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Three crucial elements for case studies that work

Are the case studies your firm produces, doing all they can to show the expertise your firm offers?

Case studies can be a wonderful thing -- business professionals providing their wisdom and experience to help their colleagues, who may also be their competitors, learn to do better. As the old saying goes, “We all stand on the shoulders of those who went before.”

And published case studies, particularly if they are presented at a conference, are a great way to add sparkle to one’s CV or LinkedIn profile. This provides reassurance to prospective clients.

But if the purpose is to market the firm’s services, many case studies fail to add value.

Here’s a case study about a case study that worked.

This involved an article about the expansion of the Trans-Canada Highway as it runs through the environmentally-sensitive Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains in western Canada.

This section of the highway, through Banff National Park, had acquired the unpleasant nickname of “The Meatgrinder” because of the numbers of animals, ranging from frogs to moose, that were killed trying to cross it.

My client was a wildlife biologist who specializes in building ways to help animals cross highways safely. I helped him write an article for publication in a UK-based highways publication, describing what was done to protect wildlife -- and drivers -- along this stretch of highway. It talked about the tunnels installed under the roadway to allow animals to cross, as well as the overpasses and the measures used to direct animals to these safe crossing places.

This project met three crucial elements for an effective case study.

It must be interesting and relevant to clients or prospects

Some case studies can be very useful from a technical or scientific perspective, but are on such a narrow topic that they are not understandable by anyone outside of the specialty.

Case studies will get read, or listened to, only if they are interesting or relevant to the other person. In the case of the wildlife-crossing article, I was careful to point out that environmental standards and expectations are increasing worldwide, and so highway builders (readers of the magazine) need to understand something about the measures being taken to protect wildlife. I also talked about how installing wildlife-protection measures can add to the cost, and the timelines of highway projects, so contractors need to factor this into their proposals.

In developing your firm’s case studies, think about the problems and concerns, as well as opportunities your prospective or current clients are facing, and then work those into your case studies.

Lessons learned, to be applied by the reader

Case studies are most useful -- and most likely to be read, cited and shared -- if they have a healthy element of “Here’s what we learned.” But to be most effective, it must be, “Here’s what we learned, that you can use.”

From a marketing perspective, the case study must include ideas that can be applied by the reader.

If I had been writing the article for a wildlife biology journal, for example, I might have included details like the width and height of the culverts being used as underpasses for wildlife, and the species of vegetation that were planted to direct animals to crossing places. But since this was a road-builders’ publication, I talked more about the fact that during duck-nesting season, construction noise had to be limited during certain times of the day -- a factor that contractors would need to know.

Think about the lessons-learned that can be applied by the reader, viewer or listener. This may mean developing more than one case study, adapted to the needs of each market.

It’s a story -- tell it like one

A good case study is written as a narrative: “We tried this, it didn’t work … so we tried that, and it didn’t work either … but the third way worked like a charm.” To people in the business, it can be as gripping as a detective novel.

And this is something I could have done better at, in the wildlife-crossing article. The elements were there. For example, the biologist talked about how they found that herbivores such as deer and elk would cross the highway through underpasses (essentially, large culverts), the higher-order predators such as bears and cougars refused to use them. Instead, the builders constructed overpasses -- bridges that are covered with soil and vegetation, with trees and shrubs, so that these larger animals will have the sight-lines they need to feel safe.

So, think of the narrative elements in the story and bake those into your case study.

From this, I think that the most important point to remember is that a marketing-oriented case study isn’t just about information. It’s intended to use information to persuade a client or prospect that your firm has what it takes to help them. This includes showing that you can relate your work to the issues that they are facing in their world.

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