Three years ago, I wrote an article called Rethinking the Case Study that has, by far and away, outperformed the majority of the articles I’ve ever published here at Newfangled. Every week, hundreds of readers discover our site through that one article, presumably because they’ve asked Google how to write a better case study. In fact, since the day I published it back in 2013, around 36,000 unique visitors have read that one article. And, as cool as that sounds, I’ve felt less and less good about it, particularly in the last year.
On the one hand, it’s great! All those people, looking for advice on how to create what I believe is one of the most important marketing tools we have, are finding it here. That’s a lot of good will. And, without tooting my own horn, I imagine that many of them have applied our advice and found it to be effective. (I’ve actually gotten that feedback from many people with whom I’ve worked directly, but nothing near the tens of thousands I know have read it.) But on the other, things change. Ideas about what works and why change. Specifically, my thinking on what makes for the most effective case study has changed. And so, as time passes, I feel more and more driven to update that original article. To once again go on the record about what we believe to be the best practices for an agency case study. So that’s what this is. Rethinking the case study, again.
What Makes a Great Case Study
The core of my original article is pretty simple. For years, the majority of the case studies I encountered lacked vision. Many agencies prioritize the wrong things — the prestigious client name, the pretty pictures, the self-congratulation — while ignoring what enables a case study to do its job. I wanted to give agencies a better vision, and remind them that the many reasons for which they might write a case study — showing off an important account, flattering an existing client, pursuing an award — don’t come close to the importance of the one reason for which they should: generating new business. I still believe that. A great case study generates opportunity.
I stressed the value of process, too. Rather than sticking to the rote, problem, solution, outcome logic of many case studies, I urged telling a better story. I wanted agencies to use case studies to really show future clients what it was like to work with them. For most firms, the true value they offer is in who they are. They bring a unique perspective to age-old problems, and that’s what makes them good at what they do and attractive to prospects. I believe a great case study leverages that self-awareness and exposes a reader to the richness of what leads to great outcomes, not just the outcomes themselves. I still believe that, too. A great case study is just as much about the agency as it is about the problem, the solution, or the beneficiary of the solution.
In that original article, I built a long case for writing great case studies. But here’s the thing: an implicit requirement of a great case study according to my long case for them is that they are… long. The examples I referenced are epic. Thousands of words! And while I still value that approach and absolutely believe there’s a place for it, I want to recommend something that will be easier for an agency to achieve on a regular basis. So, not every case study need be so deep. A great case study can be quick, provided it has four core components, which I’ll review in a moment.
The most important area of shift for me, though, hasn’t been in terms of length or form. It’s been about the emphasis on impact. When I think about what makes a case study really great — about what makes it convincing to a prospect — it’s in how it demonstrates the value of the work you did. A great case study focuses on the impact of your expertise.
Impact is What Happens After
An outcome can often have far less meaning than the impact of the outcome. So, you made a website. And then what? You built a new identity for your client. Ok, and…? Those are just the things you made. They are the outcomes of what you sold the client. And that is the sort of outcome most case studies are about: What we did. But, the thing every prospect wants to know — more than who you are, more than what you did, even more than how you did it — is what happened after what you did. They care about the whole shebang, of course — because, yes, they have a problem and they need a solution — but they need to be shown possibilities. They need to receive a vision for what could be possible for them if you and they worked together. Tell them what it will mean to them to have worked with you. That is the kind of outcome you want to focus on, because that is impact.
A case study exists to frame the problem they have and that your service solves, describe the form your solution takes, and, most importantly prove its worth by documenting the results — the impact you’ve had on your client.
The results can come in two forms.
1. Your Proof
How do you prove the impact of your work? What needles are you trying to move? Can you measure this and show it to a prospect? If you think the answer is “no” right now, find a way to make it “yes.” A great case study includes a data-based accounting of the impact you had on your client. Did you increase sales? By how much? Prove it.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m more and more convinced that a case study that prefers an accounting of impactful outcomes — one that shows, with facts and figures — what our work produced for our clients will always sell our services better than the most elegant, thoughtful, and careful description of process. Why? Because people don’t buy processes, they buy promises. They don’t buy maps, they buy destinations.
2. Their Proof
No matter how good you are at selling yourself, you will never be as good a salesperson as the client for whom you’ve had the greatest impact. Assuming you’ve done good work and proven your impact, the most captivating element of a great case study will be the words of your happy client. So, always include a prominent testimonial that, too, focuses on impact.
It’s ok to ask a client for a testimonial, and even to ask them to speak specifically about a particular aspect of your work together. If you’ve had the impact you want to have, they’ll likely be eager to do anything they can for you.
The Impact of a Great Case Study
There is only one measure of a great case study. It’s not about unique pageviews, shares, comments, likes, or any of that. It’s about one thing: leads.
This one piece of content is the end of the road in our purposeful user flow (even if it’s also the beginning — and if that’s a riddle for you, start here), which means that we want the people who read it to do one thing, above all: convert. For those that begin their journey here, we want them to understand how the outcomes and impact we describe are connected to the services we offer. We want to graduate them from researchers to evaluators and qualified buyers. So we design our case study to make the importance of both of those things obvious, and acting on them simple and easy.
The most effective and convincing agency case studies have 4 key attributes:
- ~500+ words of indexable content with an editorial focus on the impact of your work
- A client testimonial
- An easily scannable list of related services. We don’t relate other case studies here. We want our prospects to transition from research mode to understanding how our business works, not get caught in a content cul de sac.
- A buyer-friendly call to action to set up a meeting, get in touch about a project, etc.
If you nail each of those four key qualifications, you won’t need to seduce readers with case studies that are thousands of words longer than anyone will read. By focusing on impact, you will attract the right kind of attention and efficiently make the best use of it.
Practice Makes Perfect
In my original article on writing case studies, not only did I begin with a confession — that, at the time of my writing, we lacked the very sort of case study I was urging our readers to write — but I updated the piece several times to link to examples we eventually wrote and were proud of. After all, one must practice what one preaches.
With that same spirit, I want to share with you two examples we currently have featured on our site. Both are the sort of case study I have come to value strategically; they stress the positive impact of our work on our clients’ ability to generate new business. That is our purpose, so proving that must be the purpose of our case studies. We plan on adding several more over the coming months, but one idea I wanted to close with is this: case studies are not evergreen content. As your business evolves — and as the market evolves, too — the relevance of your case studies will shift. That, of course, is no surprise. We have thousands of articles still accessible in our archive that, frankly, are no longer relevant. But there’s little reason to remove them. They speak to our history and the evolving thought we’ve contributed to our industry. But, if a case study describes a service or methodology no longer in employ, it makes good sense to no longer make it available. Keeping a deep archive of case studies, especially for a business that evolves as often as its industry, will only muddy the waters of your message and confuse your prospect. So, plan to write case studies regularly so that you have the ability to keep only those that best represent the reality of your work. And with that, I give you two examples: