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

Unlike Fox’ 2017 live version, the original A Christmas Story is a must-see classic movie (a lot of people apparently agree, as the 1983 classic is featured as a 24 hour TV marathon every Christmas.

A Christmas Story even offers an interesting product marketing-related lesson about case studies as well. After all, Ralphie wrote one in the movie, remember…?

Ralphie-Christmas-Story

This memorable comedy features Ralphie, a 9-year-old boy living in 1940’s Indiana 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!” 

Of course, 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 (aka case study), 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 (a Google search for problem solution results yields 1.4 billion hits). Your case study 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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“Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

Many people are familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (although I much prefer Dale Carnegie). One of Covey’s “7 Habits” is to “begin with the end in mind.”

However, 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.

Today’s Best Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Football-and-MarketingI read a great Ad Age article, Four Talent Categories You Need to Win in a Connected Worldby Chris Kuenne. Recognizing that many marketing organizations still cling to “old school” marketing and PR, Chris Kuenne provided a timely description of the must-have talents, skills and attitudes found in today’s leading marketing organizations that actively contribute to business growth and success.

To support his key point that “the old set of skills and conventional deployment will not work,” Chris Kuenne offered up a sports analogy:

In [American] football, everyone is a specialist with a distinct position and responsibility. Each player goes one-on-one against his opponent, helping the team advance the ball in a linear fashion down the field. Marketing over the past 50 years reflected this linear approach, in which a brand’s marketing plan specified a highly planned, seldom altered, set of initiatives… Today marketing is closer to rugby. All players handle multiple roles, using many different skills…

I agree with Chris Kuenne’s historical and current assessment of the marketing function; however, today’s game of football is actually brimming with innovative tactics. I’m sure that I underappreciate the tactics in rugby, but I see a lot of parallels between the practices of winning marketing organizations and winning pro football teams:

Transformation through Innovation. Both football and marketing have benefited dramatically from innovation.  The “linear, seldom-altered” football game Chris Kuenne referred to actually describes how football was played over a century ago by such feared college teams as the Army team and its predictable but very successful smash-mouth running game.

And so it went, until Notre Dame, in 1913, unveiled an innovation that would transform the game: The forward pass (!), recently legalized but widely ignored. Quarterback Gus Dorais and future football legend tight end Knute Rockne led Notre Dame’s surprise passing attack that surprised and confused the Army Cadets. The Fighting Irish cruised to a 35-13 upset win.

At roughly the same time as Notre Dame’s game-changing use of the forward pass, John Wanamaker, the pioneer of the department store, made his famous remark, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Similar frustrations by marketers have continued right up to present day!

Thankfully, marketing innovations today are replacing decades of linear, seldom-altered, interruption marketing with a still-evolving paradigm of content marketing, permission marketing and marketing automation technologies. The marketing function is undergoing its own game-changing, “forward pass” of innovation and transformation.

Improvisation. In the football game of an earlier era, the coach’s called play was the play, no matter how obviously ready the defense was ready for it. Today’s football calls for champion quarterbacks to decipher disguised defenses in real-time and “call an audible” – a quickly-improvised new play (Peyton Manning turned this into part science, part theater throughout his career). Teammates must also recognize the need to improvise a play as well: wide receivers must know when to “cut their route” and expect a very quick pass in response to an anticipated  rush on the quarterback. The defense must be ready to change its coverages at a moment’s notice as well.

The old school coach’s “command and control” of a football game has given way to much more flexible play-by-play in response to real-time game situations. In similar fashion, members of winning marketing organizations are afforded the autonomy, and have the skills, to make real-time corrections during a marketing campaign or other activities, and do so collaboratively with others on the team.

An obsession for analytics. Today’s most effective professional teams – not just “Moneyball” baseball – but pro football, basketball and hockey as well – are utilizing data analytics in ways and depths unimaginable even a decade ago. Sports analytics can help predict future success on game day and optimize success off the field (e.g., demand-driven ticket prices, non game day function space usage). Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca recently called Boston “a new Florence” for sports analytics.

A similar analytic renaissance within marketing is now in full swing. I encourage you to visit Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist and start with one of Scott’s all-time favorite posts, Rise of the Marketing Technologist. The active use of analytics is a force multiplier for effective marketing as it is for successful sport teams.

Leaders with genuine acumen and leadership skills. Chris Kuenne provided advice to CMOs equally applicable to football coaches when he wrote that leaders “must encourage collaboration across radically different temperaments, skills and backgrounds.” That’s an accurate description of football and marketing teams alike.

Just as important are the coach’s/CMO’s own qualifications: how many, how much of “hard skills” – the vital talents, skills and attitudes identified by Chris Kuenne – does the leader in question really possess? Has the coach/CMO demonstrated his or her “soft skills” – a proven ability to “attract, inspire and retain the best talent”? Coaches and marketing leaders alike can neither succeed nor even “get by” without these essential talents.

Put simply, authentic leaders, like champion coaches, attract and inspire highly talented professionals.  Poor coaches and poor business leaders repel talented people.

Pro football fans will readily recall the unfortunate failure of Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress, resulting in his high-profile firing during the 2010 season. Brad Childress’ implosion, summarized by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, should serve as a cautionary tale for those in any executive position who lack genuine leadership skills:

Childress had never been a head coach at any level. He had been the offensive coordinator of the highly successful Philadelphia Eagles, but coach Andy Reid called almost all of the plays over that period… [As Minnesota Vikings head coach] Brad Childress had a distant relationship at best with players, feuding with most key veterans at one point or another. And his schemes were uninspiring and rigid, routinely minimizing the skills of talented players… They felt neither inspired nor challenged.

Winning marketing organizations, much like the best football teams, are typically led by savvy, authentic leaders who encourage innovative thinking, seek out new analytic insights, understand key challenges and needs, and translate that understanding into new, engaging customer experiences that build new business. They are the ones setting new rules for marketing success.

“Missionary” Technology Really Requires a Technology Evangelist

A technology evangelist “promotes the use of a particular product or technology through talks, articles, blogging, demonstrations, [etc.]…The word ‘evangelism’ is taken from the context of religious evangelism because of the similar recruitment of converts and the spreading of the product information…”  (Source: Wikipedia)

I recently came across a blog post by technical writing and communications professional Dr. Ugur Akinci, who wondered aloud whether there was a better term to describe the title of Technology Evangelist. Ugur Akinci noted the dictionary definitions of evangelism in its original religious context; those definitions suggest communication that is, among other things, decidedly one-way. Point well taken, but none of the other alternative titles suggested – technology communicator, ambassador, champion, advocate, enthusiator (the latter one intended to provide a chuckle!) – comes close to conveying the role as vividly as Guy Kawasaki’s original term of technology evangelist: the active persuasion of people to buy into the superiority of his/her particular technology product and help spread the word about it.

Actually, the term technology evangelist becomes even more appropriate if we use more secularized religious terminology to describe the product offering itself. I have in mind an article product management professional Jacques Murphy wrote a few years ago, asking a still-timely question: Is Your Product a Missionary or a Savior?

(W)hile every (software) company wants their product to be brand spanking new, there are two very distinct strains of newness: the Missionary and the Savior. And one of those two types is a much harder sell…The Missionary product…represents a new idea or a whole new take on an old idea. Nobody has heard of it and your company is in the position of telling others about it and convincing them of how important it is…

With a Savior product, the market comes running out into the streets to greet it, cheering it along all the way. The Missionary product has to go exploring into lands unknown to make converts through its boundless zeal.

Of course, Jacques Murphy’s “market running and cheering to greet a Savior product” hyperbole has since become literally true many times over by Apple’s amazing run of true Savior products. As for software, particularly in the B2B space, every product will have some missionary, or educational, aspect to it. You will always need to effectively convey your understanding of your customers’ problems and how and why your product solves these problems in ways far superior to your competitors. Every software solution requires effective product marketing, and benefits greatly from technology evangelism.

But a “true” Missionary product will also offer a very different solution to fulfilling a need; a solution that might even be openly contrarian to current conventional wisdom; a solution that is proven to yield unique and compelling benefits for your customers, but in very new ways. Having a technology evangelist, a name and face for the product, actively advocating your unique, even contrarian solution to the market, becomes absolutely crucial, absolutely vital.

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“Everything I Really Need to Know About Product Marketing I Learned in Elementary School”

Dr. Stuart Payne is Principal of Northwood Elementary School, a National Blue-Ribbon School and California Distinguished School in Irvine, California. I was already impressed with the work of Stuart and his staff, and was even more so after reading his Principal’s Message in a recent issue of Northwood Elementary’s parents newsletter, which summarized the goals he and his teaching staff set for the school year:

At the beginning of this year, our dedicated staff set…three goals for ourselves: (1) Rigor, (2) Differentiation, and (3) Progress Monitoring.

These succinct goals no doubt rang true for Northwood Elementary parents.   In fact, they rang quite true for me in my world of product marketing.  Let’s look at each one more closely:

Photo by courosa (Flickr CC)

Rigor.  Stuart Payne writes: “Through rigor, we endeavor to make sure that every child is challenged in a developmentally appropriate manner.”  This vital educational goal can be easily adapted to product marketing/product management terms: We must challenge ourselves to really understand our products and our markets, and convey our value in a compelling manner that our target markets will understand and be motivated to learn more.  I am reminded of a good blog post by Dave Kellogg on applying (rigorous) critical thinking for effective product positioning (I elaborate on Dave Kellogg’s post here, btw).

One sidenote: Stuart Payne also wrote: “(R)esearch indicates…that when the work is too difficult, (students) become frustrated.”  This reminded me of a classic blog post by Kathy Sierra: Do your customers feel a similar sense of frustration trying to understand and/or use our products?  Why?  How can this be corrected (and fast)?

Differentiation.  Of course, as a product marketer, product differentiation is critical.  However, Northwood Elementary is referring to differentiation as in the non-standardization of classroom instruction:

By designing differentiated lessons that meet the needs of our students varying ability levels, we ensure success for all  (emphasis added).

So let’s look at “differentiation” in a similar way for marketing: The “standardization” of marketing and PR is long gone, as David Meerman Scott and others have already made quite clear.  That said, what different means, what different avenues should we share our product messaging? The book Content Rules by Ann Handley and CC Chapman addresses this very topic.

In a nutshell, Content Rules is a how-to guide to differentiate your product messaging in video, podcasts, webinars, blogs, ebooks. Doing so enables us to connect with prospects in the mediums of their choice, in which we convey in informative, compelling ways what our products are and why they are essential.

Progress Monitoring.  Stuart Payne explains:

Progress monitoring is the way in which we gauge the effectiveness of our instruction and the way in which we measure students’ progress toward their learning goals (Emphasis added). During our Response to Instruction (RTI) block, for example, we are able to target instruction in a way that aligns with each child’s reading ability.

Similarly, how do you know if your marketing programs are any good? I’ve always defined success of my product positioning, messaging and marketing content is its capacity to yield qualified leads and ultimately translate into revenue.  True enough, but just counting up “leads” is insufficient. Ardath Albee, in her excellent book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, connects the dots between marketing and revenue with content marketing:

Building online engagement…depends on your ability to develop compelling content…’Engagement bling’ is what I call the positive results your company gains from sustaining trusted engagement with prospects and customers throughout their buying journeys…

The goal of marketing in a complex sale is to generate qualified demand that efficiently transitions to revenues.  And if you want to increase the level of demand for your solutions, it is critical that you enrich the relationships your company establishes with prospects and customers.  Marketing with contagious content operates like a pay-it forward system for your company.  This is because the value your content provides transfers to the value your prospects and customers ascribe to your company (p. 14 & 16 – emphasis added).

Ann Handley and CC Chapman elaborate further in Content Rules:

(A)ccording to Forrester Research, “Long sales cycles and complex purchase decision-making challenge B2B marketers to find the most qualified prospects and to build relationships long before the first sales call.” As a result, you need to embrace a new mind-set – one focused not just on generating leads but on developing a [content] strategy to keep prospects engaged until they’re good and ready to talk to your sales reps. (p. 25)

In other words, the old metaphor of the marketing department “throwing leads over the wall” should be replaced by a metaphor of marketers throwing an entertaining, informative party that prospective customers want to stay at and meet all your friends… who happen to work in the sales department!

There’s plenty more to write about on this topic, but it’s important to note that Northwood Elementary is taking an innovative approach in how student progress is being measured (its Response to Instruction block noted above, as opposed to, say, grades – a flawed, lagging indicator).  Similarly, marketing programs should be judged not just on a flawed measure such as the number of “leads” who, for example, opened an email link, but based on the quality and duration of the engagement of prospects to “keep them at the party.”

The staff goals of Northwood Elementary to engage and help their students succeed bear close similarities with the goals of effective marketers, working to engage and help their prospects succeed with your products. Class dismissed!

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Be a Dogged (Not Dog!) Product Marketer/Product Manager

Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

“Missionary” Technology Really Requires a Technology Evangelist