Things That A Case Study Isn’t

storytellingOn the face of it, a corporate case study is about the simplest type of technical collateral there is. Structurally, a case study is the basic three-act dramatic formula that we are all familiar with: set out a problem, struggle with the challenge, race towards a solution. Case studies present this basic storytelling format in context of a successful customer engagement, telling the tale of an everyday company that solved an important business problem with this wonder product or service.  Case studies are highly effective. Few sales testimonials carry more weight than those of happy customers who embraced a solution and were better off for it. Everyone loves success stories.

To make them work, however, you have to be crystal clear on what a case study is, and what it isn’t. If you attempt to pack another type of collateral into a case study format, you won’t end up with a case study. It may look like one, but it certainly won’t work like one, and then you’re likely to reach the very erroneous conclusion that this marvelous breed of corporate messaging is outmoded and worthless.

Are you making any of the following mistakes in your case studies?

The Reverse Proposal. This happens when the project’s sales account manager is unable (or unwilling) to make time to sit down for an interview. Instead, the marketing department is forced to proceed with the only information they have available, typically the initial project proposal that sketches out the intended project – should it sell. This bad case study type takes the proposal, shifts the verb tenses into past tense, and rolls with it.

Why doesn’t it work? The project proposal generally only illuminates the second act of the story. It spells out the features and benefits of the proposed solution, but tells little or nothing about the pain that drove the customer to seek one. And it logically cannot have anything to say about the end results, because they happened well after the proposal was written.

Solution: Get sales and technical involved early, and if at all possible, arrange for a short conversation with the customer. For you, the second act may be the most important. However, for the reader, the first and third mean the most – and you can only get those chapters from people who have firsthand experience with the project as it happened.

The Restructured Press Release. These “case studies” aren’t even case studies, but rather announcements. They boast. They include several carefully crafted (and typically, fictional) quotes from important representatives of all companies involved. They’re usually about a product or service that has not been on the street for very long, or that has been just introduced. They often attempt to tell a success story about an offering that cannot possibly have been successful on a mature basis, because it simply hasn’t been around for long enough. They’re press releases, not case studies.

Why doesn’t it work? The biggest issue with the restructured press release is that it shies away from saying anything that isn’t positively glowing. That kills the story’s credibility. The reader knows that nothing will be said that hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized to make everyone look great, and so stops reading the “case study” as a serious technical document. And for good reason.

Solution: Focus case studies on mature offerings, and be willing to show the scars. Whenever we interview a customer about a case study, we always ask, “What went wrong?” Nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan – when the plan hits the ground, something has to change. The heart and soul of any good story is the tension of complication, and press releases don’t do complication. Be willing to tell the story of how your team was able to adapt to circumstance.


The Identity Crisis Whitepaper. It never fails to surprise us how many corporate marketing departments see “whitepaper” and “case study” to be essentially synonyms. They’re not. While a case study is a short story, a whitepaper is more of a research presentation. A good case study will rarely top out at over 1,500 words – and that’s fairly long – but a whitepaper can reach 5,000 words or more. A whitepaper offers the space to discuss a topic, trend or problem in depth, by presenting multiple stories in contrast or by discussing the many winding threads of a complex issue.

Why doesn’t it work? Where a case study is a purely past tense historical document, a whitepaper more resembles a forecast, outlining expertise while drawing attention to problems that haven’t necessarily happened yet.

Solution: Never treat a whitepaper and a case study as the same thing. An effective case study is about a single customer, a single set of problems, and a single effort to tackle them. It is plot driven. A whitepaper, on the other hand, is driven by ideas. If a case study story seems to be growing beyond the simple scope of the single customer engagement – the issue is too large, too complex, or touches on too many different players – then produce a whitepaper instead.

These are only a few of the many, many side roads that a case study effort can aimlessly wander down. Staying on the straight and narrow, on the other hand, leads to building powerful company success stories that inspire others to want similar successes of their own. Understanding what a case study is – and, more importantly, what it isn’t – will help you avoid the traps while making the most of your marketing time and budgets.

Does your company have great stories to tell about your products and services? Not sure where to begin in telling them with power and elegance? Load Bearing Creative has the experience and expertise to bring your message effectively to those who want to hear it.

Contact us today at 209-232-4219 to learn more about our case study and whitepaper development services!

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