How to Write a Case Study (Without Shooting Your Eye Out with a Red Ryder BB Gun)

Have you seen the classic holiday film A Christmas Story? Ralphie-Christmas-StoryThis memorable comedy features Ralphie, a 9-year-old boy in the 1940’s, who desperately wanted an Official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. However, whenever  Ralphie even hinted about getting one, his mother always said, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” 

Ralphie refused to give up. For a school assignment, he wrote an essay all about the Red Rider BB gun he yearned for and why it was so important that he get one for Christmas. Ralphie was certain his teacher would be so enthralled with his essay, she’d give him an A+. He could then triumphantly show his parents his grade – and essay – and surely earn his BB gun.

Unfortunately, Ralphie’s teacher was less than impressed with his writing:

Poor Ralphie felt the same frustration experienced by anyone who has ever written a case study that failed to gain the interest and curiosity from the intended target audience.

By following a customer-focused, time-focused template when researching and writing case studies, we can instead impress readers with our customer’s success, and motivate them to learn more.

When developing a case study with an existing customer, I work through a simple series of questions focusing on the customer’s experience at three key points in time:

  1. Before your product or service: the drudgery your customer had previously endured.
  2. The customer’s “moment of epiphany”: when the customer realized your product or service was the right one.
  3. After your product or service: the old drudgery is gone, replaced with success!

First, what was the customer doing before your product or service? The more intolerable drudgery we can genuinely convey here, the better. Quantifying the drudgery our customer experienced in this “before” stage is also essential: how many dollars or personnel-hours were being lost by your customer? Less tangible but no less real consequences of this drudgery are welcome as well; for example, what business decisions might have been compromised due to the unacceptable status quo?

Next, ask your customer how and when they realized, “Yes! This is the right solution for us! The dark days of our drudgery are over! Help is on the way!” I’m only half-kidding here: we must convey to the reader what triggered the customer’s decision to buy; what led the customer to confidently conclude that our product or service is uniquely capable of solving their problems. Identify the unique features and functionality relevant to this moment of epiphany, and how they translate into providing business benefits – a process Pragmatic Marketing calls marketecture.

Now, focus on the “after” phase: your product or service has been implemented for the customer, leaving a trail of roses in your path. Again, I’m only half-kidding: we must convey that the customer now knows their decision was a winner. What new success has replaced the old drudgery?

Take the time to carefully walk through with your customer one or more specific, mission-critical, and previously costly and frustrating business processes. How has your product or service resolved the drudgery that once plagued this business process? What measurable savings in money or time has the customer since realized, thanks to those previously noted unique features of your product or service?

Good questions to wrap up the case study research process include: what plans does the company have to expand the use of your product or service? Are there any other thoughts or points the customer thinks are important that were not yet raised?

When writing the actual case study, quote the customer directly wherever possible. Direct quotes from the customer declaring in their own words how valuable your product or service is to them will always earn more attention and credibility from readers than any narrative text.

Also… please avoid using those generic case study sub-headings; i.e., The Problem, The Solution and Results. They provide no value to the reader and offer nothing in the way of SEO. Your sub-headings should be written such that if your reader reads only the sub-headings, they still get a TL;DR understanding of your case study. Here is an example from some previous work of mine.

Even those who have never seen A Christmas Story can probably guess whether Ralphie, in spite of his unsuccessful writing effort, still got his prized BB gun on Christmas Day (no thanks to Santa, though 🙄). Of course, product marketers must rely on more than good fortune to get the favorable attention of potential new customers. Compelling case studies are a one of the best means to do so. By asking your customer time-focused questions and actively listening, the customer will essentially tell you what relevant information belongs in the case study – before, during and after their smart decision to select your product or service.

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Marketers: What’s Your Fastball? What’s Your Curve Ball?

One month from today is #RedSox Opening Day. Let that sink in...

A post shared by Only In Boston (@onlyinbos) on

The timing is definitely right to share a great baseball story that also happens to complement some fantastic marketing advice from a work friend of mine.

First, the baseball story:

Steve Dalkowski: The fastest pitcher you probably never heard of

A few years ago I first read about Steve Dalkowski, the fastest pitcher in baseball history. Steve Dalkowski’s fastball was routinely well over 100 mph (161km/h) with top speeds of over 125 mph (201 km/h). As a minor leaguer in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters in just 995 innings.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski’s incredible fastball was also incredibly wild and unpredictable: He also walked 1,354 batters and won only 46 of the 236 games he started.

But there’s much more to Steve Dalkowski’s story – with an important related marketing lesson as well.

Steve Dalkowski’s performance improved dramatically in the early 60’s while playing for Earl Weaver, who was then manager for the Baltimore Orioles’ double-A affiliate. In 1962, Dalkowski had the best year of his career, giving up less than one walk per inning for the first time, and a 52-inning stretch with an amazing 104 strikeouts and only 11 walks. During 1963 Spring Training, after pitching six straight hitless innings in relief, Dalkowski was told by the Orioles that he had finally made the team.

How did Steve Dalkowski transform his performance? Earl Weaver realized Dalkowski just got confused and pitched more wildly than ever while coaches tried to teach him how to throw a change-up, hold a base runner or execute other unfamiliar plays. Weaver concluded if the team was to ever capitalize on Dalkowski’s potential, he would have to keep things very simple. So Weaver had Dalkowski focus on nothing but throwing his fastball and maybe an occasional slider. Two pitches. Just throw strikes.

Keeping it simple is game-winning advice for marketers as well. Buyers are smarter than ever, and less likely than ever to bother trying to figure out what your technology does. If they get confused or distracted by your message, they’ll simply move on.

Which leads me to my marketing colleague who recently shared with me some simple yet fantastic advice from a rock star technology sales manager. Asked by my friend how he became so successful, he answered, “Because I know my fastball and I know my curve ball.”

He explained his ‘fastball’ was the #1 product of interest to the vast majority of his prospects; his ‘curve ball’ was his second product. Whether he opted for the fastball or curve ball depended on the needs of his prospect.

The company had other products, of course; and while he didn’t ignore those products, he knew his ultimate success depended on his ability to deliver a clear, compelling sales pitch for his top two products – his fastball and curve ball. So he focused right away on practicing those two sales pitches and made sure they were strikes.

Sales and Marketing Fastball

While that rock star sales person described his fastball and curve ball as being two different products, the logic still holds for other scenarios. If, for example, a company offers a single technology platform or solution as opposed to multiple products, then the “fastball” could be an engaging value proposition to answer the question, “What is it?” The “curve ball” could in turn succinctly answer, “How does it work?”

Marketing’s single most important responsibility is to define the company’s fastball and curve ball and then clearly communicate it – internally and externally – to set up your marketing campaigns and sales team for success.

In a cruel twist of fate, Steve Dalkowski severely strained a tendon in his elbow while pitching relief in the Orioles’ final 1963 pre-season game. With his post-injury fastball topping out at only 90MPH, Dalkowski never made it to the major leagues again and was out of baseball for good in 1966. One can only wonder what his pitching career might have been had he not languished for years, no doubt being constantly told to “try harder” before Earl Weaver’s wise leadership guidance.

Similarly, if current marketing messaging is not working, “trying harder” in a multitude of ways and directions with the same overall messaging will not help and instead merely waste time. The future is now. Business circumstances and technologies all change without advance notice. Marketing leaders must be willing to allow trying something new, starting with, I suggest, focusing on answering two simple but critical questions…

What’s your fastball?

What’s your curve ball?

“Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

Many people are familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s “7 Habits” (although I much prefer Dale Carnegie), one of which is to “begin with the end in mind.” But when crafting product messaging, I suggest you “begin with the beginning in mind.”

When writing a datasheet, web copy, case study or other collateral piece, I start by thinking about what the first paragraph should say that will make the reader want to keep reading and learn more. For a new website, I think first about what the home page splash screen should say and what graphic should accompany it.

If that first impression message is not compelling, your audience will most likely tune out rather than bother to continue paying attention.

For a presentation deck, I like to define a really good “icebreaker” slide first before anything else. It might be a compelling – even alarming – stat with a strong supporting graphic. It can be a quick story or interactive game, as long as it is directly relevant to your presentation. I once attended a breakout in which the presenter led off with an awkward “tell to your neighbor something interesting about yourself” exercise that had nothing to do with his chosen topic. It merely distracted the audience from his presentation.

My friends and colleagues know I generally like to go with humor; for example, I recently led a presentation on replacing expensive commercial software with reliable, supported open source technology. My icebreaker slide was this excerpt of a classic Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. I wanted to convey, in an engaging way, the core message that no one likes to feel like they’re being ripped off, forced to pay too much for something, and not being treated fairly… and that includes paying too much for commercial licenses with pricing accelerants and legalese intended to lock in their customers. Notice too how Moe, the bully shaking Calvin down for a quarter, is now in the minds of the audience as a symbol for their unrepentantly high-cost commercial software vendor taking too much of their money.

From that intro, slides presenting the proof points for smart and substantial open source savings and how to get started flowed naturally from that icebreaker.

“Begin with the beginning in mind” also applies to demand generation emails. Even before the intro paragraph, come up with the subject line. I have received three emails in a row from a vendor, each with the same bland subject line of “[Company Name] Newsletter — New e-Book”. I can’t imagine the open rate for these emails is anywhere near acceptable. I don’t accept the notion that email marketing is dead; only that poor email marketing is dead. During the company’s recent Boston World Tour stop, Salesforce.com agreed. Going beyond A/B testing, SFDC proceeded to present new features to make it easier to personalize email subject lines to optimize engagement as soon as the email hits the inbox. Begin with the beginning in mind.

As frustrating as it is, if the beginning of your message is not engaging, the end and middle of your collateral, no matter how fine, scarcely matters. But if you spend the extra time up front by beginning with a great beginning, a great introduction, you’ll find the rest of your message will flow from there much more easily – and your target audience will be much more willing to receive it and act on it.

Breaking the “Curse of Too Much Knowledge”

A great passage from Jeffrey Fox’s best selling first book How to Become CEO has stuck with me over the years. Fox recounted how one of the U.S. automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970s energy crisis, called on its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Doing so, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and impossible. Of course, they were wrong.

The automaker brought in recent engineering grads with less experience, who proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse safety impact. The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions; they didn’t “know enough” to conclude the task was impossible!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (classic 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film)This story is a great example of what my business friend and colleague Neil Baron calls “the curse of too much knowledge.”

Neil Baron is managing director of Baron Strategic Partners, a business management consulting firm with experience in developing value propositions. I have known Neil for a few years now and have enjoyed many of his presentations at past ProductCamp Boston and Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) events.

At his recent Creating Compelling Value Propositions workshop, Neil said the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ is a major inhibitor to successfully creating a value prop that resonates with prospective customers:

A big challenge is that we assume that our customers know as much as we do about the product. Our own knowledge gets in the way. Companies have an advanced understanding of the technology because they live with it every day. Customers, even those with PhDs, are not at the same level of expertise. This makes it hard for vendors to relate to their customers. It is nobody’s fault. It is just how our brains are wired.

Neil then offers a solution which happens to coincide very closely with how that US automaker lightened the weight of their cars:

Often the problem of too much knowledge can best be addressed by bringing in an someone who does not have the same level of knowledge as your team… The key is that they have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer. (emphasis added)

This is very similar to advice from Michael Roberto’s book Know What You Don’t Know (a longtime favorite of mine that I happened to recently turn Neil on to as well!). In his book, Michael Roberto agrees with Neil that managers need to “seek out the youngest and the brightest inside and outside the organization” to “gain access to a different worldview” about your products and markets. And these two additional suggestions to get unfiltered points of view appear particularly relevant to breaking the curse of too much knowledge:

  • Seek-out-unfiltered-information-go-out-to-peripheryGo to the periphery. Communicate with co-workers in distant geographic regions, units exploring new technology and groups or ventures outside of the firm’s core market. Focus on the disconnects between what people living your products every day versus the “periphery” of the business.
  • Talk to the “nons”, as in speaking with non-customers, non-employees and non-suppliers; those who do not interact with the company, whether for a particular reason (why?) or simply being unaware of your organization. What are their reactions to your product and value prop? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?

Neil Baron offers a very thorough process in his value proposition workshop to overcome the curse of too much knowledge using tools and techniques based on cutting-edge brain science from MIT. Similarly, Michael Roberto’s book also addresses the root causes of barriers to getting fresh, unvarnished perspectives on products and customers, some of which also involve brain science (confirmation bias) and others rooted in the unfortunate reality of “palace politics” (pressure to conform; advocating for one’s own best interests).

A clear first step forward is to simply accept the paradoxical notion that we as product marketers and product managers just might not “know what we don’t know,” while at the same time “knowing too much”!

If you liked this article, you may also like:

“Collective-We” Firms Eat “Exclusive-We” Competitors for Lunch (and How to Become One)

Product Managers & Marketers Should be “Intelligently Disobedient”

Be a Dogged (not Dog!) Product Manager

 

Why the Question “Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller?” is a False Choice

I recently read an article posing the well-known sales question, Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller? by George Deeb. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to be selling a “painkiller” technology product that relieves acutely-felt, pervasive business problems, rather than a “vitamin” product that offers some lesser, more specialized value.

I agree with Deeb that it’s much harder to build a large, scalable business around vitamin products than painkiller products, but a product-as-painkiller is not the ultimate or best product offering either.

In other words, the question “Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller?” is a false choice – and businesses that rely on painkiller product revenue are at more risk than they might realize.

The issues of trying to sell a vitamin product are described quite well in Deeb’s article. But painkiller products have their own issues. For example, one of the most frequent and frustrating “competitors” to a painkiller product sale is “none of the above”. Much to many a sales manager’s chagrin, prospects often decide that while the business pain is real, alleviating it simply isn’t worth the effort, like Norm in this classic scene from Cheers:

Meanwhile, new enabling technologies march on: painkiller products that once required a huge capex for on-premise enterprise software, servers and services (CRM, marketing automation, legacy BI) are now offered inexpensively on a SaaS basis (SFDC, Marketo, GoodData) with more to come. More and more painkiller products are becoming available at lower “vitamin-level” cost and simplicity!

Another issue I have with painkiller products is they implicitly assume a business status quo. Consider Polaroid in the mid 90’s. Like so many other large companies, Polaroid jumped in with both feet into ERP, the ultimate painkiller technology of its time. Polaroid even won major awards for its SAP implementation. While Polaroid’s ERP no doubt lightened many operational pains by optimizing inventory, purchasing, quality control and such, meanwhile the company was failing miserably with new products and all but ignoring the deterioration of its instant photography market to digital cameras.

I recall reading a Polaroid executive praising the company’s new operational efficiency of its instant photography “core business.” Not long after, in 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, with most of that “core business” long gone.

Clearly, while reducing business “pain” is important, such efforts are no substitute for the ultimate purpose of a business, as memorably described by Peter Drucker:

There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer… Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.

And for decades, business technology has focused on operational efficiencies instead of serving as new platforms for innovation. Again, quoting Peter Drucker:

For top management, information technology has been a producer of data [for operational tasks]… Business success is based on something totally different: the creation of value and wealth.

This requires risk-taking decisions… on business strategy, on abandoning the old and innovating the new… the balance between the short term and the long term… These decisions are the true top management tasks.

The technology products that will reap the greatest financial rewards will be those that address those “true top management tasks”: innovation that creates new business value and wealth; such as

  • Advanced analytic platforms that reveal all-new insights into markets, products, customers and competitors
  • Gamefication platforms that motivate employees, customers and partners to want to take actions that mutually benefit the organization, themselves and other stakeholders
  • Customer/prospect engagement technologies that personalize and optimize every experience with your organization, whether online or in-person, across all channels (particularly mobile)

Artwork by: BTimony (click to see original)These and other new technologies designed to enable innovation make up a third category of products that go far beyond painkiller or vitamin products.

So what should we call this third product category? Maybe… “steroids”? Nah, don’t think so…

Perhaps “miracle drug”? No…

What about… “Popeye’s Spinach”?!

What do you think?

Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Source: The Fighter official movie website

Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers

My wife and I watched The Fighter (2010) right after it came out on DVD. It’s an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Lowell, Mass.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for his best interests.  Between his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of stinging defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled, but knowing neither why nor what to do about it.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on in The Fighter, the core issue is a pervasive inability of people, starting with the management team, to work with one another effectively and treat each other properly.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place. There are many particularly bad examples out there, such as “professional” management teams as described in this past blog post.

Starbucks is a recent high-profile example of “post-founder” management that missed the mark badly.  After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued an unfortunate strategy of over-expansion while becoming less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, eliminating previous ‘management by the numbers’ and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

In an organization with a management team that just doesn’t “get” it, innovators are much more likely to be “reined in” than celebrated.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

– Anthony F. Smith, Consultant and author of the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports.

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that punishes workers for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward or even recognize successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading some of the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer, whose collective response was little more than an indifferent shrug. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion to a dismal story debunks the book’s premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it.  I’m sure  that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few bucks less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on linear “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this malady in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, comes to mind, no doubt to the chagrin of the city of Boston, once the global headquarters of The Gillette Company. Instead of innovating to grow the top line and revitalize the company, Kilts declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead focused squarely on “the numbers” – massive cost-cutting and fixating on shareholders as the only company stakeholders. With a bloated compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold out Gillette to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, was instead gone.

In a book he authored, Kilts proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Kilts successfully… [drum roll?] mandated a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count!

Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! Cue up the sarcastic slow clapping. Paradoxically, Kilts’ book was entitled Doing the Right Thing.

Instead of tinkering over such administrative “problem solving,” I hope your company’s senior executive leaders really are “doing the right thing” – that is, the work they are supposed to do: Increasing the top line by setting the vision, agenda and right environment for creating innovative new products.

I welcome your insights into this topic.

My Article Published in Pragmatic Marketing Newsletter

The just-published June 2011 edition of Pragmatic Marketing Newsletter includes an article of mine: an extended version of my earlier blog post Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster.

Here is a link to the Pragmatic Marketing article, and a link to the original blog post.  Enjoy!