How to Create Tension in Case Studies With No Before-After Comparison

BY Holly Yoos
September 16, 2021

What do you do when you’re writing a case study with no before-after comparison?

A case study where you have no insights into the situation that existed before your amazing product or solution was implemented?

How can you create tension or suspense in your case study without that?

Because when you distill most case studies down to their bare structure, the story is:

  1. Bad thing happens (or, is happening)
  2. Solution is implemented
  3. Problem is solved.

But what if your interviewee wasn’t involved in stages one and two? What if they only arrived in time for the problem-solved component?

When the interviewee wasn’t a decision maker or involved in the buying process—or only started working for the business once the solution was in place—they’re not going to be able to tell you much about the “before” situation.

Which means no tension in your story.

Why tension in customer success stories is important

Tension is a fundamental part of any good story. As described by MasterClass:

“On a basic level, building narrative tension is a matter of keeping a reader on the edge of their seat. That kind of emotional investment depends on stakes; if there are no stakes, you could argue there is no story. Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, stakes are what keep the reader turning the pages.”

In other words, tension is what makes your customer success story interesting and grabby. Tension is what makes people want to read (or at least scan) it.

Tension is what makes people want to read (or at least scan) your case study.

This may sound a bit academic. After all, you’re not trying to write a bestselling novel!

So is tension really necessary for customer success stories?

Yes, and here’s why: In the case of customer success stories, tension derives from existing or potential pain points.

And these pain points help your target audience identify with (and see themselves in) the story.

Some examples:

Tension-filled problem Target audience thinks…
Company A was feeling vulnerable to ransomware attacks. Gosh, ransomware attacks are a concern for us too. What did these guys do about it?”
Company B struggled to sell when COVID-19 made in-person sales calls impossible. “Man, we went through that too—and we want to be better prepared in the future. How did this company adapt?”
Company C’s affiliate marketing platform couldn’t accommodate a custom compensation model. “Our affiliate marketing platform is stuck in the past too. We need something more flexible and easy to use. Wonder what these guys are doing about it.”


As you can see, the tension comes from the situation that existed before the solution was implemented.

But what can you do when you don’t have that great before-after comparison?

Fortunately, you have options.

Try to find someone who DOES have that history

The most obvious solution, of course, is to find someone who CAN speak to the “before” in the “before-after” story.

If that person has limited availability or has moved on to another position, you may not have the option of conducting a full-blown interview.

Fortunately, you may not need one.

Sometimes, you can get what you need by putting a couple of short questions to them via email.

A couple of short quotes may be enough to flesh out the “challenges” section of your case study and add some needed tension.

Capture the story in medias res

When you don’t have the option of getting that background knowledge from someone else in the organization, your next best bet is to capture the story in medias res.

This is where the client has the solution in place, a major problem crops up, and the solution helps them fix it.

So a case study for a software security company could go, for example:

  1. Company ABC implemented Solution A to protect itself from a ransomware attack
  2. Company ABC was subject to an attempted ransomware attack
  3. Solution A prevented the attack
  4. Major problem was avoided.

Here, the tension comes from the “what if”—what would have happened if this attack hadn’t been prevented?

To dig into this tension, you could ask questions such as:

“What would have happened without Solution A?”

“How would you have dealt with the ransomware attack if you didn’t have Solution A?”

Frame why the solution is important NOW

If finding another interviewee and framing the story in medias res aren’t options, you’ll need to frame the challenges section in terms of why the implemented solution is important to the company right NOW.

You’ll have to explore the company’s needs and why the existing solution—and the outcome it achieves—is so important for THEM.

So you might ask questions like:

“What would life be like if you didn’t have this tool/person/thing?”

“What would happen without X?”

“How would you have to deal with X thing if you didn’t have Y solution?”

“What makes solving this problem uniquely challenging for X?”

“What constraints or demands does X have for achieving Y?

In this kind of situation, any context that will help you frame up why this solution is important or necessary for the client is helpful.

Any context that helps you frame why the solution is important for the client is helpful.

Even asking, “What is it that makes X a critical tool for you?” might surface something that you can use to bring tension to the story.

You Need Tension to Build a Strong Case Study

Tension is an essential component of any good story—including your customer success stories.

Unfortunately, you won’t always have a strong before-after comparison.

When that happens, give these other methods of framing up your story—and creating tension—a try.

Create can’t-put-down stories of your customers’ success

Contact us to start the conversation.

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