The case study is one of the most important promotional pieces to have on hand for new business pitching – and having them is one thing that separates agencies and high-paid creative services consultants from freelancers. They aren’t terribly expensive to produce, they have a long lifespan, and they’re multi-purpose. So, freelancers, why aren’t you using them in your new business efforts?
Here’s my story: I was a freelance writer for 10 years. When I wanted to get a new client, I would send a clever cover letter, writing samples, and ideas of what I could write for the business I was approaching.
Eventually, this became more than just ideas of what to write, but ideas of what this writing could DO for the business — how it could improve SEO or reach new audience segments or build into a larger campaign. When I had a connection to the prospective client, these emails would sometimes work. But a lot of times, they would not get a response.
Over time, I learned why they weren’t getting responses:
- Too many words, expressing too many thoughts
- Text-only layout confuses people
- Sending links to samples is also not a great presentation. Case studies are a better way to present.
- When your proposal includes more than just an idea, a research plan, and similar samples, you’ve gone beyond just story pitching into strategy and marketing — and you need a better presentation to sell that big plan.
What is a case study?
Case studies are brag pieces that you create to showcase specific projects you’ve done in the past. The case study is from the vendor/partner’s POV and allows more room to go in-depth on their process and results.
Agencies use proposals to present the services or concepts they’d execute for a prospective client. They use case studies instead of a portfolio, to show similar work — or just impressive work — that indicates how they’d do work for the prospective client. It’s a great way to show work, because you can share all sorts of things:
- How did you come up with the idea, and why?
- What was your creative process?
- Standout moments that happened behind the scenes.
- Any nice things the client had to say about the work, or about you.
- What are you proud of?
The exact elements that go into a case study are flexible, and can change according to what works best in it. However, some elements are essential…
What must be included in a case study?
- The first thing you must include in a case study is the need the client had that led them to seek your services. This is often presented as a “challenge” or a “goal”
- Then, explain how you addressed that need. What channels were your focus, and what markets? How did you choose talent or strategic partners?
- What services did you provide?
- What content elements did you create? Don’t be general about this – outline all. Show thumbnails.
- What were the results?
(This is the most important element, and a lot of creatives skip it altogether because when all you do is produce pieces one after the other, you don’t get in the habit of tracking how those pieces performed from a big-picture sense.)
For example: If you ever wrote a story or published a photo or video that got syndicated by other publishers beyond the one who commissioned it, you probably didn’t get more money for each additional pickup. And, few publications would even thank you for creating work so shareable that it improved their overall reach.
BUT… any PR agency that “worked with you” i.e. pitched you an idea or helped source a quote related to that story, will be tracking the additional pickups and reporting it to the client as additional work/results. Their value will increase each time your work runs again.
Figure out a way to show the value of your work beyond just the hours it took or the assets produced.
The final element is about aesthetics not content: If at all possible, get your top three case studies professionally designed. You can get by with just a few case studies if they’re strong, but they are supposed to show the best work you can do.
6 Situations where you can use case studies
1. When you casually meet a possible new client
Say you’ve met a potential client at a conference or via Linkedin and they want information on previous projects you’ve done that are in their field — this is the perfect opportunity to send them case studies with your follow-up letter.
2. When you’re not credited on projects
There may be times where you still want to showcase work you’ve done where you didn’t get the credit. In this case, you can prove that you did the work by showing the brief the client gave you, your process behind creating the pieces, and the resulting work.
3. When you can’t show confidential work
If you’ve been asked to not display or show confidential work — or work that you did as part of a former team — in a public portfolio, the workaround is often to create a case study focusing on your contribution and share it with just a few people.
For example, an agency that hired you to do a social campaign for a movie premiere wouldn’t want you taking credit for all the marketing efforts for the entire movie — but you are within your rights to do a case study about the social campaign and how it fit into the larger strategy.
4. When a project has a limited life span
If you’ve worked on an ephemeral project (e.g. a campaign that will only run for six months or fewer) or a content series on a microsite, make it your priority to capture screenshots of published work as soon as it’s available — and screenshots of the rest of the project too. Long after the online footprint fades away, you’ll be able to continue showing that work in case study form.
5. A new contact requests a proposal
You’ll probably get many requests from prospective clients to include some ideas of what you’d do for their business in your proposal. But you don’t want to deliver brand-new original ideation and tactical plans. Instead, send over case studies that show what you’ve done for other businesses in the past.
6. When a new client doesn’t know what they want
To follow up on the above point — people are often influenced by seeing things they like. When the prospective client “doesn’t know what they want,” showing them case studies in the wheelhouse helps them envision how something similar might meet their needs.
Case studies are worth the work
During my freelance writer years, I had always associated case studies with medical research, but I now know that they’re a vital tool for showing a professional track record and potential value in many industries. Beyond creative services agencies, many other fields including urban redevelopment and market research use case studies. They can help you land bigger projects, spend less time on pitching, and do less spec work.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen was, “Go into each new project as though it were going to be a case study.” That means to capture every step of the process, from the discovery session with the client to the launch event. Be diligent about screen-shotting creative work in progress, keeping good pieces of feedback from the client, and tracking all the analytics.
Not only will this improve your reporting and your process, but it ensures that, after the project wraps, whether it was a bang-up success or only got a lukewarm reception, you’ll be able to turn it into a brilliant case study and use it to get the next piece of business.