Adam T. Sutton

Content Marketing: Case studies are stories — so be a storyteller

December 13th, 2011

Have you ever watched a movie that was happy from beginning to end? Just sunshine and roses and everyone was happy and lovely the whole time? Probably not, but if you have, I’m sorry because it must have been terrible. Every good story needs struggle.

In a good story, no one is happy for more than a few seconds (usually at the end). Cinderella and Snow White struggle. Odysseus struggles. Snooki struggles. What engages us is our connection to the character’s feelings. We relate to them and we want the character to win.

This is why customer testimonials are powerful. People see the quote and think, “This is a real person, just like me! And look, they love this thing!” A good testimonial wonderfully illustrates why someone should buy your product, and it resonates because people relate to the customer.

3 Elements of Storytelling

A one-sentence testimonial has to hold attention for about a microsecond, so it does not have to be extremely engaging. But case studies are different. They require more commitment from the reader. If you describe how a customer needed a “new solution,” and identified your brand as a “market leader,” and now everyone is happy-happy-happy, then no one will care. No one will read it.

This is not some cockamamie theory I cooked up. Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction is a fantastic book on storytelling and writing. It outlines the three elements of every good story. Greatly simplified, they are:

  • Conflict – there is a big problem
  • Action – the character fights the problem
  • Resolution – there is a clear ending


More-engaging case studies

Look at your case studies. Give one a good read … I bet that wasn’t very fun, right? You probably just read a list of your product features re-worked into paragraphs and sprinkled with quotes.

What’s great about case studies is that they fit the story model perfectly. Here’s how it works:

  • Conflict – a person has a big problem
  • Action – the person finds you, becomes a customer, and works to solve the problem
  • Resolution – the problem is solved and the person is happy

The key here is to thoroughly describe the person (or company). Explain who they are, what they do, and what problem they have. Outline the steps they take to solve the problem. Give quotes on how they feel throughout the process. This will emotionally connect the “character” to the reader.

But don’t leave yourself out of the story. You’re the main character’s sidekick. You are the prison guard that breaks them out of jail. You are the friend that helps them leave an abusive husband. Explain how you were there every step of the way, helping to solve the problem and combating the challenges. And of course, you should always have a happy ending.


Related Resources:

Consumer Marketing: All that stands between you and Walmart is a good story

Content Marketing: Focus on value, not length

Content Marketing: Effort reduces cost-per-lead 90% and achieves 30% clickthrough rate on barrier page

Content Marketing: How an online retailer created a research report that produced 212% more downloads

Inbound Marketing: Unlock the content from your emails and social marketing




Adam T. Sutton

About Adam T. Sutton

Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter, MarketingSherpa
Adam generates content for MarketingSherpa's Email and Inbound Marketing newsletters. His years of experience in interviewing marketers and conveying their insights has spanned topics such as search marketing, social media marketing, ecommerce, email and more. Adam previously powered the content behind MarketingSherpa's Search and Consumer-marketing newsletters and carries that experience into his new role. Today, in addition to writing articles, he contributes content to the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa blogs, as well as MECLABS webinars, workshops and summits.

Prior to joining MarketingSherpa, Adam was the Managing Editor at the Mequoda group. There he created content and promotions for the company's daily email newsletter and managed its schedule.

Categories: Copywriting Tags: , , ,

  1. December 13th, 2011 at 10:40 | #1

    I find that when I really flesh out the conflict (or problem), I automatically get inside the mind of the reader with similar problems and everything else just flows. And when I skimp on this step and just write the generic, overall problem, nothing seems to flow. I’ve written pages on the complexities of a conflict for a single case study. The more I identify and expand the problem, the better the case study becomes.

  2. December 13th, 2011 at 11:42 | #2

    Hi Paul — Thanks for the comment, and it’s great advice. If you clearly establish the problem, then all the steps taken and results achieved should flow right out of it.

  3. Joelle Parra
    December 13th, 2011 at 16:25 | #3

    Great post, Adam. I agree that those elements are essential in any case study, after all a case study is a story. Simple advice, yet informative and to the point advice. Loved the Snookie reference, btw. lol

    Great advice from Paul, too. Once you understand the issue more in depth, everything else just falls in to place more easily. Or at least explaining it does.

  4. December 14th, 2011 at 10:37 | #4

    I agree Adam…selling and marketing regardless of the product…a company, product or person is all about the “story”…why should they care?

    I use this very approach on my personal website where I use a Case Study approach to highlight my leaders style and accomplishments.

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