Case studies are social proof for SaaS companies. Airbnb has reviews, Uber has ratings, and you have case studies. It's almost certainly your highest leveraged and most utilized content tactic. While case studies may seem simple on the surface: problem, solution, result, there's more complexity lurking beneath the surface.
There's no one size fits all format for a case study—it depends where the marketing, sales or customer success team will be using the materials within a broader campaign.
The different asset formats can be boiled down into written long-form narratives or short-form snapshots, video testimonials, or a combination of the three. We'll break down each of these formats, give a few examples and explain how to execute them.
If you've ever seen a traditional case study, you're likely familiar with the three-part story arc that has a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, introducing the customer, sharing their challenges, and finishing with their wins.
Below is a classic example of a long-form case study by Case Study Buddy, an agency started by Joel Klettke that focuses exclusively on writing case studies.
If you break it down, you can write a pretty good case study by following its format:
Factor One's case study starts out with a common relatable challenge—the client’s team has limited Google ads and paid acquisition knowledge. It positions Factor One as the ‘helper’ of the story since they’re experts in paid acquisition. But ultimately the client, 4iiii, is the 'hero,' because they were able to expand their global presence.
Emphasizing your customer as the hero and your company as the helper is important no matter the format of your case study.
Relegating your company to the background gives you more credit and makes the case study feel less salesy. Most importantly, it helps your future customers envision themselves as the hero when reading the customer story.
If you work in an industry like content marketing where results take more time than with paid acquisition, you may not have an impressive statistic or win to center the story around.
Don't panic—you can still write a great case study that will wow prospective customers. Below is an example of a blog post-style case study that creates a compelling story without one big win.
Our case study doesn’t go the traditional route of laying out the challenge, solution and results. As such, it reads differently than the more traditional case study above.
We wanted to keep the narrative style with a beginning, middle and end, but also wanted to approach it like thought leadership. So we focused on the CEO of Dock Alex Krakov's subject matter expertise and aimed to teach people something—that you can play the long game at growth even as an early-stage startup.
We talk about how the product (Superpath marketplace) helped Dock reach the publishing cadence they wanted (two long-form articles per month) with a minimal time commitment from the founder (less than five percent of his total time).
Aside from taking a thought-leadership angle to a blog post case study, you can also structure them like Buffer's a Q&A interview style blogs.
Buffer's business case studies put their customers in the spotlight. When you read them, there’s a feeling of, oh this company did a cool thing, I could do that too.
Since Buffer is a self-serve SaaS product with a low price point, they need a lot of sign-ups. Their case studies help create awareness around their product early in the buying journey.
Many companies mix and match case study formats such as video, short snapshots, and long-form narratives to create a better UX and have collateral to use in different channels.
For example, on Intercom’s customer stories, they all have an option to “See a snapshot” of the story with a short paragraph for the challenge, solution and results (plus an overview of the client).
Intercom is known for its blog written by in-house subject matter experts, but their case studies are great too. This one positions Intercom’s Messenger product as the helper and the client, Zip, as the hero. There’s a clear victory every reader can support: Zip scaled customer support without breaking the bank and saved $500k in the process.
Having the same case study in different lengths like this is great for potential customers at different buying stages. For example, someone just learning about your company will have a shorter attention span than someone who's close to closing.
Set and setting matter as well. A long-form deep dive like the one by Gong below is great for someone in later buying stages, but not so great to use on a sales call. Slide decks are better for a sales calls, which you can repurpose from a video or written case study.
Gong’s case study on Clearbit starts off with a super interesting headline and well-organized key points of the piece. The contrasting colors make it easy to skim and the writing is clear. There’s an embedded in-house video as well, which makes the case study more relatable.
Even if your marketing team doesn't have the means to do a high-production video like Gong, you can do remote video testimonials to add that human element without breaking the bank.
Like other examples of good case studies, Gong positions themselves as the supporting character and their client Clearbit as the main focus of the story. This approach makes the target audience more open to reading the results and process.
So now you know how to write a case study and choose a format depending on where you'll deploy it within a broader campaign. That said, there are some common problems you may encounter, especially with bigger and more impressive clients.
Customers wanting to stay anonymous is a common problem, especially when you get to the enterprise level or in sensitive spaces, like cloud security, Joel Klettke says.
If your client wants to stay anonymous, he advises:
Another common challenge is time constraints.
"Getting buy-in can make it complicated. Case studies are often seen as intimidating. Your customers doing you a favor, they may be worried about how long it's going to take or what might be disclosed," Joel says.
Your job as the point of contact is to prove to them that this will be a beneficial, safe opportunity that won't take too much time.
Finally, know that you can't do it all in one case study. Focusing on the narrative and a few key wins can make the difference between a great case study and one that flops.
"When you tell a story, you want it to support a real business or revenue goal. You are not just telling stories to share any old win. You are trying to arm your sales team, you're trying to arm your marketing team, you're trying to communicate something about your company through the lens of a customer win."
"A lot of companies try to bake every possible win into the story and they get these very unfocused, difficult-to-read, sprawling stories that, yes, there are a lot of great quotes, but a lot of great quotes and a couple of KPIs is not a case study," Joel explains.
So keep the story focused and remember, your goal is to tell a compelling story about your customer's journey.
Starting from scratch can be overwhelming, so we’ve compiled these case study templates to help you get started. Armed with this blog post and these templates, you'll know how to write a case study in no time.