Writing Case Studies: The Element of Story

Why case studies are often ineffective

Most case studies are dry, humorless, and read like a bulleted list of product features. While they might encourage the reader to believe that you can do what you say you can do, they offer no other compelling reasons for the reader to engage with you.

We often forget that selling online is still selling. It’s about human relationships, and as much as we like bulleted lists (we use them), it’s really the emotional undertones that drive sales.

The key element of emotion-based selling is what we call “The Big Idea.” In a nutshell, the Big Idea is that one highly compelling notion, idea, or theme engages the reader and pulls him into the “story” of your copy.

For example, one of the classic headlines of the ages is this:

”When I sat down at the piano, they laughed. But, when I started to play…”

Another classic headline is:

”Do You Make These Mistakes in English?”

These are two of the most copied headlines of all time because they convey a “Big Idea” that is emotionally compelling AND tells a story. The first (about the piano) immediately draws you in because most people have had similar experiences. It tells a story of frustration and embarrassment, and the corresponding story of success and ultimate triumph over detractors.

The second (“mistakes”) immediately raises the question of the reader’s intelligence. He wants to read the rest of the ad because it also tells a story – a story of overcoming our inadequacies and becoming “better” than those around us.

How the Big Idea and Stories Apply to Case Study Writing

A case study is a mini-advertisement or sales letter. It’s a story – something of a hero’s journey – that can, if done well, move the reader to take action. A case study isn’t simply a set of bullet points about how great your product or service is… it’s a fabulous sales tool that can lead directly to the close of a sale.

In fact, the standard format for case studies IS like a hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell:

  • Hero suffers a loss or experiences a serious problem…
  • Hero attempts to resolve issues through usual means, and fails…
  • Hero goes on a journey and discovers an ally or new approach…
  • Hero overcomes tremendous odds to resolve the problem…
  • Hero returns triumphant and tells all about his conquest.

A case study IS a hero’s journey, and if we see it that way we can apply the same story and copy-writing principles to make the case study something that “sticks” in the mind and heart of the reader – VERY much like a good hero’s journey story.

What this means for writing an effective case study is this:

  1. First, write a powerful headline, just as you would for ANY sales copy. Instead of ”Results in Industry: Online Publishing” (a real headline), draw your reader into the STORY: ”How 1.65 Million Urban Professional Men Impress Their Women Friends…”.
  2. Next, instead of “blah… blah… blahing” the description of the problem, tell it like the real hero’s dilemma that it is: ”The sex lives of 1.65 million urban professionals depended on the reliable restaurant and entertainment suggestions of XYZ company. So, when Emails got lost or stopped coming, a whole generation became like lambs lost in the woods…”
  3. Continue your story to describe the emotional trauma experienced by our hero because of his or her dilemma.
  4. And, then explain the joy in Mudville as the mighty Casey got his swing back!

See, a good case study reads like a good short story. It’s not just another opportunity for your marketing staff to throw a series of “Features and Benefits” at your prospects. They’ve already read about all your features and benefits.

The case study is your opportunity to connect and share with your prospect so that he walks away feeling good about YOU in addition to trusting that you can do the job.

The Point

Case studies can – and should – be interesting stories. Take the time to connect with your reader instead of force-feeding him with bulleted lists of benefits. The end result will be a prospect that not only trusts that you can do the job, but also a prospect who feels a closer bond to you because you’ve engaged with him on a more personal level.