How to make case studies work for you in insights
An insights company without case studies is like Batman without Robin. Demonstrating your value through a case study is fundamental to thought leadership and growth. Plus, there’s the added advantage that most clients are burning with curiosity and FOMO; the number one thing that they want to know is what you are doing or have done for other companies like them. But producing case studies is often a big challenge within MRX and one of the areas our agency or supply-side clients need most help with.
Before we start, we should point out that here at Mustard Towers we know about client confidentiality. We could paper the walls with the NDAs we’ve signed to ensure we do not share the communications work we do with global clients. We feel your pain. But we have also managed to share work we have done with several leading global companies (including Coca-Cola, Bic and Nestle Purina) in the media, conference platforms and, of course in our marketing.
So, here is a quick guide to producing case studies that will work for you.
Three steps to heaven
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that there are three levels of client attribution, and we always recommend a company uses a mix of these in their marketing. The first is just showing that you have worked with a company by using their logo on your website or in your credentials. I’m not going to go into that here, but our suggestion is always “ask forgiveness not permission”. Put (the correct) client logo on your site and take down if asked. It’s worth pointing out that none of our agency clients in 16 years has been asked to remove a logo we put on their website.
The second level of client attribution is testimonials. By this we mean short, attributed verbatim from named clients. If you cannot name the individual, then at least name the company and give a job title. Without attribution testimonials are of very little value, (we suggest you just make them up and say what you like). For genuine testimonials, just send them a note with a draft for them to edit in whatever way they are comfortable.
Testimonials should be used in lots of ways, dotted on every page through your website (not in a dedicated area, this will be ignored), on social media, in your proposals (again dotted throughout) and in your credentials presentations.
Finally, there are full case studies. These are based on a recorded client interview or written questionnaire, drafted into an article or blog post or recorded as a video interview or podcast. A full case study will be a shorter version of the HBR/business school style case and will generally follow the format of business context and challenge, a description of what you did to help or solve the problem and the results for the client business. The result is never that you presented a report or completed the research, however enormous and hard that was. The result is what the client did with it – the learnings, actions taken and if possible, a demonstration of the positive contribution to the client’s organisation.
This is where most case studies fall down. You must have the kind of relationship with the client that allows you to follow up with them a while after the project was delivered to find out how it went. Of course, doing this is a great business development/client relationship building opportunity but one which many insight companies fail to do for all sorts of reasons (ongoing negotiation on other projects not wanting to rock the boat, fear of drawing attention to potential failure, fear of drawing attention to a client’s failures, too junior a team on the project not able to have strategic consulting conversations with the client, attention elsewhere, the list goes on). As we know, MRX companies often hate to do research into themselves. Not being able to follow up with a client is sometimes symptomatic of the type of relationship agencies have with clients – which is why companies dealing with more senior clients often have the best chance of getting good case studies (and hence winning more of the right kind of client work).
You need to know if you have the results before you start the case study process. So, talk to the client, find out what happened and go from there. If you do not have the right, or any, results, then the client is not the right one for a case study. Revert to a testimonial or just using their logo.
If you do have the right relationship, know you have some results to write about, and have secured permission to do the case study in principle, then the best way to craft the content is via a set of pre-approved questions. We usually craft a discussion guide and supply it to the client before doing a recorded interview, but you could also send over a set of questions on email and ask the client to respond. The first approach is usually better as it’s quicker and easier for the client to just chat for 30 minutes. You then know exactly what they said and can write up the case study using their verbatim as quotes. You can also lift relevant verbatim and use them as testimonials. If you do a video interview then you will need to edit it down to a tight enough format, ditto a podcast.
Once the case study is packaged then we send it over for clearance.
Clients often ask what will be done with the case study before they give permission. Our suggestion is to say at the outset that you will use it on your website and no more. Most clients do not see this as a problem. If the content is really interesting, then you can go back after you have the case published on your site and ask if it would be possible to do more with it. The main point is to avoid your client having to go to their legal team to get permission to publish. Legal teams will give a flat no to any request like this as life is too short for them. However, once a case is published on your site, there is nothing to stop you asking the client if it is OK to share it with more people.
In our experience, the hierarchy for where clients are happy to share a case study is first of all your own website and newsletters (and hence social media), then via an insights industry conference or webinar platform (typically done in conjunction with the client), then in the published media or external platforms.
If all this feels like too big a thing to deal with, remember you only need one good story which you will revisit and re-use in your marketing for years. There will always be people who had no idea you worked with Pepsi, and who would still be interested to hear about it even five years later. Do one case study really well, and you can just rely on logos and testimonials for the rest.
To wrap up, we always recommend partnerships. Network, meet people and then approach a company you want to work with, suggest an innovative new service or idea you would like to trial. Do an experiment with this client on the basis that you will share the results. You may need to pay for the sample, or do the research at cost, but the content will be gold.