Insert the words case study into your subject line and most online readers will snap to attention. White papers may get a yawn, but a case study promises real-life solutions and insider tips on how it all really works.

We're not talking Harvard Business School, although the HBS case study approach has revolutionized business education. Short case studies fashioned as marketing vehicles can be surprisingly effective.

So what is the formula for a case study that packs a punch but is digestible enough to appeal to an online reader?

- organize your information with sign posts
- reveal real business pain
- include specific, quantifiable results.

Whether it's the lead article in your e-newsletter or featured content on your site, a well-written case study should:

- build suspense
- have a satisfying conclusion
- solve a generalizable business problem (make money or save money)

If the objective is to showcase your organization's capabilities, it may also propel the reader into the first step of the buying process for your product or service.

Compelling Content
In other words, 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.

Customer Profiles, Success Stories or Case Studies
Personally, I like “case study.” It suggests a story with a beginning, middle and end--a tidy resolution.

It doesn't matter what you call them. Just be consistent. And recognize that visitors to your site aren't dumb. They know why you're including case studies.

Is It a Challenge with a Result? A Problem with a Solution?
Whatever nomenclature you decide on, stick with it. Three subheads work well as signposts for your readers. As an example:

- challenge
- solution
- result


- issue
- approach
- current situation

A consistent organization to your case studies makes them easier to grasp--and also easier to write. If the case study is on your site, use a consistent layout on the page as well.

Snack, Bite, Meal
(Thanks to E-Write Online for this phrase, which is a good reminder of how to write for the Web.)

In other words, consider writing a case study in several levels. The top one is your signpost subheads with a summary blurb under each. Readers who want to know more can click through to a complete version that goes into more detail.

What Makes a Great Case Study
I asked Ellis Booker, editor of BtoB magazine, for his tips. He's been publishing a “from the trenches” case study in BtoB Hands-On, the print pub's free weekly e-newsletter, since January, 2002. He swears by his formula.

Short, Candid and Revealing
The best case studies, Booker said, are ones “that sound like a legitimate problem. The reader wants candor. They want to see the pain point. Readers want something to be revealed.”

Even more effective is a story that says, “We screwed up.” It should offer “a dialectic. Readers like opposing points of view.”

The case study “has to be specific and easily digestible. It has to be tactical information that can be generalized,” he said. “Unless you have results, the case study is not nearly as powerful as it should be.”

Stick to a Word Count
Booker assigns a limit of around 300 words to his writers, although most of BtoB's case studies are a bit longer. A more reasonable word count is 500 words. If your readers can't skim quickly to get the gist, you're wasting your efforts.

Beware of Letting PR Folks Write Your Case Studies
GE Commercial Finance is a mega, content rich site filled with case studies (GE calls them success stories) that showcase the conglomerate's many corporate financing capabilities.

Unfortunately, someone included the sub-head "GE Advantage" in every one of them. This significantly undercuts their usefulness as credible marketing tools.

If you must delegate the writing of a case study to your PR folks, be prepared to take an editor's pen to the copy they submit. Strike out the Pollyanna, oh-we're-wonderful tone. And slash the marketing speak.

Developing Case Studies is Part of Knowledge Management
Whether your company is large or small, you've got stories to tell--about customers, competitors or yourself. Generating case studies for your Web site or e-newsletter is one way to harness your knowledge-based assets.

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Debbie Weil is an online marketing and corporate blogging consultant based in Washington, DC. She blogs at and Visit her main site at