What is a Case Study and How to Create One With WordPress

What is a Case Study and How to Create One With WordPress

If you run a business online, chances are good you’ve run across testimonials before. They’re sort of like reviews but more concise and give prospective customers or clients a chance to see what it’s like to do business with you. People in service-based industries need testimonials. But I would argue they need case studies, too.

Case studies are kind of like testimonials but go into greater depth and offer more insights, concrete examples, and a true day-in-the-life of one of your previous customers or clients. They’re invaluable and the ultimate sales pitch because they come from the mouths of your clients. Who needs hyped up sales language when you have your past clients doing it for you?

We’re going to go into great detail today about case studies, covering everything from what they are to how to write one, to how to add them to WordPress in a number of different ways. Enough chit-chat. Let’s get to it. 

What is a Case Study, Exactly?

Shall we get the definition out of the way first? According to About.com, a case study is, “a detailed account of a company, industry, person, or project over a given amount of time,” and the content it contains typically includes, “information about company objectives, strategies, challenges, results, recommendations, and more.”

So it’s part testimonial, part review, and part something else altogether. That “something else” has a lot to do with conveying how your company has helped a specific client solve a specific problem. Case studies are very problem and solution-based, making them a unique animal. This is also why you might come across a site that features case studies and testimonials. They are different things with different objectives.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of case studies.

For the sake of convenience, I’m going to compare like with like here and take a look at two mobile development companies. First is InMobi a company that specializes in creating “mobile-first customer engagement platforms,” or in regular person speak, they offer mobile advertising solutions.

InMobi has worked with the likes of Macy’s, Slim-Fast, and Nokia. All of these clients appear to have been satisfied with the work InMobi did for them and, as a result, participated in case studies that appear on the company’s site. These case studies are brief and to-the-point but offer valuable insights into what it’s like to work with InMobi.

inmobi-macys-campaign
This case study puts a bit of the results in the headline.

The Macy’s case study shows that InMobi was able to increase purchase intent for the company’s winter collection by 134%. The case study starts with a description of how Macy’s and InMobi worked together to create an effective mobile campaign.

A case study from Macy's.
A valuable case study from Macy’s.

After that are some fairly standard subheaders associated with case studies, “The Objective” and “The Solution.” These sections briefly outline what Macy’s wanted to accomplish and how InMobi was recruited to help achieve it. There’s also a nice little list of key attributes of Macy’s as a client that includes the target demographic of the campaign and the mobile platform selected.

Lastly, there’s a “The Results” section that shows how Macy’s was able to achieve its goal of increasing purchase intent by using InMobi:

inmobi-macys-results
The Results section is to-the-point and gives readers a solid takeaway.

Let’s look at another case study this company has on its site. This time, the client was Slim-Fast. The weight loss shake makers wanted to create an interactive mobile ad that attracted attention for its new shake flavors. Just as with the Macy’s case study, this one starts with a brief description of Slim-Fast’s experience with InMobi:

inmobi-slimfast-campaign
A compelling headline and concise description start this Slim-Fast case study on the right foot.

From there, we have the same sub-headers as before, detailing what Slim-Fast wanted to achieve (awareness for the launch of its seven new shake flavors) and the solution InMobi offered (a motion-activated ad that allowed users to shake their phones to reveal each new flavor).

inmobi-slimfast-results
The Results section sums up the study and gives readers a look at how InMobi benefitted Slim-Fast.

Last again is results of the campaign, which saw an ad engagement rate double the industry standard and gave Slim-Fast a look at what flavors consumers preferred.

como-app-maker
Calling case studies “success stories” lends a more personal tone to the narratives.

Another site that has great examples of case studies is Como App Maker. This company offers a tool that lets businesses create their own apps simply and easily. They also offer professional app creation services, should your needs extend beyond your abilities.

mt-royal-bagel-co-success-story
A bold, graphically-oriented headline attracts attention to the case study.

One thing you’ll notice right away is that they call their case studies “success stories.” This is a common choice (customer stories, too) as it lends a slightly more editorial vibe to the write-ups.

The Mt. Royal Bagel Co Success Story offers a concise look at how the company used Como to create in-app promotions and increase sales by 40%. The study features some nice graphically oriented stats:

como-app-maker-stats
Prominent stats make it easier for readers to glean what benefits your company has provided your client.

And then offers a look at how the bagel purveyors found success. A particularly nice touch here is the next section:

como-app-bagel-co-takeaways
This case study gives readers a look at how they can achieve the same results for their companies.

This applies the lessons Mt. Royal Bagel Co learned from their experiences with the Como App Maker to any burgeoning business. You don’t have to put yourself in the company’s shoes—this case study does that for you.

Now if you want to get really meta, The WordPress.com VIP site offers up case studies for big name companies that have utilized its premium VIP service.

wordpress-vip
A portfolio-style layout for case studies is very effective.

Take the case study on the BBC America website as an example:

WordPress VIP hosts BBC America.
WordPress VIP hosts BBC America

It doesn’t have all the subheadings and strict categorization like the other case studies we talked about here but it still accomplishes the same things. It starts with a description of the problem BBC America was facing. Its content is spread across several different CMS’s and they needed a change.

The rest is presented in Q&A format and shows how WordPress VIP directly improves the company’s website and day-to-day operations, like building websites for new shows, adding content, and ensuring user privacy.

There are a number of ways to write case studies, and surely some creative license is allowed, but hopefully these examples give you a sense of what attributes most studies possess and what some businesses are doing about displaying them on their sites.

If you want more examples of case studies—particularly really meaty ones that go into great technical detail—you might want to consider taking MarketingProfs for a test drive. They have tons of great case studies on their site that offer an excellent opportunity to learn by example. A membership is pricey but they do offer a two-day trial (which is what I did) if you want to give yourself a crash course in case study creation.

Why Your Site Needs Case Studies

Now that you have a clear idea of what a case study is, we can talk a little bit about why you should seriously consider adding them to your website.

It’s all about the bottom line, really. Case studies make good marketing sense. They give you the opportunity to present your products or services in a positive light that is typically much better received than standard sales hype.

Case studies come from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, so they offer a more realistic view of what it’s like to work with you. Those with direct quotes from clients are even better because they show your customer cared enough to offer up a few words. Think of it this way: A customer who was willing to spend time after working with you to talk about their experience with your company is going to have a lot more sway on your future customers than any sales copy you could ever write.

According to Pardot, there are four key benefits to using case studies. Let’s take a look at each of those here:

  • Storytelling Opportunity: Case studies give you the chance to present your business, service, or product from the perspective of a storyteller. You can take prospects on a journey with you through your business from the idea stage, through problems and solutions, all the way through to the results. In story terms, that’s like going from “once upon a time” straight to “the end” and taking your prospects along for the ride.
  • The “As Told To” Perk: Since case studies are essentially stories about your customers, they often have a decidedly “as told to” vibe like in magazine features. This editorial quality makes them feel a lot more trustworthy from the prospect’s point of view.
  • Gives Sales an Invaluable Resource: The process of writing up case studies helps you to better appreciate what your company can offer specific kinds of clients. So when someone on your sales team runs across a prospect with a specific issue, they can go hunting through your case studies and give said prospect a firsthand account of how your services or products would be beneficial to them.
  • Brand Evangelism at its Finest: The final benefit of case studies according to Pardot is the fact that it allows you to find out who your biggest advocates are. Customers who take the time to participate in a case study are your biggest fans and that’s always worth knowing!

The Writing Process

You can approach the actual writing process in a number of ways. For starters, you might opt to hire a marketing writer to take care of it for you. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, especially since there is a bit of a learning curve in understanding the sales-but-not-sales tone they require.

Should you decide to write your case studies yourself, you’ll need to keep a few things in a mind. If you’ve already figured out who the subject of your first study will be, great. If not, you’ll need to get that part locked in straight away. Once you have a past client or customer’s agreement to participate, you can get down to writing.

Having some good interview questions in mind is imperative. But before you even sit down to interview the client, you’ll probably have an idea of what the story you’re going to tell is about anyway. After all, if you worked with this client one-on-one before, you’ll know what your company did for them already. Even so, getting a better understand of where the client was coming from and what their needs and wants were prior to finding a solution with you is essential for constructing a compelling narrative.

Here are a few interview questions that I’ve found to be particularly helpful in getting interesting and thorough responses from past clients and customers:

  • What were you trying to accomplish before you sought out my company?
  • What was it about our service/product that appealed to you?
  • How did you go about choosing my company?
  • What problems were you facing?
  • What was it like working with us?
  • How did you use our product or service?
  • How did our product/service help you to achieve your goals? Did it offer a solution to your problem? If so, how?
  • What were the end results of using our product or service?

Obviously, you can tailor these questions to suit any industry or niche. You can make them as general or as specific you want or need. These are just some ideas for getting your creative juices flowing.

Note: If you hire an outside marketing firm or writer to create case studies for you, they will need to interview you as well to get a firm understanding of what you do, how you work with clients, and your overall approach to business. If you have a product in the tech sphere, expect a rather detailed pre-interview with you before he or she interviews your client. This is essential to ensure understanding of what you offer. 

Case studies can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. Still, you will need to educate yourself on the subject before you attempt to write one. For more in-depth coverage of how to write a case study, you might want to check out this guide from the Michigan Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Adding Case Studies to WordPress Manually

Unlike some other things I’ve talked about here at WPMU DEV, case studies aren’t something you need a special bit of code to implement. In fact, they are as simple to add as creating a new post or page.

However, you may find it beneficial to create a new custom post type to better handle case studies, especially if you’re going to make a habit of creating new ones on a regular basis. A custom post type allows you to predetermine the layout and special features of a given post or page so you don’t have to manually create the layout time and time again.

So, let’s say you want to create a special table that offers up bite-sized info about the client like InMobi does. You’d create a new custom post type that includes a table for this kind of info, along with other formatting you’d use across all case studies, like specific subheaders, image galleries, and so forth.

CustomPress makes it easy to create custom post types.
CustomPress makes it easy to create custom post types.

You can use our CustomPress plugin to create a custom post type or read our post about how to code custom post types from scratch.

Adding Case Studies with Themes

Pretty much any portfolio theme can be used to feature case studies. However, some are better suited to the task than others. Here we’ll explore the best of the best in terms of supporting case studies and the features they require.

  • GK Portfolio

    A free theme you might want to check out is called GK Portfolio. Made by GavickPro, this theme is centered around images and allows you to display your latest works in a stylish way. This, of course, can be easily adapted for use with case studies as well. It’s incredibly lightweight and allows you to add a dynamic element to your pages since it uses reveal animations for each portfolio item.

    The theme itself is responsive and includes features like social media icons, share buttons, and Disqus support for making your case studies more interactive. It uses the WordPress Theme Customizer as well, so you can easily set colors, change the animations and layouts, and select from numerous Google Fonts.

  • Amplify

    The Amplify theme is perfect for building a site with a portfolio or a dedicated section for case studies. This theme offers tons of options, is responsive, and includes full social integration, so you can keep visitors abreast of where you’re at online. It also comes with eight page templates and Live Composer so you can easily see what the front page will look like as you build it.

    Other features include Google Fonts, color customization, a parallax header image, and the theme is translation ready.

    Amplify is free.

  • Sketch

    The last free theme I came across that I thought would be appropriate here is called Sketch. It’s a simple responsive portfolio theme that offers a clean image-based design that works well for displaying case studies, especially if the clients you’ve worked with are visually-oriented.

    This theme lets you select a custom logo, display a featured content slider, and includes an open layout with plenty of whitespace for showing off your client’s projects.

  • Ikoniq

    If you have a theme budget, you might want to consider the Ikoniq theme. This theme is specifically designed for displaying case studies but can also be used for showing off photo narratives and portfolio pieces. It’s easy to set up and includes a clean design. Structurally, it’s very light and lets the media you choose to display stand on its own.

    This is the ideal case study theme because it’s designed with storytelling in mind. You can easily add sliders, embedded media, and galleries into each portfolio piece, so you can quickly construct a narrative of how your clients came to work with your company and how you helped them.

    Other features include hero images and videos, story header images, parallax effects, an overlay menu, a responsive design, Jetpack compatibility, and plenty of customization options to make your site your own.

    You can get Ikoniq for $43.

  • Anga

    Another theme that includes case study-specific features is Anga. It’s built to be light and functional and looks good doing it. It’s perfect if you need a portfolio and/or a case study repository on your site. And it comes with plenty of features to get the job done and then some like built-in mockup modules, a light and a dark skin, 12 customizable home pages, unlimited layout options, 10 modules and 33 templates for Visual Composer, a full screen slider, video embedding, a hide elements button, and thumbnails.

    It also has multiple column views for the portfolio, a project case study and slider view, a grid and gallery view, and unlimited case study options. This theme offers numerous gallery options, multiple blog formats, 11 page templates, parallax effects, a theme options panel, over 500 Google Fonts, social share buttons, multiple hover styles, custom menus, custom widgets, 3 sidebars, and so much more I can’t fit it all in here.

    Anga is available for $48.

  • Artisan Creatif

    Another theme you should check out is called Artisan Creatif. This theme can be launched in a jiffy and makes it easy to set up a portfolio or case study section. It includes a filterable portfolio where each item can contain individual case studies. This theme also lets you add jQuery slideshows to your homepage and case studies, embed videos on any page, stream audio, and use the simple theme options panel to add a custom logo and change the color scheme.

    You can also select from three portfolio templates, use threaded comments, select from several Editor styles, configure drop-down menus, and more. It also includes six widget areas and five custom widgets for your convenience.

    Artisan Creatif is $43.

  • Business Essentials

    The last theme I’ll mention here is called Business Essentials. It’s responsive and perfect for building any kind of business website with a portfolio that features case studies. The design is responsive and elegant and the theme features numerous page templates for quick setup, including those for the homepage, staff, careers, and case studies.

    This theme is built on HTML5 and CSS3, includes an XML preview data file, multiple sidebar options, 10 widget areas, swipe-enabled sliders and carousels, and more. It’s also translation and retina ready and includes comment validation, an image lightbox, menu options, 18 PSD files, and installation support.

    Business Essentials will set you back $48.

Adding Case Studies with Plugins

Several plugins exists for adding testimonials to your WordPress site, but as you know by now, case studies are different and typically appear on their own individual pages. However, just like the themes mentioned above, portfolio plugins will often suffice for adding case studies to your site.

Here are a few of the best case study/portfolio plugins currently available that I think are worth checking out:

  • SVG Case Study

    The SVG Case Study plugin is easy to setup and makes for a convenient way to add case studies to your website with minimal fuss. You can add several images for each case study you create and use the included form fields to insert the problem the client had and the solution your service or product provided.

    It relies on simple shortcodes to insert the various elements like a list of all case studies, a specific case study, a slider, banner image, or a featured case study.

    This plugin is free.

    Interested in SVG Case Study?

  • OTW Portfolio Light

    OTW Portfolio Light is a straightforward portfolio plugin that can be adapted for the display of case studies. All you have to do is create a new portfolio item then categorize it and they will display in three column templates. It includes portfolio filter options as well as pagination.

    For each item, you can add a title, main content, website link, a quote, a featured image, and slider images. And you can use a shortcode to call up your portfolio content wherever you want it to appear. Simple.

    OTW Portfolio Light is free.

    Interested in OTW Portfolio Light?

  • Showoff

    If you want more features and don’t mind forking over some cash, the Showoff plugin is a solid choice. It provides a convenient way to showcase your latest projects, which is perfect for displaying case studies. It includes options for buttons, backgrounds, hovers, and text color as well as 7 animations. You can modify the layout of your projects, adjust image spacing, setup filtering, and more.

    Showoff is responsive and costs just $14.

  • Testimonials Showcase

    Another option is Testimonials Showcase. It’s designed for displaying testimonials, yes, but it has the capacity to show off case studies built right in. With this plugin, you can display brief testimonials and quotes from your previous clients then link to a complete case study. It includes grid and slider layouts, layout customization options, rich snippets compatibility, a front-end submission form, and a star rating system.

    There are numerous display options included as well along with advanced linking options that allow for single page entries for each testimonial, easily facilitating the needs of case studies. It also comes with a shortcode generator and has a widget, retina, and translation-readiness. Extensive documentation is included.

    You can get Testimonials Showcase for $15.

    Interested in Testimonials Showcase?

Wrapping Up

Though case studies can seem a little daunting on the surface, they are well worth the effort of learning about. After all, what other marketing method gives you the opportunity to take prospects on a journey with your previous clients through the use of your product or service? Even the best sales copy can’t touch the enormous benefits case studies possess.

And with WordPress, styling and presenting case studies is actually a whole lot easier than it would be if you tried to manually code them yourself. Hopefully, you’ve found this resource useful.

Have you ever written a case study? If so, what challenges did you face? If not, do you plan on writing one now? Have you used any of the themes or plugins mentioned here? I’d to hear all about your experiences with case studies as it pertains to WordPress and beyond in the comments below.