Case Studies: A Must for Freelance Consultants


It’s not always practical to copy the big fish when it comes to consulting. You’re one person, and they’re a massive organization, with backshop support, after all. Still, just because you’re not Ernst & Young or KPMG, doesn’t mean you can’t employ some of their tactics to net you some business.

What does a potential client want from a consultant? Well, an affordable rate, for one. But an even more basic consideration is “Can this person do the job?” If you happen to be a web developer, it’s easy to answer the question. Just point the client in the direction of previous work. If you’re offering more high level, strategic consulting services, it’s not so simple, since you probably didn’t deliver a publicly viewable product.

That’s where the case study becomes useful. Even if you’re bound by a non-disclosure agreement, you can usually produce a document outlining the basics of your past engagements (still, be sure to always check with your client first). You’ve no doubt seen them before, since every big firm offers them via their website. Lucky for us, since we have a lot of source texts to work from. Let’s look at what makes a good case study.

You basically have two options when it comes to the format of your case study. You can either provide a .PDF or an HTML version, or both, if you’re feeling ambitious.

The .PDF has the advantage of being a very portable, website-independent document that can also stand as an example of your professional publishing and production skills, should that be something your clients are looking for. It’s also easier to protect a .PDF document against unwarranted use by a competitor.


An example of an HTML case study.

An HTML case study has the advantage of being easy to access for clients browsing your website. It’s also easy to change, easy to create, and changes with your website design if you’re using CSS. That said, if the client wants something to print out and show around, the .PDF is going to be much more impressive.

Your cases studies should all share a common look, including font, page layout, bullets, headers, margins, logo placement, etc. Case studies are a part of your personal branding, and should be instantly recognizable.

If you’re presenting them as pages on your website, this is fairly easy to accomplish. When working with a desktop publishing program, such as Quark or InDesign, or word processing software like MS Word, you’ll want to set up a template you’re happy with before doing anything else, and use that as the basis for each case study you prepare.

A .PDF case study, with subheadings.

A .PDF case study, with subheadings.

There are many examples of page layouts for case studies, but there are a couple basic rules you should follow. First, keep it short. It’s meant to be an easy-to-read, quick hit summary of your work. Second, break it up. No one wants looks at a solid field of text and says “I want to read that!”. Subtitles and block quotes can help give readers some breathing room.

Of course, what goes into your case study will depend on what engagements you’re using, and on what services you intend to sell with the document you produce. What doesn’t change, though, is what kind of information you put in, and the kind of prose you use.

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive overview, and that it is a marketing document, first and foremost. That means you should focus on specific deliverables and results, and ignore extraneous details. It also means you should focus on the positive, and skirt hiccups unless they illustrate challenges that you eventually overcame.

Your case study should also read like a story. It should have a contextual setup, a crisis (the client’s problem), and a resolution (your solution). Readers think in terms of plots, and will be more engaged with your case study if you present them with one.

My own, two-thirds page design with client quote.

My own, two-thirds page design with client quote.

Those are the basic elements, but there’s much more you can do to really make your case study pop for a client. You can see an example of one I prepared for a company I used to work for here [links to a .PDF document]. Note the two-thirds page design, with the rightmost third reserved for highlights and client quotes, and the footer on the second page with contact information. The key is to make use of the space so the client gets a sense of value-driven economy from your document.

Case studies are an easy way to sell your services, and they have the added benefit of giving you the opportunity to look back on and analyze the strength of past engagements. For more examples, take a look at any major firm’s website. Here’s Deloitte’s archive to get you started.


Kimber Lockhart

A quick chime in on the PDF/HTML debate — why don’t you use a flash embedding service to embed your PDF in your web page. You get the full advantages of a PDF and the in-browser viewing of HTML.

Full disclosure, my company ( is behind such a service, but there are several options: Scribd, Docstoc, Slideshare, and even Google Docs have offerings that allow you to embed various file types in your pages.

Jeffrey Friend

We are in the process of defining our new site, and case studies are something we have talked about. This article helped me see that we are missing the boat by not including them. Thanks for the great advice!

Steve Kane

Darrell – Excellent article! More important then ever in this down down down economy. A co-worker forwarded it with the comment, “…we could do better with our (case studies)”.

I especially liked this advice near the end, “Your case study should also read like a story. It should have a contextual setup, a crisis (the client’s problem), and a resolution (your solution)…”

Thank you!

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