Once you have your permissions in place, it is time to research your subject and build your confidence, regardless of whether or not you plan to speak to the customer directly. At the least, you will need details about the customer and the product and technology that the customer is using.
What Comes First – Questions or Research?
The decision about whether you should do research or write questions first is a matter of personal choice. Some writers use an outline, while others prefer to write a draft and rewrite it. I tend to write in my head, and I like to do research with as much freedom as possible.
However, I cannot deny that technically I do have an outline in my head – the classic case-study structure of problem, solution, results – so basically I am researching according to an outline. My advice then is to do what feels natural to you if you are new to this type of writing.
How Much Research Do I Need To Do?
Research has two benefits. It provides hard information and (if you are lucky) colorful detail for your story. But I consider the second benefit even more important – research gives you confidence. Customers love it when you say, “I was looking at your website and I saw…” or “I was very impressed with the study your company did of ….”
Internal contacts will also respect you more if it is obvious that you have done some preliminary research, and they will be more willing to help you fill in any blanks.
Internal Sources: Salespeople, Product Marketing Managers, Field Engineers
Since we are discussing a case study as a piece of high-tech marketing collateral, your best sources of information will be the person who made the sale, the product marketing manager who developed the marketing strategy for the product, and the field engineer, who is a technical type who installs the product at a customer site. Although they are not technically internal, distributors and other types of “partners” can also be important sources of information.
Sometimes you will be writing the story from internal sources only because the customer is willing to approve the case study, but does not have the time or the inclination to participate more fully. In this case, you must be briefed by your internal source, sometimes before you do any in-depth research in external sources. Often you will “suggest” quotes in such a case study, which the customer will approve or change during review. This is a common practice in public relations, and some customers prefer it.
External Sources: The Internet
Customer sites are important sources of information about how the customer markets itself and its products to the world. Most of the case studies I have written in the last few years have been based on in Europe, Asia Pacific, and Central and South America, and I have generally found English versions of the customer websites readily available.
Your company site is equally important, especially if you are part of a large corporation with many products or you are a contract writer. You can use the website navigation or the site’s search facility to identify relevant white papers, position papers, or other case studies.
If the site is not rich enough, you can google for information about the application and the technology, or even an acronym you are unable to identify. If all else fails, try the competition.
I have found everything from interesting statistics to interviews with the customer’s CEO or the spokesperson I would be interviewing while surfing for case study information.