The case study is a standard tool of business classes. But there's another type of case study: the user story. Rather than looking for the complete extended dissection of a business problem, this piece tries to present through context the advantages of a product, service, method, or concept.

User stories are a staple for large corporations, which want to present their best faces both to the press and to potential customers. However, there is no reason that only giants can use this marketing technique. Middle market companies can make great use of such case studies, but you want to approach them the right way.

Here are some tips based on my own experiences of writing hundreds of these pieces, both as marketing material and as straight journalism.

Get the Structure

A user story is a particular type of document. It's a story in which a company faces a challenge, finds a way to overcome it, and then solves the initial problem and obtains greater success. But it's important to understand that there are two essential roles: the intrepid adventurer or the cavalry.

The adventurer is the party that has a problem in the business. By no means must the problem threaten the existence of the company — but the bigger the problem, the potentially bigger the payoff. Bigger payoffs mean more attention.

You must decide what role your company will play. There are advantages to either. If you are the cavalry, you're making the difference for another company in a case study that you direct. It might be useful in public relations work, gathering interest from the media, or as marketing collateral for prospects with a similar problem.

If you are the adventurer, your company is likely appearing in the user story that one of your vendors published. The vendor offers the critical difference needed to solve the problem, but you actually solve it. In this case, your company's name gets promoted (depending on the effort and skill of the vendor) not as someone who solves this problem for others, but as a leading company in your field. There's less marketing value, but you do get a significant mention on someone else's dime. Plus, you might be able to negotiate a discount or some other advantage with the vendor.

Remember What Your Audience Wants

This point is most important when you are producing a user story in which you represent the cavalry. The audience is the people who will look at the case study for lessons and tips, as well as the media, which looks for the same things:

  • A problem that the ultimate audience might experience
  • Metrics that allow for a before-and-after comparison of the area of the business affected by the problem
  • Detailed discussion of how the solution was developed and deployed, including all the major products and services required
  • Reconciliation, in which the new values of the metrics are discussed along with a qualitative explanation of how the business was improved
  • Voices of people involved in the implementation

If you don't include all this, whether in the form of narrative, quotes, or information graphics, the story will be a waste.

Reconcile Yourself to Honesty

Any time you're undertaking a marketing project, the temptation is strong to make things look as positive as you can. It's an understandable impulse, but you need some basic honesty in a piece like this. For example, if another company had a major role in solving the problem, you include it. Never pretend to have done more than you did.

Also, make sure that whoever is writing the study talks to the people involved in the implementation, whether it's the client, your company, or other vendors. Don't just make up quotes you'd like them to say. Although it may be necessary to edit what you get for grammar or clarity, you'll also preserve the chance to learn things that could turn the study into a surprising hit.

Apply the Formula

User stories have an inherent structure and fairly strict formula that you need to follow to deliver what the readers look for:

  • Statement and explanation of the business problem, including key metrics
  • Turning point and introduction of key tools to solve the problem
  • Development and deployment of the solution
  • Results, including key metrics

The reason it works is that it has the structure of an actual story: conflict, protagonist, and resolution. In the process, you deliver what the reader wants. There may be other structures that could work, and experimentation can be good, but only so long as all these points are covered at a minimum in the final piece.

Keep Things Legal

You're using the names of other companies and people. Involve your lawyers and ensure that you have the necessary permissions in written form. This will likely involve sending a final draft of the story to the participants and making whatever changes they deem necessary.

Market the Case Study

It may seem odd to market a piece of marketing, but that is what you have to do. Mention the availability of case studies (preferably for a variety of customer and problem types) in public relations efforts. Be sure that salespeople bring examples with them when meeting prospects. Have the materials available online — though you may want to wait first to see if any media outlets are willing to write about it.

Creating and using case studies isn't rocket science, but it can add a significant boost to your branding and marketing efforts.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc., and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+.