How to write a case study (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Image: Procter & Gamble

Dear Dr. Wobs,

How do you write a captivating one-page case study that provides enough information to be understandable (and credible), but doesn’t overwhelm with detail? I read your blog post on preparing for an interview, and found it helpful, but I’d like more information on producing the case study. I’ve also found that “case study” can be many different things – from profile to story to a poster with results. What are your thoughts? Do you have any best-in-class examples to point towards?

Thank you!

Case studies follow a formula

Dear Rachel,

You’re right, there are a lot of different varieties of case studies. For example, I’ve written case studies in the form of research reports (for Forrester), proof points in business books, and articles (like this one for Harvard Business Review).

But despite the variety, they have a common set of major elements. They’re typically no more than a few pages long, with a common structure. Remember that every case study is a story, with characters, a problem, a solution, and an insight at the end. Here’s a template with pieces, illustrated with an example from my first book with Charlene Li, Groundswell.

0. Set things up

It’s useful to use a few sentences to set up the problem you’re solving. This is optional, and depends on the format. For example:

“[Let’s look at how] Procter & Gamble . . . found a unique way to use communities to talk to a very challenging collection of customers.

1. Introduce the main character(s) and their problem

I find it useful to plunge people directly into the problem by showing it through the eyes of your protagonist. Introduce them, explain a little about them, and then explain their problem.

Let’s talk about tampons.

What’s that you say? You don’t want to talk about tampons? Well, now you can understand the challenge Bob Arnold has at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Bob is part of the team tasked with marketing feminine care products to young girls. At age thirty, he’s had only one employer, P&G, and had previously worked on Internet sites for P&G’s cleaning products aimed at women. But feminine care products are a whole other level of difficulty. The consumers in this case are utterly resistant to messages about the product category. (Even more than you don’t want to talk about tampons, an eleven-year old girl really doesn’t want to talk about them— or listen to a commercial when her brother is in the room.)

In this section, include only enough detail to make the protagonist seem like a real person, and to define the problem. Leave out any details that you don’t connect with the solution or measurements in the next two sections.

2. Explain how they figured out a solution

Here’s where you tell the story from the protagonist’s point of view. Solutions worthy of a case study take time, and rarely follow a straight path. Explain the way they proposed to solve the problem and then show what actually happened.

Bob Arnold and the team at Procter & Gamble’s femcare group needed a new way to speak to their consumers. Traditional advertising was problematic—shouting doesn’t work so well when people are embarrassed to listen. So Bob and his team conceived a new approach— solve the girls’ problems, instead of marketing to them. This was the genesis of beinggirl.com.

Beinggirl.com is not a community site about tampons. (Who would visit that?) It’s about everything that young girls deal with. . . . So Bob set out to create a site that had categories girls would be interested in, as opposed to those that would sell product. “We own this sort of growing-up part that people are too scared to touch,” he told us. “We’ve really tried to create a community around that.” . . . Another popular part of the site features a psychologist, Dr. Iris Prager, who will answer your questions, no matter how embarrassing. . . .  Iris also answers other favorites like “Will a shark attack me if I swim in the ocean during my period?” (answer: it’s better to be careful and wear a tampon) and “How can I get along better with my mom?” (don’t always try to have the last word). Some are about puberty and health, and some are not. But every post has that little brand tag [brought to you by Always pads & pantiliners and Tampax tampons] at the end.

This is where Rachel’s question about details comes in. You want to include enough details so that the story makes sense, but no more. Avoid digressions; stick with the story elements that explain how the protagonist and team solved the problem. If an obstacle or twist in the story is instructive, leave it in; otherwise skip it.

3. Show how they measured the results

A case study isn’t worth much unless it’s a proven success (or an instructive failure). I always press for numbers in case study interviews. Then plug them in at the end of the case study to prove that the approach works.

Is it working? Well, Bob told us beinggirl.com now attracts more than 2 million visitors a month worldwide. Traffic in 2007 was up over 150 percent versus the previous year. That’s a record any media site would envy, and this is a site set up by a consumer packaged goods company!

How did beinggirl.com get there? Procter & Gamble cleverly gives the site a little boost. First of all, it’s featured in the kits that the company distributes for health classes around the country. That’s how a lot of girls hear about it. Secondly, once a week, P&G emails girls who sign up, to remind them about the site and bring them back. And finally, the company includes a free sample area—fill out a few questions, and P&G will figure out what you need and send you a few.

4. Drive home the point

Every good fable ends with “So, the moral of the story is . . . ” A case study isn’t worth reading unless you explain what it means. Here’s how we did that with beinggirl.com:

Take a look at what P&G did here. Because young girls resist messages about the company’s products, its marketers were pretty much locked out of the funnel. To become part of the dialogue among young girls, Procter & Gamble created a social network. And because it solved customers’ problems, instead of its own, the customers were willing to share. Add subtle brand messages and free samples, and P&G was able to become part of the dialogue from which it had previously been excluded.

Is there a company that understands the value of media better than P&G? This is the company that practically invented the soap opera and spends $8.6 billion per year to advertise its products worldwide. But media is one thing. Community is another. Community is better.

According to P&G’s internal math, beinggirl.com is four times as effective as advertising in reaching its target consumers. That’s why P&G has expanded beinggirl.com to forty-six countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.

The same structure applies regardless of format

We also published this same case study as a short Forrester report (if you click, you’ll only be able to read it if you’re a Forrester client). It’s still a story, just told in a different format. Each of the sections I’ve described above — setup, introduction of characters and problem, narrative about the solution, measurement, and the moral of the story — becomes a separate section with its own subhead. In each section, you describe what’s happening, and then use bullets to describe the elements of the problem, the steps in the solution, or the statistical measures of success.

Groundswell is full of case studies like these. My former colleagues Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine also had some terrific examples in their book on customer experience, Outside In.

I’ve probably written about 80 of these in books, reports, and articles. Once you get used to this formula, it becomes a versatile tool. But despite the consistency of the format, it doesn’t have to get boring. Just remember that you’re telling a story about real people and show us how they solved a problem. You can capture people’s attention and drive home a message in just a page or two. That’s why case studies are such an effective part of business writing.

Here’s a video of me presenting this case at a conference. Case studies are great in speeches. Without this case study, I could never have stood up in front of audiences all over the world and said “Let’s talk about tampons.”

Do you have a question? Post it here. If I answer it, I’ll send you a signed copy of Writing Without Bullshit.

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  1. This is a great story, but in the results section, I’d like to know if their efforts helped achieve their basic goal – to increase sales of products to that specific target group. Traffic is great but the reason they set up the site was to increase sales. Those numbers (I’m assuming they’re good or you wouldn’t have used the example) would give the story, and thus their methods, more legitimacy.


    1. You are correct, of course. But one of the problems with case studies is that the people you interview won’t always tell you the exact numbers that you’d like to know. P&G was not going to give out sales numbers to me, although in the book I made some estimates of how much the community was worth to them.

      The lessons here are (1) you should always ask for the number you want — worst that can happen is they won’t tell you, but sometimes you get lucky and (2) if you can’t get that, get what you can. A number like 4x as effective as advertising for P&G is persuasive, even if it’s not a sales number.

      1. This is also helpful! I often wonder what to do if I don’t have results for a case study. I still want to highlight the story, and usually end up specifying the metrics that the company is tracking instead. While not ideal, it’s better than nothing!

  2. Thanks so much, Dr. Wobs! This is exactly what I need for the case studies I’m working on. I hadn’t thought about having a protagonist in a 2-paragraph/one slide case study, but your point that every case study is a story explains why this is necessary. I love the way you use a memorable example to present the case study elements. I’m bookmarking this post and will reference it often!