The Rise and Rise of the Real Life Story

The market for case studies within women’s magazines and newspapers is exploding. Natasha Courtenay-Smith explains the appeal and how to use case studies to gain publicity for your business or client.

Ten years ago, I rarely used the term ‘real life case study.’ Save for women’s weekly magazines such as Take a Break, which have always predominately featured individual’s personal stories told in first person (as though it is they themselves writing the piece), there simply wasn’t such a demand for what is termed ‘real life’ within the press.

Today, I spend most of my time looking for and writing up such stories. As a freelancer, I write for many publications, ranging from the Daily Mail and the Sunday Telegraph, to magazines including Grazia, Glamour, Red, Eve, Woman, Woman’s Own and Take a Break. All want a number of real life stories in every issue.

Likewise, even when I am writing what we describe as a ‘trend’ piece, a real life case study is still of huge importance. For instance, I recently wrote a report for the Sunday Telegraph magazine Stella about middle class women who drink too much. In the editor’s mind, I could have got all the quotes from experts, trend watchers and government statisticians that I wanted, but without a real life case study who was prepared to be photographed and say ‘this happened to me’ the article would never have been published.

I am often looking for, on a single day, a vast range of case studies for a number of different publications. Another part of my work involves sourcing interesting case studies myself and placing them in magazines or newspapers. How do I do this? Often, PRs phone me up and tell me about individuals they have just taken on. I have also recently set up a website so that anyone who wishes to tell, or sell, their story to the press can get in touch with me. I then act on their behalf and broker their story into a number of publications, earning them occasionally in excess of £2000.

It is incredibly difficult to describe what makes a good case study. Generally speaking, the more unusual, extreme, inspirational and interesting the story the better, particularly when it comes to approaching a women’s weekly magazine with the case study out of the blue. 

In these instances, for example, a woman who has simply had a bit of post natal depression and wants to talk about how she felt miserable for two months would not make a good case study. Without being unsympathetic, she probably hasn’t got anything particularly special or different to say. But a woman whose post natal depression was so severe that she lost her house/job/husband would be a very strong case study.

However, that said, if it is national post natal depression week this week, or if there is a story in the news about how more women than ever are experiencing depression after having a baby, then a straightforward ‘it happened to me’ case study would fly straight into any publication. So it is always important to keep an eye on what is happening in the news as well as looking out for strong stories.

And remember, what publications are looking for changes like the wind. One week, they only want emotional stories, so if I approach them with an upbeat tale about a woman who gave up cramped city flat and stressful job to become a sheep farmer in the Outer Hebrides they would say no. The next week, the changes are the commissioning editor will be on the phone asking if I have any ‘happy stories’ – in which case the lifestyle change case study would be perfect.  

I am always interested in hearing about any case study who wishes to talk about their experiences. Don’t worry about packaging up the story: if you know there is a woman who is happy to talk and be photographed and you think ‘Wow, she’s had an amazing/interesting/sad/difficult’ life then just give me a call or drop email with the basic details. Remember, as long as a story meets certain criteria, it is always possible to find it a home somewhere and in doing so raise the profile of your business or client.

Credit: Natasha Courtenay-Smith can be contacted through

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