Two ugly ingredients for stronger case studies (and how to use them)

BY Joel Klettke
November 17, 2020

Can a case study to be *too* positive?

A strange question, maybe, but one that’s kept me up at night.

If there’s one thing people LOVE bashing about case studies, it’s their credibility—and in many cases (no pun intended), I don’t blame them.

The average case study out in the wild tends to be light on details, heavy on hyperbole, and tough to trust. They’re criticized for being cherry-picked examples in baskets of otherwise rotten fruit; impossibly great outcomes made to look like the everyday average.

Feeling squirmy yet? 

But it’s true: companies LOVE to trot out stories that make them look like flawless heroes who swooped in to save the day in some sort of alternate reality where…

  • Their first ideas were the best ones,
  • Everything goes exactly to plan, and
  • Nobody makes any mistakes, learns anything, or adjusts course.

Miraculously, every company bats 100 in their case studies! Amazing…but also not true to life.

And I think the market is clueing in.

What if you didn’t try to sell the “we’re totally perfect!” narrative?

In every great work of fiction, there are trials and tribulations. Things don’t always work out—but we root for the protagonists as they make their way to the happy ending.

It’s what makes them interesting to read. 

And if you, like me, enjoy listening to podcasts, then you know some of the juiciest bits of those stories are the parts where the interviewee talks about their failures on the way to success. I LOVE hearing about how entrepreneurs had to pivot and overcome obstacles on their way to their biggest successes.

When listening to the “My First Million” podcast the other day, an idea struck me: Why don’t we do the same thing with case studies? Why do we assume our leads only want to hear about the shiny, polished ending—and not the thinking, pivoting, adjusting and battling it took to get there?

Case studies don’t (just) exist to show leads what you can do.

They’re there to show your leads how you deliver and how you think: the strategy, character, and grit that goes into getting the work done. Sure, we’re attracted to the big successes.

But in B2B especially, I think we want to know that the vendors and partners we choose know how to handle conflict, adjust to shifts in the market, and roll with the punches when shit gets real.

As terrifying as it might be to talk about these things in public, I believe these two “ugly” ingredients can make for better case studies if they’re deployed right: Conflict and Failure.

I’m going to quickly explain what these are, and then show you how to put them to work without looking foolish.

Ugly ingredient #1: Conflict

When I say “conflict,” I’m not talking about actual fighting between client and vendor. I’m talking about the inevitable obstacles that popped up after the client signed on the dotted line.

Conflict can look like…

  • A new challenge created by a change in environment.
    Maybe the market shifted, a competitor emerged, or new technology erupted out of nowhere. Or maybe COVID hit.
  • A limitation or a gap.
    Maybe the client was low on budget, or the industry was heavily regulated. Perhaps there were time constraints that made the ‘usual way of doing things’ fly out the window. Perhaps there wasn’t enough data, or a feature hadn’t launched yet.
  • A (civil) disagreement.
    Maybe the data said one thing, but intuition said another. Maybe there was a battle between two equally good ideas.
  • A discovery.
    Perhaps new information became available that impacted the strategy or approach.

Talking about the conflicts you came up against can be a powerful way of showing leads how you navigate real-world issues.

Ugly ingredient #2: Failure

If there’s an element more contentious than “conflict” to include in a case study, it’s this one.

Failure is a touchy subject. It doesn’t feel particularly good to throw the focus on the things that didn’t work—whether there are hurt feelings or they’re afraid to lose face.

Failure can look like…

  • A strategy that didn’t pay off as expected.
  • A campaign that didn’t work out.
  • An approach that wound up being sub-optimal.
  • An idea that didn’t pan out.

The important thing to realize is that laying out failures gives you an opportunity to talk about three far more positive, attractive things:

  1. Learning
    What was discovered through failure? What critical insights informed those next steps that ultimately drove the big win? Showing leads that you find incredible opportunities in the midst of small failures is a subtle way of helping them realize they’re in safe, honest hands.
  2. Adaptation
    Perhaps the most important highlight is how you adjusted based on what you learned. This is the part where leads see you’re neither a one-trick pony, nor a quitter. You’re not a company who hides behind a failure or just blindly funnels more cash into the abyss. You take ownership! You stomp that failure to death, move on, and get those wins.
  3. Resilience
    Let’s not forget, this is a case study of a happy client!

    They obviously stuck with you for a reason; not everything went to hell in a handbasket. By highlighting the missteps, you paint a far more convincing backdrop that you can use to highlight the strengths of your relationship. Was it service that saved the day? Trust? Experience? What overwhelming positive kept your customer around—and SO pleased they agreed to be in a case study after the dust settled?

But… how do you include these without looking bad?

Ah, the inevitable objection and the reason more companies won’t do what I’m suggesting: losing face is terrifying.

Yes—doing this wrong can make you look foolish. But I don’t think it has to be that way, and I think the risk is mostly in our heads and egos.

To get it right…

  1. Keep it external.
    When you bring up conflict or failure, you should give it the most charitable context possible (as long as it’s true to life.)

    These are not personal failures caused by stupid behavior. They’re challenges that come as a result of well-intentioned, calculated actions by people (or products) using the best information available at the time.

    The best conflicts and failures to bring in are the byproduct or outcome of an unforeseen circumstance or unknown—not malpractice or morons on EITHER side of the client/vendor relationship.
    They should be presented as small missteps made by a person, team, or product

  2. Admit, but don’t blame.
    This one’s simple: when you bring up a failure or conflict, address that it happened, explain what caused it, but don’t try to pin it on an individual or the client. The more you can talk about it as an objective thing that happened, the better.

    Similarly, don’t make excuses. Zero in right on the root cause so that you can quickly follow up with exactly how you addressed it and made things not only better, but exceptional.

  3. Tie it into a positive.
    The head-smackingly obvious one: within tight proximity to the problem you bring up, start getting into how it was addressed. It  should read like: “And then, things didn’t go as expected. Here’s what happened. Here’s why. And once it was recognized, here’s exactly how we responded, why it worked better, and what it amounted to.

    Don’t leave failures unaddressed or pepper them in just for the sake of being vulnerable. They’re teachable moments: backdrops for something better.

Are you brave enough to give it a spin?

Truthfully, I don’t expect this blog post to win many battles. I know most people (and their bosses) will always have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to doing anything but painting the white-picket-fence-perfection version of the story in a study, and I get that.

But as much as I can, I want to encourage you to think differently.

I think real stories will beat fluff-pieces any day of the week, given the proper opportunity. And I hope at least a few of you out there will be willing to give it a chance.



Ya, you like that? Well, there’s more where that came from!

5 of the Most Common Case Study Mistakes

Creating a good case study sounds pretty simple. After all, it’s just problem-solution-result, right? How hard can it be? But when you actually put a case study together, a lot can go wrong. It takes nuance to tell your best possible story. At Case Study Buddy, case studies are all that we do. Literally. It’s our job to keep an eye on what’s working and what’s not. And we’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of them. In the process of...

BY Joel Klettke

How Many Case Studies Should You Have?

“How many case studies should I publish? How many do I actually need?” For many companies, getting even one case study done can be a real victory. And when it’s your first, it IS a big deal. But case studies aren’t a “one and done” asset. You can’t just check case studies off your content marketing to-do list. And often, that first great case study opens the door to many others. Strategic companies want case studies for every sales situation...

BY Joel Klettke

Is It Time to Rethink the Agency Case Study?

Creating case studies for agencies comes with its own special set of challenges. First, agency customers are a particularly skeptical bunch because they’ve either been burned by an agency in the past or heard horror stories. Maybe they didn’t get the results they wanted. Or the work was poorly performed. Or communication was terrible. Whatever the problem was, they’re not likely to be won over by cheery case studies that consist of a laundry list of tasks performed and summary...

BY Joel Klettke

Let’s tell your stories together.

Get in touch to start a conversation.

Contact Us