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5 Compelling Alternatives to the Traditional Case Study Format

by | Aug 11, 2021 | Collateral, B2B Copywriting, Lead Generation, Case Studies | 0 comments

Compelling Alternatives to the “Traditional” Case Study

Case studies have long been one of the most popular and influential forms of marketing content.

In Eccolo Media’s annual B2B Technology Collateral Survey Reports (2008 to 2014), for example, technology buyers ranked case studies the second most influential content type – trailing only white papers – seven years in a row.1 More recently, 60% of marketing influencers told Ascend2 that research and case studies are the content target audiences trust the most.2

There’s really no surprise here. After all, case studies are short, quick reads. They’re familiar, easy to follow. They give technology buyers the information they need: solid evidence that they can succeed with your solution. And besides… everybody loves a good story.

But the traditional case study format has its drawbacks. It’s not always the perfect fit for every company, objective, audience, or customer story. And there’s a sameness to traditional case studies that makes it easy for them to get lost in the marketing message crowd.

So today, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of a few “alternative” formats you may want to consider for your next success story project. Those I’ve chosen can all work well with technology-purchasing audiences.
But before we explore the alternatives, let’s take a brief look at the pros and cons of the traditional case study.

Source: Content Marketing Engagement Survey Summary Report, Ascend2, June 2019.

The Traditional Case Study Format

We all know the traditional case study format. Four distinct sections under four well-known headings: Customer, Challenge (or Problem), Solution, and Results. They’re familiar to every B2B audience, easy to follow, easy to write.

So, what are the drawbacks of this tried-and-true formula?

Well, first of all, when you begin by describing the customer, it’s hard to get off to a compelling start. A good story provides some drama or intrigue right at the beginning to grab readers’ attention and pull them into the narrative. That drama comes from the customer’s challenge, not his background. Starting with a subject profile is not the best choice for some marketing objectives, like lead generation.

Second, the section headings offer no intrigue. They provide structure, but nothing to draw the attention of scanners. There’s no benefit. Besides, we’ve seen them all before.

Lastly, traditional case studies don’t appeal to trade journal editors. Editors want feature articles that resemble news stories, not academic papers or marketing pieces. If you want to get your case study placed in a trade magazine (or appeal to scanners or generate leads), you need a different format.

Five Alternative Case Study Formats

So, what are the alternatives to the traditional case study format? Here are five that can appeal to technology audiences.

1. The Feature Story

The “feature story” case study format is probably the most popular alternative to the traditional one. The reason it’s so popular? It addresses all the deficiencies of the traditional case study format.

As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, this type of case study is written like a feature story in a newspaper or magazine. It can follow the same logical sequence as the traditional form, but the information is not grouped under the standard subheads. Instead, the feature story case study employs techniques journalists use to engage readers, like descriptive subheads and an engaging opening paragraph, or “lead.”

To create drama in the lead, writers will typically start with the challenge, rather than a customer description. Background on the customer can either be sprinkled into the narrative—as a fiction author fleshes out characters—or placed in a sidebar. Descriptive subheads help to both summarize the story and pique the interest of scanners.

The big advantage of the feature story format is its engaging narrative flow. When well written, feature stories are more enjoyable to read and hold our attention better than traditional case studies. This makes them better for lead generation purposes. That’s also why trade editors like them. They look and read like other feature articles they publish.

The downside of the feature story format is that it requires greater writing skill. The writer must know how to handle key elements, like the headline, lead, and subheads. Story elements must be woven together into a cohesive narrative that flows relentlessly to a satisfying ending. If the reader gets lost, your success story will be a failure.

2. The Story-Within-A-Story

What could be better than a compelling, captivating success story? How about two?

The “story-within-a-story” is a variation of the feature story format. Along with describing why the customer chose your solution and how well it solved their problem, this case study format also includes an example of how your customer uses your solution to provide a better product or service to its own customers.

In other words, it contains a second case study that focuses on one of your customer’s customers.

This format can work very well if your market is OEMs, system integrators, or other vendors who incorporate your solution into their own. It’s also great for getting customer approval for your case study project and buy-in on joint marketing ventures; your customer gains publicity for one of their own successes. And like other feature stories, the story-within-a-story is ideal for trade journal placement and lead generation.

But with double the upside, you also get double the downside. This type of case study is more complex to produce. It involves additional interviews and approval cycles with your customer’s customer. Plus, crafting story-within-a-story calls for even greater writing skill than the feature story. Your writer needs to make sure the second story nests comfortably within the first without upsetting the flow of the narrative.

3. The Q&A

If you want a case study that can be created quickly and easily, consider the Q&A.

As the name suggests, a Q&A case study consists of a list of questions and the customer’s answers to each. While not a great lead-gen tool, Q&As can be very useful as website, blog, and newsletter content for nurturing leads and keeping customers engaged.

There are several advantages to the Q&A. The form is simple and doesn’t require great writing skills, so they’re quick and easy to produce. The questions, however, must be well thought out.

Q&A case studies are very appealing to technical audiences. Normally distrustful of marketing collateral, techies tend to like Q&As conducted with engineers or other technicians in roles similar to their own. They like getting no-nonsense information directly from their peers.

The downside here is that success is largely dependent on the quality of your customer’s responses to your questions. You need to pay a lot of attention to selecting the right customer rep for your interview. And your interviewer must be prepared to draw good information out of that person. There’s very little you can do in the editing process.

4. The First-Person Account

If your audience would respond well to a Q&A case study, but you want something you can place in a trade journal or use in lead generation campaigns, a “first-person” case study may fit the bill.

Like the Q&A, a first-person case study tells the story of a customer’s success with your solution in the customer’s own words. But the form is less rigid, more like that of a feature article. First-person case studies gain credibility by letting the reader hear the story “straight from the horse’s mouth” – like an extended testimonial.

First-person case studies are most often used by coaches and consultants who work with individuals. But they can succeed with corporate prospects as well, especially technical audiences. They tend to work best when the protagonist – the storyteller – had a big personal stake in the outcome of the story (had much to lose if the problem was not resolved, made or championed the purchase decision, etc).

What’s more, these individuals will often be more than willing to shepherd your case study through their own corporate approval process. After all, having a success story publicly documented can give a boost to one’s career.

Among the drawbacks of the first-person case study are that they can take longer to prepare, and they are not good for trade journal publication, due to the first-person perspective. They also have a potentially shorter shelf life. If the featured individual leaves the company, the customer might want the story discontinued.

Finally, a word of warning regarding first-person case studies: Don’t ask customers to write them themselves. Most won’t have the necessary writing skills or experience—let alone the time—to pull the project off. To create a story in the customer’s own words, your writer will need to prepare for a longer interview process and draw the full story out of the subject… without putting words in his or her mouth.

5. The Expected Results Story

Sometimes, it’s in a company’s interest to publish a case study before their customer has achieved any measurable results from their solution. This is called an “expected results” case study.

I wrote one of these recently. My client, an IT services company, had recently delivered Phase 1 of a three-phase project for a prestigious American university. We took an “expected results” approach for several reasons.

First, my client wanted to immediately leverage that success and the customer’s marquee name in their lead generation activities. But most of the measurable results of the project would not be realized until after the completion of Phase 3.

Second, Phase 1 had been the most critical phase of the project and held a very compelling story. It was a prime illustration of my client’s unique selling proposition and the reason the customer had chosen them for the job: the ability to deliver great results, on time and under budget, to an impossible deadline.

Third, while the customer had no problem with their name being used, the participation of a university representative in an interview was subject to a lengthy approval process. There was the possibility that customer participation and measurable results would never become available.

And finally, I would be interviewing members of my client’s technical staff, rather than the customer. Since staff members move quickly to other projects once a job is finished, my client wanted to document this project while it was still fresh in their minds.

Any of these circumstances would have been a good reason to proceed with an expected results story. Plus, there’s another great thing about this type of case study: it can be updated later, once the results are known.

The drawback of the expected results case study, of course, is that it has a weaker impact due to the lack of metrics. It forces you to make a case for your projected results. But if you have a compelling customer story and just lack hard results data, an expected results case study can let you leverage that story right away.

Takeaway Points

1. The traditional case study format (customer-challenge-solution-results) is still effective, but it can get lost in a crowd.

2. Traditional case studies are not always the best choice for every company, story, audience, or marketing objective.

3. Fortunately, you have a wide range of effective alternatives to the traditional case study format, including these five formats which work well with tech audiences:

  • Feature story
  • Story-within-a-story
  • Q&A
  • First-person
  • Expected results

Next Steps

If you’d like help interviewing a customer and crafting a case study in any of these formats, including the traditional one, email me at info@copyengineer.com.

References

1 Eccolo Media 2008-2014 B2B Technology Collateral Surveyswww.eccolomedia.com.

2 Content Marketing Engagement Survey Summary Report, Ascend2, June 2019.

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