For some business professionals, case studies are a go-to way to demonstrate their skills. And they can. I’ve argued that case studies can be a good way to enter a new market (Post #33). I’ve also warned that they can trap you in the kind of work you’re doing now, in Post #42.
Putting these two views together, the answer is, “Cases studies can be great if you do them right, and a problem if you do them wrong.” This applies to a wide range of human endeavors, from sky-diving to starting a consulting practice. But I’m not going to leave you hanging on that question. In this post, I’ll dig into:
- Five benefits case studies give you, from a business-building perspective
- The two tests for success for case studies that help you build your business
- Why and how you need to get your client involved in co-creating your case study
Five benefits case studies give you that no other content type can
First and foremost, what’s a case study? It’s a story, generally about a project. Because it’s a STORY, it has a lot of innate appeal – a good case study can be as gripping as a good detective novel. And the best case studies really are detective stories – they’re an account of several methods that were tried, until the right one was found, and the “whodunit” part is in the happy client at the end of the project.
But a case study can be deadly dull if it just goes into the arcane details of the project, or if it’s just really some passive-aggressive bragging by the author. There are five main benefits from a case study, from a business-building point of view.
1. Thinking through your ideas and methods
The first is that in thinking through the project – what went right, and what went wrong, you learn more about your profession. Particularly, you learn practical aspects of your work – the real-world factors that intrude into the process. You learn what’s important, what to watch for, how to work around the problems, and other insights that make you a stronger professional.
Taking a step back from your work to understand it better, learn from it and do better next time is a big benefit you receive from case studies, even if you’re the only one who ever sees what you’ve written.
2. Furthering the cause of human knowledge
Many of the technical professionals I work with publish papers and do speeches to their industry groups, largely because of the motivation to build the store of human knowledge. That’s a beautiful thing. But this also helps you in three ways:
- You tend to look at yourself differently, as someone who has a lot to give. You walk taller as a result, and your improved self-image shows up as greater confidence.
- If you work in an organization, your boss may be similarly impressed, and see you as someone worthy of greater challenges and rewards.
- If your firm has an internal knowledge-management system, that catalogues the case studies and project descriptions the firm’s people prepare, your insights can help the whole firm work better (which looks good on your next performance review).
3. Case studies boost your professional profile, get more referral work
The third benefit comes from making your case study publicly available – either by publishing it in print, or presenting your ideas at a professional conference. Then, list that publication on your resume, CV and LinkedIn profile.
This gives you significant professional prestige. This external validation of your work can improve your internal prospects at your workplace. Your co-workers will respect you more for getting your ideas published, or presenting them at a significant venue.
It may also mean that other members of your profession are willing to bring you in on joint projects. This really matters in situations where the people deciding to hire you are also members of your profession. For example, in-house legal counsels are often the people most influential in their organization’s choice of an external law firm. It’s the same with many engineering projects – an engineering firm may be brought in to supplement the in-house engineering team.
Getting your ideas published, even if it’s in a journal that’s only lightly read, or a conference that only has your professional colleagues in the room, can also help you build business with potential clients. This has to do with the idea of “trust” that I’ve been pushing.
If you include mention of your case study in your resume and your LinkedIn profile, this helps you stand out as someone with credibility. It gives a potential client confidence that they’re making the right choice in hiring you for their next project: “See? She’s presented a case study at her professional conference.” Sometimes, this can be what tips the scale your way, giving your client confidence that they’re making a sound decision that they’ll be able to defend.
4. Higher credibility with clients and prospective clients
The fourth benefit comes from getting them published in media that your clients and prospective clients read. Maybe they won’t understand or care about the details of your work. But if the story you’ve prepared is interesting enough, they’ll read it. Be sure to describe the solutions you tried that didn’t work, and how many times you didn’t give up, your resourcefulness and stick-to-it-iveness. That builds trust, because clients have confidence that you’ll show similar character on their project.
5. A chance to make your client look good
The final benefit is that, it gives you a chance to make your client look good. This works best if you present the case study not so much as something amazing that you did, but how the client was really the hero of this story. Clients want to look good, particularly to people in their industry, profession or peer group. That is, if you can help them gain recognition as forward thinking and willing to make the right choices. Later in this lesson, you’ll learn more about the hows and whys of getting clients involved in creating your case studies.
What makes a case study effective for building business?
For a case study to be effective in building business for you, it needs two elements.
1. A good (news) story
The first success factor is that it has to be a story – with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end – and particularly, a happy-news story. That means that the client has to have had a good outcome.
It helps if you can provide quantifiable evidence of your success – “Product throughput was XX liters per hour at the start of the project, and when the work was tested and approved, it was YY liters per hour.” A case study like that will meet most of the five benefits I’ve described above, particularly if you publish it in a journal for your profession, or at one of your professional conferences.
2. Lessons your client can benefit from
But for your case study to be effective as an article that will be accepted by a publication your clients read, and for building your business, it needs a second element. It must contain a healthy amount of lessons-learned that can be applied by the reader. There has to be a take-away by your reader, who is also your prospective client, which will help them do their job better.
If you’re considering writing a case study to appear in an industry publication, think first if there are enough lessons-learned that your reader can use. Having those insights make it more likely that your article will be accepted by the editor, it’ll get read by your prospective client, and they’ll come to see you as someone who can relate your work to their world.
Why you need to create the case study jointly with your client
One of the critical points for getting a case study prepared, obtaining permission from your client to publish it, and making it a rich source of insights, is to get your client involved in developing your case study.
To see why, start by looking at the situation from your client’s perspective. From their viewpoint, a case study starts with a problem they had, and they had to bring in someone from outside to help them. That’s not a particularly good image for them to have. They may also be concerned that if you do a case study on the project, you’ll make yourself look like the hero who rode in and saved them from a dreadful situation – and that’s not a good place to be, either. And they don’t see an upside to putting time into helping you with this.
I’ve written literally hundreds of case studies for my clients over the years, and I’m always amazed that they have such great relations with their own clients, to allow for this. Of course, sometimes their client has signed an agreement saying that the firm doing the work has a right to publish a case study, but it’s still impressive that I rarely get pushback from their clients on what I’ve written.
I’ve found four keys to success in getting your client’s involvement in a case study.
1. Get your client involved right from the start
At the outset, get the client’s buy-in is to get them involved in co-creating the case study, right from the start. That way, they feel it’s partly their creation, and they feel a sense of ownership over the work of developing the case study. They also feel more comfortable that the case study won’t reveal anything they’d rather keep confidential. This makes them more willing to allow you to publish the case study.
2. Make your client look good to their peers
Secondly, arrange to have the case study published in one of their publications (which I discussed in Post #68), and at one of their conferences. That way, they’ll get kudos and commendations from their peers in the industry. And everyone wants to look good to their peers, right? If you can get them some positive publicity, they’re more likely to think well of you – and you’ll be first in line for their next project.
3. Present your client, not you, as hero
Thirdly, be sure that you present your client, rather than you, as the hero of your case study. You may be reluctant to do that – after all, isn’t the purpose of the case study to show what you can do? But you can still talk about your role if you point out that, your client did the right thing in bringing in outside professional help to deal with the issue. That way, your client is more likely to publicize the case study to their peers, who are also known as potential clients for you.
4. Make it easy and risk-free for them
Ultimately, promise them that it will be easy and risk-free from their perspective. I usually say something like, “You won’t have to do any of the writing. We’ll be assigning a freelance ghostwriter to prepare a first draft of the text, based on an interview with you. And of course, you’ll have full opportunity to review the article before it’s published, and it won’t be published without your permission.” I find that helps build cooperation from your client.
So you can see, case studies can be done in a way that builds your business, or there can be potential for problems. But even given the caveats I expressed in Post #42, the upside is huge.