Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Rethinking the Case Study

A Confession

We don't have any great case studies on our site.

I mean that. But we have done great work. So what's the problem here?

One obvious problem is time. Doing great work takes lots of time, which tends to not leave much left over to fill with writing about it. But everyone has that problem. The bottom line here: if it's important, you make time. Writing case studies is important, so why haven't we made the time? Well, it's tough to make time to do something without having vision for it.

And that's the other problem: vision. When I say "case study," I'm sure you have an immediate idea of what I'm talking about. Prestigious client name emblazoned at the top of the page. Big, shiny images of that pretty stuff you made for them. Lovefest text about how cool you think your client is. Testimonial from them about how awesome you are. Followed, of course, by a halfhearted writeup of what you actually did. You were either in such a rush to publish it for publicity's sake that you didn't even bother to measure results, or so bored with it that you didn't bother to frame it for SEO or promote it. Either way, the case study doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

No vision? No point.

Ok, so your vision problem may not be that bad. I know ours isn't. You do great work. You even stick around to evaluate it, and are honest and humble enough to admit when it didn't work. You dig in and fix it. But you don't tell that story, do you?

Perhaps it's simply a matter of not quite knowing how to make a case study as interesting and compelling as your usual thought leadership content. With that stuff, you can go all out on opinion; in a case study, opinion only matters if it gets results. So you don't see a lot of that in typical case studies. And because of that, you don't see many great case studies. You do see plenty of project writeups (like what we've got in our "Featured Projects" section), which are _fine_ (read: mediocre) but not great.

I saw something recently — something great — that has inspired me to change that. But more on that in a bit.

First, let's build a new vision.


What Case Studies Are For

That idea we have of what a case study is — and perhaps I was being a bit harsh earlier — isn't any good. But that's not really because we don't understand the elements of a case study. It's because we don't think clearly about why we are writing them in the first place.

Most of the time, we write a case study because we want the world to know that we landed an important account. It's about the name of the client and what it means that they were willing to work with us. If we made some pretty things, we of course want to show them off too. But in both cases, we're doing it to create an impression, either by name recognition or aesthetic seduction. And that's what we think sells.

You might get someone into your store by putting pretty things in the window, but if that impression doesn't hold up once they're inside, they're not going to stick around long enough to buy. Once they're inside, they need all kinds of reassurance to defeat the voice in their head telling them to hold on to their money: A trust-building connection with you. The chance to hold that thing you're selling and imagine what it might be like to own it. A good story about that thing that explains where it came from, why it's one of a kind, and how it's just as good as it looks. A promise that you'll make it right if that thing doesn't hold up.

Seduction is no more stable than a trap door held shut by twine. It's going to fall out from under your prospect. What can you offer them in the way of a soft landing?

Better yet, why not skip the seduction altogether?

That's what a good case study is for. It explains how you apply your expertise in the real world to potential customers that can relate to the problems you describe and understand the value of your solutions. It does this in detail — without seduction — covering:

  • the kinds of problems you are good at solving
  • how you probe and diagnose those problems
  • your ideas for solutions
  • how you test those solutions
  • how you evaluate their performance
  • how you execute the ones that hold up
  • how you handle setbacks
  • how you preserve forward momentum
  • how you manage your relationships

A good case study does all of that because its purpose is to court prospects, not praise past work. It must differentiate you from the other options an informed evaluator is considering. And by the way, sometimes an option is a competitor, sometimes it's the prospect themselves, sometimes it's no one. You must make the case that paying you is a better investment than paying a competitor, doing the work in-house, or not doing it at all.




What a Great Case Study Looks Like

A great case study is substantial, and it's going to look that way. Sure, it's going to have a strong aesthetic component. But the curb appeal your case studies need comes from more than just pretty pictures. It comes from being well organized so that its depth is appealing, not daunting. Long-form content lives and dies by formatting. It either eases a reader in, or is an instant TL;DR.

I've long advocated for a predictable problem → solution → outcome format to case studies. I still think that holds up, but with the detail a great case study requires, that format is probably a bit too simple to be applied literally in every case. Instead, this is what I've come up with as a structure that covers those three concepts, adequately supports the more subtle goals we've been examining, and gradually guides the reader from big picture to granular detail:

  1. Summary: This is a brief introduction of the engagement, with an emphasis on problem and outcome. It should sell the reader on the value of digging further into the details of your solution. Think of it as an elevator pitch (if not something Tweetable). If a prospect only read your summary, would they at least understand what you did and the value you believe it offered?
  2. Backstory: Think of this as the beginning, the once-upon-a-time part. You're setting up the case study by providing an introduction to its key players — you and your client — and your respective points of view. Remember, how you describe this relationship will make it easier or harder for a prospect to imagine themselves in a similar relationship with you.
  3. Problem: This is the simple part. What, exactly, were you hired to do? This hits on your expertise and your diagnostic and problem-solving skills.
  4. Solution: What did you do? This covers your process, your strategic prowess, your technical capabilities, your team dynamic, your style.
  5. Outcome: What were the results? Did you build a new audience? Strengthen and grow an existing one? Increase sales? Great. Data, please.
  6. Reflection: If a reader has stuck around to this point, you can trust them with a bit more vulnerability. Here's where you share the insights and voices of individual team members — planners, designers, developers, even your client — through brief, focused reflections on the job. What worked? What didn't? What doubts did you have? What surprised you? What would you have done differently had you more time or more knowledge at the beginning? What did you learn and how will you use that knowledge in the future? This, really, is the most important and substantial piece of the puzzle for a prospect. If they're seriously evaluating, they've probably heard plenty in the problem → solution → outcome department, but your honest and sincere reflection upon it will be what helps them get to know you and want to work with you.

Remember, a case study is a sales tool.

Oh, and by the way, I'd recommend using a little editorial savvy here when it comes to titles. Unless your client's name is so well known that the nature of their problem and your solution could be discerned by the sort of person you want as a client simply by hearing it, go for client-agnostic titles. Something like that describes what you did and the kind of client you did it for. Something like, "Launching a Worldwide Campaign to End Hunger," rather than "We Worked With UNICEF." The idea is to make the case study a mirror for your prospect. (If your client is that name-droppable, you probably don't need to worry about writing case studies to attract prospects who don't yet know you exist.)


A Practical Plan for Writing Great Case Studies

Writing a great case study sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Even if we've got the vision problem worked out, time remains a significant obstruction. So what gives? As I confessed at the beginning of this article, we haven't mastered this yet either. So, here's what we're planning to do:

First, we're going to produce two types of case study. One will be the sort I've described here — I'll call it the long-form case study — and the other will be a briefer format, similar to the case studies we've already published. The goal here is both to represent the depth of what we do, as well as to keep up with our actual productivity. Neither format can handle that alone; we need a combined strategy to best achieve our content goals. Here's a breakdown of how each type will be produced:

Long-Form Case Study

  • Frequency: Quarterly
  • Length: 1,500 - 3,000 words (i.e. newsletter length)
  • Target persona: Researcher, Evaluator
  • Strategic focus: Aspirational; about the kinds of work we want to do more

Short-Form Case Study

  • Frequency: Bi-Monthly
  • Length: ~500 words
  • Target persona: Evaluator, Buyer (remember some important personas will never read a very long case study, so the short ones remain important)
  • Strategic focus: Representative; about the kinds of work we currently do routinely

That's our current commitment: Up to ten case studies a year, four of which are of comparable heft to an article like this one, and the remaining six a much lighter effort. Altogether, potentially adding 15,000 words of expertise-focused, buying-cycle-friendly content. It's ambitious, but we're going to do our best to make it happen. We've got the vision, the plan, and the will to make the time we'll need to do the work.


About that confession…

I don't normally write articles like this. It's risky. I've laid out a standard here that we have yet to meet ourselves, which I realize must sound a lot like the Dad who snarls "Don't smoke!" just as he's lighting up.

Actually, I wanted to avoid it ending like that. I wanted to end with something like, "Hey, remember that confession? Well, I lied. We do have one good case study on our site now, which I just wrote. Check it out…" That would have been great, but I'd have had to rush finishing the case study I am writing right now. It's almost there, but not quite ready to accompany this piece. But I promise you, it's coming soon. I've put my time where my mouth is and am hard at work trying to write a case study that comes close to being as good as it should be.

Update (03/10/2014): Since I wrote this, we've written three long, detailed case studies:

I mentioned earlier that I'd seen something recently that inspired this new approach. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the website for Teehan+Lax, a digital agency in Toronto that has truly made an art of the long-form case study. In fact, their site is mostly just a collection of long, detailed, interesting, inspiring — great — case studies. Like this one, and this one, and this one. You should read them. But be warned: in addition to making use of all of the elements I've discussed so far, they are beautiful. Really, really beautiful. So beautiful that you might be tempted to think that it's their design, not their content, that makes them great. You might even be thinking, Chris, after all of that hard talk about seduction, you send me here?! Well, I won't deny that the visual presentation of these case studies makes a powerful impression, and certainly helps readers focus their attention enough to stay the course over a long read. But it's the substance of these case studies that I want you to study. I wouldn't want you to conclude that this sort of content is impossible for you to do just as well, simply because you can't match Teehan+Lax's design. (So you know: I'm intending to publish our case studies using the same template we're using today, though I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't love to create something just as custom as they have.) 

If you're motivated to make case studies a core platform of your content marketing, I recommend you become a student of their website just as I have.


Dan | August 11, 2014 7:53 AM
Great article Chris. seems like everybody understands the benefits of case studies but many people struggle to write it.
I recently created a services to give these people option to get professional-made case study without the hustle..
Would really appreciate your feedback on this idea.
darbe otomatic | April 26, 2014 7:32 AM
Mark, thanks for sharing a window into your process! It sounds like you've done a lot of research to get here.

Blair Enns mentioned Newfangled in his latest Win Without Pitching webinar, on adding Perspective to positioning. There are a few other agencies out there that have been bold enough to say "it's not about building websites anymore" but this particular article helps Newfangled own a unique, leading perspective on the topic.
Bart | August 27, 2013 2:17 PM
Great article, thanks for sharing it with us. I learned a lot from it ;)
David Lecours | August 20, 2013 5:59 PM
More gorgeous Case Studies: #jealous
David Lecours | August 20, 2013 4:29 PM
This is such a good post, Chris, that I'm trying to reverse engineer why. I've concluded that you've done what you recommend. You made yourself vulnerable by sharing that the current Newfangled case studies aren't as great as you'd prefer. You've then outline an inspiring vision of core elements for a great case study. I've been putting off writing case studies (the usual reasons). This post is inspiring me to take action. Thank you.
Shayna | August 7, 2013 5:16 PM
Was hoping to find a link to the case study you mentioned you were working on...any chance it's up and I'm just missing it? Great article, even if you guys don't have one up yourselves yet, you managed to really thoughtfully and clearly articulate the process, what not to do and provide a clear outline that's truly helpful. I frequently find that just breaking a project down into the elements an putting them in a sensible timeline (while keeping it concise) is the hardest part!
Tony MacFarlane | June 28, 2013 3:28 PM
Great article! I am using it as the backbone of my content marketing strategy. Trouble is, I am stuck with what to with my CSs once I've written them. Help!

I mean, what do I do to market them? Should I make them a printable file (PDF) and offer them like a honeypot? I've got no reason to, except to track traffic. I would just be sending them to people who have already opted in. I suppose if I wanted to capture more opt-ins with these CSs, I could launch an ad campaign. Then I'd keep the landing pages behind a subscription form.

Or should I make them HTML, freely accessible for anyone? I could still blast out a teaser, and use each CS as a landing page. But then I've lost a call-to-action, but I can always bank on an SEO improvement.

Any ideas? Resources?
Robert Friedman | June 19, 2013 12:14 PM
Great post, Christopher. I've learned a lot from Blair Enns who advocates that agencies must do a great job of articulating their expertise. I believe they have to do that through thought leadership pieces and case studies. Without case studies, how will a client know that you walk the walk? I've personally been frustrated many times when evaluating "experts" who don't do a good job of presenting their own work. Of course, you're right ... it's a lot of hard work and it takes significant commitment to get it done.

For my own website, I've taken the strategy of interviewing clients and letting them tell the story of their project in their own words. I set up a structure: Why did you need help? What was it like to work together? What are your reactions to the work? What business results are you seeing as a result of the work?

Graeme ends his comment "Writing is hard." That is SO true. Writers have to work so hard to make reading easy.
Graeme Roberts | June 17, 2013 9:32 AM
I agree, Adedoyln. So much depends on the craft of the writer, including humor. It is storytelling, and we look for the elements of a good story - plot, crisis, protagonist, villain and victory. So many case studies are flat, turgid recitations of product features and benefits. Writing is hard.
Adedoyin Kassem | June 17, 2013 5:19 AM
Great post Chris! However I just need to add one lil' thing you might have overlooked in the concept behind the group "teehanlax" - these lads are great storytellers!

I have been a lover of their works for a couple of years (even before they got all fancy with pixels and css-transitions), I guess the main thing we should note here is, to have a case study that works across board, there is need for a creative copywriter with an unusual sense of humor. For me that's what make Teehanlax's case studies better than others I have seen in a long while...

Lovely post though!!!
Christopher Butler | June 12, 2013 12:56 PM
Thanks, everyone, for reading and taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments!

Deanna: I'm not sure what you mean here. Are you saying that your prospects are more likely to read a case study that uses a project as a more general launching point for a discussion of business challenges that your firm can solve? Otherwise, I'm not sure what a case study would be other than an explanation of a specific challenge one of your clients faced.

David: I think a headline is a good place to think editorially — what's going to grab the attention of a reader (while also at least accurately framing the content — the challenge and the client) rather than being explicit/specific or overly keyword-y about the contents of the case study (like a title tag might be). As for a call to action, I'm in agreement. Further immersion and/or get in touch are probably the right way to go.
Beth Barbee | June 12, 2013 11:37 AM
Loved this article! I've struggled with writing case studies forever, and love the honest and fresh thinking you've shared. Thank you!
Alex | June 12, 2013 9:49 AM
I appreciate the honest - we definitely suffer from that same problem. You spend so much time solving problems, designing and coding that it's tough to step back and document that process in a truly insightful way.
Danielle Kristmanson | June 12, 2013 2:23 AM
OK Chris...the gauntlet has been thrown down. First agency to a T&L like case study wins. I swear though, between my new blog posts, newsletters, white papers, webinars and now beautifully produced long-form case studies, I'm gonna have to fire a client or two to free up some internal creative resources. ;-)
Michelle | June 12, 2013 12:10 AM
Fantastic article, and very honest. I write case studies as well, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. Thanks for giving me something to think about!
David | June 11, 2013 9:41 PM
Hi Chris - agree with your format thoughts. It would also be interesting to hear your thoughts on the content side of things - e.g what's in the headline - is it a testimonial grab, or a client/solution grab. Ending the case study with a call to action or invitation to read more about the company's solutions is also a good idea.
Deanna Harms | June 11, 2013 6:13 PM
I personally like your approach, but the clients I've been working with lately seem to prefer a very brief overview of the case study's challenge and the solution – then move on to THEIR challenge.
Michael Dale | June 11, 2013 1:00 PM
A great article Chris. It's an approach which we are working on ourselves to replace the portfolio style of presentation which only ever touches the surface of what we do. I think it gives client prospects confidence in the experience + process = results equation. The T+L examples are good. Nurun do it well too. I agree with the previous comments plus some clients are not comfortable about sharing too much detail on how they arrived at a solution.
Graeme Roberts | June 11, 2013 10:07 AM
Great ideas and advice, Chris. Newfangled has always excelled at building well-deserved trust, by being consistently honest and open, and very generous in sharing what you've learned.

You refer to two big challenges in writing case studies: the human concerns of clients about looking bad, and the extent to which we can reveal our own missteps and shortcomings without turning a sales generator into a sales killer. A subtle balance in both cases!

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