The most famous, albeit fictional, case study writer must be Dr. John Watson, companion to master detective Sherlock Holmes and chronicler of his most celebrated cases. But if Holmes’ opinions of Watson’s accounts are anything to go by, he would be a terrible client to write case studies for.

Watson’s case studies are wildly successful: Many of Holmes’ clients only decided to seek his help after reading Watson’s accounts in The Strand Magazine – proving the effectiveness of a well-written and compelling case study.

Despite this, Holmes regularly criticizes Watson’s writing, failing to understand the purpose Watson’s case studies serve.

I wonder how many case-study writers can relate.

Welcome to 221B Baker Street. Hand Mrs. Hudson your coat, ignore the bullet holes in the wall, and please fill your pipe from the Persian slipper by the mantle, as we attempt to crack the case study … umm … case, with a little help from the world’s most famous consulting detective.

The game is afoot!

The case of the forgotten audience

“I was irritated by the egotism which seemed to demand that every line of my pamphlet should be devoted to his own special doings.”
Watson: The Sign of Four

In the Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Holmes attempts to pen his own case study for once. In it, he accuses Watson of focusing on the superficial and “pandering to popular taste,” instead of clinically documenting the facts and figures that celebrate Holmes’ unique investigative talents and scientific method.

In short, the interests of Watson’s readership are of no concern to Holmes.

I’m sure we’ve all read case studies that appear focused more on internal brand concerns (and egos), instead of the potential customer hoping to learn what it’s actually like to use the product or service. Such case studies seem intended solely to tick a box on the standard content shopping list (quality optional), provide a favor to a client (relevance optional), or please internal stakeholders by heaping praise on the brand (evidence optional).

Case studies are commonly treated more as copywriting deliverables than content creation challenges, says @Kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

I shouldn’t have to say this, but case studies aren’t just a few pages of web copy to be knocked out alongside the brand’s product descriptions and about-us blurbs. Yet more than a few of the case studies I’ve written came about because of a website rebuild where case studies were found to be out of date (or non-existent). They began as web copy projects, not content marketing projects – treated more as copywriting deliverables than content creation challenges. And as any writer to have worked both sides of that fence will tell you, the results can be very different.

When stakeholders are consumed with the design and UX considerations of the website as a whole, less attention and time are given to the individual demands of lower priority pages. Certainly, there isn’t as much focus on unearthing sufficiently detailed clues to what a potential customer might actually want from those case studies.

What common concerns should they allay? What typical scenarios should they illustrate? What proof points should they include?

Of course, plenty of creative and content marketing briefs struggle with this too, but usually for different reasons. Either way, this oversight is more than a minor miscalculation: It’s a fatal flaw that can murder any potential value it might hold.

Time for a bit of detective work.

Piecing together the evidence

“Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”
Holmes: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Like Watson’s detective yarns, case studies are stories. And the best stories are built on detail. Lots of detail. Specific detail. Clearly explained detail.

One of my biggest challenges when writing case studies is getting enough such detail to weave a sufficiently compelling story.

A case study needs to say a lot more than surface-level information on what the product or service does, even if it’s a customer doing the talking. Your website, advertising, and other marketing materials should already have those claims covered – repeatedly.

So, if your selling point is, “It saves you money,” don’t give the reader another 1,000 words that ultimately boil down to, “It saved me money.” The reader wants to know how much, how quickly, how easily.

An effective case study is one that shows, not tells. The reader should understand that your product or service is “efficient” not because the customer parrots the subjectively vague claim, but because the story of their experience screams efficiency without the writer once using the word.

With any luck, your writer will be able to conduct a customer interview to tease out the specifics of their experience, along with some measurable results. In my experience, that isn’t always the case. I’ve spent days trying to piece together the customer’s history over email – sometimes through a third party, such as an account manager or PR contact (not recommended). This approach continually proves the rule I now hereby define as Crossfield’s Law:

When sending an email containing three or more detailed questions, the reply will always ignore the most interesting, pertinent, or essential one.

The not uncommon assumption is that the customer will provide all the necessary detail, so there shouldn’t be any need to pester sales for additional information (which they likely haven’t recorded in the CRM anyway).

Here’s my issue with this: The customer interview isn’t the best time to discover the story might not be that remarkable, the results not that newsworthy, or the use case not that representative of the audience you want to reach.

Regardless, 1,000 words still need to be written by Friday; so, your content creator has little choice but to smudge over the uncompetitive results, leave out the bit where they couldn’t explain the key feature properly, and pretend that train wreck of a question about customer support never happened. What little is left is then padded out to meet the word count with the usual vague claims, product info, and unique selling propositions until no one is really sure what the piece is meant to say.

In short: vetting matters.

Speaking of which …

Managing the memoirs of customer success

“For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information.”
Watson: A Scandal in Bohemia

Ideally, the process for identifying an illustrious client or ideal customer to approach for a case study should be a bit more strategic than asking Tim in customer support if he remembers anyone “particularly friendly” who is local and likely to say yes to an interview.

But that was exactly the process (I use that term loosely) that I encountered when I began writing case studies for one particular client. Marketing would send out an email blast asking for suggestions of customers to approach. The replies that trickled in would contain a name, some transactional info copied from the CRM, and little context on why this customer had been singled out. And because marketing hadn’t given much thought to what stories it wanted to tell or what information it wanted to include, many suggestions became dead ends.

Given that sales wanted case-study content to send to specific customers, I needed to give them more ownership of the process – and a mechanism to say, “This story is what we need, and this is why.”

The better approach I was looking for came by way of a simple, one-page form that could be filled out by anybody in the organization who came across a customer story worth telling. They could use the form to quickly jot down the pertinent details while they were still top of mind, then save it to a shared folder. Over time, the individual documents grew into a large pool of detailed stories, which case study writers could draw from, as needed.

In addition to the customer’s basic contact info and account details, the form contained a handful of customized fields that helped capture the story behind the sale. With just a few words entered in each field, the write received vital clues for planning their interrog … umm … interview, connecting the dots, and cracking the case (study).

Explore customer satisfaction surveys and NPS data to find high-value stories worthy of deeper investigation, says @Kimota via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

Then, there’s the case to be made for widening your investigations beyond the usual suspects. For example, there may be highly satisfied customers who aren’t on the sales or support teams’ radar because there are no complaints or problems causing them to reach out for assistance. CRM records might shed light on the lead-up to a satisfying purchase or closed deal but would have little to say about the experience beyond that point.

One way to uncover those high-value stories that might otherwise be invisible to sales or support is to mine customer satisfaction surveys and Net Promoter Score (NPS) responses, seeking out any glowing responses worthy of further investigation.

Of course, there will always be some questions left unanswered or some missing information to track down. But having some clear processes in place changes requests for case-study subjects from a reactive and unreliable memory test into a proactive, all-of-business activity. It also enables case studies to become an ongoing content output, with new case studies published every few weeks – either for the website or as sales-enablement tools that support specific propositions or address certain questions.

The final problem

“When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases … I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave.”
Watson: The Five Orange Pips

Once you have a growing index of potential case-study suspects, how do you prioritize which stories to tell?

Just as you would do for any other content piece created to satisfy a specific informational need, it’s a good idea to document your strategic criteria for separating the exceptional cases from the rudimentary and for selecting the most appropriate customer voices to use. For example:

  • What aspect of your product or service do you want to highlight or demonstrate?
  • Is there a specific persona or use case you want to target?
  • Can you access enough information – such as benchmarked results – to back up the claims you include?
  • What is the key point you want the reader to learn?

Depending on your business, you might include other criteria to rule out the irrelevant, highlight the remarkable, and inform pertinent questions during each interview to get to the heart of the matter.

The great detective would approve. And it is to Sherlock Holmes that we must give the final word:

“I am compelled to admit that, having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader.”

Case closed.

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