Case study is an expression marketers and sales professionals borrowed from science. As such, there are at least four types to serve different purposes:
1./ illustrative are primarily descriptive to make the unfamiliar familiar and to give readers a common language about the topic in question;
2./ exploratory or pilot are condensed case studies performed before implementing a large scale investigation. Their basic function is to help identify questions and select types of measurement prior to the main investigation, but we should be careful to test our assumptions about conclusions;
3./ cumulative serve the purpose of not incurring additional expenses when enough information already exists in past studies. Pulling information collected at different times allows us to generalize with a certain degree of accuracy;
4./ critical instance serve the purpose of examining a situation of unique interest to answer cause and effect questions.
When we talk about case studies in marketing, what we mean is simpler, although getting to the results takes work. We mean telling the story of how we progressed through solving a problem or identifying an opportunity and delivering results.
They work best when the narrator is the customer and the story is in their own words. But we can help gather the right information to be relevant to our audience.
The structure of a case study varies slightly, depending on its use. However generally there is one way to construct the flow:
(1.) protagonist — this is the audience, the people we would like to attract
(2.) situation or challenge — this is what happened, the problem that needed solving with specific detail about the kind of loss, discomfort, or challenges it created, including how it made the person feel. We want to be specific in our description in this part of the story. Including the detail will help other people relate to the issue and help us set the stage for providing the measurable part of the outcome.
For example, we needed to improve sales is not as good a description as we needed to increase sales in the Western region by 2x. If this is a customer experience or business issue, what needed fixing? Increasing customer retention from 78% to 89%, or product output by 7%.
(3.) finds a person or company— this is us and the type of problems we solve and opportunities we help create
(4.) who comes up with a response or solution — from a marketing standpoint, the solution is the plan, how the company proposes to go from where we are to where we want to be.
For example, a small business needs to go from making cold calls or generating leads manually to creating a flywheel of qualified inbound leads. Or a large organization wants to go from siloed groups working in parallel paths to a high performing integrated team thatpractices agility of thinking and execution.
(5.) protagonist is called to action— in hero's journey terms, this is the decision making point
(6.) life without following the advice — this is what it would look like if the problem persisted or the opportunity was never realized. There is a point in the hero's journey when a decision means staying in the ordinary world, or stepping into the special world. When we decide not to cross the threshold to the special world, we are pulled back into the refusal of the call.
(*) time line or complication — a nice addition to the story at this point when we need to provide some context and dimension to a case study. This is where we can go on record by putting events in a proper order to indicate dependencies and movement. Who did what when and where. Complication is language that comes straight from McKinsey & Co.
(7.) life following the advice, or results — leads were up by 2x, a cross-functional team handles twice the workload in half the time generating $$$ more revenue, the company is able to transact much more business online and faster thanks to greater server capacity, customer retention is at 90% and life in a high performing environment is less stressful for everyone.
We can use different formats to tell the story. Video conversations are the most captivating because we're drawn to narrative and other people. It's always a good idea to have a transcript, and an audio version, along with a short description of the main points of the story, the action steps, and the results using the customer language as much as possible.
Captioning the video is helpful as well, because sometimes we want to watch something without the sounds on not to disturb colleagues working in the same pace, for example.
Soliciting information for case studies
For video shoots, it's helpful to have a conversation with the customer and take hem through the flow ahead of time, then script the story. The script actually helps us be more spontaneous in the telling, because we know what we want to cover and the parts. We'll transcribe the actual video shoot.
How do we identify case study candidates? When we get results and have a close working relationship, asking is much easier.
But say we're a larger organization with multiple brands, we want to pay attention to customer reviews and social shares, then reach out as appropriate. In general, anything posted in public forums and social networks is considered public domain, but asking is a good idea and can help us uncover other areas of opportunity, or make the story even better by having the conversation that follows our flow.
Companies that engage customer communities have a much better chance of learning how they can help create better experiences by identifying problems or potential issues and helping solve them. We're in business to help people get more of what they want and need. Those are usually the best case studies.
Many companies require business and legal approval to release case studies. In some instances when we cannot get permission to use a company name, we can name the industry and remove some of the identifiable information from the story.
Case studies are a perfect medium for B2B
Case studies are very appropriate for businesses that sell to other businesses. That's because often purchases are made by groups or require several approvals, and the format of a case study presents a concrete and quantified narrative of a company's problem solving abilities and success.
Businesses that serve other businesses tend to occupy niche or narrow markets, which is actually a very good thing. Because the more specific the story the better. This is also why companies that serve other businesses have the opportunity to tell their story to customers regularly through a blog or a series of videos by subject matter experts.
Engineers like to engage with others just like them, they can publish to maintain their professional visibility and to network ideas with peers. Scientists who work outside the pressure of academic publication also love to engage with other scientists.
There is a mechanism at work here, which is about identifying areas of relevancy among customers and prospects, building community, and allowing others to amplify our influence as we meet their needs.
Our customers do want us to tell them our story.
This is a topic in my talk on influence where I covered mostly the external aspects of connecting with the network effects of building community. But there is much more to this conversation than meets the eye (or the time allotted for the talk.) If you're curious about mastering the language of influence when it comes to customer engagement, drop me a note.