Case Study or White Paper?

By Michael Stelzner

What is more important, the case study or the white paper?

This is the essence of a new article called “Write a Case Study Fit for Hollywood” posted on

Here is the scene…

Imagine you’re whiling away your time in the doctor’s office waiting room. You decide to catch up on some business reading. Out of your briefcase, you pull two pieces of marketing collateral from two different companies. Assuming that your interest in both companies is equal, which will you read first – the 2-page case study or the 12-page white paper?

The author, Mary McCauley-Stiff, goes on to claim:

Ding-ding-ding! The case study wins again! (For those who prefer the white paper – sorry, you’re outnumbered. The informal “Google vote” shows 246 million search results for “case study” and 143 million search results for “white paper.”)

The essence of her claim is that people like a good story and will go for the shorter case study.

MY QUESTION: Is Mary right? What say you?

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  • Katie Konrath

    Of course she’s right about people reading the case study first if they want to explore a subject. Few people would immediately jump to the longer piece if they just want an introduction to a topic.

    On the other hand, a white paper gives more information and is more useful to someone genuinely interested in learning about the topic. That’s probably why there are less searches for white papers than case studies. Case studies can be used to determine if the topic has interest, as can other shorter introductions, and as a result, white papers are searched for less.

    Besides, no one sits down in the waiting room of a doctor’s office hoping for a long wait. We want to be in and out quickly, which is why we would choose to read the shorter one first to avoid being interrupted. However, once reality sets in and we realize we’re in that waiting room for the long haul, the more in-depth white paper rockets in appeal.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Kathie – Say hi to your mom, the sales Diva! Thanks for stopping in. – Mike

  • Tom Chandler

    I’m going to make Michael’s fecal roster for this one, but as a marketer I’d stock a Web site with success stories/case studies before I’d do so with white papers (unless the product was *very* technical).

    One’s not “better” than the other – and a mix is powerful – but my experience suggests white papers appeal to a more limited audience.

  • Katie Konrath

    Thanks Mike, I’ll pass your greeting on to my mom. She’s just about to head to Australia this weekend!

  • Jonathan Kantor

    Why choose? They’re both equally important.

    For the greatest effectiveness, integrate a case study inside your white paper.

  • Bill Welter

    This is apples and organges — given the time available, I’d go for the case study. But, the white paper is in my briefcase for a reason — it caught my attention.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Frankly folks, I think the case study only matters once the prospect has been sold that he/she has a need to change or examine a solution in more detail.

    I also think the use of Google search results to show there are more case studies than white papers is insane. Just because there is more does not mean they are better.


  • Jim Logan

    Both are good, neither is wrong, and each has a place in the sales process. In the spirit of having to choose one over the other, the case study wins.

    If I could only have one to open the next opportunity, I’d take the case study. Thankfully, there are few times in our marketing life we have to make either/or decisions. This isn’t one of them.

    And I hope I’m never faced with reading either a white paper or case study while waiting on a doctor.

    Good post and question. It makes you think.

  • nettie hartsock

    I’m a case study writer primarily along with the PR I do and I’ve got to say that more and more I have companies who would rather have three stellar case studies than one good white paper. But to that end, I’m also not a white paper writer. I do agree with Jonathan Kantor’s note too about combining a case study within a white paper to make it stronger.

  • David Leland

    Let’s forget case studies for a moment. Sitting in that same doctor’s office, which would you rather read? A sexy real-life story in Reader’s Digest, or a terse analysis of the world economy in US News and World Report?

    I know I’d pick the drama (and often have).

    People love stories. Pack them full of marketing information and sizzling quotes. Ta-da! You’ve got marketing collateral that sells

    That said, after the case study whets a person’s appetite, it’s critical to have a white paper that gets down to the nitty gritty speeds and feeds.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Ok case study writers, answer me this…

    At what point in the sales cycle does a case study come into play?

    Early or later?

  • Jonathan Kantor


    It is most effective when used to validate a claim. After the benefit presentation, a good case study reinforces solution advantages.

  • Jim Logan

    Case studies are best used early in a sales cycle. My reference is hi-tech B2B complex sales.

    There’s never a sales opportunity until you establish a recognized benefit. And no one wants to buy the things we have to sell. People want to buy the things we do for them with the things we have to sell.

    Case studies are about benefits enjoyed by a real customer. They’re benefit-driven documents, void of details on a solution, wrapped in a format that offers reason to believe. This makes them best suited for opening opportunities.

    The reason I don’t use white papers early in a sales opportunity is because they often provide too many details on a solution, sometimes including speeds-feeds-features-functionality of a product or service. Giving too much information early on can hinder or derail the opportunity because prospects believe they have enough information to make a purchase decision.

    I prefer introducing white papers when ready in the sales process to discuss a specific solution, using the white paper to further position the product or service and insulate the solution from competitive weaknesses.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Hi Jim;

    I think you have a misperception of how white papers are being used today.

    Most white papers are now educational and designed to generate leads, rather than a technical paper.

    This means the white paper is now being used as a bait piece—the first piece sent.

    The type of paper you are referring to is the technical/process/how-to paper. YEs that one is used later in the cycle.

    However, I would argue that case studies are ALSO used later rather than early in the cycle.

    Why would anyone read a case study unless they had already been convinced that they wanted to find out more about the product.

    It is not used early, but rather later.


  • Jim Logan

    We may never agree on this one Michael :-)

    You want to learn more about a solution, product or service after you read a case study, not before. Case studies don’t educate the reader on a solution, they just tell a success story. That’s why they’re best used earlier in a sales opportunity than later.

    I don’t disagree white papers are sent early, it’s just a mistake. You shouldn’t introduce a solution until benefits and buying criteria are established.

    That might not apply to all markets, which is why I caveat my comment to the market I work in, based on my experience as quota carrying sales person and executive, as well as sales and marketing consultant.

    There’s no “problem” with white papers. And case studies aren’t inherently better. Personally, I have no stake in either one. Both are valid sales tools.

    Like a tool in your toolbox, a hammer isn’t any better or worse than a saw. Both are best used at certain times and in support of particular projects and goals.

    White papers are fantastic tools and fit well within an edu-marketing and sales strategy. The problem/solution format lends them to use later in a sales cycle, not earlier. The fact they are often used early doesn’t mean it’s best.

    Maybe where we have a disconnect is where in a multi-month sales cycle do you draw the line of earlier versus later? (Rhetorical)

    I wouldn’t use a white paper in lead generation or first contact with a suspect.

    I would definitely use white papers once engaged and I’ve established an understanding of the account. They are highly effective tools to advance a sale, trap competition, and protect perceived weakness in a solution. More companies should use white papers than already do.

    This really is a good discussion and I hope you don’t find my comments argumentative.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Hey Jim;

    I think you are thinking of the “old school” use of white papers.

    The fact is that entire industries revolve around using white papers for lead generation.

    Just take a look at,, …

    This is why major corporations are investing big bucks in having white papers produced.

    The problem/solution approach DOES work well for generating a lead.


    You cannot sell someone something until they are convinced they have a problem worth solving.

    This is why so many folks use white papers in the research stage.

    Just click on the statistics category to see more stats.

    I think case studies are awesome.

    However, they only work well if people know what they are shopping for.

    When it comes to a complex sale, the white paper usually primes the pump and is followed by the case study.

    Your thoughts Jim?

    Good discussion…


  • Michael Stelzner

    Hi Everyone;

    Looks like David Leland took this conversation and used it in a press release.



  • nettie hartsock

    I can honestly say in the time it took to debate this whole issue, I could have written a pretty darn good case study.

    The other thing is in my very humble opinion the question posed originally was not in the best form – because it asked which was better? And again, they both have their place. Plus Mike since you are primarily a white paper writer by trade and profession, it’s hard to disengage that from the question posed as well, although I know you were sincerely trying to have a good debate on the issue.

    It looks to me like David did a great press release about David and what he offers – not really about this discussion as he only quoted Jim Logan from the original postings.

  • nettie hartsock

    Just to clarify – in re-reading my comment – I did not mean you Mike were in bad form asking the question, rather it’s just hard to get a bunch of writers or folks for that matter to really come to agreement on “which is better”, espescially if some lean toward one or the other very strongly already.

  • Michael Stelzner


    It sounds like you are saying the discussion of this point was a waste of time when you say, “I can honestly say in the time it took to debate this whole issue, I could have written a pretty darn good case study.”

    If actually re-read the original post, you will see that it was not me, but someone else who claimed the case study is the more important document.


  • nettie hartsock

    Hi Mike,

    Actually, I was trying to be funny – dry wit… when I said the case study debate. (Dry wit does not always translate in blog posts without actually hearing my Southern drawl. I should have put cute emoticon after the sentence so it would be clear.) I did not mean to imply anything else.

    And I looked and you’re right, your original statement was “What is more important, the case study or the white paper?” so I think still in my humble opinion (for whatever it’s worth) it is still hard for a bunch of writers coming from many different arenas in writing to determine which would be more important.

    It seems more of a circular debate like the Chicken or the egg – because for case study writers who primarily write case studies they would reflexively answer “case studies”. On the other hand, for writers who primarily only write white papers, they might just as easily and more readily answer “white papers” and defend that. So perhaps you were just trying to start the debate and knew there wasn’t really a definitive answer to the original post “Which is more important?”.


  • Michael Stelzner


    We have a winner! The lady from Texas :)

    The debate is what this was all about.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.


  • Michael Stelzner

    Hi Everyone;

    Just wanted to let you know a brand new study about white papers and case studies was just released.

    Check out the discussion here

    I welcome your comments.


  • Casey Hibbard

    Very interesting discussion! A few more thoughts on the topic…

    As a case study specialist, I see companies using case studies and white papers in all phases of the marketing/sales cycle. While there are some general rules about when to use certain tools, I really believe that buyers are largely self-directed these days. They go to the Web site of a company they have heard about, and choose from any number of tools for learning about a solution – webinar, white paper, case study, collateral, etc.

    Just as we have heard that everyone learns differently, I think people also educate themselves in the buying process differently as well. Some will go right for the white paper while some will choose to hear it in story format.

    One client of mine takes up 1/4 to 1/3 of the real estate on its home page with a photo of a person and engaging teaser copy that indicates company x saves a certain number of hours on patch management, etc. This links to a 2-page case study about the customer featured on the main page. This is continuously rolling with different customers. It’s very engaging for brand-new visitors to the site. An early use is also in PR. A trade publication features company X solving a problem and here’s how. That piques the reader’s interest, who then goes and looks for more supporting documentation, like a white paper.

    However, other clients bring case studies in only during the sales process – with the opportunity to show a case that’s exactly tailored by industry and type of solution to the customer being pitched.

    Likewise, I have customers using white papers in lead-gen or later on when they have to make the case to the execs or build their business case for purchasing a solution.

    Also, white papers talk about benefits across a wider segment (helping buyers see the business case), while case studies show results with one company (that might have similar and very specific challenges and usage needs as the buying company). As a buyer, you need to see both. Depending on the level of decision-maker and their own buying process, some will want to read one while some will start with the other in the doc’s office.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Casey – Thanks for adding your thoughts and insight to this discussion! – Mike

  • sinu

    here are given a few useful explanations about the difference between white papers and case studies. In my case for a long time it’s been a major perplexity for me. Now, I am able to write a good white paper and also a case study. Thanks a lot

  • Kansan

    Casey I couldn’t agree more with Michael.
    Keep up with god work… Thanks

  • Pavlo Red’ko

    Good discussion. I would only disagree with Mary McCauley-Stiff in notion “The case study wins again!”. The term ‘case study’ is used to describe different tools: for b2b marketing cases, educational cases, evaluation cases in employment etc. That is why Google tracks more cases than white papers.

  • Casey Hibbard

    You hit the nail on the head, Pavlo. I don’t think Google search results are the best indicator of case study vs. white paper popularity. If you actually run that search, you get medical case studies, education case studies, and business-school case studies, case studies in psychological disorders, etc. – not marketing success stories. The term “case study” is so loaded.

    Actual studies of usage are few and far between, but there have been several insightful surveys in the past couple of years that Michael has shared.

    Thanks for the ongoing discussion!

  • http://N/A Ntarugera François


    There are more to talk about when it comes to White paper and case study. I personnaly, I know White papers are just there and what they have it is just there easy to assess. Nothing more unless you have more you can refer to!

    Ntarugera François

  • Rich Guy Miller

    Very interesting discussion. I did not see it mentioned that psychologically case studies can grab someone who is looking for quick confirmation of a previously reached conclusion OR be embraced by someone looking for resolution somewhere else in their lives. Case studies, though they are called such in many different forms as are white papers, are not known for being particularly objective. They are success stories tied to a product, brand or service. I think the place for white papers is anytime, such as after a subjective presentation, that we need to appear to be seeking objective information. Sales are still emotional events and the rationale, be it a white paper or a case study, is offered to help one justify to someone else the reasons behind the decision.
    This doesn’t quite answer which format is better in a doctor’s office, partly because we have no clue where in the buying process the reader is.

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