Writing case studies is fun, but it can be a tough job too. A process or methodology can help you to work more efficiently and to go from a to z much faster. Whether you are a freelance copywriter or an in-house content professional, the BRICS approach is your way to a smooth case study writing process.
I like writing case studies. But it always strikes me how little time I am actually writing and how much time is spent dealing with other odds and ends.
That’s why, when I am starting a case study writing project, I try not to follow my instincts too much. Instead, I try to follow a fixed method. This gives me direction and makes sure that I can finish the job much faster without running into surprises. And when a client asks me to tackle a new case study project, I know exactly what to do.
The process that works for me, is what I call the BRICS method:
I know, it’s a simple model, but looking at the case study writing process this way helps me to better schedule my time and it allows me to make it clear to my client where I am in the process.
Let’s have a deeper look at the BRICS method.
Brief: get the story basics
When you receive a case study assignment, you usually have a lot of information you need to process. Sometimes, your client will give you a briefing document to start with, but that is not always the case. When you receive a briefing from your customer, you should ask yourself two things:
- Is it clear? Do I understand everything?
- Is it complete? Am I missing anything?
At the start of a case study project, you should at least know these basics to start with:
- What company is the case study talking about?
- What is the product or service that has been sold?
- Who can you contact for an interview or for more information?
- If you want to do an interview:
- Does the interviewee know anything about the project? Ideally, you should interview someone who was involved in the buying process, or at least someone who has influenced the buying decision.
- Is the interviewee authorized to talk on behalf of the company? This is important. You don’t want to end up with a case study that cannot be approved by your end customer, because the interviewee was not allowed to speak publicly in the company’s name.
Make sure your interviewee has knowledge and speaking authority.
The briefing phase usually includes some kind of intake call with the client who ordered the case study writing project (= the seller). Sometimes, you will need to talk to somebody different than the one who sent you the briefing document. Usually, the sales manager or account manager is your guy or gal.
A sales manager may be able to tell you how the sales process went, which objections needed to be overcome, and ultimately how the end client (buyer) got convinced. This is all valuable information that might help you to develop your interview questions.
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Research: prepare your case study in detail
You received a first briefing. Now it’s time to see if there are any missing pieces. Make sure you know who the company is you will be interviewing, what role your interviewee has in the organization, and what products or services that organization has bought from your client. All of this should allow to make a solid questionnaire.
Don’t overdo it, though. You don’t need to know everything about the project yet. Otherwise, why would you need an interview then? But at least, you should have an idea of what it is about, so you don’t come across as awkward or ignorant.
Interview: unleash your inner journalist
For many copywriters and case study writers, the interview is the most dreaded part of the case study writing process.
Maybe this has happened to you before. During an interview with a customer, you get an awkward feeling that it’s not going as smoothly as expected. The customer is just babbling away, and despite your nicely crafted questionnaire, you go home not completely unsatisfied with the answers you have received.
How can you prevent this?
Interviewing is an art, and there are a few things you need to consider before, during and after an interview.
Before the interview:
- Make clear arrangements: Confirm time and date with your interviewee and send reminders. Also give your interviewee an idea of what you will be talking about. This way, they can prepare too.
- Find a comfortable location to do the interview. If you choose a phone interview, make sure you don’t have screaming kids or loud colleagues in the background.
- Avoid group interviews, because those are a recipe for disaster. Interviewees all talking at the same time, not knowing which quote to attribute to whom, introverted interviewees who are afraid to speak up… If you need to interview more than one person, consider scheduling different interviews.
- Test your tech. Microphones, cameras, recording software … make sure it all works. And in case it doesn’t, make sure you have a backup. Sometimes, pen and paper are all you need.
Group interviews are a recipe for disaster.
During the interview:
- Use your questionnaire, but be prepared to deviate from it when you see the opportunity.
- Ask open ended questions: what/how/why questions will result in more information than yes/no questions.
- Press for answers: If you need to hear about measurable results, you might need to press a little. But don’t overdo it. It’s not the Spanish inquisition.
- Shut up: Dropping a little silence can be awkward, but it’s a great way to get your interviewee to speak. Research has shown that, by shutting up, you can prolong the answer by 25 to 65%.
After the interview:
- Decode your scribble: do this as fast as possible. If you wait two weeks, you might have forgotten what your interviewee was talking about.
- Follow up. Once. If you realize you are still missing essential information, it’s OK to call for a follow-up question after the interview. But be careful, calling your customer more than once is annoying.
- Thank the interviewee. Apart from what every well-educated person would do, sending a thank you note to the customer might also help later on to get story sign-off much quicker.
Creation: write your first presentable case study draft
Finally, you can do what you should be able to do best: writing.
Collect all information you obtained from your client (the seller), from your own research, and from the interviewee (the buyer) and organize it into a logic story structure. See what you can use, and decide what is essential and what is secondary information.
However you decide to write it, a case study or success story always deals with transformation. There is clearly a ‘before – during – after’ story line.
Your case study will talk about how the customer…
- experiences a serious problem.
- tries to find a suitable solution, but fails.
- starts looking for a new approach.
- implements a new solution.
- solves the problem and achieves great results.
Sign-off: have the customer review and approve
If you are going to publish and promote your case study (I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t), you will need the customer’s consent. Publishing without customer approval is a very bad idea. Not only will it undermine the good relationship with your customer, you also risk that the customer will demand to remove the content from your website, and that all your efforts leading up to here have been wasted.
The customer should at least feel comfortable with the content you have created. First of all, the information in the document should be accurate and truthful. The case study should be in line with your customer’s brand guidelines. And finally, it should be apparent from the entire case study that the customer is the real hero of the story.
Most of the times, the approval process will result in a published story, with both the seller and the buyer living together happily ever after. But there are occasions when approval just doesn’t happen, even after numerous emails, calls and voice messages.
Here are a few tips to help you increase your chances of receiving story sign-off with the customer:
- Go for internal review first, then send it to the customer. Don’t make the internal approval committee too big. However, you should at least ask your sales contact for a review.
- Ideally, you should only send your case study to your customer once. To avoid endless revision rounds, make sure your case study is as close to final as possible. This means that the basics should be there: no grammar or spelling errors, all quotes attributed to the appropriate people with the accurate job titles, etc.
- If you still have blanks that need to be filled in, then make it as easy as possible for the customer to finalize the document. This will reduce the number of revision rounds. For example, if you need an additional quote from someone, you could prepare a quote yourself and then let the customer edit it where they see fit.
- Ask approval as quickly as possible after the interview. If you treat the case study as urgent, then your customer will be more likely to treat it likewise.
- If you feel that the approval process is dragging on, then ask your sales or account manager to jump in and contact the end client. Usually, they know the customer very well and can speed up the process.
Over to you…
A case study project can be a bumpy ride at times. But when you have a solid process, you will feel more confident to tackle it and you risk fewer surprises.
Next time, you are asked to write a case study, use the BRICS method. It’s simple and it works!