Why the Case Study needs to die

princess and the frogThe case study as an element of marketing communications has outlived its usefulness. It’s one of those things that exists as a short-hand for ‘how xyz company benefited from using our product/service’. We’re used to case studies from text books we read at school or university. We’re drawn, to like moths to a flame, to use the term on websites because it has (fake) intellectual weight. It sounds impartial; ‘case’ as in ‘legal case’, ‘study’ as in ‘serious examination’.

Who are we kidding?
A case study on a company’s website is never going to be impartial and it probably isn’t even that exhaustive a study either.

So what do we call them?
How about ‘customer stories’ or ‘customer success stories’? Let’s face it, we’re never going to write about failures of our product or service to meet a need.

What makes a story?
The 5 Elements of a Story are well known, pick your explanation. I’m rather partial to the version that uses the medium of hiphop.

In short: Setting, Plot, Characters, Conflict, Theme

Instead of writing a bland case study these elements, and the fact that we’re calling it a story not a study obliges us to make it interesting and readable.

Who does this already?
Smart companies like MailChimp present their customer successes like this and you can find plenty of examples in business books. You know those business books that are hard to put down? Books like Guy Kawasaki‘s How to Drive the Competition Crazy, Seth Godin‘s Free Prize Inside, David Meerman Scott‘s New Rules of Marketing & PR and others (feel free to add your favourites in the comments below). In these books we hear about how a person overcame a problem, presented in a way that illustrates the writer’s point. These aren’t dry ‘case studies’, though they’re often referred to as such in reviews, perhaps because to call them stories might seem childish.

Further reading
For some detailed learning of why thinking in terms of storytelling, pick up a copy of Ann Handley and CC Chapman’s Content Rules. My Kindle app tells me the word story appears 100 times in the book, that’s how serious those guys are about storytelling.

Let’s remember why we’re doing this
We put content on our websites to be read, not to tick off an item on a to-do list and fill a hole in a sitemap. We owe it to our readers to be interesting, in return for their attention.


image credit: Frog King by freno via Creative Commons on Flickr

Lifetime Value, Caveat Vendor

carriage clockSeth Godin urges businesses to consider the lifetime value of a customer, not just the value from the first sale (or indeed the latest sale).

Go and read it, it makes sense, but bear in mind his argument is based on a particular kind of product or service, one where lifetime value of a customer can be calculated with some value of reliability, and expending what seems like a disproportionate amount on acquisition or retention is a much safer bet.

If you’re serving a specific geographical area there is a limit to the amount of competition for that customer’s business that you face – a customer is by necessity more likely to be loyal. If your product naturally has some lock-in (like a mobile phone contract) then you can work out how much a customer is worth to you very easily. Barriers to entry (by competitors) or exit (for the customer) create an environment with a relatively low churn rate, a predictable level of repeat business and a limited number of other places for a customer to take their spending.

If however you’re an online merchant, selling a product you don’t have an exclusive on, your competition is almost infinite and made up of players with different agendas. Not everyone is motivated by the need to make a profit, their goal may be market share. If Amazon enter your niche, there’s every chance you’ll get wiped out, just as dedicated greengrocers and butchers shut down all over the UK as supermarkets expanded. Calculating that lifetime value has to be tempered with the likelihood that a lower priced competitor will take their business regardless of how much effort you put in.

There are ways for you to fight back against the hegemony of an Amazon or the like. You can use content marketing, show off your expertise and thought leadership, you can cultivate relationships with bloggers to get you links to improve your search engine ranking and boost traffic. Yet there’s nothing to say that a customer won’t just take the advice from you and buy from the other site that’s $2 cheaper. The one thing that’s very hard to justify in that situation is losing money on an order in the hope that you’ll make it up later – if you’ve price-matched or incurred costs to a point you’re not making anything on a customer’s first order, what makes you think you’ll do any better with their next order? Or that they’ll have any loyalty to you anyway?

Take care with those lifetime value calculations and remember you can’t rely on always getting a customer’s business (and referrals) no matter how remarkable you are.

Image credit: Florrie Bassingbourn via Flickr

What’s the last Purple Cow you bought?

Seth Godin (and others) are always talking about being ‘remarkable’.

Given that we’re all susceptible to remarkable things and feel a need to share them so I thought I’d share my most recent purple cow with you.


That’s the exterior of the building our apartment is in. We moved home about a month ago and when we were looking at places to rent this one stuck out – literally. The bay window in the turret gives a 180 degree view and has great light for reading.

What’s the last purchase you made because of something remarkable?