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The case study is dead

For some reason, the very phrase ‘case study’ seems to cause the shoulders of otherwise perfectly balanced and cheerful PR people to slump as they contemplate the distant horizon and give urgent thought to alternative forms of employment, such as hazelnut farming in Portugal.

Case study is rather an old fashioned term of course; bit like ‘instruction manual’.  And it does conjure up images of clusters of pedants with biros poring over draft after draft of gradually deteriorating copy until the last vestiges of media appeal are finally wrung out of it and all that remains is a bland residue.

B2B PR war stories

All B2B PR professionals of a few years’ standing have a case study war story to tell. You know the sort of thing: the one that took over a year to be approved by which time the product it was eulogising had been withdrawn; or the copy that went round and round a circle of 20 people on three continents before the customer finally changed his mind and vetoed the whole thing.

Case studies are generally painful and only occasionally easy. And usually, they deliver a fraction of the PR results that clients think they will.

The problem is that many people have fixed ideas about how case studies should be produced and their intrinsic value as PR fodder. The process for developing a thousand word case study, approved by all parties, is invariable slow and difficult. And these days, the media aren’t that keen on a static chunk of hyperbolic, nebulous prose about how much someone likes a product or service.

Perhaps that’s the point. The traditional case study involves a formulaic piece of copy that explains why company A chose product or service B as opposed to C, D and E; how good they found B and what benefits they have derived from it. OK, you can slap the finished thing up on your website, you can lift odd bits from it and drop them into an article and, at a pinch, you can reference the piece in interviews.

But let’s not get carried away with the idea that editors are going to be queuing up to publish your case study as it is. These days, even the most esoteric trade publications don’t get awfully excited about case studies in their traditional form.

Which raises the question: why bother? Why go through all that pain, all that toing and froing, just for the sake of a neutered, 1,000-word case study that has only limited value and media appeal?

That’s not to say that customer testimonials are no longer worth it. In fact, they are very valuable. But what’s needed more than a static piece of copy is a flexible, working relationship with the customer.

Making it inclusive

In the digital age, PR is more about quality content and focus around core messages than anything else. And one of the ways you can refresh and extend this content is by involving willing customers in the actual process of PR. Offer them as contacts for journalists, or encourage them to contribute to articles, interviews and briefings. Make them partners and contributors over the long term. This makes them so much more productive and useful than would be the case if all you had to work with was a lump of copy.

In our experience, clients’ customers generally like this approach. They are more than happy to contribute to articles, be called by journalists and to feature in social media channels, be referenced on websites and get a bit of free PR for themselves into the bargain.

And you know what? More often than not, after a few good experiences with the media, these customer contacts are usually happy to do an old style case study, just for the hell of it. Moreover, with the foundations laid, 99 times out of hundred, these subsequently prove very painless.

Well, there’s irony for you.