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© Ugur Akinci
A “case study” is similar to a “white paper” although white papers can be more technically detailed in nature.
Simply put, they are both written to convince the reader that something (a product, a service, a company) works.
That “something” could be a product/service, the story of how a product/service or method was implemented successfully, how a specific company operates successfully or how a group of companies compare in terms of their performance, organizational structure, corporate culture, etc.
If the paper is about the technical details of a product/service or discussion of a company’s sector performance, then it is more likely called a “White Paper.”
If it is the story of an actual implementation of a solution to solve an issue, then it’s more likely called a “Case Study.” But the differences between these two types of technical writing products are not absolute and they overlap quite a bit.
Why do people write these papers? To create positive publicity by publishing or giving them away in return for your inquiry, your order, or at least your name and e-mail address. It’s a soft-marketing tool, the web and print counterpart of an “infomercial,” that actually works in terms of drumming up new business and signups.
Three main types of case studies
1) Corporate Case Study. How a specific company got to be what it is today. It’s history, specific organizational pattern, past failures and achievements, etc.
2) Comparative Case Study. How does a specific company compare with others along dimensions X, Y, and Z? What is their profile in their sector/niche? What can we conclude about their relative strengths and weaknesses? What’s the lesson?
3) Issue Case Study. How did a specific company solve a specific problem?
In the rest of this article I will focus on the “Issue Case Study.”
Main components of an issue case study
The idea of a case study is nothing new since it has been taught in business schools around the world for decades now.
It always has 3 important parts:
1) Problem. What is it? What did it cost the organization? Why it was such a pain?
2) Search for solutions. Various alternatives tried to solve the problem. Why did the alternatives fail to solve the problem? Pros and cons of various solutions. How did the organization decide on the specific solution which is the subject of this case study?
3) Implementation of “The Solution” and results. Before-and-After assessment. Numerical comparisons.
Wrap it up with a “Lessons Learned” section. And you’re done! Congrats.
Process of writing a case study
1) Always prepare a Documentation Plan (DP) first. Have the DP approved and signed by the authorized client representative who will approve your payment at the end of the project.
2) Identify the PROBLEM, the SOLUTION, and the RESULT. Have them approved by the client in advance so that there will be no mistake whatsoever about the content of your case study. Last minute “surprises” are costly in writing business. Eliminate such unwanted surprises by nailing down the General Outline of your case study and securing the client’s approval before you even write a single word.
3) Do your research and collect your data by reading everything written on the subject; company records; meeting minutes; existing white papers; marketing brochures; articles and presentation notes, etc.
Interview everybody who will help you understand how this particular solution helped solve the organization’s problem.
4) Write your case study. Submit it for the first round of reviews.
5) Implement the first set of feedbacks. Write a second and improved copy and turn it in. Ideally this should also be the last and final copy but it all depends on what you and your client have agreed to in the Documentation Plan (DP).
Make sure the back-and-forth review process does not turn into a nightmare by endless rounds of editing. Your time is money. Try to limit editing to a maximum of THREE rounds and make that a part of your approved-and-signed DP.
Example of a hypothetical case study
PROBLEM: The fuel cost for the trucks of ABC delivery company went up by 15% over the last year. The company has to limit the annual cost increase to 3% in order to avoid bankruptcy.
ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS tried or considered: Using new tires and rotating them once in every 6 months (only 1% drop in total fuel cost). Replacing old carburetors with new XYZ brands (only 4% drop). Retraining all drivers on how to drive more efficiently and observe the speed limits (no difference). Etc.
At the end, the company decides to implement an unusual solution suggested in a brain-storming session by a junior sales executive: banning all left and U-turns and redesigning delivery routes.
SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION: ABC company saved 14% in fuel consumption and limited the annual cost increase to only 1% per year.
LESSON LEARNED: Brain-storming and out-of-the-box solutions sometime generate unusual solutions with spectacular results. Keeping the bottom-up communication channels open can save a company when more “reasonable” alternatives fail.
Tips for writing a case study
- Don’t write a novel. A case study is written for the busy executive or decision-maker. Try to limit it to 500 to 1,000 words. A case study should be about two to four 8.5 x 11 inch pages when printed.
- Stay away from “marketing and PR” language in your case study. This is supposed to be an “objective” presentation of “what really works,” remember? Refrain from singing the glories of the company in question.
- Use as many numbers as possible to argue the case and make a convincing conclusion. Let the percentages, units and facts do the talking.
- Apply all the classical “tools of the trade” of good technical writing like bulleted lists, using white space, writing in short sentences, starting procedural steps with action verbs, etc.
There are thousands of companies out there that need similar case studies written on a regular basis. If the company has a Marketing Manager I would speak with him or her first to see if they need such a case study written.
We live in a big wide wonderful world, teeming with possibilities. Dare to reach out and ask. You might be pleasantly surprised by the positive response. Why? Because as a technical writer you are delivering a real information service needed by real companies.
Write well and prosper.