Case studies are the written equivalent of the in-person demonstration, an opportunity to illustrate your product or service in action. The more complex or abstract your offer (attention, all "solutions providers" out there), the more valuable your case studies become: their specificity has the power to cut through the fog of business rhetoric.

Better yet, they allow your prospects to see themselves in your customers' shoes, encouraging them to imagine what it would be like to enjoy the benefits of working with you.

You can think of the case study as a cross between the testimonial and the business article. Like the testimonial, the case study features a satisfied customer who "speaks" on your behalf. Like the article, it's structured dramatically, with a clear beginning, middle and end, and holds your audience's attention through the tension of conflict and the anticipation of resolution.

In format, the case study is simplicity itself. Many are limited to just one page—a brevity that makes them especially useful as trade show handouts, direct mail inserts, and supplemental pages to Web sites, and as sales collateral that can be faxed to hot prospects.

Most are conveniently divided into three or four labeled sections that telegraph the case study structure to readers, guiding them quickly to the happy ending. These labels go under various names, but for our purposes I'll stick to three: Challenge, Solution, Result.

The Challenge: Setting Up the Problem and the Stakes

Think of the Challenge as the first act in a three-act opera: This is the place to set the scene, introduce the lead characters and present the problem or challenge that puts your story in motion. Articulating the character and context is easy—just state the facts: "Widgets, Inc. is a $50M industrial design firm serving extrusion plastics concerns in the southern United States."

For the challenge itself, present both the problem to be solved (or the opportunity that may be reached) plus the stakes—the reason that the problem or opportunity matters. It's not enough to say that Widgets, Inc. had an inefficient project management system. So what? You need to articulate the meaning of the challenge to the customer, whether it's a negative consequence to overcome or a positive outcome that might be gained:

  • Negative: "Widgets CFO Lex Palmer estimates that the company lost approximately 25,000 man-hours a year—or $1,875,000 in wasted resources—through the mismanagement of project-team time, talent and focus."

  • Positive: "According to Widgets engineer Rufus Manchester, a 15% improvement in management efficiency would cut the average project time from six weeks to four and lead to $0.75M to $1.25M in additional profits for the company."

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Jonathan Kranz is the author of Writing Copy for Dummies and a copywriting veteran now in his 21st year of independent practice. A popular and provocative speaker, Jonathan offers in-house marketing writing training sessions to help organizations create more content, more effectively.

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Twitter: @jonkranz