Writing Case Studies and Project Descriptions that Stand Out

Stand out

For companies in mature, highly competitive industries, one of the greatest marketing challenges is how to differentiate themselves from other firms with similar credentials.

This dilemma is alive and well within the architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C) industry, a sector where project descriptions and case studies are widely used to showcase a firm’s expertise to potential clients.

Though these pieces have become a marketing staple, they're often dry, formulaic and, at times, indistinguishable. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read about a new educational building that “creates a new front door to the campus.” Or a science facility that “promotes the collision of ideas.” Or an office space that “establishes a new sustainability benchmark.”

It’s easy to understand how this happens. Companies seek to position themselves with potential clients by demonstrating their ability to lead trends and achieve outcomes that go beyond pure aesthetics and do more than just meet a project budget and schedule.

I applaud the intent, but believe there’s room for improvement on the execution.

Below are a few ideas to consider when writing case studies and project descriptions. Most of these principles apply to businesses in any industry.

1. Establish a consistent format, but don’t be shackled by it.
Your marketing pieces should have a consistent format, style, tone and length. That said, give yourself some wiggle room to reflect the vast diversity of clients and projects. Vary sentence structure, play around with paragraph lengths, tell stories from unique perspectives. Otherwise, you risk churning out cookie-cutter descriptions, all served up in the name of “consistency.”

2. Hook 'em with a compelling headline.
Most potential clients will only spend a few seconds scanning a document before deciding if it’s worth their while to invest more time. That’s why it’s essential to craft a headline that highlights the most striking element or outcome of the project. Does the space help increase student enrollment? Improve customer service? Reposition a business? Use a few high-impact words to lure readers.

3. Then help guide readers.
Don’t expect prospects to engage with your case study with the same zeal they have for a novel or the sports page. Subheads, pull-out phrases, bold statistics and bulleted lists (used sparingly) can help draw readers in so they come away with key insights about the project, even if they don’t read every word.

4. Be active and punchy.
Use the active voice, strong verbs and descriptive phrases. Cut the marketing fluff and nix the corporate speak.

5. Match the photos to the words (and vice versa).
The narrative should work together with imagery to tell the most compelling project story. In other words, choose photos that illustrate and reinforce key points emphasized in the text.  

6. Weave in personal perspectives.
Most people like reading about other people—real insights, not canned quotes. Humanize the description by integrating the perspectives of clients, colleagues or project partners. And if you’re able to include a quote from someone who actually uses the space on a daily basis, it’s a total home run.  

7. Quantify outcomes.
Though clients may be sensitive about sharing certain project metrics, look for opportunities to quantify the bottom-line impact of your firm’s work, perhaps by citing percentages instead of raw numbers. And put those figures in context by comparing them to industry averages, previous years or some other benchmark that brings them to life.

8. Consider flipping the narrative.   
Most project stories begin with a broad overview of the space (“This 165,000-square-foot building expands the university’s research and classroom facilities…”) And in the majority of cases, this IS the most logical and effective approach. But sometimes, you can create more impact by starting with a small detail that illustrates a larger project goal. Perhaps there’s a building technology on the roof that demonstrates your client’s commitment to sustainability. Or an innovative approach to construction that saved significant time and money. Why bury that detail in the body of the narrative when you can lead with it and connect it to the broader project?

9. Include challenges you overcame.
Any client/owner who has lived through a building project knows the real story lies in the long, often-messy design and construction process. Consider highlighting a specific challenge the team overcame, such as an unexpected site issue, market shift or budget challenge. Often, the most successful projects are those that overcame the greatest challenges.

When compiling case studies and project descriptions, it can be helpful to keep in mind that you’re not really selling a building or a space; you're selling an experience. As you highlight a project story, do so with the intent of emphasizing how your firm provides the expertise, processes and reliability that shape positive experiences and enduring projects.