When a potential customer browses your site, parses through your reviews, or otherwise tries to validate that you’ve got what it takes to help them solve business problems, they’re trying to find proof that you’re worthy of their business. In our opinion, there’s no better way to build trust and credibility than through the case study.
Case studies provide brands the chance to highlight their process, the results they’re capable of delivering, and what their customers are saying about them all through their storytelling skills, making the format an ideal way to win business while creating a healthy chunk of content all in one stroke.
Plus, if housed on a website along other work examples, the case study can sell for you around the clock.
If you’re looking to win business in a certain vertical like agriculture or healthcare, case studies can provide proof to prospective customers that you’ve worked in the space and know what you’re doing — and that you can repeat your success for them.
Including testimonials, results, and even learnings from hurdles along the way shows that you have strong relationships with your customers and are willing to adapt from the setbacks and difficulties that every team encounters.
While it sounds like a lot to convey, writing case studies need not be daunting. In fact, there’s a simple formula to follow that’ll have you showing off your work in no time.
All it takes is five steps, or five sections, to have a complete case study on your hands.
1. Frame the Challenge
Up front, it’s important to contextualize the problem that you solved for the customer or client.
Introduce the nature of the problem and why it was important to find a solution. If you can frame what the client stood to gain by resolving the problem, the rest of the case study will hold more weight and emphasize how your organization or team tees up projects.
Here are a handful of questions that can help you flesh out the challenge at hand:
- What was the client losing by leaving the issue unresolved? I.e. time, money, sanity.
- What potential obstacles prevented the client from solving this problem on their own? I.e. labor hours, budget, expertise.
- What hurdles did your team need to overcome in order to succeed and deliver? I.e. timeline, research, etc.
- How did you work with the client to get to the root of the problem? I.e. discovery, communication, collaboration.
- Did your understanding of the nature of the problem change over time? I.e. Targeting the wrong audience, negative reputation stemmed from bad shipping experience, etc.
- What was the objective once you identified the challenge? What would success look like? I.e. revenue, engagement, etc.
While these questions aren’t exhaustive, they should be a good start for showing how your team approaches big projects and works with the client to discover what’s really ailing them. We all know that sometimes the problem presented at the beginning of the discovery phase isn’t the real problem holding back the client’s business.
Note: When it comes to language, be sure to keep it clear and conversational. While you can showcase that you know the industry well, make sure that this part of the case study is accessible to decision makers who might not be as technically-oriented as others so they can grasp the business significance of the problem you solved.
When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity.
Next, you’ll illustrate how you tackled the challenge.
2. Show the Process
We all learned this in school: “show your work.”
If you’re going to earn the trust of new potential partners, there’s no better way than showing them how you tackle difficult problems. Providing the proof that you know what you’re doing goes a lot farther than simply saying so.
When laying out your process, you don’t have to give away the secret blend of herbs and seasonings, but the more background detail or behind-the-scenes information you can provide, the more trust you can build with the prospect.
While some may argue that by showing the details of your process, competitors will be able to just take what you do and do it themselves — or worse, sell your process as their own — but ultimately the client is coming to you because they want to work with you. They want your team’s specific expertise, to outsource work for time or budget reasons, or because they’ve seen your work and your process and trust you to deliver results. Showing your work in this way and giving a look into your process for free positions you as a thought leader and gives clients a sense that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
When outlining your process, be sure to tie it back to the original challenge and business objective. Some questions to ask and answer include:
- What did you decide your team needed to deliver?
- How did you assess what resources and tools you’d need to deliver?
- What was the plan of attack for completing the project?
- How did you collaborate with the client in completing the project?
- What did the actual work look like?
- How did you test or back up your work with data?
If all else fails, just talk about what your team actually did to reach the solution; it’s as simple as that. If you have any documentation or notes (often these take the form of whiteboard photos or logo explorations like the one below), now is a great time to show how your final deliverable takes shape.
With that background in place, your solution will have the support it needs to make an even greater impact.
3. Describe the Solution
Here’s your chance to show off what you actually delivered.
While the previous section identified the plan and how you tackled it, this part actually showcases the solution and all of its glorious benefits.
Whatever the solution was, whether it be an SEM campaign, a refreshed website, or a complete brand overhaul, show some different visualizations of the deliverable where possible. For the website, you might show device lockups showcasing different screens on mobile, tablet, and desktop. In the case of a rebrand, show different applications of the new look like signage, letterhead, business cards, interiors/exteriors, merchandise, etc.
In this section, your goal is to make a bold, striking impression. If you have strong visuals or big numbers to show off, now’s the time to put them on display.
If all you have to show here is a quick paragraph with an image or two, that’s fine, too. This can likely be the shortest section since the details of what value the solution brought can come in the following portion.
4. Show off the Results
Once you’ve highlighted the thing you actually delivered, it’s time to dive into why it mattered for the client.
Wherever possible, tie back any quantitative and qualitative results to the original business goal you outlined during the very first Challenge section.
If you identified social engagement as the way to solve the client’s problem, how much did your solution move the needle? Beyond that, what did this mean for the client moving forward?
Hard numbers and data visualizations are great here if you have them. If you don’t, it might be worth reaching out to your analytics and creative folks to develop an appealing way to show off these stats. That said, the presentation of your results doesn’t have to be the prettiest thing in the world, as long as you keep things simple, clean, and uncluttered.
In other words, identify the most important data points and highlight them the most. A glut of information can obscure the point you’re trying to make if there’s too much to digest.
Things don’t always go as planned. Perhaps your team succeeded in nailing some KPIs while winning at some others you didn’t even know were up for grabs.
Typically, there’s something your team learned that better equipped you and your client for future endeavors. Hang on to those learnings — we’ll need them in the next section.
5. Discuss Takeaways and Learnings
At this point, it’s important to outline what insights you gleaned from the experience.
These can be observations on workflow or processes that you’d change in the future, trends in the market that could be useful to watch on similar projects moving forward, or even pitfalls that you’d watch for and avoid next time around.
Including these takeaways emphasizes your commitment to continuous improvement, adaptability, and, perhaps most of all, transparency. Admitting that your team isn’t perfect is an important part of building trust and positioning you as real people that are easy and flexible to work with.
It also shows that you’re willing to share your learnings with your partners. When you win, so do your clients, and that’s something a prospect reading your case study ought to see as a benefit of working with you.
It’s pretty common for agencies to hide their shortcomings and mistakes. After all, it’s kind of what we do for our clients on a regular basis. Bringing our stumbles and difficulties into the light for all to see can be pretty scary, and not without justification.
What if it makes you look bad to prospects? Couldn’t it hurt your reputation in the industry?
We believe there’s a right way to talk about our failures and that doing so will position you as a transparent, trustworthy partner that adapts and improves rather than sweeps things under the rug.
Even if you include your post-delivery recommendations or long term roadmap following the project, it shows foresight and a mindset that considers the bigger picture.
At the end of the day, there’s always more you could show — so don’t get hung up on being completely exhaustive. Include what it takes to prove you know your stuff and that you can solve problems in your field.
The point of the case study is to bring prospective partners into your process and familiarize them with how you think. If you show your work this way, prospects should be knocking down your doors in no time because they know you can get the job done.
Your friends in New Business will thank you.