Harvard first developed case studies as a way to engage students in their executive training programs. Complex or difficult cases were presented to students and they were asked to familiarize themselves with the materials as well as gather additional information. They would then be tasked with suggesting reasons for the problem outlined in the case and possible solutions. The cases allowed students to take a very practical look at real world challenges. They were not geared to have one “right” outcome, but allowed for many different solutions.
The case study in the social sciences is more of an analysis of an individual, project or organization and is used to showcase exceptions or standard behaviour. A case study in this context is really a research approach, a real life examination.
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) frequently shares case studies with its members. These studies are useful tools that work in a different way from either the business or social science approach. In this instance the purpose of the case study is to show how a problem or challenge can be successfully resolved. These documents are usually a few pages long and provide details around the challenge and resolution. They are a great way to explore possible solutions for your own challenges and the ideas showcased can often be modified for alternate use.
When I was in school case studies were interesting things. They brought life to the phenomenon that was described in my sociology textbooks. Where the text was often dry and uninteresting, the case studies made the subjects compelling. They brought the issues to life. As a communicator, case studies are often what I use to explain why I think a certain direction should be taken or why we should avoid another. Yet when I look around at business sites, the case studies there rarely resemble those illuminating stories I recall.
Although case studies are meant to illustrate how the firm works and supposedly thinks, too often those objectives are forgotten in the rush to showcase big name clients or big money projects. The challenges illustrated in the studies are not complex, unusual, difficult or in any way challenging. In fact, many of the case studies I’ve read recently made me think that the company involved would have to be staffed by idiots not to resolve the challenges with ease. More concerning, the way problems were resolved not only lacked imagination but did not seem particularly geared towards the client.
I was so disheartened by what I was seeing that I was tempted to tell my own clients to avoid these stories on their websites, but that was not the right answer. This takes me back to Harvard and my own recollections. The case studies there were compelling. They were written to intrigue, to provoke conversation and engage thought. Here is an example of a case study presented by Harvard:
It was five minutes before show time, and only 15 people had wandered into the conference room to hear Lancaster-Webb CEO Will Somerset introduce the company’s latest line of surgical gloves. More important, sales prospect Samuel Taylor, medical director of the Houston Clinic, had failed to show. Will walked out of the ballroom to steady his nerves and noticed a spillover crowd down the hall. He made a “What’s up?” gesture to Judy Chen, Lancaster-Webb’s communications chief. She came over to him. “It’s Glove Girl. You know, the blogger,” Judy said, as if this explained anything. “I think she may have stolen your crowd.” “Who is she?” Will asked. Glove Girl was a factory worker at Lancaster-Webb, whose always outspoken, often informative postings on her web log had developed quite a following. Will was new to the world of blogging, but he quickly learned about its power in a briefing with his staff. After Glove Girl had raved about Lancaster-Webb’s older SteriTouch disposable gloves, orders had surged. More recently, though, Glove Girl had questioned the Houston Clinic’s business practices, posting damaging information at her site about its rate of cesarean deliveries–to Sam Taylor’s consternation. This fictional case study considers the question of whether a highly credible, but sometimes inaccurate and often indiscreet, online diarist is more of a liability than an asset to her employer. What, if anything, should Will do about Glove Girl?
Although the story was not about life and death, it does capture your interest. It also doesn’t go on for pages. A solution should be equally short and be as interesting as the problem. Case studies are a great way to engage current and future clients. They showcase how you think as effectively as a blog, but they show the practical side of your skills. There are a few considerations to keep in mind if you use case studies.
Tips For Case Studies
- Write as though you are telling a story. Provide a setting and context for your characters and choose your hero (here’s a hint: the client is the hero).
- Keep the story short, 250 words is plenty to set the scene. The next 250 should resolve the issue.
- If you prefer shorter stories, then state the problem in a couple of short descriptive sentences and the solution should be equally briefly. This approach works well for people who are looking around your site and just want a taste of what you are about. For an example of doing this well, check out writespeaksell.com, Jeanette Paladino does an excellent job of briefly profiling the challenge and how she resolved it.
- No matter your approach, make sure you get the client’s permission to tell their story.
Have you ever used a case study to make your point or sell a skill? Has a story of someone else’s experience ever helped you to decide on using a service or maybe avoiding one? Do you look at case studies or testimonials when you go to a site? If so, what do you think? If not, how come?