottom. “Increase your own dog food sales. Contact a Wildwood representative at 888.232.7777;” “Take charge of Board of Directors meetings. Download an AccountPro demo at www.accountproD.com.”

EXAMPLE:

Your company is a dog food manufacturer, Wildwood Foods. You want to increase sales through the boutique pet shop market, so you write some case studies about how your product works in these types of stores. You select a customer, Blue’s Dogs and Togs. Which advantage statement is NOT reader-centric, and would not make it to your final case?

a. Wildwood foods became the bestselling brand in the store almost immediately, increasing overall dog food sales 20% in all four of Blue’s locations.

b. Wildwood’s coupon program increased food traffic to Blue’s 15% last quarter, resulting in a substantial sales increase of dog food—but also treats, toys, baked goods and impulse items.

c. Sales of Wildwood foods to boutique pet shops doubled from $500,000 to $1 million in 2007.

d. Profitability on each sale increased an average of 10% because Wildwood monitors its own shelf space, keeping the store’s administrative overhead down.

The “c” statement—that sales of Wildwood doubled—has impressive numbers but should not make it to your final case. While it’s true, the reader—presumably a pet shop owner—doesn’t care about THAT.

SEE IT AT WORK

Following are some samples – and you can find many examples of Write2Market–style case studies on our web site.

CASE STUDY SAMPLES

SAMPLE A

Title: National Fuel Program Cuts Costs, Improves Quality

Pull quote: “They have become a one-stop-shop for all of our fuel and logistics needs…” Frank Martin, VP of Maintenance, Durham School Services, a division of National Express Corporation.

The Results

  • Best pricing on fuel. Durham uses 600,000 gallons per month, saving an average of $.15 per gallon over retail. This translates to an annual savings of $1.1 million.
  • Savings through service. TopGrade manages garagedoor.repair, minimizing downtime and assuring the job is done right. Durham has decreased maintenance costs on average by over 15%.
  • Greater efficiencies through using one vendor. By using one vendor, efficiencies are gained by minimizing data entry, standardized invoicing, as well as volume pricing.
  • Cost control through better inventory management. Durham knows how much fuel they have, where it is and when they are using it, avoiding run-outs. If tanks are dry and they need to purchase fuel retail, their fuel costs rise an average of 7%.

The Challenge

As one of the largest providers of school transportation systems, Durham operates in 28 states. Internal growth and rising fuel costs are just two reasons they sought efficiencies through a national fuel program. But first they needed to find a vendor who could operate where they did. “We have locations that are very rural, some that are suburban, and some in the inner city. We needed to find fuel suppliers and deliverers that could meet our needs,” shared Martin.

He also needed a company that understood regulations by state and area. Durham wanted assistance with all facets of their fuel management: fuel delivery, fuel brokerage, environmental assistance, inventory management, data gathering and analysis, and maintenance. They needed all of this without sacrificing quality. They turned to TopGrade, the one company who could deliver.

The TopGrade Full Service Solution

By setting up a national fuel program with TopGrade, Durham was able to stabilize their rising fuel costs. “Because we bid on fuel in 3-5 year contracts, working with TopGrade has had a huge impact on our fuel costs,” said Martin. With the most comprehensive fuel network in the nation, TopGrade has supply and distribution agreements with all the major refiners. By tracking over 200,000 price changes daily, they can offer Durham best prices on a quality product.

 “A quality product from TopGrade gives us the comfort of knowing the fuel is quality, the additive is quality, and the maintenance costs related to poor quality fuel won’t be there.” Providing quality fuel is just one way that TopGrade helps Durham control costs and meet environmental compliance. They also provide automated tank gauging (ATG) that monitors tank inventory, detects leaks, and assures the system operates within regulatory guidelines.

Control your rising fuel costs through a national fuel program. Contact TopGrade at 1-800-555-5555 to find out how today.

SAMPLE B

Heartland Capital Group Helps Rural Hospitals Improve Communities with More

 “Heartland Capital Group was an integral part of the team that made this dream of building our new 54,000 square foot hospital a reality. The process was amazingly simple. This is the perfect example of how having the right people executing a project of this magnitude makes all the difference.” ― Jack Pierce, Chairman of the Board, St. James Health Services, St. James, Minn.

The Challenge

The Board of Directors at SJHS knew it was time for an overhaul of their rural community hospital. Some areas were suffering from leaks so severe that plastic swimming pools were positioned in the hallways to capture rainwater. The board knew that the USDA backed loans at excellent rates to rural hospitals, but also knew getting federal approvals would be a difficult, time-consuming task. They turned to Heartland Capital Group and their partner Morgan Keegan for help.

 The Results

• Major new 54,000 foot hospital for St. James, Minnesota

• $16 million dollar loan secured at competitive rates

• Hassle-free loan process completed in just a few months

• Hassle-free bond offering lowered overall cost of debt

• Loan guaranteed by USDA

The team at Heartland Capital Group made it possible for St. James Health Services in St. James, Minn., to obtain a USDA-backed $16 million dollar loan at ccbank with rates comparable to a tax-exempt loan, St. James Health Services (SJHS) grand opening of their new 54,000 plus square foot facility is scheduled for early December 2007 and will feature state of the art medical technology to provide their rural community with the best possible care.

“I never thought it was possible to take our facility from an antiquated, inefficient facility to serving our rural area with a state of the art hospital ― but thanks to the team with Heartland Capital Group, we’ll open our new facility in just a few months! ”― Jack Pierce, Chairman of the Board, St. James Health Services, St. James, Minn.

The Goals

St. James was clear about their goals for the new facility: 

  • To replace the current hospital (built in 1957 as an in-patient hospital) with a new facility focusing on outpatient care with cutting-edge technologies to serve the community.
  • To build the new facility without having a referendum to raise taxes in the small, rural community.
  • To secure a USDA-backed loan for $16 million dollars at rates comparable to a tax-exempt loan to rebuild and replace their current facility.

The Solution

On behalf of the St. James community, Heartland Capital Group, through their partnership with Morgan Keegan, worked closely with the USDA to secure a loan that covered the construction costs of the new building. The rural financing experts at Heartland managed all the local and federal approvals for the loan.

“Heartland Capital Group specializes in rural hospitals, giving us a unique perspective on the needs, concerns and staffing constraints faced by rural hospitals,” said Michael Nance, with Heartland Capital Group. “Our goal is to work with these hospitals to help them serve their communities by improving their facilities and technologies through loans with favorable interest rates and a simplified process.”

Heartland Capital Group can help your hospital ― and community ― reach their health care goals. In fact, our recently published article, “How to Break Ground On Your New Facility”, is available for download. For more information on helping your community grow, visit www.heartlandcapitalgroup.com.