The power of storytelling in case studies
Marketing Content Strategy

If Your Case Studies Aren’t Telling a Story, You’re Making a Mistake

8 Minute Read

Healthcare’s case studies are needlessly dry. This can be said about almost any industry, but healthcare is especially bad.

I say this in the kindest way possible, but it’s true, and that’s a shame. Our industry has some of the most dramatic, most touching, and most riveting stories in the world, but somehow our case studies generally manage to be sufficient at best.

The great thing though, is that most organizations can make a short leap from case studies that do just enough to case studies that relate an organization’s most moving stories and connect with their key imperatives.

Why Stories Matter

First, we need to talk about why an organization’s stories are so powerful in the first place.

Though we don’t always talk about it, adults get excited about stories too—probably because they connect with the kid in all of us who loves to wonder, to imagine, to travel to places we’ve never been. Look no further than recent history to see how many stories have risen to the forefront of popular culture. From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, adults are enthralled by story. The adults you’re trying to move with your business stories are no different.

Case studies are more than just an accessory for a marketing campaign or a perfunctory piece of content. Your best stories—the ones your case studies should be telling—have the unique potential to meet business goals that elude other content strategy tools in your organization.

They Communicate

Whether it’s for hospitals, software vendors, or product companies, case studies communicate the character of a business more efficiently and subtly than other methods.

For example, a hospital website might list all the innovative services and technology the facility offers, but what are the chances someone will take the time to sit and read more than the first couple of bullets? However, if you take those same services and wrap them up in the story of a little girl who received a heart transplant with the help of recent investments in new tech, you get something completely different. The same information is communicated, but through engaging context—an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to retention.

They Connect

For the most part, customers don’t really know most of the businesses that work to get their attention.

They probably understand the services and products offered, but it’s a stretch to consider them genuinely connected. Stories bridge that gap because they help patients and customers imagine (there’s that kid connection again) what a deeper relationship with a brand can look like. The stories told by Shriners Hospitals for Children serve as a great example. Each one creates a connection with a real-life patient experience that has you rooting for a win the entire time.

They Convert

Brand stories convert in a business sense, but also in a more abstract one.

Case studies are a keystone piece of content marketing that help turn potential customers into actual customers. But it’s deeper than that. Case studies take the reader’s hand, walk them to the point of imagination, and then give them the motivation and tools it takes to convert their relationship from casual observer to engaged customer.

This is why case studies are structured the way they are. It’s not just for the sake of readability (though that’s important), it’s also because that structure is the reader’s roadmap to a new state of being. A person who’s finished reading a case study should be well on their way to a small but critical shift in their connection.

Surgeons in an operating room

Image attribution: Pixabay

The Incredible Opportunity of Case Studies

We’ve established that case studies are powerful. Now, let’s look at what that means in terms of business results.

There are strong reasons why more organizations should make active and deliberate use of case studies in their content marketing strategy. Most importantly, they beat out pretty much every other form of content in terms of effectiveness. B2B marketers prefer them over all other types of content (yes, even the ubiquitous blog post), and 54 percent of marketers across the board rank them as one of the most effective types of content.

To paint a clearer picture, I want to share a story about a very large and very famous company.

This company had a common problem. They had incredible solutions that solved difficult challenges. They also had a wealth of knowledge and knew that if they could just somehow connect with people’s existing curiosity, they could break through as a leader in their field. To reach that goal, they decided to tell their customer stories.

They presented them in multiple ways, ultimately reshaping their image in the market through a strategic storytelling system that helped them achieve over 4 million search and social impressions as well as a solutions page with a click-through rate that any organization would find impressive.

There’s plenty more to say about IBM’s success with storytelling through case studies, but the moral of that story is a simple one—stories move people, all kinds of people, to action.

Picking the Right Hero

There’s a fundamental opportunity missed entirely too often by case studies, and it’s a simple mistake to fix. Most organizations start their case study process by showing off the best results they possibly can, which makes sense. If they need to choose from a group of customer experiences, they’re going to gravitate toward the ones that put the organization in the best possible light. The problem with that approach is that the chief purpose of case studies isn’t to get an organization’s best numbers out there. That’s a side effect.

The primary reason to publish case studies is that they help people see themselves tackling their greatest challenges by using specific solutions. Of course they want great results—that’s a given. But what a case study can deliver is a story that serves as an effective vehicle for the customer imagination. That’s achieved primarily by choosing the right subject.

Readers connect with the subject. They follow the subject to get amazing results. The subject of a case study should be the primary focus in the creative process. The great thing is that it’s not that hard to nail down an effective “hero” for your case studies if you ask the right questions on the front end.

  • Who has the best alignment? Choose a subject whose goals (and possibly demographics) align as closely as possible with the target audience.
  • Who’s really happy after working with you? Just like any story, case studies are better with happy endings. It’s always easier to get to that ending when recounting the experience of someone who’s genuinely excited about their results.
  • Who would you want to tell outsiders about? Case studies can be packed with details, but their basic elements should make sense even to people outside your industry. This perspective should shape most interview questions. Additionally, look for a straightforward story and add detail as needed.

Another quick pro tip: It’s always simplest to work with happy clients. The case study process can be unnecessarily draining and drawn out. That’s always easier to navigate when starting from the a positive place.

Boy hugs woman dressed as superhero

Image attribution: Zi Jian Lim

Getting the Details Right

It’s impossible to deny that the comic book genre is on a tear in movie theaters. It may never end, and that’s because studios figured out how to take proven stories and package them in ways that create an unforgettable connection.

While most businesses will use a lot less CGI when telling their stories, the latest box office winner does offer some incredibly useful lessons.

Use Strong Visuals

Pictures, color, and other visual elements matter, and they help drive a great story home. Be sure to use them to move the case study forward, reflecting brand energy as well as a subject’s experience.

Use Language That Connects

Jargon is useless when it means nothing. Even the most complex case studies should be easy to read and digest, especially in highly technical fields where competent simplicity can be refreshing. Case studies should impress people with the solutions they present, not with their words.

Mind The Structure

While it’s generally a good idea to stick with the traditional structure describing subject, challenge, solution, and benefits, don’t be afraid to add brand-specific tweaks to headings and pacing.

It’s important to acknowledge one critical mistake that entirely too many businesses make. They invest time and money into telling a wonderful story through a case study, only to hide it away in some lonely corner of their website. The worst thing that can happen to a great case study is that no one ends up reading it.

This means that a document not only needs to be accessible but also needs to land in the right places in front of the right people. Pull that off and your organization’s case studies will go far beyond collecting dust and serve as indispensable content marketing tools.

And of course, on your journey to use moving stories in your content marketing, remember to keep it interesting.

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I'm a freelance business writer with 10 years' experience in healthcare (hospital consulting), over a decade's work in online content creation, and an MBA. I create engaging, informative content on general B2B topics, healthcare B2B, mobile healthcare, dental, and freelancing as a career. I have created content for clients including Samsung, Cintas, and Business Solutions Magazine. While I specialize in healthcare, my education and experience also give me the ability to create interesting and effective content on almost any business topic. I create thought leadership articles, blogs, news stories, case studies, and website content for emerging and established B2B healthcare brands. I have a unique mix of style, industry experience, and education that brings a signature tone and competence to my work. I believe B2B content in healthcare will benefit from a shift in tone...a shift to one that is rooted in the seriousness and formality of the industry, but that still understands the need for humanity and a more editorial feel.

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