What Is a Case Study?
Get Answers in Our Definitive Guide
What is a Case Study? … and how does its customer success-story format work to bring in more business leads and sales? In our definitive guide we explore why case studies are such an effective sales tool and why companies are so eager to include them in their marketing arsenal.
A case study is a “before and after” examination in story format of how a customer solved a problem or challenge by using a company’s product or service.
People love a good story.
A great novel, movie or play can do a lot more than just entertain us. It taps into our emotions and capacity for empathy, leaving a lasting impression on the audience.
It's the reason why stories play a huge role in any sales process.
And, it’s one of the many reasons the demand for content-based marketing by businesses has never been higher.
Case studies are compelling, real-world "before and after" stories that describe how a company or organization solved a challenge with a product or service — and what the results of solving that challenge were.
Most case studies follow the same basic formula, making them easy to write:
- Identify the customer.
- Describe the problem the customer needed to solve.
- Explain how the customer made the decision to move ahead with the solution.
- Detail the outcome — the customer’s positive experience with the product or service.
- Highlight the benefits and results.
Case studies are typically two pages (800 to 1,200 words) in length, but they can be as long as four pages.
Case studies use the marketing principle, “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Marketing case studies adhere to the basic principle (used in both marketing and fiction), “Show, don’t tell.”
Rather than telling someone what a product or service can do, you show them how it works and the benefits they can expect. And, by using real stories from customers who are like the prospect (who can relate to the same problem or challenge), you're able to incorporate a high level of proof and credibility into your materials.
For example, instead of telling a prospect, “Our widget will result in a return on investment (ROI) of 167% within the first year,” you actually SHOW the steps taken by a customer who benefited by using your widget to achieve a 167% ROI.
Want to learn more about writing case studies?Check out AWAI’s 9-step process for writing powerful case studies. In it we outline the proven formula for writing winning case studies and include plenty of examples and analysis to make sure you understand every step of the process.
Why is a case study such a powerful marketing tool?
According to Content Marketing Institute’s and MarketingProfs’ “B2B Content Marketing 2018” report, 73% of B2B businesses use case studies as a marketing tactic, which is second only to social media content (94%).
Case studies are so heavily used and valued, because they …
Tell a story — Stories are the most powerful way to implement the “show, don’t tell” principle. People love stories. We think in stories. Stories inspire and delight us. Stories are memorable. Presenting a prospective customer with facts and statistics can feel cold and methodical. But, when you wrap those facts and statistics in a customer success story, you build a connection with your reader that results in an emotional response.
Ed Gandia, author of Writing Case Studies says, “True stories are messy, multilayered and complex. However, a good case study writer will take the best elements of a story and weave them into a clean and simple plot structure. They’ll present the conflict early in the story, build tension and show how that conflict was resolved in the end. We’re wired to respond to this type of storytelling, and a good case study should follow this proven format.”
- Build credibility — Technical details, features and benefits show whether something will work as promised, but a case study is PROOF. When you show a prospect the beneficial experience others have had with a product or service, their trust and your credibility go way up.
- Attract media coverage — If you flip through any business, industry or trade publication, you’ll see story after story of companies who have overcome challenges by using specific products, services, strategies or methodologies. Why? Because that’s what their readers want. We love stories about a “hero” overcoming a challenge to reign victorious — and we want to know how they did it. That’s essentially what case studies are.
What’s the difference between a Business-to-Business (B2B) case study and a Business-to-Consumer (B2C) case study?
According to Content Marketing Institute’s and MarketingProfs’ “B2B Content Marketing 2015” report, 77% of Business-to-Business (B2B) marketers and 35% of Business-to-Consumer (B2C) marketers use case studies.
Why such a difference?
Case studies are more prevalent in the B2B arena, because generally B2B products and services are higher ticket purchases driven by needs and budget. Therefore, B2B products and services tend to have a long sales cycle requiring more interactions with a prospect before winning them over
And, quite often, the B2B prospect is not a lone decision-maker. They’ll often need to get approval of a new solution/purchase from an internal team or a senior executive. Each piece of evidence that supports a buying decision is critical, and case studies can help in a big way.
B2C products and services are often lower ticket purchases (except for items such as vehicles and homes) with a typically shorter sales cycle.
The target prospect for each type of case study varies, as well … which may affect how it’s written or used. The audience for a B2B case study can be small and confined to a vertical market or industry. For example, a company that sells industrial equipment that makes cardboard boxes has a limited market — cardboard box manufacturers. A B2C case study, on the other hand, could be written for a product like residential solar panels and would have a market comprised of millions of people.
Looking for Case Study Examples?
For examples of B2B and B2C case studies, go to our page, How to Write a Case Study with Examples where we analyze several case studies using AWAI's proven 9-step process.
Why companies use case studies
Let’s look at 12 reasons why case studies have become an indispensable tool for marketers. Case studies …
- Position the company as a thought leader in their niche — If a company provides problem-solving, thought-provoking case studies, customers will think of them as a leader and authority in that marketplace.
- Shorten the sales cycle — Without having a real-life example to study, a prospective customer is often unsure whether a product or service is the right solution for them. Doubt can lead to inaction. When a business can show their solution is working for a customer who experienced a similar challenge, it gives the prospect the confidence to make faster decisions. This increases sales and lowers marketing costs.
- Assist in sales rep training — A well-written case study gives salespeople an understanding of the capabilities and benefits of using a product or service. This boosts their confidence and expertise when interacting with customers.
- Give sales representatives more proof — It’s much more powerful to show specific, measurable results experienced by an actual customer who used a product or service (“Business ABC improved productivity by 76% in the first three months”) than just to talk about a product’s features or benefits in general terms.
- Help smaller companies compete with larger brands — A case study can help even the playing field when a smaller business competes with a larger one, because it focuses on the benefits of a product or service in a real-life scenario. Company size usually doesn’t matter when the solution is presented as the clear winner!
- May reveal new insights — Any time a company interacts with someone who is using their product and service, it’s an opportunity to discover new insights: what they love about it, ideas on how to improve it, unexpected benefits, other areas of their business it’s affected positively, and so on. Customer case studies may uncover new ideas that not only lead to improvements in what the company offers, but could result in marketing campaigns that are more on point.
- Put the focus on the customer (and prospect) — All too often, companies focus on how great they think they are, how long they’ve been in business, and what they offer. A case study puts the focus on the customer’s experience, which is more relevant to a prospect in many cases and proven to be a much more effective strategy.
- Boost SEO ranking — Studies have shown when someone searches online for a specific solution and finds a relevant case study, they’re more likely to buy. These prospects are often searching for phrases like, “a widget that helps business respond faster to customer complaints.” When you’re writing a case study showing how a product provides that specific solution, chances are the case study will rank high on Google’s search engine results page.
- Reawaken dormant customers — A case study gives a business a powerful reason to contact clients who have not purchased from them in a while.
- Produce an excellent return on investment (ROI) — It generally costs between $1,250 and $2,250 to pay a skilled writer to create a strong case study document. (Or, if you’re a writer, that’s what you can charge.) Depending upon the price of the product or service being promoted, it doesn’t take too many sales for the company to experience a healthy ROI.
- Provide third-party validation — A case study is proof it’s not just the company saying a product or service delivers on its promise. It’s a real customer without a vested interest in the sale, proving it through their actual experience.
- Highlight a business’s success — Talking about what a product can do is one thing, but showing how a customer used a product or service to better their business enhances a company’s reputation and image.
How case studies help potential customers
Here are five reasons case studies are welcomed by businesses deciding which product or service to purchase. Case studies …
- Help busy buyers make an educated decision — Buyers are usually stretched thin. Due to company cutbacks and streamlining, they often do the work of two or three people. The problems they’ve been tasked to solve can be complex and beyond the buyer’s comprehension. A case study simplifies an issue for the buyer. It gives them the opportunity to see how a company with a similar problem or challenge solved it by using a product or service they’re considering purchasing.
- Provide decision makers with social proof — A 2013 study by BrightLocal found that 79% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. A case study is an online review on steroids. Not only does it reveal to the reader the benefits derived from a product or service within a real-life experience, it also shows them how the results were achieved.
- Are relevant to the reader — Case studies are niche-specific. Because they target a specific problem a prospect is experiencing, the story resonates with the reader.
- Explain how problems are solved — Case studies follow the problem/solution format. Instead of stating a benefit, they show a prospect the transformation — the how and why behind the benefits received.
- Help them justify a buyer’s decision to their boss — Any time a business buyer makes a purchase, they’re taking a risk that the product or service will deliver the benefits promised. Not only is their job possibly at stake, but their pride and reputation may be on the line, as well. When you can show them a case study detailing how another customer succeeded with the product, it mitigates the risk factor. It increases the likelihood the investment will cause the desired result. Plus, it provides ammunition when it’s time to make recommendations to their boss or to their peers in a buying committee.
Want to learn more about writing case studies?
If you’re interested in learning more about how to write a case study, or you’re a writer interested in learning the craft, check out our article, How to Write a Case Study with Examples. It gives you a breakdown of the nine components of a winning case study and breaks down several case studies.