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7 Questions to Ask Before Pursuing a Case Study

by | Sep 15, 2015 | Collateral, Case Studies, Content Marketing | 0 comments

Technology buyers have consistently rated case studies among the top three most effective types of marketing content* when it comes to helping them make purchasing decisions.

7 Questions to Ask Before Launching a Case Study ProjectBut that doesn’t mean every case study is going to be effective.

Besides providing unbiased, third-party evidence of your solution’s effectiveness, a major part of the appeal of a case study is that it’s a story. It’s a form that’s familiar and attractive to readers. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? But as such, case studies need to follow certain “rules” of good storytelling. Otherwise, you’ll lose your readers and ROI.

And since good case studies don’t come cheap – in terms of both development cost and customer goodwill – I wanted to share these “seven questions to ask” to help you in deciding whether a particular customer success story is likely to produce the results you need… before you commit to adding it to your portfolio.

* Along with white papers and product brochures/data sheets in annual surveys by Eccolo Media [1]

1. Who is the real hero of this story?

Every story needs a protagonist – a hero – a man or woman with a mission who becomes the catalyst for resolving the central conflict of the story.

Why? Readers need someone they can root for – someone they empathize with. Readers want to step into the hero’s shoes, feel what the hero feels.

“Empathy is the great empowerer of stories,” writes novelist and writing coach Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. “The more empathy the reader feels, the more he will invest himself in the reading experience.” [2]

In other words, you need to identify an individual to be the hero of your customer’s story if you want your reader to care about its outcome.

Try to identify the person with the most to lose or gain from the decision to implement your solution. The person whose job was most directly affected. More than likely, he or she is your hero.

If at all possible, avoid casting an organization as your hero, even if it has a famous name. In other words, don’t talk about a company or other entity as though it is the hero of the story. Choose a person. If your customer prefers that you not use employee names, just use the hero’s first name.

If your case study doesn’t have a hero, chances are it won’t perform as well as it could. People relate best to stories about people.

2. Who is the ideal reader for this story?

Chances are, the ideal reader for your case study will have a job function similar to the hero of your story. In any case, ask the following questions, as well:

  • Can our ideal reader understand and relate to our hero’s problem?
  • Can our ideal reader empathize with our hero’s plight?

The answer to both of these questions must be yes. Otherwise, you need to choose a different audience. The writer of your case study needs to write to a specific person – address that individual’s attitudes, needs and desires – to make your case study the best it can be.

3. What was the big problem our hero faced?

Before our hero sets of on her quest to find a solution, the reader needs to be briefed on the situation that launched that quest. This is called the setup, and it’s an important part of every story. In a case study, the setup must include a description of the problem your customer needed to solve. The problem, of course, is what provides the context for your solution. But it also factors in your case study publishing decision.

Once you’ve named the hero’s problem and your ideal reader, you have two follow-on questions to answer:

  • Is this problem significant to our ideal reader?
  • Have we already addressed this combination of problem and ideal reader with a similar story in our portfolio?

You should proceed with the customer story in question only if the problem (1) is significant to your ideal reader and (2) hasn’t been adequately addressed by an existing story in your portfolio targeting the same audience. Otherwise – unless the existing story needs to be replaced – you’re just refilling a hole that’s already been filled.

4. What was our hero’s goal?

Just as every story needs a hero, every hero needs a quest.

Without an objective, a goal for the hero to strive for, there is nothing to provide forward impetus to the story. There’s no conflict – no dramatic tension, which is the essence of every good story. Without dramatic tension, your story will be, well… dull. And no one wants to read a dull story.

In a case study, the hero’s quest is the desired results your customer needed to achieve.

What was the stated goal? What improvements over the current situation were sought? These desired results need to be clearly stated in the story, both for the reasons stated above, and also because they will be important later on.

At the end of the story, the reader needs closure. The conflict must be resolved, the major loose ends tied up. Above all, the reader wants to know just how successful our hero was in his quest. Unless the reader understands, up front, what the hero was seeking in his quest, there’s no way for her to judge the significance of obstacles and understand how our hero fared in the end.

5. What were the stakes involved?

What did the hero and his organization have to lose – if they did nothing or chose the wrong solution to their big problem?

This is another key element of a successful case study. Establishing the stakes involved helps the reader understand why finding the right solution is so important. Stakes are also important for creating dramatic tension and keeping the reader engaged. They make your story more exciting and memorable. They build interest in your solution and motivate the reader to keep reading.

On the other hand, if the stakes don’t seem very high, readers will likely feel the problem isn’t important and stop reading. Your case study won’t be worth publishing.

“Stakes cannot be undervalued in storytelling,” says Brooks. “The more the hero and others have at stake as they pursue their new goal, the more tension the story will have.” [2]

Knowing what our hero has to lose also helps build the reader’s empathy for him. The reader becomes more invested in finding out what is going to happen to our hero.

Hopefully, of course, similar stakes will be in play in the reader’s situation. They’ll focus her attention on a similar problem in her own organization. Make her think about what she has to lose, if she doesn’t implement your solution. This is perhaps the best reason for establishing stakes early in your case study.

6. What obstacles did our hero have to overcome?

Just as every story needs a hero, every story also needs a “villain” – an antagonistic force that stands in our hero’s way. In a case study, this antagonistic force consists of the obstacles our hero had to overcome.

Obstacles create conflict, which is essential to a good story. “Without that opposition, the story becomes more like a diary,” says Brooks. “There is no sense of dramatic tension, and ultimately, no reason for the reader to make an emotional investment.” [2]

Find out what difficulties or setbacks our hero faced along the way. If the implementation was easy, you may have to dig deeper to find your antagonistic force. Perhaps it was the status quo: our hero had to convince others to buy into the new solution. Or maybe the antagonistic force was time: a tight deadline for bringing the solution online to late deliveries, penalties, or loss of a competitive advantage. In any case, these obstacles need to be brought out in your case study.

After all, if it all seems too easy, your reader might think it’s all too good to be true.

7. What results did our hero achieve?

Every good story ends with a climax and a resolution. These are the payoff of all the dramatic tension you’ve built up during your story.

In a case study, the climax occurs when our hero conquers his last obstacle and his implemented solution starts producing results. Those results, in turn, are the resolution, the “happily ever after” of your story.

Be sure to ask the following:

  • How can these results be measured?
  • How do they compare with the customer’s previous situation?
  • How do they compare with the results the customer was seeking?

Unless you have measurable results that can be compared with a baseline, you have no real way to show improvement, no way to show that our hero was successful in her quest.

Without measurable results, you have no resolution. No victory for our hero. No sense of closure for your reader.

Your reader needs that strong sense of closure to feel satisfied with what he has read. And he needs those measurable results to justify a purchasing decision. If your customer can’t provide strong measurable results, your story will have a weak resolution and probably won’t be worth publishing.

Take-away Points

Good case studies are good stories and good investments. And it’s important to make sure they will be both, because they are also significant investments. So use these seven questions just discussed to vet customer success stories… before you approach your customers about documenting them.

Again, the seven questions are:

1. Who is the real hero of this story?

2. Who is the ideal reader for this story?

3. What was the big problem our hero faced?

4. What was our hero’s goal?

5. What were the stakes involved?

6. What obstacles did our hero have to overcome?

7. What results did our hero achieve?

Next Steps…

Need help turning a customer’s success into an effective case study? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at


[1] Eccolo Media 2008 to 2015 B2B Technology Content Survey Reports, Eccolo Media Inc.

[2] Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.

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