Let's Talk About Case Studies

There are so many instinctive aspects of the new business process. At some point, the prospective client is likely to ask you for:

  • References.
  • Written proposal.
  • Case studies.
  • Policies and procedures.
  • How you work.
  • Who will be assigned to their account.
  • Payment terms.
  • Buyout clauses for usage.
  • Markup policy.
  • Proof of liability insurance, and maybe even an errors + omissions policy.

This request for case studies has me a little baffled, and based on all the questions I get about case studies, I think they might have you baffled, too!

Here's why I think we may be over-weighting case studies:

  • They require frequent updating, and that seldom happens. It takes you fifteen months to get a simple website up, and a crew of seven has to work double shifts over three and one-half months to get them written, and they'll need a break of at least seven years before they're willing to write even one more case study.
  • You'll inevitably have a case study for Enron or Lehman or Blockbuster or Polaroid or Toys-R-Us or Borders, and the stink will extend to your brand.
  • The circumstances for every one of your clients will be different, and it's silly to think that the early work that ensured the success of Apple will also apply to Palm.
  • Most of your clients won't let you get specific enough in your narrative to provide any real value to a prospect, anyway. Some of them won't even let you have a case study about them. And some won't even let you acknowledge that you have an agency-client relationship! So your writing will start like this: "We worked for an on-going concern that may or may not be located in the country that was formerly the strongest democracy in the world, and we did some sh1t for them. We think it worked. You should hire us."

So I don't know about these things. I don't do them and my preference would be that you don't do them, either, but as long as we have prospects with demands, you'll probably need to keep doing them in some fashion. Provided that you can't direct them to alternative forms of reassurance.

So...here are a few thoughts about case studies.

  • The more you charge, and the more seller-friendly your terms are, the more reasonable it seems that a prospect would want to know more about how you work. This doesn't strike me as an unreasonable request. Your temptation will always be to actually begin solving their challenge—just to get them all excited about working with you—but that's malpractice. You must keep insisting something like this: "I'm not actually sure what the solution will be until we can get into your situation deeply enough. Each client's circumstances are different. But I can go into quite a bit of detail about how we work. This process that I can outline is the one that has consistently yielded great results, and so we follow it very carefully. Here's what I mean". This is why Blair, my podcast partner, is an advocate of "process-framed case studies" and I certainly agree. "We used this process to achieve this result. We've done this before, and the repeatability of the process yields the uniqueness of the result that we are always seeking".
  • In the same vein, prospects also have the right to know how you think, which is one (of many) reasons you should be telling them how you think, often and in public.
  • You don't have to report on actual results, which might be too private to share, anyway. Instead, you could have a statement from the client that affirms the working relationship and captures their intimate joy at the results...without being specific.
  • Keep them short and fun to read, as well as fun to write.
  • Rely less on end-result imagery and more on the sloppy, but still intentional, process. For instance, show a picture of a planning or brainstorming session with scribbles all over a white board or Post-it notes everywhere.
  • Talk a lot about the early solutions that you later abandoned after more testing and research. We're always talking about the solution, which leaves out the many avenues you tried, and how/why you abandoned those later. That self-correcting journey is a lot more interesting than the illusion of instant success, and it helps to justify the higher fees you need for all that exploration.

Here's one of the most interesting things to me about case studies: they are not a part of the regular selling process for attorneys, doctors, engineers, architects, and other professional service thinkers. Sometimes consultants use them (I don't), but they seem to be widespread in our field, and I have no idea why.

If you are going to keep using them, I hope you'll find some good ideas about how to shape them a little differently here. I also found the insights in this Forrester article helpful, as well as this article in Sales Hacker.

Apparently three-fourths of B2B marketers use case studies, so you'll certainly be in good company.

  • Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Covert Techniques For A Remarkable Practice

    Buy Now