“We move at the speed of trust.”
This statement by my mentor and friend, Betsy, was one I heard early when starting ALRAS Digital. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, mainly because I generally move at the pace of Speedy Gonzalez in all things personal and professional.
Trust and credibility are paramount to winning and keeping clients in professional services and business development. Whether you are a first-time freelancer or a seasoned agency veteran, you’re unlikely to win a project from a prospective client if they don’t trust you can do the job. Case studies are one of the most potent tools for agencies, consultants, and freelancers to build trust, highlight tangible results for past partners, and demonstrate their ability to get things done.
For business development professionals and business owners, understanding the nuances of creating and leveraging great client case studies can be a game-changer for how they find and win new clients. This post dives deep into the significance of case studies, how they can be effectively crafted, and even shares some of our favorite examples from top Prosal agencies.
A well-crafted case study is more than just a success story; it is an engaging narrative that demonstrates your approach, expertise, and the value you bring to the table.
Case studies have been a dominant theme in more conversations than I can remember for agencies and consultants that are struggling to break into a new industry or service, and they all usually resemble something along the lines of:
“They liked our proposal, but they went with someone else because they had experience working with the sector or type of client.”
Return to the first statement I mentioned by Betsy: “We move at the speed of trust.” The quote reveals that the client did not have enough trust in the agency to work with them and hire them for the project. It is not a question about their skills or expertise in their services. Instead, it is about the relevance of the experience and the outstanding question of whether you have worked with organizations that resemble mine in size, industry, and the challenges we face.
Clients also want certainty that you’ve tackled challenges similar to theirs and emerged victorious. Moreover, clients are also looking for proactivity in what they know they don’t know and, more importantly, what they don’t realize they need.
One recent example I can recall was pitching for an environmental organization preparing for a rebranding. When we shared our proposal with the organization, we shared past brand guides our team had delivered to clients, one of which was for a similar environmental organization that included a messaging guide with audience information and preferred terms. When they finished reading the proposal and example brand guides, they immediately called us and asked, “Can we do something like this exact brand guide for us? Messaging is a huge problem at our organization, and if we are rebranding, we want to be able to communicate who we are and what we do effectively.” With a simple “Yes, we did it for them, and we can make an even better one for you,” we knew we won the project.
Clients also want to be confident that you can deliver results, especially when projects have an essential data component like click-through rates or orders of magnitude. For example, when looking at advertising or fundraising requests for proposals (RFPs), it is not uncommon for the RFP to say something along the lines of “Preference for agencies/consultants with experience working with budgets of over $10,000,000” or some other order of magnitude that is reserved for larger or more specialized organizations.
Based on how clients use case studies to evaluate and select their partners, your case studies should speak to each of the following elements:
A compelling case study blends storytelling, data, and strategy to address the above elements. Here is where the all-important storytelling rule of “Show, don’t tell” comes into play (and I believe this is most true for creative proposals for projects in branding, websites, and other creative industries).
There are multiple templates and options available, but our preferred format for crafting the perfect case study is the following:
This is the executive summary of your case study. In a short paragraph, ideally about 2-4 sentences, you should hit on all the core points of who you worked with, what you accomplished for them, and the significance of those accomplishments.
Clearly outline the problem the client faced. Think of it like the plot of a story. This section will set the stage for your entire case study and, when well written, can make your solution seem all the more impressive. If there were previously failed attempts to solve this problem, you can note them here without blaming those who tried to solve it.
This is the section where you can show off the solution you ideated and implemented and how awesome you and your team are. Don’t be afraid to brag! Walk the reader through your approach and build up to the climax when you finally resolve the problem.
This is where the all-important “What happened?!?” question is answered. It is also where you can go into great detail about the takeaways from the solution or strategic approach and the significance of the solutions implemented.
Numbers speak louder than words, so the significance is best measured quantitatively, such as new customers or time saved. However, significance can also be shared qualitatively, especially with creative projects. In such cases, “Show, don’t tell” is often the rule best followed. Include hyperlinks or embedded examples of the final product or the solutions’ outcome in the case study.
Include a quote from your client. A testimonial from a satisfied client can add authenticity and depth to your case study and a face to a name if you decide to include them as a reference. My preference for testimonials is to include the name, title, and headshot when attributing the quote.
Once finished, case studies should exist in two formats: as a standalone document and as a page on your website.
Case studies should first be designed as a standalone PDF in an editor like Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Canva, or some other easy tool to create, review, and edit. While the case study might be reformatted or updated for specific proposals to call out different accomplishments or fit into the style of a revised proposal, you also want something you can quickly create and review when first drafting. Once made, you can easily share it as a single attachment or append it as an appendix in a PDF.
Once finished, consider copying the material onto a webpage that you can publish on your website. Not only does this open new doors for sharing the case study, but it also offers additional materials for prospective clients visiting your site. Consider that most proposals will include between two and five case studies. However, suppose you’ve gone through this process for multiple case studies. In that case, a client who may be on the fence about hiring you and decides to visit your website will discover a library of successful projects you’ve executed, not just the ones you had attached to the proposal.
We have some fantastic agencies on Prosal, so we would be remiss not to call out some of our favorite case studies from our agency partners.
Our friends at Mixte Communications have a breadth of experience that they showcase with short and long-form case studies alongside a creative website. Their most popular case study is from an award-winning campaign to mobilize youth voters for the League of Women Voters in California.
“We use it as a case study,” Jamie shared with us, “though it doesn't look like the traditional visual format that is super simple. In our space, I think the detailed data, the approach and the lessons learned are really important to social justice advocates looking for support, and I think that's why it does better than any other ‘case study’ so far.”
Teal Media is a woman-owned, full-service creative and design agency with an extensive library of case studies, each built with incredible detail and refreshing visuals. Despite the extent of their case studies, they all follow a similar format to what we outlined, calling out the most critical elements of the project, like challenges, solutions, testimonials, and outcomes, and technology stack for each case study in an engaging article format that is full of creative highlights. Reading through their case studies feels like you are participating in the journey with them to build a new website.
The website and case studies of Purple Bunny, a global design and innovation studio, are a testament to their creativity and data-driven approach, with case study titles like Increase a B2B SaaS homepage conversions by 25%. The executive summaries and presentation rollout are not unlike Teal Media and our suggested guidance (because it works!). They also don’t stick to a single case study template and change themes, designs, and colors to show their innovative personality.
For solopreneurs and freelancers, you can find inspiration in the article-format case studies of Laura S. Quinn Consulting, a 25-year leader in nonprofit websites and digital strategy. Her article trades the traditional sections of the case studies from above for short paragraphs, multiple testimonials, and graphics highlighting her approach and success. She also leans into her subcontracting successes, like in this case study where worked with Capellic, a website consulting firm, to support the Learning Policy Institute.
These are just a few of the countless examples of remarkable case studies that exist out there. Despite their numbers, all of the best ones follow some of the same structures and guidelines to build trust, outline accomplishments, and drive new business into their companies.
Before publishing any case study, you should always seek the client’s consent to publish and share. Any contract you signed related to the project likely included a confidentiality clause, so you may be legally bound to ask for permission before sharing. Moreover, it is not uncommon for a client to consider their business details, challenges, and results sensitive information to the point of complete confidentiality.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked not to share details about a project because a client requested it. Even if a client is wholly against you sharing the project, that doesn’t mean you can’t still use elements for a case study to support your business development efforts.
In cases where a client rejects your request for consent to publish a case study, consider anonymizing the details and keeping the case study as a confidential document that only you can share and control access to. When anonymizing, remove any specific names or data that can identify the client. This way, you can still showcase your success without compromising your privacy. Once anonymized, you can use this case study as a private reference for future pitches or proposals.
Case studies are more than just success stories; they're a testament to an agency's expertise, approach, and value proposition. For professional services agencies and consultants, they're not just a nice-to-have but a necessity.
Consider revisiting your client management process if you’ve struggled to put together a good case study. Keep detailed records of your work process, such as tasks in a project management tool or regularly recording meetings and check-ins, to make it easier to craft a good case study down the road. Similarly, keep an open and regular line of communication with your client so they can provide updates and insights into their satisfaction and success metrics. If you've been speaking to them regularly, it will be much easier to ask for a testimonial.
By understanding their significance, ensuring client collaboration, and crafting them with care, agencies can position themselves as leaders, winning trust and securing more business opportunities.