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How to Develop a Deep Case Study
Focus on the How and the Why - not just the What
See Deep Case Study Development Checklist at end of article

The customer profile or application case study (sometimes referred to as a ‘success story', or mis-labeled as a ‘customer testimonial') is one of the most powerful tools in the public relations or sales and marketing toolbox. However, not all case studies are the same. There are case studies - and there are Deep Case Studies. The Deep Case Study goes much further into the how and the why of the customer's experience. Traditional case studies focus primarily on the "what" - as in a historical account of what happened. When properly prepared, a deep case study gives a 360-degree view (vendor and customer) of how your products or services solve business problems for your customers, and why customers chose you as their vendor. Chances are, your CEO couldn't do a better job making the case in person. But most case studies don't come anywhere near meeting this criteria and are, in fact, a boring read. Some are actually so bad as to be a liability from a sales and marketing perspective. Here's some tips and a checklist for developing deep case studies to help make your customer profiles as interesting to your prospects and other third parties (such as the media and industry analysts) as they are to the very customers you are profiling.

The deep case study on your company and technology should be the strongest presentation you have of your skills at solving your customer's business problems. In short, it should succinctly state your whole reason for existence in a competitive marketplace. But if you actually read most of the case studies that are posted to web sites or distributed as sales collateral, they just don't cut it. The vast majority are filled with cliches such as ‘award-winning' and ‘industry-leading'. This is in addition to usual technology jargon, so that they are often very difficult to follow, much less generate any enthusiasm for the subject company or their products.

That need not be the case. Well-written case studies can be prepared to resemble the feature stories in trade journals. And this is not by fiction-novel dialogue or clever wordsmithing. In fact, if you are preparing case studies for your web site, they should be presented in the feature story format for consumption by the end users or audiences - because that is who will be reading (or ignoring) them.

The acid test for a case study? Can a sales prospect actually visualize how your technology or services will help them solve their problem?

So how can you develop the kind of deep case studies that will create this kind of visualization and reinforce your sales, marketing and public relations? There are two aspects to consider - one being the capabilities of the case study preparer, and the other being the general structure that the deep case study should follow.

The success of a deep case study is often based on how it is prepared, which is the skill set of the case study writer. Obviously, you want to see examples of prior case studies, because what you see is what you'll get. First and foremost, the writer should have a diagnostic approach. In other words, spend more time asking how and why certain choices were made, rather than just what happened when the project or technology was implemented. If you review typical case studies looking for this delineation (why and how) as opposed to just "what happened" - the presence or absence of it almost jumps out at you. The reason that you see more of the ‘what happened' orientation is that it is easier (e.g. requires less skill on the part of the writer) - you don't need an understanding of the customer's decision-making process, technology options or competitive marketplace to ask ‘what happened', but you do if you ask 'how' and ‘why'.

The case studies that are prepared from a what happened standpoint tend to read more like technical documentation - and are about as interesting. Such as this excerpt from one on customizable web site software: "The site was built using static HTML NTS mounted filesystems." Wow - who cares? The bigger question is what did they want to do, why couldn't they do it with their current technology, and why did they choose this vendor? Those questions were eventually answered (if you looked deeply enough) but it was clear from the presentation and structure that they were not the writer's primary concern. However, they are the readers' (buyers') primary concern.

So the basic orientation to look for is that of asking how and why, as opposed to what happened. The next issue is one of structure. And this doesn't mean sentence structure, but rather the structure of the importance of the ideas and concepts. Look at a typical case study. Is it front-loaded, so that the most important concepts are in the first few paragraphs, or do they eventually make a guest appearance at the end? Ask yourself, what is going to be most important to the reader - whether the software was ‘award-winning', or why this case study customer chose it over the competing products? Those same products, in all likelihood, that the reader (e.g., sales prospect) is currently evaluating. Chances are the selection by the case study subject (buyer) that is profiled had nothing to do with awards, or even the basis of the awards. All that the verbiage does is clutter up the reader's thought process and risk losing their attention. End game for the standard case study.

The best structure for a deep case study is not too dissimilar from that of a good sales call. The problem is that you don't have the real-time feedback from the prospect so you can tailor your presentation to the concepts that are most important to them. So you have to make some assumptions. The best way to make those assumptions is to ask the subject of the case study how they made their decision (after all, you are trying to reach like-minded prospects), and why, then develop the deep case study around those concepts in the order of priority that the customer indicates.

Obviously, no one customer is going to hit upon all of the competitive benefits that the vendor wants to highlight. This is why it is best to have multiple deep case studies, preferably from multiple industries with slightly different business issues to solve so the robustness of the vendor's competitive position can be showcased. A good number to aim for is three deep case studies in any one industry, specific technology, capability or any other particular focus.

Deep case studies are one of the most under-utilized tools in both the public relations and the sales and marketing arenas. Too often this is because they are not designed from a how and why perspective with specific sales and marketing objectives in mind, nor do they consider the interests of the reader, or the understandings you want to the reader to take away from the deep case study. That's the road map you need. Once you have that, the skill of the driver (writer) is pretty easy to discern once you know where it is you want to go.

Deep Case Study Development Checklist:

  • Write in descending style - most important information first (which isn't statements like "industry leading")
  • .

  • First paragraph summarizes the profile
  • .

  • Use the '360-degree approach - have the story told from both sides of the table - how your people diagnosed and responded to the issues, and then how the customer engaged.
  • Important 'tipping points' are told by customer - in customer quotes
  • Provide as many hard figures as you can - ROI, increase in productivity, decrease in costs, time savings, etc.
  • Allude to competitors' generic weaknesses - but not by competitor name.
  • Anticipate and address obvious issues - such as product roadmap, changing technology, compatibility, upgrade path, security, etc.
  • Avoid mentioning your 'soft spots' - except subjective issues (such as design methodology) to give the appearance of a neutral commentary
  • Have the customer say how and why they chose you - this statement is often missing, and is the most powerful and important statement in the entire deep case study.

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Geibel Marketing and Public Relations is a marketing resource for Sutainable technology and design, engineering and construction companies. Principal Jeffrey Geibel is a LEED AP in addition to being accredited in public relations (APR) by the Public Relations Society of America.

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