Are Case Studies Helping or Hindering You?

Best practices. Case studies.

We ask for them. Nay, we *demand* them, especially when we’re trying to understand something that’s new to us. Through observing what others do, we hope that we can somehow find some clarity for ourselves and the challenges we’re about to undertake.

But when we’re looking for best practices, we’re not really just trying to observe what others are doing or learn from other examples. We’re seeking out something, maybe a couple of things, to ease our path and help remove some of the obstacles ahead.

Reassurance: “It’s possible.”

Seeking out proof that someone else has accomplished something similar to what you’re aiming for means that your perceived risk is diminished. It helps allay our fears that our assumptions or ideas don’t have a foundation, and gives us the courage to attempt something because someone else has helped ease the path before us.

By observing that someone else has done it, we want to tell ourselves that we can do it too,. And somehow, even though the details and context of their work might be completely different, and even though *we* have no guarantee of experiencing the same success, we find reassurance in the fact that the idea has been tried before and that someone lived to tell the tale.

Instruction: “Here’s how we did it.”

Things that intimidate us are far less daunting if we have steps to follow.

By seeking out best practices, we’re looking for a framework that we can adapt, or at least pieces of one that can help clarify for us where we should start, or where we should go next. The challenge, of course, is that most “best practice” examples leave out many of the gory details, either for marketing purposes or because there’s confidential or proprietary stuff in there that businesses don’t want to give away. But quest for them we do, in the hopes that we can read between the lines enough to get the play-by-play that someone else followed and draw a roadmap of our own.

CYA: “I didnt pull this out of thin air.”

Many times, we’re seeking out best practice examples not for ourselves, but for the people we’re trying to convince.

A case study or example says to our boss or the board “See, I didn’t make this up.”, and helps us establish some kind of precedent for the business case we’re trying to advocate. If someone else took the risk, surely we can too, and we’re not crazy for thinking so. It’s a tool to help us gain buy-in, and reassure the natives that our thinking is rooted in sound reasoning, rather than something from completely off in left field.

Expectations: “If we do this, what might we expect.”

We often want the case studies to be our own trial run on paper.

Without investing our own time, money, or resources or shouldering the risk, we can watch on paper what someone else did and how, and try to suss out an accurate picture of the results and outcomes so we can get an idea of what we might expect should we take on something similar. Perhaps we’re hoping to sniff out the level of risk, the types of obstacles or challenges we’ll encounter, or the length of time and amount of resources something will actually take to do on our own. We’d also like to get an idea of the results we can expect so perhaps we can set our own goals accordingly.

The Challenges

First off, all of these reasons for seeking out best practices are perfectly reasonable and legitimate. People and companies will always do so, and hopefully people and companies will continue to share what they do and learn so that others can gain the benefit of their experiences.

But it’s really important to recognize the limitations of what “best practices” and “case studies” can actually provide to you as a business, or as someone responsible for making decisions for yourself or your company.

1. No company is your company. No matter how similar the program or initiative, the inner workings of someone else’s business – from culture to organizational design to finances and objectives – are going to be completely different than yours. And all of those things affect every bit of a project, from initial risk tolerance to how they determine success or failure and everything they invest along the way. You can glean some top-line similarities, but the details of how they got from point A to point B are always going to be different than yours, which can have a significant impact on outcomes.

2. No one shares every detail. Especially when it comes to the illustrious Case Study, companies love to share their success stories, or the key details of what made something work. It’s as much a sales and marketing tool as it is a teaching tool, however. You’ll likely not get in there a lot of the ugly bits: the false starts, the budget arguments, the internal culture and political snags, much less how those were resolved. Nor will you get every single data point. It’s very important to realize that you’re looking at an edited view of both process and results.

3. Innovation isn’t achieved by mirroring patterns. If having a standout success is important to you, if leading your sector or industry into a new era is something you value, then you aren’t going to get there by following in someone else’s footsteps. There’s a difference between improvement and innovation, and we need both. So while case studies can be a great gut check or even a bit of reassurance, to *really* get out there and change the game, you’re going to have to create your own way of doing things and be your own case study.

4. We can limit our perspective too early. This is actually pretty basic psychology, and can be hard to overcome unless you’re paying really close attention. Surrounding ourselves with pictures of what other people have done colors our perception about where the boundaries and possibilities are, and what the solutions might be to our challenge. If we’re looking to case studies to set the bar for us rather than help validate a bar we’ve set for ourselves, we might just sell ourselves short.

Business is a set of probabilities, not guarantees. A case study or a set of “best practices” is not insurance. It’s merely one point of view.

Social media especially is something that’s being touched at a surface level today, but there is so much more, little of which is being documented and shared as how-tos and methodologies. If what you want is a comfortable path to walk, you’ll find yourself only able to find examples of some of the most basic – and somewhat superficial – practices that you can adopt and follow.

The true integration of social into business, however, is at the first stages of taking shape. And if that’s the direction you hope to head – before the masses catch up to you – you’re going to have to draw your own map. Surely some learnings will emerge, some consistent patterns and successes will take hold, and those can be incredibly valuable. But documenting them, sharing them, analyzing them and understanding the drivers? That is a trailing practice, and can only be done after, which means the “case studies” will necessarily always lag behind the breakthrough progress itself.

No stance is “right” or “wrong”. Therein lies part of the challenge of embracing and being part of a fundamental shift. At what point to linger and wait in hopes of being the adopter with more information and less perceived risk? When to use your own power of insight and analysis, make a hypothesis, and lead the charge instead?

Where do you stand?

image credit: Vectorportal

  • Marissa Gagnier

    This is great, Amber! Thanks for sharing :)

  • Troy Thompson

    Wonderful post Amber, nice work.

    I agree with your assessment.  So many organizations and firms rely on the case study to compensate for their fears.

    They have the desire to lead, but fear failure in the very public, social space.

    Good stuff.

    - Troy

    • Ryan Critchett

      Totally agree, Troy.

    • Amber Naslund

      I think there’s something to the “at least if we fail, we won’t be the only one, or we’ll have had a good excuse to point to” method. Accountability for our own risks and decisions can be difficult. Hypotheses work well in the scientific world, but oh how I wish we’d better adapt that practice in business.

  • Yoshi Sakai

    Case Studies are case by case. We will not take exactly same situation. If we do, time is changing by. We just see what you’ve done and What I’ve got. But it’s beautiful who has something done.

  • Marnie Hughes

    I have always believed in the benefit of case studies. I’ve done a series for a building products firm and it helped them to illustrate a great variety of applications for their product. Although most companies want to be leaders, I still think they find comfort in seeing glimpses of themselves through case studies and profiles.

  • davinabrewer

    Some interesting ideas Amber. First thing that popped into my head (#2), the joke about “there are two secret rules to success; 1 – never share everything you know.” You’re not going to get the best of the best, the insider stuff others don’t want to give away; you may get hints, but not the formula for classic Coke. These are ‘best’ practices; you mentioned the exclusion of the ugly bits. We can learn from mistakes and ‘worst’ practices, esp. if someone caught the onto the problems, reacted and turned things around. Innovation is often borne of necessity and sometimes, a happy accident. If you’re overly cautious and just following the steps of others, it’s that much harder to do your own thing and you may be setting up limits and roadblocks without realizing it.  All the reasons for using case studies and managing expectations, very valid as are your challenges .. enjoyed reading. FWIW.

  • Camilo Olea

    I once heard (from a top company exec, no less) “Its easy: Just copy the ones who are successful”.

    Obviously, said company is not innovating much. :)

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Ryan Critchett

      Good point! 

    • Amber Naslund

      Ugh. Now that just makes me sad. :)

      • Camilo Olea

        Oh, I know. Out of respect and ethics, I won’t name the company in question. But I recently participated as panelist in a Social Media event they organized. They never invited me to participate in their Social Media team, and now they invite me as a speaker. Karma, huh? ;)  
        Thanks for replying. :)

  • samuraiwriter

    I agree that case studies are very much a sales and marketing tool and therefore a ‘lagging’ success indicator.
    Indeed, for some up-and-coming technology businesses they are an important part of persuading prospects to migrate from an incumbent provider to the newcomer. (“Migration” also spells p-a-i-n and r-i-s-k in the minds of prospects…a tough combo to crack).

    Of course, no sane IT procurement managers will sign off POs just because the bid includes success stories from their competitors.
    Rather, they often see case studies as social proof elements that this company is serious about serving their marketplace… and has customers to prove it.
    Taking it further,  I think the really savvy companies have customer reference programs in place that not only have case studies, reference customer visits and information-sharing forums, but that act as conduits for the relevant sales and marketing teams to really listen to prospects and their needs.

    I was intrigued by this sentence from your post:
    “The true integration of social into business, however, is at the first stages of taking shape.”

    Yes, we’re at the Wild West, pioneering stage and there are going to be dramatic customer/prospect-driven changes to come, once a critical mass have the tech tools and time to communicate with vendors and other interested parties.

    For example, take a look at what are doing with white papers and social media. I’m not affiliated with them but I like the concept behind a social media platform for white papers. This might also work well as a branded, white-label solution for companies wanting their own social media platform, along with some degree of security from the prying eyes of competitors…

  • Mari

    I really love case studies.  I like to see a person’s/company’s progress and how they got from point A to point B.  There is usually a valuable tidbit you can walk away with.

    • Amber Naslund

      I don’t find them *not* valuable, I think it’s just really important to take them in proper context, and too often I don’t see that happening.

  • Ryan Critchett

    I’m in love. This post was HUGE, Amber. Reading the Now Rev, I knew you were sharp ( and I definitely couldn’t tell whether it was Jay or you throughout the whole book, something you guys did brilliantly), but now I think you’re just genius. 

    Not too many people are talking “lead the charge” and “use your own insight,” and it’s exactly those things that we need more of. Confidence seems hard to come by when dealing with the beginning of a ground breaking media and communications shift, like social, so the seeking out of solid proof will surely continue. Posts like this, however, have a lot of power to help people lead the pack. 

    • Amber Naslund

      Thanks for the compliments, Ryan. We want to be seen as leaders, but only if we’re successful. Rare is the person or company that relishes the leadership in the light of failure or risk. But if we’re to make progress, we need that too.

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  • Melissa

    Thank you, Amber, for your post.  You have done a wonderful and delightful job of capturing the simplicity within the dynamic and complexity of Social Media.  I enjoyed your discription of the selection process in the social media cycle: listen, process, contribute, converse. Rinse. Repeat. 

    Excellent!  Keep sharing – I am listening.

  • Britain Loans

    Great article! A case study is an in-depth investigation of one participant. The advantages of case study methods are that they provide a great amount of description and detail about a particular case. This helps to set the groundwork for future studies. Another advantage can be to offer more opportunities for the researchers that they would not have otherwise.