How to build a better case study

As long as I’ve been working in sustainability communications, there have been two words on everyone’s lips: Case studies. There seems to be a bottomless need for real life stories about how businesses and organisations are doing sustainability in real life, whether it’s upskilling staff with a switch to an electric fleet, convincing senior management to set a science-based target, or engaging with their value chain to discuss joint emissions reductions. For all the acknowledged benefits of publishing case studies, however, we have seen relatively few case studies actually published. 

Some of this is due to lack of resources. I sympathise with busy communications managers crying out for more content, but who are unable to step away from pinging emails and phones to concentrate on writing. I used to be you! 

I also wonder if we are reluctant to ask our members or clients to talk about their projects, due to lack of their time, or from some other fear that it will expose the organisation to criticism for not doing enough. When I worked with Abbie Reynolds at the Sustainable Business Council, she often referred to greenhush, the opposite of greenwash, or the tendency to downplay what your organisation is doing as not worth celebrating. 

For example, one company was significantly reducing their chemical usage and installing solar panels to generate their own power. But unfortunately the use of plastic cups around the premises – for safety reasons – was a more visible practice than their electricity generation and waste reduction. They were subject to criticism about plastic usage to the point where they no longer felt comfortable being vocal about their achievements. 

Handled by communicators with experience in sustainability issues, a deep-dive into a project is not to be feared. And the time invested will be well rewarded by the wide benefits case studies can produce for the sustainability community. 

  • Sharing your story shows real organisations dealing with real-world sustainability challenges. This is key to inspiring other organisations to take action.
  • Case studies make your organisation more relatable and give it a human face. This allows customers and stakeholders to connect on a different level beyond traditional marketing. 
  • Case studies also help you fulfil the principles of SBC/SBN/CLC membership, by contributing to a pool of knowledge about sustainability and climate action.  
  • And not least, appealing to an ever-growing population of conscious consumers will grow your brand loyalty and increase investment in your product by these often vocal and passionate consumers. 

Research shows people are now willing to spend more money when they perceive the company to be genuinely investing in sustainable and green initiatives. In the latest Colmar Brunton Better Futures report, 58% of respondents were prepared to invest their time and money to support companies that try to do good, and 46% would make eco-conscious choices, even if they were a bit more expensive. 

In the 2019 report In Good Company, (SBC, Perceptive and Porter Novelli), research showed that at least 47% of New Zealanders care about a brand’s sustainability and that for 34% of those surveyed, perceived sustainability would influence the consumers choice of a brand or product.

We’ve pulled together some tips to make case studies easier: 

  1. Allow plenty of lead-in time before you need to publish them. We recommend a month for written and designed web/PDF case studies, two months for video. 
  2. Give companies a heads-up in advance. Plant the seed early, preferably through a one-to-one chat or phone call. Ideally, the approach will be part of your existing relationship and build the trust you have already established. Let them know you’ll make it as easy as possible for them.  
  3. Find a writer you trust and send them a simple brief – just a handful of bullet points or a couple of sentences is enough for experienced writers to produce a reverse brief. Put them in touch with the organisation directly to interview the spokespeople. 
  4. Recognise the organisation’s time is in demand. Send through an outline of what the case study will focus on, and potential questions to give them time to prepare. 
  5. Be sensitive to the potential risks of telling their story and have the approach and draft text peer-reviewed by another sustainability professional.  
  6. Make sure their comms team is in the loop from the start, rather than two days before publication. This helps prevent any clashes with other publication dates. They can often provide visuals, including operational photos and a high-resolution logo.
  7. Allow for multiple rounds of revision and time for client signoff. 
  8. Have it nicely designed. Do I even have to say this? An attractive visual design will draw your readers in and can convey as much of the message as the text itself. 
  9. Keep the organisation informed at each step of the process, especially if drafts are taking longer than anticipated. Don’t forget to thank them – and co-ordinate publication with their social media team. 

Who should you approach? It depends on who your key contact is. The sustainability manager and communications team should always be involved. Including the voice of staff delivering the organisation’s core mission will really bring it to life. Senior management can provide high-level quotes outlining the project vision and how it ties into the organisational strategy. But make sure you get the experts to provide detail about the challenges and milestones along the way, to really put some meat on the bones. 

Case studies we love

Climate Leaders Coalition – DB installing solar heating at their Redwood Cidery 

It’s easy to read and concise, with graphics which represent the data clearly. The layout makes it easy to understand and absorb the information at a glance – with a pop-out box for key learnings and tips for other companies looking to get started on their sustainability journey.

EECA – Kōkako Organic Coffee Roasters low carbon future

There’s a lot to like about this case study. It has a short video with upbeat music, engaging visuals such as close-ups of coffee beans and drone footage of their operational site and the city. There is enough breathing space in the video to take in what is being said, and there is a good mix of b-roll (footage which goes over the top of interview audio) and the talking-head subject matter expert. 

The written case study has logical headings which divide up the page into bite-size chunks. There is clear advice with bullet points of key takeaways – which helps other businesses wanting to progress with their own sustainability journey. There are relevant links throughout the page for those wanting to delve deeper. 

Climate Leaders Coalition – How ecostore is tackling the plastic problem

This case study was prepared in the form of an aesthetically pleasing booklet. It is pleasant to look at, with its pastel green hues and bespoke graphics and images, and it is also very easy to read, with big, bold writing and clear messaging. Written from the point of view of the company, it gives a more personalised story about their path to find a bioplastic source to make bottles. There are also clear headings about the company’s future goals, its partnership with the Climate Leaders Coalition, and its certification achievements.

Between us, the Comms Co-op has written at least a hundred case studies and produced video versions for leading sustainability NGOs, government agencies, and businesses, big and small. We’ve profiled those who have made major headway on their sustainability journey, as well as those who are celebrating small wins as a first step to leave less of an impact on the earth.

With annual report season upon us, the best time to start thinking about case studies was yesterday. The second best time is today. Give us a call to help you get started.

By Catherine Jeffcoat with contributions from Sarah Cull-Luketina

Published by Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.