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Effective case studies: think of them as “lessons learned”

Are the case studies your firm produces helping or hurting its business goals?

For many environmental and engineering firms, case studies are the default form of content  development. Many technical people produce case studies almost by reflex. Why?

  • They genuinely like sharing their technical insights so others can learn -- in a “We all stand on the shoulders of those who went before” -- kind of way, and that’s a good thing for the world at large.
  • They like basking in the warm adulation of their peers -- accepting kudos and celebratory beers bought for them by colleagues at professional conferences.
  • They like showing how clever they are.
  • They want to demonstrate the kind of results they can provide, and which are available from their firm.

Of the four points above, only one makes a nod towards the marketing purpose of the firm. So why, then, should marketing staff get involved in case studies? Partly, it’s to avoid the downsides of case studies, which are:

  • Case studies can inadvertently help competitors improve their abilities: “So THAT’S how they did it! We’ll try that when we bid for that project next time.”
  • Case studies have the potential to reveal information that the client would rather not have had made public -- perhaps they were in environmental violation before the project, and would not benefit from having that information available to Google’s search bots.
  • Case studies take a lot of time to write -- time that the people writing them could perhaps better spend on client work, effective business development, or going to a museum with their children.

Getting value from the classic case study

A case study typically includes these points:

  • The original situation
  • How the solutions that were used, were chosen
  • Problems encountered along the way, and how they were resolved
  • The outcome

But while this is useful in providing information, it does very little towards furthering the marketing purposes of the firm.

I expect that right now, there are case studies being written about the development of the dedicated bus transit route that is currently being built across my home city of Mississauga ON, Canada, shown above. This project has taken longer than expected, partly because of the unexpectedly complex network of utilities that the builders encountered.

So, how can case studies on this project benefit the firms involved? By considering not so much a “classic” case study along the outlines above, but rather, a “Lessons Learned” approach.

The ‘Lessons learned’ type of case study

To develop a more effective case study, the question to be answered is not so much “What did we do on this project?,” as much as it is, “What did we learn, that we can share with others?”

The readers of case studies, particularly if they are not professionals in same field as the author, won’t benefit from a blow-by-blow account of the project. But many business professionals will want to know what lessons were learned (“learnt” in UK English) in this project. That is, provided those “lessons” are relevant to them. For example:

  • Lawyers want to know about the legal aspects of acquiring rights-of-way
  • Traffic engineers will be interested in how vehicle traffic disruption was avoided
  • Municipal elected officials will care about the cost and whose pockets paid for the project
  • Environmental scientists will want to know about the groundwater impacts, and how the project will displace vehicle traffic by encouraging more use of transit

Accordingly, it is easy to develop several different “flavors” of case study, depending on the interests of the reader, and the marketing purposes of the firm.

The case study should be written in a way that demonstrates the marketing message.

For example, if the message is around “we’re big and we have the ability to meet many of your needs in-house,” that can be part of the lessons-learned message. If the marketing message should be, “We’ve got a small but focused staff who are leading-edge thinkers in this area,” the case study should talk about the specific issues that were resolved.

A “lessons learned” case study describes the situation and what was done, but it focuses on what can be applied elsewhere, and by the reader. That part is particularly important. Lawyers reading this in their legal publication, for example, won’t care about the groundwater issues, unless there’s a legal issue involved in that.

As with all content development, think first, “Will the intended audience be interested in this information, and will it cause them to want to engage our firm on their next project?”

If that question is answered, the case study can not only inform the reader, but further the marketing purposes of the firm.

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