Creating and showing off a portfolio is such a fundamental part of a designer’s life, few people ever question its effectiveness. But the fact is, there are better ways to sell your services – and one of those ways is by using case studies.
Why? Because case studies, unlike portfolios, tell your clients what happens behind the scenes. They show not just your technical capability, but also your personality and characteristics – two factors arguably more important than your “talents”.
Case studies are also what I like to call “under the radar” sales tool – people don’t have their sales-barrier up when reading a case study. They assume these documents are informational in nature. Yet at the same time, case studies position you to be more than just a designer – they position you as an expert.
But crafting an awesome case study that turns prospects into customers requires a little more work than a putting together a simple portfolio.
The good news, however, is that this article will teach you how to go from zero to case study hero in just 5 steps:

1. Define Your Ideal Reader

If you want to produce a persuasive case study, start by defining who your target readers are. If you skip this step, any case study you produce will deliver much less impact than it could have – it simply wouldn’t resonate.
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For example, a corporate executive won’t be much impressed if your case studies are about helping small businesses. They’ll assume you won’t be able to handle the complexity of a large project.
On the other hand, small business owners aren’t likely to convert if your case studies are about helping corporate clients. They’ll assume you’re too expensive to afford – or that you can’t manage a small budget.
If you have no idea who to target, here are a few suggestions on how to segment your readers:
  • Corporate vs small business owners
  • By country
  • By expertise (Professionals such as design directors or Amateurs such as mommy bloggers)
  • By industry
  • By specific problem (generating web sales vs going viral, for example)

2. Define the Problem

Once you’ve defined who will be your readers, you’ll begin to sift through your experience to find a suitable experience you can turn into a case study.
At this point in time, most people simply begin writing the case study. But there’s one more thing you should do before you jump straight in: define what the problem you really solved.
You see, what your client came to you for is rarely the real problem they want to solve. For example, they might ask you to design a “cutting-edge” WordPress site. Why did they want that? Perhaps it was because they hope to increase conversions and solidify their branding.
Why did they want to increase conversions and solidify their branding? Because they were being outbid in pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and Google is placing increasing importance on brand searches in search engine optimization (SEO).
So now the problem evolves from: “help client design a cutting-edge website” to “help client increase PPC profitability and boost SEO results through better design”. The latter being a benefit-driven headline you can use for your case study.
To take it up another notch (and you should always do this), is to define the problem in numbers.
For example, “their PPC landing page was converting at 2.37% but it dropped to 1.2% in 6 months ago – and according to their research, it was due to increasing competition. In 3 months after the new design went live, conversion rate went from 1.2% to 2.68%.”
Last but not least, make sure all numbers you cite have a context. If you said that your design achieved a 2.68% conversion rate – is that good or bad? How does it compare to the original number? How does it compare to the goal?

3. Tell Your Approach

Once you’ve defined the problem, now it’s time to reveal everything that went on behind the scenes. Some designers are reluctant to do this because they are afraid people will “steal” their best ideas.
What those designers didn’t think about is that educating others positions you as an authority. Plus, the fact that your potential clients know what goes on in your mind doesn’t mean they’ll spend the weeks you did to pull off the project successfully.
In telling your approach, make sure you include things like:
  • How did you approach the problem? Do you have model you use (eg: AIDA)?
  • What unexpected roadblocks did you face? Did the CEO budge his head in? Did the problem evolve as you point out certain details the client missed? Were there any team members who were difficult to work with?
  • Did the cost of the project blow out of budget? What did you do to handle it?
  • How did you coordinate with the team as an overseas freelancer working on such a complex project?
Be very specific about what you did to solve the problem. For example, “I designed a beautiful site” doesn’t mean anything to most businesses. Try, “I changed the colour of the call-to-action button to make it stand out from the rest of the page – and that resulted in a 15% increase in conversions”.

4. What Was the Results

At the end of the day, this is what all prospective clients are interested in. What did you do for your past clients? In this section, make sure you:
  • Quantify all claims. Don’t talk about how you changed the typography. How did that change translated to numbers?
  • Do you have screenshots of analytics? If not, can you visualize the data to show the results?
  • And what was the insight(s) your client gained from the experience they had with you? An insight is a fundamental shift in mindset that changed the direction your client pursues in the future. And how does that shift in mindset benefit them in numbers?
This is a great example of insights I once used, “Today, Client X made sure usability is always a priority in their site redesign. And assuming that increase in conversion rate remained for the next 6 months (conservative estimate), they would have made $50,000 more in revenue.”
Remember how we talked about all numbers need to have context? The crucial context you need to provide here is ROI (return on investment). In other words, how much better off did your client end up by hiring you?

5. Call to Action

Now that the prospective client is all excited about your services, don’t leave them hanging. Give them a compelling reason to act now at the end of your case studies.
Here are a few examples I have seen in various industries:
  • Offer a free consultation
  • Stress your tight schedule
  • Give your case study readers a discount or other freebies – and highlight the exclusivity
  • Link to more case studies if you have any
To really take it up a notch, make sure that people who clicked on the link in the case studies go to a special landing page designed specifically for them. From there, get them to fill out a form so you can follow up with a phone call.
After working with more than a dozen freelancers over the past half-decade, I’ve found trying to convert a client online – especially for projects that cost thousands of dollars – is a futile attempt.

6. More Tips and a Conclusion

If this will be your first time creating a case study, start with these basic tips.
  1. If you hate writing, get a decent freelance writer to do it for you. A short case study shouldn’t cost more than $200 (about 1500 words).
  2. Always let your past clients shine in the case study. Positioning them as a snoot will not help you win prospective clients – if anything, they’ll suspect you’ll do the same to them.
  3. Use lots of quotes from your clients. Interview them and use their exact words. And if you can get him/her to agree, feature a portrait of them. This increases the credibility of your case study (who knows you didn’t make it all up?)
  4. Always use compelling headline and sub-headlines. For example, don’t go with“The Problem”. Try “How Can Design Help PPC?”
  5. Break down your posts with multiple sub-headlines and make sure you keep your paragraphs short. This is crucial. Nothing turns readers away more effectively than large blocks of text.
  6. Try a different format. Video case studies are almost guaranteed to get more views than would a written one, but it will cost more in time and money – and it can’t be updated as easily.
So there, 5 steps and 6 basic tips to create compelling case studies that sell. It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?
But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to do what others won’t. And this is one of the best opportunities to do that.