“Reaching a six-figure income is something I, like many writers, set as the big goal in the sky. It took a few years to reach it, mostly because I had no idea how to market or sell myself … But I reached that goal and have stayed there ever since.” —Casey Hibbard, Award-Winning Case Study Writer
The heart of writing is the ability to tell a good story, and freelance writer Casey Hibbard has virtually perfected the craft. Even better, she’s built a career out of telling stories through case studies.
That’s because storytelling is at the heart of every good case study. And good case studies have a measurable effect on marketing and sales, particularly in our current “age of authenticity” where online reviews and feedback can determine whether a company flourishes or fails.
Proof of Casey’s mastery can be seen in her notable client list, which includes names like FedEx, Sprint, Macy’s, and Hearst Magazines. She’s also both a mentor and an author, and wrote the much-lauded book, Stories that Sell, about how to craft excellent case studies.
Though Casey’s freelance success proves the importance of case studies in the marketing world, the value of her work stands on its own. Glowing testimonials of Casey’s writing skills and professionalism can be found around the Web from individuals who truly enjoy working with her, who describe her as “methodical,” “professional,” and a “pleasure to work with.”
She was at her home in Superior, Colorado, when I connected with her, and she generously shared her experience about building a successful career as a writer. Among her many useful tips, she offers the best advice I’ve ever read on getting testimonials for your writing business. Enjoy Casey’s story …
What led you to freelance writing?
I was 25 and a reporter at a city business journal. By then, I had been writing professionally for probably eight years, starting with my hometown newspaper. The long hours, constant pressure of deadlines and low pay were so draining. I wrote about businesses, and many of them asked if I wrote on the side. As a journalist, I couldn’t do both, so I made a clean break. I quit my job and called the companies that had inquired about my services.
And how did you come to focus on case studies in particular?
The first couple of years I was writing anything and everything, and like most writers, I enjoyed some types of writing and found others sapped my energy. I would be perfectly happy never writing another brochure. A current client asked if I was interested in writing a customer case study. I said maybe, not knowing what a case study was at the time! This was 2001 and not that many organizations did them back then, or put them online, so I couldn’t easily find examples. I did my first case study and was completely hooked. It’s so rewarding to capture an authentic success story for a business. After a year or so of experience, I decided to focus on case studies, but it took a while before I was making the majority of my income from them.
What skills from your reporting career have served you well as a writer, and particularly as a case study writer?
Reporting was a great foundation for me. Every day, I was interviewing businesses and writing about them on tight deadlines. I also knew some of the business vernacular (revenue, profit, etc.), which helps a lot. The storytelling skills for a feature story and case study are very similar.
What’s your process when you sit down to write?
Mostly, it has to be absolutely quiet! Beyond that, I need blocks of time that are dedicated to writing. I find it hard to get writing done if my work time is broken up with lots of phone calls, so I try to schedule calls to allow for those blocks. Then I write without interruption — no stops for email, phone, etc. I’ve learned that banging out a first draft, even if it’s awful, allows me to write faster. Then I sit on it for a bit, polish it, and send it on to clients.
You’ve since made a name for yourself in the industry as the go-to person for writing case studies. How did you do that?
The best way to make a name for yourself as an expert in something is to write about that topic, over and over. I started writing articles for publications and sites about customer case studies before I even started a blog or newsletter of my own. It only cost my time. And over time, that online content really added up. Then, contributing guest blog posts to relevant sites and doing teleclasses and webinars grew my list. Finally, I put everything I’d learned into a book on the topic.
Can you tell us about any major successes you’ve had since you launched your writing business? Or favorite stories from your work life?
Reaching a six-figure income is something I, like many writers, set as the big goal in the sky. It took a few years to reach it, mostly because I had no idea how to market or sell myself. There were no resources like AWAI available at the time. But I reached that goal and have stayed there ever since.
I’ve also had the chance to write about so many big-name companies as featured customers in my clients’ case studies: United Airlines, Hearst Magazines, Vail Resorts, Time Warner, Domino’s Pizza, FedEx, Sprint, Delta Airlines, Macy’s, and the list goes on. I helped a client use a case study to submit its customer for industry awards and that customer won five very prestigious awards — great PR for my client and the customer.
It was also a huge honor and professional milestone for me to have the chance to teach writers about case studies at the last AWAI B2B Copywriting Intensive.
You’ve said before that strong testimonials play a crucial role in customer success stories. Can you share advice on how to get really good testimonials?
First of all, don’t just ask the customer to provide you with a testimonial. You’ll get much better quotes if you guide them, and do it on a live call. I can tell you from first-hand experience that interviewing your own customers is an odd experience (“How great am I?”). I recommend that writers pair up and interview each other’s customers. Ask: What challenges were you facing that led you to look for a copywriter? Why did you choose [insert name]? What results have you seen from his/her copywriting? What do you like/appreciate about working with him/her? Then craft the testimonial such that it tells a mini story.
What first steps should a new writer take if he or she wants to specialize in writing case studies?
There is some cross-over with copywriting in general, and some knowledge that’s specific to case studies. Start reading examples of customer case studies online to get a feel for the flow. Make sure it’s a customer case study used by a business for marketing/sales and not a medical or academic case study. Invest in learning the skills that are unique to creating case studies, such as interviewing, the format of a case study, and the nuances specific to case studies like customer permissions and approvals. Then get a few under your belt! Tell your current clients and everyone else you know that you want to write case studies.
How do you balance running a writing business from home with being a parent?
I was a freelancer for 13 years before I had my son. I knew that the flexibility of copywriting was ideal for parenting but my business still had to go through some transitions. My husband and I both work from home and have a sitter who watches our son here, so it’s a busy house! We eat lunch together every day, which is so nice. Noise management is essential since I interview my clients’ happy customers every day. We have chosen the last two places we lived to get layouts that give my husband and me sound barriers.
Being a mom, and paying for childcare, also makes me a more focused writer. I get projects done in less time because I have more motivation than ever before to get them done and make as much money as possible for time at the computer. It’s also important to build in extra time for meeting deadlines in case you have a sick child or a terrible night of sleep!
What favorite tools or habits do you use to stay organized?
It’s pretty basic. I keep track of my projects in Excel, with fields for the status, client, project rate, and the date I invoiced. I also keep my schedule in a Google calendar. What’s cool is the ability to share the link for my calendar with clients, if I choose. Then they can schedule time with me without the back and forth of email. But it’s set up such that they can’t see what my other appointments are (“Lunch with the family”), only that those times are not available. Then they send me meeting requests for open spots.
What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
I’m fascinated by people who can tell true stories well, so true stories are what I enjoy reading most. I love Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Unbroken. She tells real stories beautifully.
Since story plays such an important role in writing case studies, what’s the best way to learn how to write good stories?
Pay attention to storytelling. It’s actually everywhere: newspapers, books, magazines, TV, movies, and conversation. The principles of strong storytelling are universal and everywhere you find great writing. There are infinite ways to tell a story, so notice what works in laying out a story that’s compelling. I like to read business publications like Wired and Fast Company for great articles about companies.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Right now I’d say France! Our family does have the flexibility to work elsewhere, and we have at times. Last summer and fall, we spent six months in Summit County, Colorado for the experience.
Any parting words of advice for someone looking to make a living as a writer?
One thing I learned the hard way is to always be marketing, even when you’re busy. It doesn’t have to be something hardcore like cold/warm calling but have some regular means of spreading awareness of what you do, like a monthly newsletter, blog, etc. For a long time, I was in a cycle of feast and famine because my marketing was so erratic. Another thing is to find the marketing that is right for you. Some people are awesome at face-to-face networking while others prefer writing content to increase awareness. At the same time, realize that you may need to get out of your comfort zone sometimes. Being self-employed challenges you in this way. But it gets easier!