The dos and don’ts of great business case study writing

Sarah Dillingham, founder of CaseStudyNinja.com, explains how to create winning case studies to showcase your business success

In this article, we're going to look at how to write a really attention grabbing, compelling case study that will help you leverage your proprietary knowledge and experience. A great case study is all about telling a success story – and people love to hear those!

Let’s start with the 5 Ws. These are fundamental: 

  • Who was involved? 
  • What happened? 
  • Where did it take place? 
  • When did it take place? 
  • Why did it happen? 

If you can open with these five items, the introduction virtually writes itself. It’s important to keep this brief. Remember, brevity is the soul of readability, and a sentence on each of these points will be perfectly adequate.

The main body of the case study can be divided into three main parts: 

  • The challenge that was faced 
  • The solution to that challenge 
  • The benefits gained

Let’s look at these in more detail. The challenge that was faced: what did the client want? What was the problem? This might not involve a client at all - it could be an internal problem that you solved, or an organisation-wide issue that the whole team had to pull together to solve. 

It’s important to check with the client what they thought the problem was here, too. Remember, when you have a hammer, all problems look like a nail. Use open-ended questions to elicit considered responses from clients.

The solution to that challenge: who was involved? How did you start? Did you have a clear solution in mind before you started? Or did it become apparent as you started to break the problem down? Was it even a problem that had a combination of solutions?

Again, check the client’s perception of what the solution was. If you’re a software provider, to you, all the solutions look like “providing software”. But for a client, that might only have been part of the solution. 

The benefits gained: in much the same way as we define a business risk, the outcome is crucial. Was the benefit financial? Reputational? Of value to the client, or your own organisation? Was it a total solution, or perhaps part of a larger one?

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell a neat success story: we want things to be simple, but they rarely are. Most of the projects I’ve worked on have had multiple failures along the road to success, and some of them have even failed altogether! Focus on the really important events: talk about how you overcame setbacks along the way, and remember that you’re the hero of the story.

You also need to focus on making it readable. It’s vital to avoid hyperbole: as soon as I see people talking about “Enterprise-class, world-leading solutions”, I switch off, and so will your readers.

Keeping it concise really helps people get to the end. Unless your case study features a multi-year, multi-workstream project that several hundred people were involved in, you need a word limit – try a maximum of 750 words, then see if you can take 10 per cent of the words away.

It’s a lot harder to write for tabloid newspapers than broadsheets, because you are obliged to use fewer – and simpler – words to tell the same story.

Case study dos and don’ts

Don’t throw it all together at the last minute.

Do allocate some time to developing your case study. Writing is only part of it. You will need extra time to find appropriate images, liaise with your client, and have colleagues review the draft case study.

Don’t pick a client at random. Find a satisfied client for whom you have delivered interesting, high value, strategic work. Make sure that they are comfortable providing a testimonial and that all parties involved are able to discuss the work.

It’s a good idea to start talking with your client about a possible case study before you finish the project. This helps accelerate the case study development process by early identification of any potential issues with internal sign off processes.

Don’t speak on behalf of your client or make assumptions about the benefits that you provided.

Do interview your client with open-ended questions, and listen to what they say.  You may be surprised about which parts of the delivery they value the most.

Don’t sell yourself so hard that you lose the narrative

Use a clear structure that includes the challenge, the solution and the impact of the work you delivered.

Keep the focus on how you worked with the client to improve things for them, and never lie or exaggerate your achievements.

Don’t confuse your audience with jargon or assume that they know what acronyms stand for

Do remember who your audience are and tailor your language appropriately. Avoid using business buzzwords or technical terms. Spell out any acronyms in full.

Don’t sound the same as your competitors

Do use your case study to differentiate yourself in the market.

The solution section is the perfect place to describe the unique attributes of your project approach.

If you can, talk about how you collaborated with your client to tackle their issue in an innovative way. It will make you stand out from the crowd.

Don’t forget to share the impact

Do include the positive outcome and benefits you delivered to your client and quantify them where possible.

Did you save the client money? Did you help them grow their business?

If so, can you give a number as to how much? If exact figures are confidential, consider using a percentage e.g. costs were reduced 25 per cent in the first month. Include this in the title of your case study too. ‘Company A saves Company B 25 per cent in costs’ has greater impact that ‘Company B cost reduction case study’.

Remember, case studies are used to provide evidence of your success to secure future engagement from your target audience.

Don’t take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to writing your case study.

Do tailor your case studies to appeal to different purposes and audiences. Will you be using the case study for a proposal, pitch, bid or general marketing?

If it’s the latter, you never know who might find your case study, and see an opportunity to engage your organization.

Don’t stick to text only case studies

Do consider creating a video case study. A client talking directly to camera about how you helped them is very powerful, and connects well with the audience.

Don’t make it difficult for interested people to engage with you

Do provide details of your website, email and phone number on your case study.