This article provides insight into improving your firm’s case studies using the concept of story archetypes as outlined in the book, The Seven Basic Plots, authored by Christopher Booker.
I’m hearing the phrase “storytelling” bantered around a lot in the marketing community lately. It’s not good enough to have good content anymore. We need to transform our content into powerful stories. Yet, usually when I dig beneath the headline I’m disappointed with what I find.
So, I was pleasantly surprised this week when I finally picked up the October issue of Chief Content Officer, and read an article on story archetypes authored by Bryan Rhoads, head of Intel’s Media Lab. Using the 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker as his reference, Rhoads outlines 7 classic story archetypes and offers examples of how brands have applied them in their marketing. As I read the article, 2 of the 7 archetypes jumped off the page as really great tools to help a professional services firm take their case studies to a higher level and make them more effective marketing tools.
Two Useful Story Archetypes for Case Studies
While I have not yet read The Seven Basic Plots, based on the article’s summary of Booker’s seven archetypes, these two provide a great model for a case study:
1. The Quest
“Similar to [a] hero’s journey, the quest is about progression. A protagonist stumbles across several obstacles or challenges that must be overcome to progress along the journey.”
In the context of a case study, the elements of a quest are:
- Protagonist = Your client.
- Progression = Your client’s big picture or stated business objective.
- Obstacles = The numerous challenges faced along the way, which the client hired your firm to help overcome.
- Journey = The destination, realized with the guidance, direction and support of your firm, its expertise, process and experience.
2. Overcoming the Monster
“It’s the underdog story in which a hero is confronted by an evil larger than him or her self. To defeat this evil or overcome fear, the [hero] requires great courage and strength.”
In the context of a case study, the elements of this story are:
- Hero = your client.
- Evil = a large, seemingly insurmountable challenge faced by the client.
- Courage and strength = your firm.
Your Firm is Rarely the Protagonist or the Hero
As I started to outline this article, this realization hit me like one of those disastrous metal anvils planted by Wil E. Coyote in a misguided effort to flatten the Roadrunner. The vast majority of case studies (including many of our own) are written from the wrong perspective.
Most firms have a propensity to use case studies in an attempt to dazzle potential clients with their brilliance. Our process is superior. Our expertise is deeper. Our experience is unusual. And, it all results in higher performing outcomes for you. Greater cost savings. Faster time to market. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.
But, here’s the thing. When we read a great story. When we’re really engrossed in it. We live inside of it. We feel all the highs of success. And, all the lows of failure. There’s a reason we watch Hoosiers over and over again. There’s a reason we get chills every time “a school this small wins the state championship.” That reason is because we cast ourselves in the role of the protagonist or the hero.
So, if we’re really going to turn our “case studies” into “case stories” and make them really powerful pieces of marketing we need to cast them from the perspective of the client. The client is the hero. Your firm provides courage and strength. The client is the protagonist. Your firm guides them over obstacles and to the destination of the journey.
An Example From Deloitte
After I started writing this, I began a small quest of my own to find some examples of case studies written this way. To be honest, it wasn’t really easy. Most case studies are fairly formulaic — challenge, solution, result.
But, after sifting through 20-30, I came to like this case study from Deloitte outlining their work with Yamaha (HTML landing page + PDF download). I see this case study as an example of the Overcoming the Monster archetype. Here are the elements of the story:
- Hero = The Yamaha Contact Center
- Evil = “A painful hodgepodge of systems and processes” cobbled together across Salesforce, social media platforms and other technologies that cut across the company’s marketing and customer support functions. This evil was hampering the company’s ability to listen to its customers and be customer-centric.
- Courage and Strength = Deloitte via its effective and fast assessment of the situation and its execution of a detailed roadmap to overcome the evil plaguing the client’s organization.
Some elements of what makes this case study effective:
- Client Perspective – Three different Yamaha executives are quoted throughout the case study. For the most part, these quotes are used as story telling devices. They enable the client to talk about “the evil” and what life is like now that it’s been vanquished.
- Mixed Media – Deloitte does a nice job of mixing together a variety of different media formats to deliver the story to executives at different points in their buying journey and with different content consumption behaviors.
- Before and After – For the most part, it doesn’t try to oversell Deloitte’s expertise, process and capabilities. Rather, through the eyes of the client, it shapes their particular challenge and outlines how Deloitte crafted a solution. You can be your own judge as to whether this story sufficiently relates to your situation enough such that the firm could be of assistance to you.
Suggested Action Items
Here are a handful of ways I think you should apply this article:
1. Inventory Your Case Studies
Make a list of all your existing case studies in the context of this article.
- Story Type — At first glance, based on the nature of your firm and its client work, do your case studies lend themselves more to a Quest or an Overcoming the Monster story archetype.
- Prioritize — Organize your case studies based on their value related to your firm’s quest (you have one after all, it’s sort of a combination of your firm’s vision and positioning). Which ones do you use most frequently? Which ones represent the types of client relationships you’d most like to attract more of? Which ones represent market areas or service lines you hope to grow in the year ahead?
- List — Make a short list of case studies to revitalize. To start, I’d suggest with no more than 3-5.
2. Rework Your 3-5 Highest Priority Case Studies
Set aside some budget and resources over the next 12 months to revisit your highest priority case studies. Specifically:
- Interview — Talk directly to the clients. Be clear that you’re not asking for a testimonial. Rather, you’re looking for their perspective on the challenges they were hoping to overcome in working with you, and what life is like now that those challenges are mostly behind them. Even if your clients aren’t willing to be identified by name, this is still a really important step towards writing a better story.
- Re-envision — Before you begin translating these interviews into content, be clear on how you’re going to present the information. Will it be a written case study? An HTML web page? A short video? An infographic? A presentation? Some combination of all of the above?
- Cast — Label the characters of your story based on the archetype you’ve selected. Be clear about each element of the story. Often, your client’s evil is a complex, nebulous idea. Do your best to personify that idea in some way. Ultimately, the “dark side of the force” is nothing more than a mirky, nebulous idea either. Yet, that’s become one of the more successful embodiments of evil in the history of fictional storytelling, hasn’t it?
- Rewrite — Author your new story from the client’s perspective using the elements of your archetype. Don’t be afraid to break some new ground and try some new things.