Got This Fun, In-Demand and Lucrative Copywriting Specialty in Your Project Mix?

So, suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about case studies. For starters, I just finished a big one and it consumed a big chunk of my commercial writing life (details in the July and August ezine “Appetizer” courses).

Then, my friend Casey Hibbard (The Case-Study Queen), announced she’s offering a six-month intensive case-study coaching program for copywriters.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how marketing is moving in a much softer, gentler direction – more informational and educational (think white papers). Customers have become savvier and more skeptical (haven’t you?) over the past few decades as more and more unbiased product information is readily available. So “selling” needs to be more low-key, more genuine, and more real-world. Case studies – essentially third-party testimonials – are a perfect example of that.

In a recent email Casey sent out about her program, she noted that “survey after survey shows that happy customers are the #1 thing that influences buyers’ decisions.”

Makes sense. After all, what’s more compelling: some company telling you their product does this, that and the other, and you should buy it (even if not that inelegantly)? Or reading several verifiable stories about actual customers saying, essentially, “We had a problem, this product solved it, and we couldn’t be happier”?

Think about a case study, whose basic form discusses The Challenge the client company had encountered; The Solution offered by the vendor (for whom you’re writing the piece); and The Outcome, complete with gushing quote from the now-thrilled client.

The whole goal of the piece is to have the reader find themselves (i.e., their company) in that story, to have them say to themselves as they read about this company, “Interesting. That’s the same thing we’re wrestling with.” And given that the company is named, they can even call them up to confirm the information.

So, a case study can sell a client – or at the very least, move them a lot further and faster along the sales cycle – without any direct involvement of the company selling the product or service. True third-party selling.

The key? People don’t want to be “sold.” They want to come to their own conclusions, at their own pace, without someone (with a vested interest) breathing down their neck. They can find that company’s web site and all the information they need about the company’s offering by themselves, thank you very much, with no need (yet) to talk to a salesperson.

So a case study can do the heavy sales lifting, and if a series of them all resonate with a reader, that prospect could essentially be sold by the time they call the company. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Third-party selling is credible because, presumably, the company in question who bought the product and is now happy with the solution, would have no reason to tell tales, and no reason to speak well of a product and the company selling if it weren’t true (notwithstanding outright bribery, though again, all of it’s easy to confirm).

I have one commercial freelancing client for whom I do longer-form case studies (4-8 pages) and for fees that range from roughly $2000 to over $4000. It’s fun and challenging work. I interview several players involved in a particular project, spin an interesting (hopefully) narrative, weaving in quotes throughout – including many that gush on and on about the company. See some samples here.

If you haven’t added case studies to your freelance copywriting menu, you’re no doubt leaving money on the table – AND missing out on some enjoyable work.

And for all you ex-journos out there: case studies are one of the easiest commercial copywriting project types to transition to from a journalism background. You need to be able to add a marketing spin, but remember, you’re simply reporting how a “solution” unfolded (facts) and including quotes (more facts) from those whose company benefited from that solution. It’s the juxtaposition of those components that make it compelling to a reader.

Are case studies a part of your copywriting mix?

If not, why not? If so, what do you like about them?

If you hail from a journalism background (magazines or newspapers) and have parlayed that into writing case studies (among other projects), how did that transition go?

Any comments/observations, from your own experience, about the place of case studies in marketing today?

32 replies
  1. Bonnie Zink
    Bonnie Zink says:

    Great post, Peter, about a topic that I’ve been working with for quite some time. Although, the business world has recently seen the light in relation to the value of “case studies,” the academic and research world has been using them for quite some time.

    A journalism background would no doubt add to the process, but hailing from a research or academic background with a bit of experience in “real world” writing would add even more. I’m not a journalist. Nor am I a salesperson, but I am a researcher and writer. This combination can be stellar when it comes to portraying a company, organization, or product with the pages of a case study.

    Truly, they are “easy as pie” to write. All the information needed is usually at your fingertips, at the very least it isn’t hard to locate. As you so wisely note, case studies are a collection of facts. Allow me to add that the facts are wrapped in stellar, crisp, and persuasive writing that ultimately conveys the perceptions and opinions of outside (third party) source who possesses first hand knowledge and experience with the subject of the case study. Often it is easy to convey the business’s values, vision, and goals through the perceptions of those interviewed.

    What can be more powerful than that?

  2. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Case studies are definitely in my mix and one of my favorite things to do. What I love about them is the storytelling aspect. Who doesn’t love a story? They also allow me to meet interesting people and learn about new businesses and get a feel-good story to boot.

  3. Pamela DeLoatch
    Pamela DeLoatch says:

    Peter, what a timely post. I just signed up for Casey’s mentoring program. I do have a journalism background, and like the more informational/educational type of marketing writing. I’ve written several case studies, and this is an area I want to focus on. I’m looking forward to learning more!

  4. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    And here I thought everyone knew about case studies. I am also a researcher and writer, getting the copywriting side of the business was a bit of a struggle for me. Informational and educational writing has been my primary focus. That goes to show, you never can tell what the next ‘hot’ specialty will be.

  5. Chip Tudor
    Chip Tudor says:

    You covered it well, Peter. Case Studies are in my mix too. And I agree with what other’s have said. The marketing power in a compelling case study is the opportunity to weave a story–problem, conflict, and resolution with an emotional appeal. It draws the reader in and presents the client as a hero. Even small companies with a modest budget can make good use of them.

  6. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great topic, Peter.

    I’ve done case studies of varying lengths for a while now. And you’re right – if you don’t do them, that’s money you’ve left on the table. They’re articles with a bit of advertisement. They’re white papers with more panache. They’re factual, but heavy on the “this is great” angle.

    I didn’t have much trouble transitioning to any type of marketing writing. I simply switched up my focus. Journalism expects an unbiased account. I always balanced stories with opposing viewpoints. I’m simply removing that opposition.

    One thing I will say – I have to believe in the company and their product. Mind you I don’t feel I need to buy their products, but understanding the products and how the company handles things is pretty important to me. If their business model doesn’t mesh or if they’re not exactly doing as they say they’re doing, I can’t help promote that.

  7. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Success stories from authentic sources represent one of the most powerful ways to sell anything. You’re right that people don’t put much stock in claims of what you can do, but they sit up and pay attention when you show them what you really did in all its glorious detail. And the greatest thing a business can add to a case study to boost its power is another case study, and another and another. A preponderance of evidence eliminates any lingering doubts that the success detailed in the first case study was a fluke.

  8. Star
    Star says:

    I used to write Apple’s Exploring the Apple Virtual Campus column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Each was a CS of how an Apple product was used at a college or univ. Overall, I have done more than 100 case studies–for Apple, IBM, Digital, Tandberg, Informix. I like them because they are like reporting. I haven’t run across much of this work lately–thanks for the reminder.

  9. Joe
    Joe says:

    Peter, great topic. I wholeheartedly agree and believe that case studies are becoming more and more important in a client’s sales packet. I have been working on increasing that aspect of my business for several months, now.

    Lori put it well in her comments above. But I will say that as a former journalist, I believe I can bring a bit more ‘zing’ to the writing style. Unlike resesarchers or academics, journalists tend to put more emphasis on the readability of and identification with the content (no offense, Bonnie) and that’s really the trick — if you get someone to read and put themselves in the client’s place, they are more likely to respond.

  10. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    I am stalled on writing my first case study for a client, because the person I’m supposed to be interviewing has turned into a flake. They have set (and broken) three different interview appointments over the course of a month, most often by not being in the office when I call at the appointed time. This has caused me to waste valuable time refreshing myself on materials and delaying other appointments. My client doesn’t seem to mind, but it’s really bumming me out.

    Unlike situations where you’re interviewing someone with a vested interest in getting the interview done, you’re at the mercy of a disinterested third party’s schedule. My advice to others doing case studies is to get your full payment up front.

  11. Star
    Star says:

    Stacy–I am not sure, of course, but you could have a problem. Case studies amount to asking a customer to comment on a vendor…Sometimes they have reasons for not wanting to…They may not be completely happy with the product or service, but don’t want to go public. There can be other reasons, too–the interviewee may know somehow higher in the company is not happy and doesn’t want to go out on a limb. Or, as you say, they may be a flake. I would ask the client for another name…”Apparently, Joe Smith is running around like mad, can you think of someone else who might have time to answer some questions…?” On the other hand–you can SELL your case study writing by saying, “Sometimes your client will tell an outsider like me things they would not say to one of your employees.”

  12. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all!

    Great comments here. And it sounds like both the researcher/academic AND journalist types both feel they have the ideal skill sets to write case studies… 😉 Both are excellent backgrounds for writing good ones. All that said, I’d tend to agree with Joe, that ex-journos can probably bring a bit more color to their pieces, and make them more compelling, as that was what they’ve trained to do.

    As I see it, that should always be your goal with ANY copywriting project you do: make it more interesting, engaging and readable. Case studies are simply the most obvious outlet for that – but no reason why you can’t bring the same rigor to brochures, ads, newsletters, white papers, sell sheets, etc. Assuming that tone is appropriate, of course.

    And Stacy, about your situation, I think Star offered up some great insights here. Did you ask your client to contact them in advance and let them know you’d be calling? Even when they do that, you can still end up in a situation like you describe, but if they don’t, it can just exacerbate it.

    And when a interviewee perceives that they’re doing you (and their vendor) a favor by talking to them, they may likely perceive that they’ve got the upper hand and may treat the appointment a bit more cavalierly than they would if it were, say, a conference call with their boss… 😉

    One thought on how to deal with this issue is this: if you have a scheduling program like iCal or a similar one that allows you to generate an email to your interviewee that underscores that this is in fact, an “appointment” and that on this day and this time, you will be calling them, they might just take it more seriously. At the very least, they’ll see that you’re a buttoned-up type and may be less likely to treat it so casually.

    All that said, this sort of scenario is not at all uncommon, and you’re right to get back in touch with your client and let them know you’re running up against a brick wall. In any cases, they’ll have a good enough relationship with their customer that they can gently nudge them to help get it done. Hope that helps!


  13. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    I really empathize with Stacy’s problem. The client’s failure to line up and confirm *their* client’s participation has been my biggest frustration in those few case studies that have not gone well and the only reason that I have ever been unable to complete one. When the client doesn’t do their job, we can’t do ours.

    And let me emphasize that unlike a by-lined journalistic assignment where it’s the writer/reporter’s responsibility to get interviewees to participate, with case studies — which are not independent journalism but a piece of the client’s marketing collateral — it is 100% their responsibility to a) know that there’s actually a story to be told (with no hidden problems or traps waiting for the interveiwer) and b) get their customer on-board.

    On my best case study projects, my client actually participated in conference call interviews, though they had me ask most of the questions. Then after the interview the client and I discussed the story and the main take-aways that the client wanted to see in it. Again: this is not journalism, so I have no problem with the client specifying up front what they want to see in the piece (same as they would with any other collateral project). It makes my job easier and provides an objective measure of what I deliver.


  14. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    I’m throwing in my two cents worth related to Stacy’s situation. I’ve done a lot of case studies and love these projects. I tried to specialize a couple of years ago but was unable to create a big enough pipeline to do them exclusively…probably more due to the economy. I still usually write a couple each month.

    Because of my sales, marketing and journalism background, I’m fairly adept at identifying good prospects for case studies and seem to be able to easily get them involved in the process. So I offer this service to clients. I call the customer (just like a journalist looking for a story) on the client’s behalf and ask them for their participation. Then I schedule the interviews, do them, write the story, distribute to everyone for approvals, sign offs, etc. and sometimes even work with the designer for publishing and photos. All of this of course allows for me to charge a higher fee too. Since we are asking them for their participation for free, I usually ask my client to provide them with a restuarant gift certificate or some token of appreciation after the whole process is over (50-100 bucks is about right), but I NEVER tell the candidate up front they are getting anything.

    One thing I’ve found is that a quick turnaround can sometimes reduce the risk of an interview candidate losing interest or becoming difficult to get in touch with. In other words the longer the whole process takes, the more likely it may go awry, not always, but almost as a rule. Once we have a prospect identified, I try to get them interviewed and the story written and back to them for review within a week, two weeks max. I find while the momentum is high, it is usually easier to get them to respond. Does this always work? Well, I had a story for a client earlier this year that was supposed to take a month and it took four, so…no, but we got it done.

    I have one client who schedules everything for me and even outlines where he wants my questioning to go, i.e. the aspects of his service he wants me to explore with his customers. He doesn’t lead to get the answers, but he is looking for answers in specific aspects of quality management, so his approach is extremely helpful. Usually when he lines up the customer’s participation, he askes me to contact them the same day to schedule the interview; which of course happens at the candidate’s convenience, but again usually fairly quickly. I then try to write and get back to them the same week. Then my client takes care of all the approvals and sign offs, and I’m out of the picture unless there is anything to be brushed up from the writing side. This solution costs less for my client, and it also works well.

    Probably half of the case studies I do appear in trade magazines (without a byline – or maybe ghost written). (These folks usually don’t get a gift certificate.) For these there is also the editor’s involvement and deadlines to consider as well as everyone elses schedule, so again planning is key.

    My point in all this…it’s important to determine up front with your client everyone’s roles and responsibilities, charge accordingly, then execute quickly whenever possible. (Guess I could have said that without all the examples, but hopefully some helpfulness here for Stacy and others.)


  15. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    I think the scenario you’re talking about, Steve, is mostly applicable to smaller companies. I write a lot of case studies for Fortune 500 companies and there’s a lot more politics involved. There is often several people and departments on both sides who need to give approval before an interview can be conducted. The internal liaison who deals with the subject of the case study usually wouldn’t want me, as a freelance writer, to be the first one to reach out to them.

  16. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    I’m with you, Joe. Whether my client is a Fortune 500 or a small- to mid-sized company, I want them to get their customer on-board with the case study before I reach out to them. When they fail to do that, the case study doesn’t materialize.

    That was the case with one software client whose product was used by a large midwestern city government. Another software company involved in the same project got a good story out of it — in trade media as well as in collateral. So my client wanted one, too. I start by calling their regional sales guy as instructed by my marketing contact only to learn that he’s just been let go and has zero interest in talking to me about the project. And no one else in his office is knowledgeable enough to be of any help. Likewise with the local reseller who was involved. He didn’t really develop the solution. He brought in my client’s guy when he realized the city needed more than he could provide without support from my client. And, of course, my repeated emails and voicemails for the city’s project manager (identified in the other company’s case study) went unanswered.

    No one else in my client’s company knew what they had sold to this city or why. No one else had any relationship with the customer. End of story.

  17. Alan Kravitz
    Alan Kravitz says:

    Great comments here! I’ve done many case studies over the years, but the info here gives me great ideas on how to market this service further.

    On the issue of Stacy’s problem, I agree with Joe that you should be careful about reaching out to an interview subject before the client does. I deal with a lot of non-profit organizations, and from my experience, they would frown on that. When I do a case study with the client, it is the client’s responsibility to line up interview prospects and make sure they would want to be interviewed. I make contact only after this has been agreed upon.

  18. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    In most cases, I find that the client has to be the one who identifies the case studies, because the success stories are bubbling up through sales reps to the marketing department. It may be that Steve’s approach works with certain companies. And, if you are dealing with a small enough company, they might be OK about giving you a client list and having you do some prospecting for them. However, a lot of the companies I deal with would have some upset salespeople if the marketing side or a freelance writer was reaching out to customers without their knowledge. One piece of advice I would give to copywriters just getting into this area is not to underestimate the politics of dealing with a client’s clients.

  19. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    Also Ken, I chuckled knowingly over your comment about having clients sit in on a conference call during interviews. For some projects, I had had — no kidding — 7 or 8 people sitting in on the telephone interview, mostly different PR or sales people who had some small piece of the area I was talking to the interviewee about.

    In fact, here’s another piece of advice to journalists and writers getting this area. Being a strong writer and fact-gathering is essential. However, one thing people often overlook is clients will also evaluate how you interact with their clients. I know I’ve gotten business over the years because clients told me they felt they could trust me with their clients. This is a different skillset than when you’re a journalist.

  20. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great discussion, everyone! Good to get the range of firsthand experiences from different folks about logistics and processes. I no doubt haven’t done as many case studies as Joe, Steve, Ken and some others, but I absolutely believe the caution about treading carefully through the political minefields.

    That said, I’ve done a bunch for this one company, and I always get the salesperson involved in the process (at the suggestion of my client). Not because they might get their nose out of joint if we don’t, but because he or she was usually intimately involved in the success story.

    In fact, they’re typically my first interview, because they generally have more of the 30K-foot view and can give you a good overview of the whole project and how it unfolded, which is a great place to begin in getting the lay of the land. And in the process, they can give you guidance as to the kinds of things to ask the client, and even whom to talk to in the first place as far as the major players. And because you’re involving them, they’re going to be much more helpful and cooperative.

    And Joe, you’re dead-on with your discussion of how important it is to be good with your client’s customers. Think about it. These are their best and happiest customers, and they want to keep them happy, and the last thing they need is some writer with a poor bedside manner mucking up any of that goodwill.

    So, ALWAYS be polite, professional, friendly, accommodating, good-natured, and understanding with your client’s clients. You are representing your client’s company, and you want to make sure you’re leaving a good impression.

    I chuckle when I think of a case study I did many years ago for a different client. I was on the phone with one of their customers for a follow-up phone call to fill in a few blanks (which I try to avoid if at all possible; one call where you get it all is ideal). I had a great rapport with this guy.

    After answering my questions really slowly and in sort of disjointed fashion, he finally admitted he’d been out late the night before, had gotten plastered, and was really hung over. And the synapses just weren’t firing. We had a big laugh about it, and that relaxed things quite a bit and we got things done… 😉 But, his candor started with a good rapport.


  21. Casey Hibbard
    Casey Hibbard says:

    I love the story about the hungover case study subject! So funny.

    I completely agree with those who stress that your client has to queue up the customer contact before the writer gets involved. In fact, ideally the marketing person shouldn’t even do the asking, but the sales or account manager – i.e. the person with the closest relationship with the customer.

    With that approach, the customer is more likely to agree to say yes. The rep also feels like he/she is kept in the loop. After doing lots of case studies, I can tell you this matters. When marketing just goes down a list asking customers versus the rep asking, the percentage of resulting case studies is higher.

    Adding to Peter’s comment, when the rep then hands off the customer to the writer, that’s your chance to get great background to help you shape your questions. Always ask the sales rep what messages in the case study would help him/her get more clients like this.

    Thanks for the fun discussion!


  22. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Casey!

    Good stuff. Adding to what she said, remember that one of the key reasons (in my experience) you’re doing a case study is for the salespeople to have some more tools to use to sell other clients. As such, often it’s the sales rep pushing to get it done. So, getting them involved will get a motivated ally on your side throughout the process. And making sure you hit the points the sales rep wants covered will keep them on your side.

    By the way, in case some of you don’t know who Casey is, she’s THE case-study guru out there, who literally wrote the book on the subject, so I really appreciate her stopping by and joining in the discussion.

    If you haven’t made case-study writing a part of your mix (or even if you have, but want to take the specialty to another level), you need to check out her book. The woman knows her stuff.


  23. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    To respond briefly to Joe, Ken and Alan’s comments – great ones by the way. Yes – these interview contacts happen in a lot of different ways depending on who is involved. I’ve had sales reps who need to set everything up and company owners who just gave me a names to call. I’ve worked through PR firms too. Sometimes they just tell you when you can talk to their client, and you BETTER be available. I’ve done case studies for magazines that feature a customer and multiple vendors too. This can be challanging for getting approvals, etc. but I’ve also found them very gracious and easy to work with. This is also a great way to get additional work.
    Peter, to add to your comment about including sales reps, I’ve even featured sales reps in the text of the story a time or two.

    There are definitely more hoops to jump through for larger companies, and more reviews for public companies, if they let you do a case study at all. I haven’t done as many projects for larger companies, but a few. Joe, to your comment on trust, I actually did three case studies earlier this year for one of the world’s largest printer hardware manufacturers (the one with the name that has two letters), and believe it or not, after I did the first one, a sales rep identified a half dozen potential clients and sent me the contact info via their marketing firm (my client) to follow up on. I recruited the next two candidates from these names. This doesn’t happen often though, and I didn’t mean to imply that you just reach out in every case. It all depends on who the players are. All activity needs to be at the client’s directive and handled with extreme care.

    As Peter mentioned, occasionally you get to know people personally while doing this work. For one client a few years ago I worked with their customer in Central California over a couple of months doing a press release about their project, a case study for my client’s web site, and a case study for a trade pub who picked up our story in the media release. This customer was especially cooperative and helpful throughout the process and my client treated him to Ruth’s Chris at the end (at my suggestion). Then a few months later he came to Orlando to vacation and actually phoned me. I got to go to his hotel and meet his family. Very fun.

    I know I’ve rambled a bit here, but this is some of the FLCWing I enjoy most.


  24. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    Geeze, when I started my comment Casey and Peter hadn’t commented yet. I was watching the Chile Miners be rescued while writing and should’ve refreshed first. I may sound like I’m contradicting Casey’s coaching here – which I highly respect (as you know Casey!) Just sharing my experiences…really!

  25. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Steve,

    I, for one, am happy that you enjoy this part of FLCW’ing. I appreciate your (and everyone else’s) insights. I think the key here (as is the case with almost every part of what we do) is that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how anything works or unfolds. So, I’m sure Casey wasn’t offended…;)

    Steve, you talked about mentioning the sales rep in the case study. I always quote the sales rep in the case study. Not because I’m trying to stroke his or her ego, but because they’re an integral part of the story.

    Anyway, thanks again to all – great discussion!


  26. Star
    Star says:

    When I was writing the “Exploring the Apple Virtual Campus” column, I also had to go through Public Info Officers are the universities–another step…The profs weren’t crazy about seeming to recommend a company without permission. The Ivory Tower, and all that.

  27. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    That reminds me of one of my other assigned case studies that never materialized. Another instance of the client not doing their homework. They briefed me effectively on the customer’s story and gave me the name of their immediate contact who had agreed to participate. When I tried by phone and email to schedule an interview with the customer, he passed me on to a higher-up whose only role in this matter was to tell me in email that the company does not participate in case studies for its vendors. More wasted time.

  28. Mark Cowtan
    Mark Cowtan says:

    Here’s a perspective from your target customer – the one with the marketing budget!

    Case studies are one of the easiest things to give away to a freelance writer, because they don’t require much subject matter expertise. However, to really get off to a good start, PAY ATTENTION to:
    1) the precise format and structure of previous material
    2) ask the client to list the top 3 solution benefits that need to be called out…
    THEN go and study how that company talks about those benefits themselves on their website.
    3) ask more questions about the GOALs of the piece
    4) ask MORE questions about the GOALs of the piece

    I know I’ve got 6 other hot tips… I’ll post them when I can remember what they are!

  29. Mark Cowtan
    Mark Cowtan says:

    Me again, the Marketing guy. Stacy makes two very good points.
    Time wasting or stalled projects because the approvals aren’t in place.
    Time wasting or stalled projects because the point of contact is a flake.
    You just need a clause in your engagement agreement that outlines your terms and puts a price tag on an aborted project resulting from these scenarios. Again you need specific rules that you abide by. Seven call attempts; 2 missed appointments that sort of thing. As long as you present it clearly and its a reasonable rate anyone that doesn’t recognize this reality, this customer is likely to become one of those “customers you should fire”, I mentioned in another thread…

    Happy writing

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