“Facts tell, stories sell.”
How to organize a case study
A colleague in health system marketing counsels his case study writers to “Get the patient to the hospital.” Wrong! When it comes to case studies, it’s about the client’s problem and results, silly, not your solutions.
Here’s how to use the feature-style story structure to organize a case study.
I. Introduce the problem and client in the intro.
A. Cover the desk-pounding moment in the lead. What caused your client to search for your solution? Here’s an example, from a case study my team wrote for Sprint TekNet:
It was the last straw.
Newport School District had a primitive inter-building phone system, but the old intercom system no longer worked at all. Teachers had to leave their classrooms several times a day to travel the corridors of the 50-room schools to pick up or deliver messages. Now even telling time had become a chore, as the 20-year-old clock-and-bell system had begun failing, too.
B. Describe the client in the background section. Don’t weigh the lead down with the client’s details. Save this for the background section, aka the blah-blah-blah background. Include any details, such as economic issues, that make the problem you introduced in the lead more significant:
Located halfway between Harrisburg and Happy Valley in rural south-central Pennsylvania, Newport is a small, rural, public school district that covers 73 square miles and serves some 1,200 students.
With an average per-capita income of $18,684, Newport is the lowest-income school district in the capital city region.
C. Summarize the need in the nut graph. You may be able to handle this with a client quote:
“We have to maximize our resources,” says Bo Templeton, a fourth-grade teacher and Newport’s technology coordinator. “We needed a new clock and bell system. We would have loved a VCR system, but that had to be secondary. Whatever we got, we had to make sure we were using it and using it well.”
Note that you might flip the nut graph and background section, depending on whether you need the client description to set up the need in the nut graph.
II. Outline the problem, solution and results in the body.
A. Detail the problem in the first section. Be specific: Name names and number numbers. Use a calculator, if necessary, to quantify the business needs.
Newport needed an affordable solution that would:
- Let teachers teach. Templeton and other teachers used to make at least three trips a day to the principal’s office to pick up or deliver messages. Walking from the basement or the far end of the building could take three or more minutes each way, or 18 minutes per teacher per day.Multiply that by 100 Newport teachers, and figure that communicating by foot was costing Newport a total of more than 1,800 minutes, or 30 hours, of teacher time a day.
- Save administrative time. Before TekNet, administrators had to manually ring the dismissal bell at 12:30 p.m. on early dismissal days. And they had to get up from their desks to punch in a bell schedule by hand every Tuesday, when an activity period condenses class periods from 43 minutes to 35.
- Enhance communication. Etc.
B. Outline the solution in the second section. Your clients care more about their problems and results than about your organization and its stuff. A few broad brushstrokes will get this job done
To solve these problems, Sprint suggested TekNet, a system that combines more than a dozen school communication functions into one package.
Not only would TekNet run the bells, clocks and PA system. It also features a video distribution system that allows teachers to play video programs in the classroom via a telephone handset.
“We said, ‘We could have a system that just handles the clocks and bells, or we could get one that does that and much, much more,’” Templeton remembers. “We decided it was more effective to invest in a solution that would enhance our technology efforts here in the district. We chose to go with Sprint’s solution.”
C. Describe the results in the third section. Be specific: Name names and number numbers. Bonus points for mirroring the problems you outlined in the first section of the body.
1. Focus teacher time on teaching. TekNet places a phone at every teacher’s elbow, allowing Newport teachers, administrators, parents and staff members to communicate without leaving their desks.
As a result, TekNet has slashed the number of teacher trips by two-thirds, Templeton figures, saving Newport 20 hours of teacher time a day in message gathering alone. &hellip
2. Save administrative time. TekNet runs off a disk, acting as a high-tech administrative assistant. With TekNet, the bell schedule automatically changes every day to mirror the school schedule.
“Comparing our manual system to TekNet is like comparing a typewriter to a computer,” Templeton says.
3. Enhance communication. TekNet’s video broadcast system allows administrators to broadcast messages to any class or to the whole school, from virtually any location. That means students in every classroom can participate in events held anywhere in the schools.
- If rain forces the high school’s outdoor graduation into the auditorium, for example, overflow guests can watch the ceremony live from screens in the cafeteria.
- When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett visits Newport High, fourth-graders at the elementary school can watch on a TV in their own classroom.
- And students in sixth grade can watch the high school students’ broadcast announcement to see what the coach has to say about Friday night’s football game.
“This has really united our district,” Templeton says.
III. Wind up in the conclusion.
A. Transition to the future in the wrapup. In this case, the conclusion is a before-and-after comparison:
“Before TekNet, everything we had here was outdated,” Templeton says. “We were spending lots of time on administrative tasks we shouldn’t have been doing at all. As a result, we had too much downtime from focusing on our students.”
B. Show how far we’ve come — or where we’re going — in the kicker. Leave a lasting impression with a concrete, creative, provocative final paragraph.
Now district officials are using TekNet to refocus that time on the work Newport does best: teaching their students.
Case in point
Case studies are a staple of marketing writing. Use this structure to make the most of your next case in point.
Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves
Case studies and other content marketing staples aren’t news. That means the techniques you use for other types of messages most likely won’t work for content marketing.
But now you can learn to write tipsheets, case studies and survey stories better, easier and faster. Join Shel Holtz and me at our two-day Web-Writing Master Class in Santa Fe. There, you’ll learn how to:
- Organize content marketing pieces, from tipsheets to survey stories, from case studies to organizational storytelling, with our fill-in-the-blanks formulas and stories
- Find the right story — and craft the best story angle — for content marketing pieces
- Master the Art Of the Storyteller with a simple formula you can use to write case studies, testimonials and organizational stories
- Ask a simple question to help your subject matter experts recall a story
- Get clicked, read, shared, remembered and acted on with proven-in-the-lab techniques
Would you like to hold an in-house Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves workshop? Contact Ann directly.
“Absolutely the best money I’ve ever spent. I learned more about writing for my audience from Ann in one day than I have in any other seminar.”
Carie Behounek, marketing communications coordinator for COPIC Companies
Polish your Web writing with Shel Holtz and me in Santa Fe, Feb. 11-12
Would you like to use fill-in-the-blanks templates that virtually write your blog posts for you? Reach clients and customers through images, infographics and Instagram? Write content for the mobile Web?
If so, please join Shel Holtz and me for “Catch Your Readers Via Social Media,” a two-day writer’s Master Class on Feb. 11-12 in Santa Fe.
Fill your toolbox with tricks.
In two days, you’ll have time to cram your writer’s tool bag with tricks & hard-to-find but easy-to-implement techniques that will help you:
- Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves: Write tipsheets, case studies and survey stories better, easier and faster with our formulas and templates
- Get the Picture With Social Visual Communication: Reach audience members instantly through images, infographics and Instagram
- Build Buzz Through Digital Storytelling: Engage followers and inspire them to share your stories
- Write For the Small Screen: Prepare your messages for mobility
- Help Readers Find You: Get discovered, read and shared
- Cut Through the Clutter Online: Make social messages easier to read and understand
- Lift Your Ideas Off the Screen: Communicate to skimmers with online display copy
Plus: Learn social secrets from Shel Holtz.
Shel Holtz has been helping communicators reach readers online since Al Gore invented the Internet. In his sessions, you’ll learn which social channels are emerging, which to ignore and what free apps you can use today to reach your customers and clients online.
Shel is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. There, he helps organizations communicate effectively online. Shel is an IABC Fellow, a Founding Research Fellow of the Society for New Communication Research and a Platinum Fellow of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.
He has written six books on communication and co-hosts the first and longest-running communication podcast, “For Immediate Release.” He consults with the International Monetary Fund, Robert Half International and Intuit, among other organizations.
I always leave Shel’s workshops with dozens of tips and tools I can use instantly to get the word out on the Web. Now you can too, in this workshop.
Meet me in Santa Fe.
Each year, thousands of writers, artists and other creative folks visit Santa Fe for inspiration and ideas. Named one of just nine “Creative Cities” in the world by UNESCO, Santa Fe is home to Georgia O’Keefe, native craftsmen, world-class culinary artists — and our spring social media-writing workshop.
Why not make a long weekend of it? With rooms at the La Fonda on the Plaza — Santa Fe’s oldest, best known hotel — going for just $119 a night, you might as well stay a whole week!
Bring your Valentine. I’m bringing mine. For years, my husband and I have visited Santa Fe in February to celebrate Valentine’s Day and my birthday (Feb. 13, if you were wondering, and it just happens to be my chocolate birthday. Again. Every year. And yes, there will be cupcakes.)
I, for one, will be staying long after the workshop ends to get a soak and massage at Ten Thousand Waves, dine at Geronimo and Coyote Cafe, shop for turquoise at Governor’s Palace, ogle the collections at the Museum of International Folk Art and breath in the fresh Sangre de Cristo Mountain air.
Maybe we’ll run into each other!
Save up to $300 until Dec. 15.
I have no doubt that this Master Class will be the best money you invest this year on your social media writing. But you can save money, boost the return on your investment — and get a cheap Valentine’s Day weekend in Santa Fe — with our early-bird specials and other discounts.
“[I]t took naturalists 80 years to come up with a definition of a platypus. They found it endlessly difficult to describe the essence of this animal. So what did that definition look like? It was a list, a list of characteristics.”
Umberto Eco, renowned Italian author
How to write a good list
“I love lists,” writes Adam Savage. “Always have. When I was 14, I wrote down every dirty word I knew on file cards and placed them in alphabetical order.”There are lots of things to list — organizational accomplishments, steps for getting the job done, dirty words. Here’s a list of three ways to list things right:
1. Got a list? List it.
Lists are easier to read and scan than paragraphs. So if you have a series of three or more items in a sentence, paragraph or passage, make it a list.
Take this item from one of my client’s newsletters:
“What Makes a Good Web Site — A survey of more than 8,000 participants revealed that four factors influence Web site popularity. The top-scoring factor was good content. This is of course a great relief, it confirms that Web users are not stupid and that flashiness does not compensate for lack of content. The second-most important reason was usability, third was speed of downloads, and fourth was freshness of content. Usability was surprising not because it was unexpected that users wanted sites to be easy to use, but because usability is scrapped or at least postponed whenever a company wants to cut costs of Web site development. However, it is very difficult to add on usability later — it must be built into a site (or a product of any kind) right from the start. Many laypeople think that usability is only a veneer over a program, that it involves such issues as button placement and color choice. But in fact usability goes much deeper. Among other reasons, this is because the method of designing usability into a product involves first doing an analysis of the user’s needs, then designing around those needs. If you haven’t done the analysis, you have to redo the design later on. Usability involves the optimization of three factors: how quickly users can do what they want to do, how correctly they can do it, and how much they enjoy doing it. Usability is a key element for the next generation Web markup language — XHTML2, being designed at the World Wide Web Consortium. [MIT Technology Insider, December 10, 2003]”
This story is much easier to read when you make it a list:
“What Makes a Good Web Site?
“A survey of more than 8,000 participants revealed that four factors influence Web site popularity:
- Good content
- Speed of downloads
- Freshness of content
“The big surprise here: usability …
2. Organize lists logically.
Choose the right structure:
- Alphabetical structure is best for glossaries, for instance.
- Chronological structure is the right choice for a series of steps. (As everyone who’s ever put together an Ikea bedside table well knows.)
- Hierarchical structure works best for top 10 lists.
However, you’ll also want to …
3. Take advantage of the last item on the list.
The last element on a list often attracts more attention, says usability expert Jakob Nielsen:
- The first few items get the most attention.
- The middle items get less attention.
- The final item gets more attention than the one before it.
The serial item on a list may also benefit from the recency effect. This principle, coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus, says that items presented last will most likely be remembered best.
So if you’re creating a hierarchical list, consider an hourglass-shaped structure: Start with the most important items, bury the least important items in the middle, then end with the second- or third-most important item.
Lift Ideas Off the Screen
Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?
Join Shel Holtz and me at our two-day Web-Writing Master Class in Santa Fe. There, you’ll learn how to use lists and other online display copy — headlines, links and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to skimmers.
Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Reach “readers” who spend only three minutes — or even just 30 seconds — with your piece
- Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95 percent of people read — but that many communicators forget
- Pass the Palm Test to communicate to folks who will not read your paragraphs
- Make your copy 47 percent more usable by adding a few easy elements
- Add one simple element to increase reading for those whose attention is beginning to wane
“Imagine a news headline that reads ‘news story’ or a book on the shelf titled ‘book title.’ Not very helpful, right? And yet to this day I continue to get emails with the subject line, ‘Email Confirmation.'”
Win Goodbody, senior product manager, Sitka Technology Group
Avoid ‘Ann, your e-zine is here’
It just makes sense that calling out to your recipient by name in the subject line would grab attention and drive opens and click-throughs. Right?
After all, 94% of businesses believe personalization is critical to their success, according to a recent Econsultancy survey. Shouldn’t it help with email, too?
Wrong, say the authors of several major studies of email subject line effectiveness.
Personalization reduces opens, clicks.
“Ann, restart your membership” (Netflix)
“Hi Ann, How can I help you with
your Go To Meeting experience?”
“Ann, see jobs for you from Dominion Enterprises,
Resource and Gifts.com.” (LinkedIn)
“Ann, you have 2 pokes and 23 messages” (Facebook)
“Ann, come back to us!” (Portland Playhouse)
“ANN, Thanks for Stopping In …
Rate Your Recent Purchase!” (Chico’s)
What do all of these brands get wrong?
Personalizing — adding the recipient’s name to — a subject line reduces email open and clickthrough rates, according to the studies. In fact, according to the 2013 Adestra Subject Line Analysis Report, personalization:
- Reduced email opens by nearly 21%.
- Cut clickthroughs by 17%.
- Lowered click-to-open rates by 32%.
For this report, Adestra studied 287 keywords in 2.2 billion emails.
MailerMailer saw significantly lower clickthrough and open rates for personalized subject lines compared to non-personalized ones in its 2012 study.
And MailChimp found that personalization doesn’t significantly improve open rates in its study of the open rates for more than 200 million emails supports this finding.
While adding the recipient’s name to the subject line hurts email engagement, MailChimp’s found, adding localization, such as including a city name, helps.
The best-performing emails include subject lines personalized with the recipient’s name and an added value point, such as location, according to a study of 200 million emails by Eloqua.
Customized personalization doubled open rates compared to name-only personalization, the study found. And adding a name and one other detail multiplied success by 10 times compared to no personalization.
If you do personalize …
Still plan to personalize your subject line? These tips from the researchers will hep:
- Use your recipient’s first name only — not the last name.
- Avoid ALL CAPS. Capitalize the first letter of the recipient’s name only.
- Don’t place the recipients’ name in the first word in the subject line. That buries the most meaningful or unique detail — and that’s most likely to generate opens.
- Don’t discombobulate the recipient. If you personalize the subject line, personalize the rest of the message too.
- Consider other personalize data points. You might try birthdays, subscribers, followers and so forth.
“What are some best practices in writing email subject lines?” MailChimp, Oct. 29, 2013
Amanda Batista, “5 Ways to Personalize Emails and Enhance Open Rates,” Modern Marketing Blog, April 17, 2013
Janelle Estes, “Email Subject Lines: 5 Tips to Attract Readers,” Nielsen Norman Group, May 4, 2014
Justine Jordan, “How to Write the Perfect Subject Line,” Litmus, Dec. 5, 2012
Parry Malm, “152 killer keywords for email subject lines (and 137 crappy ones),” eConsultancy, July 2, 2013
MarketingCharts staff, “In B2B Email Subject Lines, Some Keywords Work Better Than Others,” MarketingCharts, Nov. 14, 2012
David Moth, “10 things to avoid using in your email subject lines,” Econsultancy, Nov. 19, 2013
Next steps: Reach readers online
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Learn more: Read more email tips.
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. And find out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- Master email tips: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools.
- Get more writing tips: Subscribe to our e-zine for free writing tips every month.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
“The lead of a story is too important to waste on insignificant background; it must grab readers fast, rope them in and lead them along until the article is impossible to put down.”
Art Spikol, president of Art Spikol Inc.
Make your leads concrete and creative
Who said TV was bad for you? My West Wing binge watching is paying off with great writing tips. Here, some insights on approvals — and the right way to start a story:
“CUT TO: INT. MARS BRIEFING REHEARSAL — DAY The TelePrompTer shows the name ‘Galileo’ on it and Sam’s head pops up. The crewmembers of the NASA Public Affairs are around the place.
“SAM Who wrote this intro?
“SCOTT TATE I did.
“SAM You’re from NASA Public Affairs?
“SAM You mind if I give it a polish?
“TATE Is there a problem?
“SAM No, it’s great. You mind if I change it?
“TATE I’d prefer if you didn’t.
“SAM Just the same…
“TATE The Public Affairs has cleared the text. If it’s gonna be changed, I’d prefer that the President change it.
“SAM See, that’s kind of what he pays me to do, so…
“TATE Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.
“SAM Yes, I suppose, if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell.
“TATE Excuse me?
“Bartlet walks in with C.J.
“BARTLET Good morning!
“EVERYONE Good morning, Mr. President.
“BARTLET Can I see the intro?
“SAM It’s up on the Prompter.
“BARTLET [reads] “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which …” Whoa, boy…
“SAM [waves and smiles] How you doing, Mr. President?
“BARTLET Who wrote this intro?
“TATE I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.
“BARTLET [gets up and shakes his hand] Scott. ‘Unique’ means ‘one of a kind.’ Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.
“C.J. While we’re at it, do we have to use the word ‘live’ twice in the first two sentences like we just cracked the technology?
“C.J. We’re also broadcasting in living color, right?
“BARTLET [to Tate] He’s gonna make some changes.
“TATE [following Sam] You’re going to clear them with me?
“SAM I doubt it. [to a recording staffer] Write this: ‘Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1,200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago…’ Is it eighteen hours ago? We’re on the air at noon eastern.
“SAM ‘Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astroscientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.’
“BARTLET [taps C.J. on the arm] He said it right.”
Want to get writing wisdom from The West Wing? Check out West Wing Transcripts.
Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid
Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research.
According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids: 1) Reduce readership and understanding; 2) Fail to make readers care about the information; and 3) Don’t draw readers across the jump.
In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”
In this workshop, you’ll learn a structure that can increase reader satisfaction, boost the amount of time readers spend with your message and help readers understand information more easily. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How to organize your message to grab readers’ attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression
- Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid
- How to stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget it)
- Five ways to avoid the “muddle in the middle”
- A three-step test for ending with a bang
“Budget dust: Year-end money that must be spent before it is swept away by the cold winds of a new fiscal year.”
Invest your year-end money before it gets swept away
‘Tis the season for many of us to use what remains of our 2014 budget … or lose it altogether. Here are five ways to invest your budget dust this year to improve communications for years to come:
- Schedule 2015 writing workshops today. Lock in 2014 prices for 2015 events when you complete booking by Dec. 31. And save 5 percent when you prepay my speaking fee.
- Learn something new every day with Rev Up Readership Gold memberships for the whole team. Enjoy group discounts when five or more of your colleagues join at the same time.
- Get a publication or website review. It’s like having a mentor by your side.
- Book one-on-one writing coaching. Make a Wylie Communications coach your personal writing trainer.
- Build a better library with the Power Pack. For those who are serious about developing their skills: Get all my handbooks, reports, cheat-sheets, recommended readings and free bonus supplements — 19 learning tools in all — and save $243.
Want more details? Contact me directly.
“Fantastic. I feel motivated, have great ideas how to personally and professionally move on projects and improve them. [Ann] sparked a lot of creativity.”
Amie O’Hearn Breton, director, Communications, Maine Office of Consumer Affairs
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Lincoln on May 16: Make Your Copy More Creative, a full-day workshop for PRSA Nebraska
- New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Santa Fe on Feb. 11 and 12: Writing for the Web with Shel Holtz, a two-day Master Class
- Your own home or office on Nov. 6, Nov. 13, Dec. 4 and Dec. 11: Catch Your Readers, a four session course over Webex for IABC.
- Your own home or office on Jan. 29: Make Your Copy More Creative, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Bentonville: Feb. 24
- Dallas: Nov. 19-20
- Kansas City: Nov. 11
- Lincoln: Apr. 16
- New York City: Dec. 8
- Philadelphia: Dec. 18
- Portland: Nov. 5
- San Francisco: Dec. 2
- Santa Fe: Feb. 11-12
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting writing workshops for Prime Therapeutics, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)’s World Conference and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)
- Developing story templates for Baylor Scott & White Health
- Coaching writers at the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA)
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via: