Expert Tips: Killer case study questions for content writers

Case studies are an important part of the content story. As well as being an essential marketing component, they are some of the most rewarding content pieces to write. After all, you get to talk with real-life customers who are using the solutions you’ve been writing about. They breathe life into product copy and make those dry features come alive as bona fide benefits.

We’ve written about the importance of case studies in previous blogs, like this one which also includes some useful tips for writing case studies. The most important part of the case study involves getting the details, and for this you do really need to talk directly with the customer and ask pertinent questions.

While the most valuable person to speak to is the customer, their time is precious and your priority – to get a compelling case study – probably isn’t theirs. After all, they’ve probably moved on from the project and have a new set of challenges to overcome.

So, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to highlight the ‘killer questions’ you need to ask before you even speak to the case study subject.

Who you ask depends on your role as the case study writer. If you’re in-house, you’ll probably speak to the customer’s account manager or a sales person first. If you’re an agency or freelance writer, you may need to go through your marketing or communications contact, whoever is commissioning the case study.

Why ‘killer questions’? Well, it’s simply that the answers you get can potentially kill the case study stone dead.

Let’s make a start:

What’s the status of the project?

  • If the solution has only just been sold, you don’t have a case study but a sales story. In this case, you only need to get a soundbite from the customer. You can get the sales detail from the account manager. But I repeat, this isn’t a case study.

Can it be made public or put in the public domain?

  • Crucial question. If the answer’s no, find out why you’ve been asked to write it up. You might be gathering material for internal reference or bid writing purposes, or you might be asked to write an anonymised case study. These are still case studies, but they do affect how you write the finished piece.

Can you talk directly to the customer?

  • This is a really important one. Always try to interview the person with overall responsibility of the project, or intimate knowledge of it. Never settle for interviewing the person who sold the product or solution to the customer. Seriously. Just don’t. You won’t be happy with the outcome and it will only tell half the story. Remember, case studies tell the customer’s story. The impact hinges on the key premise of ‘don’t take our word for it, hear what someone whose real-world problem our product solved has to say’.

Does the interviewee have authority to talk?

  • The interviewee might have a great relationship with your business – or your client’s business if you’re an agency or freelance writer working on behalf of the customer – but if they don’t have the authority to talk about the project, and you find out after the fact, all your hard work will be in vain. Believe me.

All of the above are ‘go/no go’ questions. If you’ve got satisfactory answers, move on to the next ones – still before you interview the customer.

What is the sign-off process?

  • Understand who the key stakeholders are. This can impact how you write the piece. If you’re a freelance or agency writer, try to find out who is involved in reviewing the copy from your client. This will give you an idea of how long it could take and what kind of feedback you’re likely to get.

How will the piece be used?

  • You may be asked this by the interviewee, but in any case it’s important to know so you can understand the format you are writing to and any tone of voice, language and word count requirements. For example, does it need to be very technical, or should it be business focused? Understand this up front to avoid having to go back to the interviewee to get more information.

What can you tell me about the project?

  • Now you can start putting information together before you embark on the call with the customer. As I mentioned, their time is valuable so the more background you can get ahead of your call the better. You don’t want to spend the first half of the call getting basic details. Ask the account manager or sales person to give you key details about the background and context, the problem the client wanted to achieve, their goals and objectives, any problems during the project that reflected well on the client team, etc.

From these core details, you’ll be able to create a set of intelligent questions about the project to ask the interview subject. You may go over some of the same ground as the interviewee gets into telling the story, but you’ll have key facts at your fingertips to drive the conversation forward.

I could outline questions to ask during the interview, but they’ll inevitably be fairly generic. The beauty of the approach I’ve explained is that you’ll have loads of information to create specific questions for the interviewee and you’ll sound well-informed and intelligent.

Finally, before you make the appointment to interview your target, ask yourself one last key question:

Do I know enough not to come across as an idiot on the call?

Hopefully, by asking these questions, you will!