Anatomy of a Case Study

Okay, I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news, and conveniently, they happen to be the same thing: There’s no one “correct” way to write a case study. That’s good because it gives you a lot of flexibility to create a marketing tool to meet your specific needs; it’s bad because it gives you an almost unlimited number of ways to tell the customer story. This can lead to frustration at best, and all out writer’s block at worst.

Fortunately, to make your job easier, almost every case study has four (sometimes five) basic sections. If you break these down and approach the case study section by section, your job will be a whole lot easier.

The Four (Sometimes Five) Basic Parts of a Case Study

Grade school English teachers have always tried to teach their students that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same is true for case studies, with a few slight differences. Here are the four basic parts of a case study, with a fifth section that can be a nice to have, in very particular, “case study story” order:

1. About – If you were writing a regular story, this would be like the prologue. It provides context for the reader by introducing the customer and setting the stage for the rest of the case study. It includes details about the customer, such as what the company does, when it was founded, where it’s headquartered, how many offices and/or employees it has, and its annual revenue.

You can use a company’s existing boilerplate or “About Us” web text as the basis for this section, but don’t just copy and paste it into your case study. Not only is it lazy, it’s also plagarism, which is always a big no-no in any type of writing. Besides that, it probably contains too much fluff and might be poorly written. Stick to the facts and keep this section short.

2. Challenge – This is beginning of the case study. It introduces the company and one or two major obstacles the business was facing that prevented it from achieving some important goal. To be most effective, the section should also make those obstacles seem universal, as if anyone—including the prospective customer reading the case study—might face them as well.

3. Solution – This is the middle portion of the case study story. Here is where you talk about how the customer company found you, which products or services it selected and why, and how its team rolled them out across the business. In this section, you should also talk about specific features or functionalities that appealed to this particular customer and why.

4. Results (or Benefits) – This is the end of the case study, the part where you explain how the products or services described in the solution section solved the problems presented in the challenge section. It’s also where you should talk about benefits, whether they’re hard—including percentages and other metrics, like “boosted revenue by 63 percent”—or “soft,” such as “saved time” or “increased peace of mind.”

Whether you use “Results” or “Benefits,” or even something like “Awesomeness Achieved,” is up to you. Just consider your audience and what might appeal to them most.

5. Future (or Next Steps) – Some novels have afterwords, sections that wrap up or add to a story after the actual ending. Likewise, some case studies also include a “Future” or “Next Steps” section, where customers talk about upcoming initiatives or make other forward-looking statements about how your products or services will be an essential part of their business in the future. Just like an afterword in a novel, this section is nice to have, but isn’t crucial to the overall story.

I go into this in greater detail in a different post, but effective case studies also include call-out sections that summarize the major points explored in the story. Basically, this is the “too long; didn’t read” summary of the whole document.

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Filed under about section, challenge section, future section, results section, solution section

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