How social media case studies can jeopardize your strategy

Batman and social media

I’ve been thinking about the surprisingly important role that business case studies play in our marketing efforts, and I’ve come to realize that in some cases, they may actually HURT our businesses.  Let’s look at the two-edged sword that is the business case study …

The tipping point

First, let’s examine why case studies usually play such a helpful role in the evolution of digital business.

Case studies strike fear in the hearts of resistant business leaders. By embarrassing them with the obvious success of others, we sell fear in the morning and redemption in the afternoon … and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Case studies give us something to shoot for. They teach us the best practices based on the lessons learned by others. But there is another less-known and important role, especially when it comes to technology adoption — they may actually propel an industry forward. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

There has been a tremendous amount of buzz about using social media to improve the supply chain (demand sensing, process monitoring, and collaboration). On paper it makes sense and McKinsey even did a study indicating that there might be billions in productivity savings available through this innovation. There are no fewer than five LinkedIn groups dedicated to this issue and it is a frequent conversation topic at conferences.

And yet after months of digging, I cannot find one meaningful case study indicating a tangible success story in this space! Lots of buzz, no beef.

I wonder, if this is such a hot topic, why isn’t there any evidence that people are actually doing it?

Where’s the beef?

Here is my theory — one reason the “social supply chain” is flagging is that there is still no iconic case study that companies can rally around.  There is no tangible proof to demonstrate the value of this initiative and motivate a company to move ahead. There is no fear of being left behind to get things moving.

This is how change accelerated on the marketing side, right?  Nothing really happened in this space until we started hearing about the social media successes of Zappos, Whole Foods, and Dell. These breath-taking case studies established proof that it could and should be done. They instilled a sense of fear and urgency in companies that made them take action.

So, we see that when a new technology is introduced, the well-publicized success of others can create a movement. On the supply chain side, that has not happened yet, but I am convinced that it will.

The dangerous side of case studies

But case studies also present two distinct dangers to business progress — 1) unrealistic expectations and 2) creating a false reality.

Unrealistic expectations — Let’s put something out on the table. Your company probably can’t be Zappos. That company has a unique business culture that allows it to propel cutting-edge social media ideas.  It is intoxicating to think that if they can do it, we can do it … but in fact, you probably can’t.  The very important and complex impact of business cultural is going to affect your success more than your hopes and dreams. If your company is boring, buttoned-up, and conservative, that is probably how your social media presence is going to show up too.

Case studies provide thrilling views of social media nirvana that may not be realistic for most companies. Your own social media personality will emerge based on a mix of unique talents, resources, and strategies.

The false reality — In our information-dense world, there is a tendency to paint the reality of the world in one color based on just a few data points … maybe even one data point. We’re just too busy to look deeper for meaning and truth.

One example of this is QR codes, a technology I characterized in 2011 as our generation’s 8-track tape. When QR codes first came on the scene, people were barking about this revolutionary marketing media. Why? One big reason was the many case studies coming out of Japan. They’re everywhere there. So, many people assumed the same thing would happen in America and Europe. In fact, since I wrote that article more than two years ago, I can count on one hand the number of truly interesting QR code applications I have seen.

We can’t paint the whole world with case studies because they worked in one single place. A corollary of this is the executive who says an idea will never work because his wife doesn’t like it. His wife has become the case study and he has painted the whole world with it. Yes, this happens too!

Any way, I hope you have enjoyed a different take on the value of case studies and I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comment section. Join in, won’t you?

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  • Kat Krieger

    Best quote here: “You’re company probably can’t be Zappos.” Love this take Mark and glad we were on the same QR page this morning.

  • Another thing.. social media “success” is different for each company. What if my company’s idea of success is quality over quantity and you produce your shiny case study that shows how you increased the amount of my “fan” base by 1000%. That may turn me off because now I think that’s all you care about. Also, most of our clients do NOT want people to know that we are handling their execution so again… limited content to work with. And finally… I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually read one of those all the way through anyhow..

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  • Cath

    I’ve often watched what others in our industry are doing, particularly the areas where they are successful (not quite case studies I know) but what I’ve always come away with is, we could try what they’re doing, but it probably won’t have the same impact because it’s their personality not ours. I’m convinced that success in social media for anyone, be that a person or a company relies heavily on the true ‘personality’ of the person or company. You can’t wear someone else’s cloak and expect it to ‘swish’ in the same way..

  • Ha! : ) Thanks for stopping by Kat,

  • Boom. Great comment Kristen!

  • Case studies have helped me sell in ideas on multiple occasions. That said, I could see how they would also be a crutch. They feel safe because someone else has done it before. Even if we don’t realize it, it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking “well if there isn’t a case study, it can’t be done.” That stifles innovative thinking.

    Also, I think you nailed it when you said “you aren’t Zappos.” It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin as a company. Do what works best for you, not what looks cooler (or imitates best) to other people. I ran better races (and won more) when I was a competitive distance runner by running my own race and setting my own pace instead of letting someone else dictate my race for me. Companies could take the same approach to strategy.

  • Love that analogy. Thanks for sharing your wisdom Cath.

  • The running strategy is a strong and accurate analogy Drew. Thanks for adding to the discussion my friend!

  • Jan Wong

    I can relate very well with “unrealistic expectations”. I often come across companies that are all fired up for social media because they’ve read a groundbreaking case study somewhere, saw some ‘official’ stats published on the potential in their industry, etc and etc. The problem starts when they expect the very same results without wanting to change (or had an imaginary change) just because they’ve painted a mental picture that it can be achieved by following the same steps 1-2-3.

  • That is a role for a great consultant — manage expectations in a grounded and honest way. Great job Jan!

  • RandyBowden

    Case studies give me a pulse of what is “happening” in the market not neccesarily what is working for all. They provide a look at how others have approached their own product/service and have either made a good go or crashed and burned. With the gained insight I pick and peel and try and formulate a successful path for clients. Always with realistic expectations!

    I agree with Kat Krieger on the quote Mark, perfect and as always, a great read!

    btw, what is a QR code?

  • I appreciate you Mark, and your “join in to share” strategy…

    My experiences have shown me again, and again that strategies in social media, et al are based on individualized cultures. and personalities.

    Thank you Mark for your well-presented “position paper” post today, and the opportunity you offered me to join in, and share!

  • Meg Tripp

    For a long while — and I’m not sure we’re totally out of the woods on this one yet — social media speakers and keynote folks were all using the same case studies to illustrate the value of social channels and platforms: Zappos (of course); JetBlue; Southwest; Kodak (even as they veered into Chapter 11); Comcast (which was mostly about Frank Eliason); Ben & Jerry’s, etc. All of these companies are multimillion (multi-billion!) dollar, international enterprises with deep marketing pockets… while the people in the audience own small businesses or work for mid-level companies who only operate regionally… groups with one or two people to take on marketing (and that’s when they’re “done” doing their main job.) Where’s the relevance? Where are the actionable takeaways? How can you take something huge and find the kernel that works for you? And what if you sell furnace filters instead of ice cream?

    Heck, people are still writing about the Peter Shankman-Mortons post-flight hookup as an example of killer social media engagement (impossible to sustain or scale, and, oh yeah… a mid-high-end business catering to a wealthy customer.)

    If the case studies don’t align with the size, market, industry, and/or goals of the groups you’re talking to, it’s like teaching a bunch of grandmas about how Michael Phelps swims in the hopes they’ll want to try Aquacize; yes, there’s a pool involved, but zero similarity in terms of capability, time invested, needs, and aims.

    Don’t frustrate the grandmas. Find a case study that matters, or leave it out.

  • Jan Wong

    QR (quick response) codes are a form of barcode that allows users to scan them via their mobile devices (with an app of course) and be redirected to a website, Facebook page, registration form, etc. It’s squarish in nature and you may have seen them around too!

  • RandyBowden

    Thank you for that Jan. However I was simply using a bit of snark…

  • Jan Wong

    Haha truth be told, I was somewhere in between guessing whether it is one but I thought better be safe than never! :p

  • Seth Godin has written some great stuff on overselling (and the impact).

    It’s a challenge – I think of Goldilocks.

    – Too much hype > Disbelief
    – Too little hype > Apathy

    How much is just right? The problem is we are all different. We all process data in different ways. We all expect people to exaggerate. The idea of case studies is to remove that as it’s not the vendor, but a user speaker.

    Nonetheless, we all reduce people’s claims in our minds in different ways.

    – Early adopters reduce less.
    – More cautious people reduce less.

    It’s impossible to attract all the people all of the time.

    Case studies appeal to people who have that pain at that moment in time.

    For them it’s just right.

  • Craig Lindberg

    I agree with your downside assessment Mark. Plus it’s a bit like sportfishing with the wrong bait; wanting marlin but catching carp. How? Case studies seem to attract the insecure prospects whereas the confident ones can put it together from your online content which if we’ve done it right, has already positioned us as an authority. This is in effect a prospect self-qualification process and most of us prefer clients that are well along the learning curve so the conversation can focus on their issue/solution and making progress, rather than recounting some other client’s experience and possibly creating false expectations. Perhaps the only time a case study may be warranted is for industry competitions and news content. Just my 2C worth.

  • In a way I think it is more of a problem because of a lack of case studies. The same stories get passed around again and again, re-purposed, re-shared endlessly. More variety and diversity would mean people would place less weight on a very small amount of case studies and show people there are many ways of doing things and that it is important to adapt to the needs of your own organisation and the audience behind it.

  • Patricia Haag

    I heard relevent comment today via Mari Smith: “We tend to compare our worst days to the best days of others”. Yes, there will be times when we look like roadkill compared to other people

  • Always nice to err on the side of helpfulness. You’re a good man.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Dr. Rae!

  • Hail the voice of experience! Wonderful and passionate comment Meg. Thanks very much for this gift!

  • Well that sure was a clever comment Nick! Thank you sir.

  • No, I really do think there is a place for them. Some companies would NEVER make any progress if there wasn’t somebody out there threatening them! Plus, they can be useful teaching tools. You just have to be a critical thinker, and there are far too few of those around these days!

  • Well said Daniel. I am so sick of Zappos I could scream. : )

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment today Patricia. Much appreciated!

  • FINALLY! An article that is realistic and states what companies can actually expect with SoMe. Our organisation provides social media services and other digital marketing services.

    For months I’ve been seeing social media successes for well-know brands. And I’ve been thinking to myself, it’s not a huge feat to gain massive exposure when you already have an established fan base.

    But what about normal SME’s? The answer would be that there just aren’t a substantial amount of success story with these businesses. One reason behind this could be UNREALISTIC goals based on case studies that aren’t really that relevant to these business.

    Yes, we all saw the amazing SuperBowl campaigns, but how can we translate that into everyday social media strategies for small firms? In all honesty, it’s difficult – we’ve seen things that have worked for clients and things that don’t. I can’t stress it enough but it’s predominantly about STRATEGY!

  • Oops nearly forgot!… We’ve got a case study (don’t worry, it’s not completely unrealistic) here –> http://xcitedigital.com/client/?client=pizza-express-2 Basically we took advantage of Facebook’s App feature, put our creative flair into it, and created an App that got the results.

    I know I’m gonna sound quite contradictory, but this is truly a case study that gave us direction for future social media campaigns/strategies for other clients. Apps are still being used in Facebook so it’s a great way to promote your company page!

    Businesses often feel out of their depth when it comes to SoMe, so it would be helpful first create a social media presence through the use of competitions (prizes don’t need to be expensive, PizzaExpress gave away a new item on their menu, you get the picture..)

  • Craig Lindberg

    I’m going to sound like Woody Allen in “Bananas” in the courtroom scene by taking both sides of the table. On one hand I see your point. On the other having been in new business development more years than I like to admit, one also looks for signs in prospects to determine what it will likely take to convert to a client. Their reaction to case studies provides some of that which is what I spoke to as a self qualification function. Taking that a step further then, if using case studies to bring them along is appropriate, then by all means include them. Thanks Mark!

  • My pleasure Mark!

  • I adore this post. First of all, if you wait for the “case study” you are, in effect, choosing to wade into the fray after the battle is over. Which is fine, if your brand isn’t reliant on innovation (and that’s a valid position). But the other thing is what you should–and shouldn’t–derive from case studies. Lord knows I read enough of them in business school–what they do best is teach you a problem-solving framework. If you use case studies as a means to uncover why a company acted as it did and how it arrived at a solution, then they are a valuable tool to teach you how to think. But if you use them to arrive at “what to do” or “how to do it,” you are placing a little too much faith into the case study and its author(s), I think, and outsourcing your critical thinking.

    And, by the way, I LOVE Meg Tripp’s comment. The lesson you can learn from the “Peter Shankman-Morton’s Case Study?” It’s good to be Peter Shankman.

  • aboer

    Another great thought piece…I am really enjoying your work here. My challenge with case studies is two-fold. First (and I think you make this point) they tend to pigeon-hole you based on the project. You do a case study on a B2B client that is successful, but then it might not be applicable to a B2C company. You have a B2C case study for a retailer, but then it is not applicable for a B2C manufacturer…and so on. But if you work with a direct competitor, then it is actually a threat.

    The other real problem w. case studies is that as a marketing company, I rarely have access to the truly relevant data — how well did our efforts convert into sales, and how did our approach compete with substitute efforts. Clients don’t want to share that data.

    Curious…what are good strategies to get a client to agree to participate in a case study? Do you write it first and then ask permission? Ask permission first? I find that part can be challenging in itself.

  • I agree with you. I tried to present both sides in the post, although not nearly as well as Woody Allen! Thanks Craig!

  • Boom. You got it. Thanks Nahida!

  • Great points Tom. In grad school we were taught that case studies were not to tell us what to do, they were to teach us how to think and ask the right questions that would lead to solutions and insight.

  • I have not had too much luck writing up case studies because my customers don;t want me to talk about them and that is a fair request. But I would always ask permission first. Thanks for following the blog sir!

  • You’re welcome. Now I feel less alone with this thought 🙂

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  • I have written a bunch of case studies and I hear what you are talking. Getting data out of companies that can make the story credible is hard, especially when companies see that technology or solution as a part of their secret sauce.

    One way I think we can ease these kinds of worries would be to leave out identifying information regarding the company. Journalists do this all the time while reporting sensitive stories. As long as we can supply numbers and hard data and create a compelling story I think readers would be willing to overlook the lack of a name.

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