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The Personal Touch: Writing Case Studies that Get Read—and Results (Part 2)

Note: For the previous installment of "Writing Case Studies that Get Read—and Results," click here.

Let's be honest: Prospects will naturally put up barriers when they read a case study. They know it isn't impartial like a trade magazine article. They assume you're filtering out the negative. And obviously, they recognize its purpose: It's a sales tool.

So how do you overcome readers' resistance…in one or two pages, no less? You take them inside the process and prove everything! Here's how:

Emphasize process and benefits. Your clients want a bird's eye view of how you do business in the real world. Sure, they can call your references, but you need them to return your calls first. Give them a glimpse into your step-by-step process (without giving away too many trade secrets). Hit the key areas: budgeting, concept, development, workflow, training, implementation, tracking, and maintenance. You can even admit unforeseen bumps in the process, provided they give you an avenue to demonstrate your flexibility and ability to adapt.

Similarly, help your readers visualize the benefits. Anyone can say they reduce costs and redundancies—your competitors certainly are. But your readers won't be moved by vague statements, and they won't automatically associate certain features with their accompanying benefits.

Paint the picture of how their world will be different and better using images from their daily lives. Always emphasize the twin themes of results and ease, without gushing into too much hyperbole. And drop the industry or MBA jargon unless the audience calls for it. Of course, edit out any extraneous words or concepts (unless you're using repetition to hammer home a key point).

Provide measurable results. Claims are good; quantifiable data is better. Provide statistics spelling out measurable growth and ROI. For example, the use of percentages, like "Increased output by 35 percent," is helpful. But back them up with real numbers, like "bolstering second quarter revenue by $175,000," to further reinforce your message. In addition, include graphs, charts, and comparison tables, since visuals often pop off the page and give data extra punch.

Include quotes. Empirical data appeals to the left brain. But logic alone doesn't sell a solution. You need to kindle an emotional buy-in too. And there's no better way than including quotes from your customers. Use quotes reflecting differentiators that are hard (capabilities and experience) and soft (responsiveness, relationship, and service). Avoid generic quotes like "thrilled with results." You want statements that are precise and sensory—or convey a deep passion, affinity, and satisfaction with your company.

To boost your credibility, include the names and titles of those you quote. If your design permits, slap this person's picture into your case study. You may even include quotes from other customers in a sidebar to reinforce your message. Don't forget: You're giving another company free publicity. Their customers may also read it. Make sure you're mirroring their brand message, and definitely get their blessing before distributing your study.

Don't forget the graphics. We're all familiar with the KISS philosophy: keep it simple, stupid. The same applies to designing your case study. Start with organization. Open with a compelling headline ("Company X Doubles Market Share Using Product Y"). Organize your content in a way that is visually inviting and easy to follow.

For example, you can open with an executive summary outlining the problem and solution. From there, break up the information, using subheads like Business Challenge, Process, Solution, and Results. Use this same format on every case study. Call attention to specific benefits or statements with pull-quotes. If you're selling a tangible, include a picture of a solution, along with a caption.

Similarly, consider budgeting space for a sidebar column, with bullets summarizing key points. This sidebar could also include key specs or a shorter study highlighting additional points. You could even include items, such as statistics or ideas, to increase your studies' stickiness. For example, a sidebar could incorporate a how-to or checklist to increase the likelihood your study is saved or referred to in the future.

Above all, don't neglect your branding. Employ a consistent design incorporating your standard color scheme and logo. Make sure you use a durable and attractive paper stock, since you want your study handed around. Don't forget, this is a sales piece. It is designed to churn out leads, trigger the next step, or convert fence sitters into clients. Always include a company-specific Website, e-mail, and phone information to make it easy to reach you.

Provide an update. And they all lived happily ever after, right? Your prospect cared enough to read through your study, but they probably want to know what's happening now. Budget a few sentences to detail how the relationship has evolved since the initial project. In particular, are you providing additional support that has deepened the relationship? And has this relationship enabled you to produce similar projects for other companies in this space?

Final thoughts. Reflect on your own buying decisions. In a store, you'll stare at a product from different vantage points. You'll touch it and envision how it'll fit into your life. You'll mentally list all the pros and cons, placing value on each. A case study is no different. It must place the reader within the action. Like a store clerk, it must stir and reinforce those sentiments that your solution—despite whatever change is required—is what they truly want and need.

Remember, you're competing with a variety of alternatives, where complacency is always your toughest rival. Always ask yourself, what would it take to jolt your prospect out of their comfort zone? Then, take it to the next logical step: If the prospect had two comparable solutions side-by-side, what would be the differentiator? Whether it's service, quality or price, accentuate this strength in your study.

SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.