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Why Case Studies Are Overrated

IStock_000002929163Small There is a misguided search that almost everyone working in marketing around the world seems to be on. It involves seeking a golden example or case study that lays out perfectly how to achieve success with social media and be effective. In their minds, this case study would create the perfect argument for ROI, and offer a formula that could be duplicated by nearly any organization no matter their industry or audience or objectives. Perhaps most importantly, it would be a story they could easily share with their bosses or managers or clients to help make the case for using social media more easily. You can't blame them for trying … the only problem is that this story doesn't exist.

The search for the perfect case study for permission to innovate is like spending your life trying to find a guy named George to marry because your best friend is happily married to a guy named George. Your objective may be the same as your friend (to get married), but the path you take will always be different. We would never dream of using this flawed logic in our personal lives, and yet in marketing it seems we seek it all the time. It is why business schools are filled with case studies and every discussion most anyone has about social media or trying anything innovative in marketing involves the same fateful question from someone in the decision making chain: "show me a case study where this has been done before."

This is a problem for three obvious reasons:

  1. What has worked for another organization will not work exactly the same for yours.
  2. No case study will ever address EXACTLY the same unique challenge your brand is facing.
  3. Many brands don't readily publish case studies for the world to consume anyway.

The biggest change you can make is to stop waiting for the golden case study and focus instead on the quality of your strategy and ideas. The reason an idea and program works is not because you have some proof point from another company to point to in order to justify it. Ideas and campaigns and marketing works because it is based on an insight and motivates people to feel what you want them to feel and act the way you want them to act.

Case studies are great to learn from, but if they are the only way you can get permission to use social media or do something innovative, then you are on the path to failure before you even start.

16 thoughts on “Why Case Studies Are Overrated”

  1. Hmm, I have never really thought that anyone was looking to do *exactly* what is written in a case study. From a sales perspective, case studies can really help put something as vague as “social media monitoring” or “social media marketing” into context. Or “cloud computing,” for that matter.

    Case studies offer a starting point to think about how they can champion an idea internally, OR gives sales people a way to introduce a concept in a more concrete way. Frankly, I think case studies resonate with people because they tug at the most basic human need – the need to connect with people who have similar experiences, who can relate to our problems. Think AA or something like that.

  2. Hi Robin,

    Thanks for the comment. If people do use case studies to spark new thinking and ideas, then I certainly agree with you that they can be a great beginning point. The problem I have started seeing more and more is that people are starting to look at these case studies not as learning opportunities but rather as prerequisites for permission to do even the most basic of efforts in social media. I actually love case studies for the lessons they can offer … but when you need a case study just to do the most basic of tasks, there’s something wrong.

  3. Rohit,

    It’s kind of funny to read this because I just had a case study published on a blog.I’ll leave the link below if you don’t mind. But I actually do have some stuff to say. Fortunately I had a boss who allowed me to alot of experimentation and gave me a budget to play with when it came to social media. I had also interviewed almost 80 bloggers/social media addicts(for lack of a better term)on BlogcastFM who all shared their best ideas with me. What’s interesting is that I didn’t take any one idea and use it. I combined ideas from all the people i’d talked, my own experience, and case studies I had read. I think that a case study really serves as a framework and if you can pull yourself away from the tactics and pay attention to the strategy, then you’ll get value from it and be able to use it in your own efforts. Below is a link to the case study on how I grew a brand new blog to over 20K Page views in 2 months:

    I would love to hear your thoughts and perspective on it.


  4. I tend to agree with copydiva’s points. Case studies, whether for social media or any other scenario, have great purpose in inspiring ideas – rather than to be used as a blueprint for how it’s done. As a small business, I can’t implement the exact social media tactics that Microsoft can, but I can learn and be inspired to try something similar in a way that works for me.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  5. case studies give us conclusions but not the ends. They always leave us at a point where we must start thinking about what is going to happen if we encounter the same situation. Inspiration works for you to provoke your thinking.

    Thanks for sharing such nice words.

  6. I found this to be an insightful article, and I really got a kick out of the comparison between using case studies and marrying someone named George. I do agree in saying that case studies can be a valuable starting point, but as the article indicates, you cannot expect to achieve the same results.

  7. Case Studies don’t tell me that a company has the right solution for me – they tell me that a company has a strong enough operational follow-through that they can turn clients into advocates. A company with a lot of case studies showcases their excellence in delivery and cross-functional communications.

  8. Case studies are a great way to get general ideas and information, no one should be mirroring what they see in a case study, because each situation is different and your strategy for company is different than the next.

  9. Great post, Rohit. I laughed out loud after reading the marriage analogy.

    While I agree with many of the comments regarding case studies as a blueprint, I think they are an excellent incentive when it comes to promoting innovation. They can be used offensively (here is what we should be doing to stay ahead) and defensively (here is what our competition is doing).

    When it comes to getting executive leadership to consider a new idea, you have to use all the tools in the toolbox. 🙂


  10. Case Studies don’t tell me that a company has the right solution for me – they tell me that a company has a strong enough operational follow-through that they can turn clients into advocates.

  11. Agreed. I believe the greatest value to be derived from case studies is telling that differentiated story on behalf of an individual or organization–distilling down to the subject’s unique set of competencies and brand personality rather than attempting to issue a universal solution or teach some sort of standard practice. (That’s what whitepapers and research summaries are for!)

    Great post. And speaking of personality, your PNI title is next on my reading list.

    Monica Romero

  12. Very clever analogy about marrying the guy named George – lol! I agree with your premise that you can’t learn “exactly” what you need to do from a case study since all companies are different. However, I have frequently read a case study and found that it opened my mind further, got me thinking about some new ideas, or helped me gain a new perspective. That’s enough for me to consider them valuable.

  13. This is a great blog to start off with. I agree with a lot of peoples’ points where commented. Case studies, for any scenario in general, have a great purpose in inspiring ideas – rather than to be used as a blueprint for how it’s done. As a business, one can’t implement the same tactics that another company can because every business/company is different from one another.

    I do agree that case studies can be a starting point for businesses, but as the article points out, you cannot expect to achieve the same results. I think that case studies are a great way to buzz new ideas and can be a great role model for businesses.


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Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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