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Five mistakes that kill a good case study - and how not to make them! - Arrowmaker Communications Limited
Gun killing case studies

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A good case study demonstrates the fundamental truth of third-party endorsement: when somebody else blows your trumpet, the music sounds sweeter!

In fact, research from the Content Marketing Institute shows that B2B companies rate case studies as a top priority in content strategy, with 77% using them to engage prospects. (This is higher even than videos, illustrations and photos.)

But many case studies simply aren’t written to accentuate the positives effectively, and so they read more like an account rather than an endorsement – or, worse, they damn by faint praise!

Here are a five mistakes that can kill a promising case study stone dead – and some tips on how to avoid them.


  1. Lack of logical structure

It’s important to stick to a very logical narrative structure that takes readers on a short but convincing journey that they don’t have to try too hard to follow… so:

  • Start with a short section (a paragraph or two, no more) explaining the challenges that the customer faced, making sure you also include the customer’s URL, brief detail on what their business is, and a suitably positive description of their achievements and reputation (“Leader in the field of….”; “Winner of industry awards including…”)
  • Then create a section on how your products and services helped to solve the challenge, including detail on what was supplied, how and where it was deployed, and how any additional challenges were overcome.
  • Finally, include a section on the positive effects that your products and services have had on your customer’s operations (there’s more detail on this below).

And remember, the function of this piece of text is to start a conversation with a prospect, so make sure there’s an urgent call to action at the end – e.g. “Get in touch to learn how we can help your business make savings, too!” – and clear contact information.

A couple of sides of A4, including headers, footers, graphics and photos, is a good length.


  1. No customer hero

Why do customers agree to get involved with your case studies? Is it because they want to make your business look good?

No. It’s because they want to make their own business look forward-thinking, innovative and mould-breaking, through the adoption of cutting-edge products and services like yours.

In short, you need to write your case study to show that your customer is the hero of the piece, with your business playing the vital supporting role, as this excellent case study blog explains.

So don’t be afraid to talk up the customer’s achievements to date, and allow plenty of space to quote their spokespersons’ thoughts on strategy and vision.

Ultimately, if the customer doesn’t come out of it smelling of roses, your case study is doomed to draftdom for eternity anyway!


  1. Poor quotes (or none at all)

The customer quotes in a case study are proof positive that your customers are putting their name publicly to your products and services. So why do so many case study writers shy away from them, or end up with thin, watery statements that convey no real oomph?

In a Content Marketing Institute case study blog we really love, the writer makes a vital point in this respect – “You are a case-study writer, not a reporter. You are not being held to some journalistic standard that says you must reproduce all customer utterances word for word.”

There it is, in a nutshell. The quote is not what the customer has actually said, but a form of words that captures your and their strategic messages in a sentiment that’s close enough to the original quote for them to sign off.

So, by all means, use the actual quote as a starting point – but don’t be afraid to embellish and recast it. The worst that can happen is that they red-pen it, but even if that happens you’ll have probably nudged closer to what you’d ideally like the quote to look like – and that’s a hell of a lot more effective than having no quotes at all!


  1. No big picture

Customer buys software/machine/service – so what?

This is where many case studies fail. They recount what has happened without giving it additional context or significance, so the story simply appears small.

One of the reasons we love writing case studies is that it gives us a chance to flex our narrative muscles and make these modest stories part of something much bigger and more compelling.

So, notwithstanding our comments above regarding logical structure, it’s not simply “Customer X had a challenge” but rather, for example, “Customer X had a challenge driven by industry-wide regulatory changes that continue to impose difficult operating conditions on many in this sector to this day.”

See how much bigger and more persistent that makes the problem sound – and consequently how much more powerful any solution that can solve it?

(The Content Marketing Institute gives a great pizza-themed example of this approach under the subhead “Blow things out of proportion” in this blog – read it and taste the truth!)


  1. No before-and-after story

This is possibly the greatest case study failing of all. Even a case study that has been brilliantly executed throughout falls at the final hurdle if it can’t succinctly demonstrate the positive effects the products or services in question have delivered.

To capture this, use hard and soft metrics, and don’t be afraid to combine measures creatively to convey (again) a bigger story overall.

So, “Customer X increased revenues by £1 million for the period”, for example, is an excellent before-and-after statement, but if it’s too sensitive for a customer to sign off you can talk in percentages, proportions, and relative terms.

“Customer X has increased average revenues by well over 10% since the project was completed”, for example, is a far less sensitive metric than citing absolute financial figures.

And even if you can’t get a number or a percentage signed off, a carefully vague statement like the following still paints a positive before-and-after picture for both you and your customers, without giving away any trade secrets: “Customer X is already reporting significant and continuing positive financial effects following the completion of the project.”

Before was rubbish. Then you came along. That’s what you need to convey.


To wrap up…

We could write more, but there simply isn’t the space here!

However, making changes in these five areas alone will already transform the effectiveness of your case studies, delivering the proof and credibility that your prospects need as they move further down your sales funnel.

So, which customer’s your next case study target? Perhaps we can help…






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