Case studies are not advertising. (And that’s good!)

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Take a deep breath and say it with me:

Case studies are not advertising.

An advertisement tells people how great your business is. Case studies show people how great your business is. It’s a very big difference.

Still not convinced? I don’t blame you. There’s a special sort of fear inherent in doing a case study: “What if our customer says something bad about us? What if it makes us look like schmoes? What if it reveals something our competitors can use against us?” Every business is concerned about what people think of them. Nobody wants bad press.

Advertisements are carefully crafted, precisely planned, and meticulously executed. They feel safe. We can review and edit and tweak to our hearts’ content, exercising total control over the entire process. Case studies are messy, challenging, and all-too-human for our comfort. They’re scary. They can reveal our missteps, not just our elegant pivots and twirls.

And that’s why they’re so powerful.

Imagine that you’re a decision-maker with a dozen prospective vendors vying for your attention. Each of them says they’re one of the leading providers of whatever. Each of them says they put the customer first. Each of them claims to offer the best ROI, the best uptime, the best results.

They all have a fistful of testimonials from former customers, saying “We were very pleased to work with Dynabingo Industries. Their attention to detail was second-to-none, and they helped us realize our business potential!” (PS: Testimonials are not case studies.)

Now, a new vendor comes to your attention — your own. Ask yourself what will be more compelling: the same pleasantries that everyone else is offering, or an honest-to-gosh glimpse at how your company interacts with clients, adapts to difficult challenges, and does everything in its power to meet the needs of your customers.

It’s the latter, of course. It’s why we scoff at circular ads but trust Yelp reviews. It’s why we listen to movie critics and ignore those half-sentence blurbs they stick on the posters. They provide honest insight from a human point of view, mixing personal preference with broader stuff that everyone can appreciate.

That’s what you get from a good case study! It’s a rough-around-the-edges, unvarnished look at how you do business. If you’re proud of your business, you should want people to know about it — warts and all. It’s the little bits and pieces, the human element with all its strengths and weaknesses, that makes your business stand out from the crowd.

Don’t try to turn your case study into advertising. You want it to feel genuine, not mechanical and sanitized — you want the Yelp review, not a movie poster blurb.

Get the most from your case study.

None of this means a case study should be done higgledy-piggledy. Like any other bit of content, it should be planned out — are you trying to highlight a particular part of your business? A particular type of customer or industry? A specific challenge that you think your business is ideally suited to overcoming?

All of those things should inform your choice of client and project.

Obviously, you want to choose a client that was happy with your work. If you can’t find a client that will spotlight your strengths without coaching and heavy editing, you may have bigger problems than your content.

A lot of people get hung up on “editing” and try to scrub anything that’s remotely critical of the business. This is a fool’s errand whether it’s an internal case study or one done by a journal or trade pub. Your own radar for criticism is far more sensitive than anyone else who’ll read the study, and trying to exercise strict control won’t do anything but obscure good info (in the case of an internal study) or alienate a publication (in the case of an external one).

(Nothing pisses journalists off more than “helpfully” offering to look over a piece before it gets printed — it shows a measure of contempt for their editorial process and comes across as a bald-faced attempt to force them into saying what you want. Trust me: neither will get you good coverage.)

Case studies that include feedback from technical stakeholders ring truer than ones that only quote a VP of Marketing. Unless your product is geared towards the ad/marketing side of a business, you’re going to want techies — engineers, developers, people who get their hands dirty. Those are the guys who’ll have the real insight, and they speak a language your audience will understand. Who better to convince a lead engineer than another lead engineer?

And last but not least, remember that a case study needs to be readable. This isn’t a post-mortem for an Army Corps of Engineers project — it’s a powerful piece of content that people should want to read and share. Make it fun. Make it funny. Reveal insights that will fascinate your audience, while simultaneously showing off what your business does best.

A good case study is self-propagating. If you make it informative and fun to read, you won’t need to worry about promoting it — your audience will do that for you.

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