Tips, Tricks, & Tutorials

How to Write Case Studies So Humans Can Understand Them

Hi there. Fellow human here. Ever come across a case study that’s so complicated you have to re-read it five times? You’re not alone. That’s because it’s legit really hard to distill complex projects into simple stories. But it’s worth it.

This post outlines ten tips for writing case studies—from planning it out to writing, editing, and finalizing for launch.

The tips below will help you:

  • Tell your story so an outsider to the project can understand it
  • Emphasize impact
  • Make your story more scannable and easily-digestible

1. For heaven’s sake, make an outline

My high school English teachers would be proud. All those timed writings taught me the importance of taking a moment to plan out what you want to say—before you start writing.

When outlining and organizing your case study, treat it as if you are telling a story. Every story has a:

  • Beginning (Overview & Challenge)
  • Middle (Approach & Execution), and
  • End (Results)

Why is this important? Remember: No one else understands this project the way you do.

As the person who went through all the ins and outs, it will be easy to mix up the steps you took without realizing it’s confusing for an outsider.

2. Connect the dots between data, inference, and recommendation

In addition to applying a logical structure to your story, apply that same thinking and care to the way you structure sentences within each section. You’ll want to break down the pieces of the story in the logical order in which they happened. This may be more challenging than you think—but stick with it. Otherwise people will bounce.

For instance: Don’t state an inference you made without first communicating what you saw in the data that led you to that inference.

Here’s an example of how to do that:

Looking at heat map data in Hotjar, we could see that most homepage visitors clicked on “Where to Buy”, a small link in the upper left corner. Surprisingly, the most prominent button on the page, “Design & Price” got very few clicks.

Our conclusion? The design of the homepage was not aligned with what users actually wanted and needed.

This example recaps the data and inference in logical order and sets us up in the next section to discuss what we recommended to the client.

Brief aside: This language also makes it clear that this is how we interpreted the data. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people look at data and say “people are confused” like it’s a cold, hard fact. There is a big difference between observation and inference. The best you can do is analyze the data, form a hypothesis, and test to see if your recommendations work. Rant over.

3. Cut the jargon. Focus on people

Digital marketing is about connecting people with solutions that are relevant to them. Don’t forget that when you’re telling your story.

The benefit of positioning the story from a person’s point of view is that you’re more likely to make it resonate with a variety of audiences. Think about it: there are myriad specialties within digital marketing. So even if your audience is in the field, some may specialize in paid media, and therefore not understand hyper-specific analytics terms (or vice versa). Filling a case study with jargon can alienate more people than you may think.

That said, most people have had the experience of visiting a website and taking some sort of action. Tell the story through the lens of how it impacted people (you or your client’s audience) and you’ll cast a wider net.

Examples:

JARGON PEOPLE
The eCommerce experience began with… Customers could get to the online store by…
Optimize the paths to their online store. Attract more customers to their online store.
This CTA drove to an online tool with less conversion priority. The most prominent button on the page did not take people to the most important destination for the company’s business goals.

 

4. If you do use industry terms, provide context clues

It’s okay to name-drop a tool, as long as it’s clear what that tool did.

Example 1: Looking at heat map data in Hotjar, we could see that most homepage visitors clicked on “Where to Buy”, a small link in the upper left corner. Surprisingly, the most prominent button on the page, “Design & Price” got very few clicks.

The writer mentions Hotjar and then clearly articulates that this tool provides heat maps that allow you to see where people are clicking. Readers may not be familiar with HotJar, so offering a quick explanation of this tool gives them greater context around its impact and why you used it.

Example 2: With Google Optimize, we were able to quickly test this recommendation. The Seer Analytics and Creative teams crafted an A/B test of the call-to-action and added additional tracking to the website to ensure that we were able to assess the impact of the change across a host of factors.

Here, the writer mentions Google Optimize and then explains that it allowed the team to quickly test the recommendation.

5. Surface the numbers

Case studies are all about communicating wins. In our industry, wins are often tracked with numbers. But when you bury the numbers in sentences vs. putting them upfront, they can be more difficult for someone to catch.

Lead with data and numbers to show the impact, then continue to paint the narrative with what other results stemmed from those quantifiable results.

Example: Conversions increased by 84%, so our client was excited to greenlight more tests.

Instead of…

Our client was excited to greenlight more tests because conversions increased by 84%.

6. Clarify abbreviations

This is a quick one.

Spell out abbreviations the first time you use them. For instance:

Jonathan Van Ness (JVN) inspired my husband to get a real haircut. Thank you, JVN.

See? I used the full language once, and now I can use the abbreviation throughout the rest of the content.

7. Edit, edit, edit.

Case studies are intended to be concise, and therefore, you may have to omit certain non-critical details. That’s okay! Once you’ve gotten your ideas down on paper, revisit each and every line to cut back. See if you can remove spare words or simplify language.

Some editing tips:

  • Use bullets vs. walls of text whenever possible
      • This makes content more scannable and allows people to more quickly understand the most important points.
  • Check for redundancies.
      • If you want to drive a point home, don’t just repeat it in the exact same language. It can be effective to follow up a more detailed sentence that describes tactics with a clarifying, general statement.
        • Original: Additionally, our closed loop implementation allowed us to track the impact of on-site behavior to revenue and transactions on the eCommerce site, tying these CTA changes directly to revenue impact.
        • Revised: Additionally, our closed loop implementation [link to video explanation] allowed us to tie these CTA changes directly to transactions in the online store. In other words, we could see how this website change impacted revenue.
  • Try out new tools to improve your writing!
    • We love this free tool at Seer. It helps you quickly identify problematic areas in your writing. It provides the reading level of your piece overall, highlights instances of passive voice, and flags sentences that may be too hard to read.
    • My fellow Creative team member, Denise Baginski, recently published a checklist for optimizing landing page UX. Both landing pages and case studies require a clear, concise, scannable narrative. This post provides additional tips for doing just that.

8. Check for continuity.

When you’re writing a case study, you will likely have to refer to project components more than once. Make sure there is continuity.

Example: We recommended a change in CTA for a client. In the case study, we did a sweep of the content to catch different instances of how we referred to that CTA:

“Shop Trex” CTA (in quotes) vs. Seer CTA vs. Seer-recommended CTA

9. Do a final sweep for grammar and mechanics

There are hosts of rules, but I’ll go over a few faux pas I commonly see.

  • Compound adjectives should have hyphens.
    • When you combine two or more words together to modify the same noun, you’ve made a compound adjective. If you don’t add a hyphen, you may cause confusion.
    • Examples with correct hyphenation: data-driven design; one-page document, life-affirming Hangouts Chat channel (actually exists at Seer, and is called “Treat Yo’ Self!”)
  • Pick the right dash.
    • This is an em dash: —
      • It’s the longest dash of them all—the width of a lowercase “m”. See how I used the em dash in that sentence? That’s an example of how it should be used—to separate a thought. (I did it AGAIN!) You should NOT put spaces on either side or use hyphens. You can type an em dash on PC with the shortcut: “Alt+0151”. On Mac, it is Option-Shift-Hyphen.
    • This is an en dash: –
      • An en dash is the width of a lowercase “n”. It is used to separate dates and numbers. For instance: Please watch seasons 1–4 of Schitt’s Creek on Netflix so we can talk about it.
    • This is a hyphen: –
      • The shortest of all dashes, and only to be used to join words (as in compound adjectives, which we discussed above!). For instance: I’m convinced my ex-boyfriend stole my copy of A Tale of Two Cities. True story.
    • If you want to bookmark a resource on how to type dashes, here ya go!
  • Avoid passive voice.
    • No: Recommendations were made.
    • Yes: Seer recommended the following changes.
  • You only need one space after each sentence. Like this. Stop adding two spaces. Please and thank you.
  • Remember to capitalize:

10. User test with an outsider.

Hey! Remember that you’re a human and you probably won’t catch everything on your own!

Before you ship, have one person who is completely unaware of the project read it. See if they can understand all aspects of your story at a glance, without having to re-read any sentences.

Start writing!

Have a client win you’ve been sitting on? What about an existing case study that doesn’t seem to be connecting? Try out these tips and start sharing all the great work you’re doing. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to get helpful industry updates and information on upcoming events!