How to Develop a Case Study

Did you know that case study is an expression marketers and sales professionals borrowed from science?

When we talk about case studies, what we mean is a bit simpler, although getting to the results takes work. We mean telling the story of how we progressed through solving a problem and delivering results.

The structure of a case study varies slightly, depending on its use. However generally there is one way to construct the flow:

(1.) situation or challenge — tell me what happened, what problem needed solving and set it up in a way that will give me measurable goals. Be specific in your description.

For example, need to improve sales is not as good as take sale in the Western region to 2x. If this is a customer service or business issue, what needs fixing? Increasing customer satisfaction scores from 78% to 89%, which will require hard work, improving product output by 7%, etc.

(2.) time line or complication — this is a nice addition that will provide some context and dimension to a PR/crisis resolution case study. Things are moving so fast today, that putting events in a proper order will be useful to understand dependencies.

Complication is language that comes straight from McKinsey & Co. What else developed or what other element should be included in the opening considerations to make the set up complete?

(3.) response or solution — from a marketing standpoint, the solution is the services or programs the company applied to the problem. What the company delivered.

A small business comes to you to generate a certain number of leads, you put in place a process to optimize their email newsletter, clean up the content, integrate calls to action, etc.

In a crisis, you take a number of steps to ensure safety of personnel, help the community, fix a problem with a recall, change your business practices, etc.

(4.) results — the customer got 2x the leads, and sold $k or MM more, the organization built a better reputation, the servers don't go down anymore because there is a capacity that is 10x what the company had before, customer sat scores are now 90% and the CMO takes you out to dinner.

Well, maybe you don't include that last bit.

There are different formats, too. Short descriptions of the main points of the story, bulleted actions and results with a customer quote and photograph. I like to have a narrative on video as well, whenever geography and logistics permit.

Soliciting information for case studies

For video shoots, I found it helpful to interview the customer ahead of time, and script the story, even as she was going to do it impromptu in front of the camera. The script kept us both honest and on track, and it's a nice add on for people to download.

How do you go about identifying case study candidates? Asking is a first step. You could provide customers with a dozens ways to submit one — by Web, by phone, as comments to blog posts — and incentives to do so. Just make sure if you moderate a community, you keep those conversations under the lid until and if you have permission to use the information elsewhere.

Many companies require business and legal approval to release case studies. In social media, I'm seeing a trend where people just grab screen shots of tweets, or Facebook wall posts. Do you think we should ask permission to use them? Are they seen as less credible or important because of their casual nature?

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.

A couple of weeks ago, we made the case for social media in B2B. Paul Gillin has a long career of working with B2B and offered his take on social media adoption:

PaulGillin "Social media was made for B2B companies. That's because the tools are optimized for having a dialogue, rather than messaging. B2B companies are constantly in dialogues with their customers, so social media is a natural extension of existing processes. Companies like Microsoft and Sun had thousands of employees blogging long before "social media" was a marketing darling.

In addition, B2B companies tend to occupy narrow markets, which means that they can quickly rise in search rankings by optimizing their online presence. The best example I've found of this is Indium, which has used a network of blogs built around strategic keywords to generate leads. They've had fantastic success."

In his forthcoming book co-authored with Eric Schwartzman, Social Marketing to the Business Customer (Amazon affiliate link), Gillin tells the story of Indium Corp. The company doesn't just sell solder paste — it's “Obsessed with Solder Paste.” Do you want to know how they generated six times the leads between the second and third quarter of 2009?

They did it with social media. And specifically writing blogs — 73 by 17 authors, that incorporated a series of the key specialized terms the company narrowed down from customer and prospect searches. Who did the writing? The engineers, of course. Because engineers like to engage with others just like them, need to publish to keep up with their professional visibility, and like to network.

Imagine, "from one scientist to another," "from a lawyer to another," "from a product manager to another," and so on. There is a mechanism at work here, which is about identifying areas of relevancy among your customers and prospects,
building community, and allowing others to amplify your influence as you
meet their needs

This is the topic of my solo SxSW panel on influence, where I'm planning to involve the audience — will you play along?

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0 responses to “How to Develop a Case Study”

  1. Tag. You’re it.
    This post is incredibly timely. It seems I’ve come across a few this week. Are the planets aligning in some special order or something? 😛
    I *just* last night asked a reader who represents a business if he would be interested in partnering to do a case study. Not even 24 hours ago!
    How do I price/sell my widget if I don’t know what it might actually be worth to a potential customer? So the offer is on the table – I’m trading the product/service for quantitative feedback on how it performs so that I can better sell it to others in the future.
    And now I have a solid, general guide for how to structure the metrics in order to provide the most value to future prospects.
    Thanks, Valeria!

  2. @Chel – glad it was helpful in your work. Can’t wait to see your case studies.
    @Eric – awesome, thank you. I’ll keep you posted if I get selected. It will be fun.
    @Brian – I must be channeling you this week, then 😉 In my early days I bartered services a lot. It was a great way to get to know what people could do and help each other work on the kinks of our respective presentations, products, etc.

  3. Thanks Valeria, nice post. I agree case studies are hugely important for B2B — if they are well produced. Making them effective, though, means addressing several common challenges:
    – Getting clients to agree to participate by name (often especially difficult in highly competitive sectors, since they don’t want to publicize their efforts)
    – Presenting real business results, not just the “solution” provided (companies often rush to do case studies right after the deal or implementation rather than waiting for real results, quantifying them, and presenting them in a credible way)
    – Telling stories in ways that are actually engaging to readers and viewers (targeting buyer personas, including enough substance, avoiding marketing-speak, highlighting the customer’s words, etc.)
    Far too many of the typical 2-4 page and short video case studies fail to pass these tests, which is why so many sales people don’t bother to use them.

  4. Rob:
    Indeed, the more you find you need case studies, the fewer customers are willing to provide a named one. There are many reasons why, one of which is a competitive sector.
    I did not stop at service/solution, though and added that you need to have results.
    Often, I’ve had to wait on case studies sales was pushing us to write prematurely, before the solution had been implemented.

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