Writing Case Studies, Not White Papers

When we were in college, particularly those of us who came out of the social sciences, we tended to write volumes when given the task of reporting. I recall regularly churning out 50 pages or more every week at times.  For better or for worse, many researchers, ethnographers in particular, have come to think of themselves as descriptive interpreters, which often leads to rich but dense texts.  Our role has been to translate cultural practices and allow those people who consume our work determine what, if anything, should be done.  We tell a story and provide information that is deep and expansive. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, get in the way of writing short pieces meant to sell or skills and engage readers with little time or patience.  When it comes to case studies, nine times out of ten the reader is looking for information that is quite literal and instructional.  Ambiguity and/or involved anecdotal descriptions are usually rejected in favor of what is more concrete. Rather than looking for a white paper, they are looking for simplicity and proof that the research had applicable results.

White papers are detailed, often lengthy descriptions of methods, variables, problems, outcomes. They are meant to expose the reasoning and rationale behind a position, a problem or a generalized topic. The point is, they are designed to be consumed with a higher degree of reflection on the part of the reader. Case studies, in contrast, are (or should be) direct and brief. They should convince the client to seek more information and take the next step, namely, engagement with the author or company that produced them.  The case studies most potential clients want need to be short, simple, to the point and entertaining. So, other than being brief, what makes for a good case study?

It starts with understanding why we’re writing what we’re writing. It needs to entertain and be thought provoking, but it also serves a purpose for the author. Good content isn’t just fun to read. It should set in motion a sequence of visitor thoughts and actions that ultimately lead to a sale. Case studies are meant to get business, not just enlighten or entertain. The people reading the case study assume you’re writing them to drive business. If you don’t hook them, they assume you’re incompetent or you’re wasting their time. Case studies are the shiny-shiny of authorship.

Before you begin writing, organize your information around two basic principle: what was the business pain and what were the results. reveal real business pain

We often spend more time than is necessary on the way we went about finding a solution rather than thinking through why a solution was needed in the first place. Or, we don’t link the process to the outcomes.  Shorter is better and remembering that everything needs to relate to the Why and So What will help focus the story.

If the objective is to showcase your organization’s ability to generate awareness, revenue or innovation, it needs to equate capabilities with results.  Once the two fundamental points are defined, the story being told needs to be broken out into three simple elements:

  1. Issue
  2. Solution
  3. Results

A well-written case study should:

  1. Build suspense and be provocative: State the problem in terms that make the readers stop in their tracks and want to know what is to come. Simply stating problem in dry, mechanical terms doesn’t attract the reader. Set the stage with language that makes people want to see an outcome – an outcome they can’t predict.
  2. Solve a specific business problem (company X needed to know Y): Tell the reader what needed to be done, how you solved their specific problem and why your process was different from (and better than) your competition. Simply saying something along the lines of “we used an ethnographic approach to uncover insights…” won’t engage and it won’t set you apart.
  3. Solve a generalizable business problem (make money or save money): Once you tell the reader the specific problem you solved, tell them what ultimately matters most; how you made the client money or helped them save money. If the results can be quantified, all the better. The point here is that we often actually manage to overlook this part.  We give examples of outcomes that are often interesting and inspiring, but we fail to tie them back to the money.
  4. Have a satisfying conclusion: Resolve the tension that the story built at the beginning of the case study.  Don’t simply leave the reader with numbers, give them a sense of emotional resolution.
So, as an example:

What does a company do when it’s flagship product isn’t making the money it once did despite huge advertising budgets? It figures out how to talk about what it makes and sells in ways that have never been considered before. It embraces new markets. But to do that, it needs to define those markets in ways their competitors hadn’t. It needs to rethink who it is. 

As part of a brand repositioning and product development initiative, [the client] needed to develop a better understanding of how [lite beer] was understood and used in context by Latinos. They needed on-the-ground, experience-rich information. The response was an in-depth ethnographic project spanning multiple geographic areas and seasons. This wasn’t just interviews – it meant attending rodeos, picnics, BYOB restaurants, bars and birthday parties to gather insights about symbolism, rituals and uses of the product.

The research steered the client down a completely new road of product positioning, saving them millions by developing a campaign strategy and messaging system that were in line with what consumers do, not just what they say they do.  Unlike their competitors, [the client] were able to use the insights uncovered to identify entirely new channels for sales and promotions. Ultimately, sales saw a 6% increase in the first year of the new campaign.
Not a bad end result. Sometimes doing research right leads to big things. 

This is hardly ideal and its quality could no doubt be argued. But it does tell the story. And for someone simply trying to narrow the field from thousands of vendors to just a few in the space of an afternoon, it is considerably easier to read than a full-blown white paper. And that is more likely to help you make a sale.





Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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