This post provides advice on how to pick the right case stories when marketing your firm.
One of the most important elements of your marketing content is the case story. A great case story allows your potential clients to place themselves in the shoes of your existing or past clients and ride along next to them through their journey. In so doing, it lets them associate their challenges with another organization like theirs, envision their own potential journey, and imagine their desired future reality. Now, I hope you notice what’s conspicuously absent here — your firm.
Historically, firms use case studies to demonstrate their ability to diagnose problems and develop impactful solutions — they position themselves as the hero and the client as a passive bystander in their own future reality. There are a number of problems with this approach:
- It makes your client look bad. By shining the spotlight on all your client’s problems you present them as an organization in disarray who was only saved by a larger-than-life superhero (your firm). No client thinks of themselves this way nor wants to be presented this way.
- Potential clients don’t feel like they’re part of the story. A story told from your point-of-view is not relatable to your potential clients. You’re asking them to jump into your shoes, which they have no need or desire to do.
- They’re harder to get. This is a direct extension of point 1. No client wants to publish its faults. That said, many clients would gladly be part of publishing their successes. Stories told from your clients’ point-of-view provide best practices examples for how they navigated through difficult challenges and achieved a desired future reality. Most anyone would want to be presented as an example of the right way to go about things.
A case story flips this antiquated notion on its head and shifts the focus away from your firm to your client. We recommend using one of two classic story archetypes to tell client-centered stories. Either one is used to present your client as a hero facing down a great evil or embarking on a long quest. Your firm is cast as the resource used to vanquish the enemy or arrive at the destination. Your firm provides confidence, tools, resources, advice and support on the journey. Your firm exists to empower your clients’ success not provide it. It’s easy to see why clients would be more interested and more willing to have their story told in this way.
When you shift your lens from firm-centric case studies to client-centric case stories you provide yourself with an opportunity to vanquish your own evil — to replace that long list of unnamed case studies with a handful of really high quality named case stories. At this point, the question becomes what stories should you tell? Over the years, we’ve identified 4 criteria for selecting good case stories:
- Clients that had a problem you’re known to solve and want to solve regularly.
- Clients where the scope and scale of the engagement represents the type of work you’d like to attract.
- The client is recognizable by brand name to other clients.
- The client is comfortable with (or at least open to) having their story presented as a best practices example for how to solve a problem.
Let’s look at each one briefly:
#1 – Problems You Want to Solve Regularly
This is fairly obvious, but often overlooked. Frequently, we find firms presenting case stories that don’t appear to have alignment to the type of work they really want to do and the types of clients they’d like to work with. There can be a few reasons this happens. Maybe the case stories are out-of-date. Or, maybe they’re examples of tactical work for high profile clients (therefore deemed valuable). Or, maybe the firm is transitioning to different markets. Regardless, there should be a direct correlation between the types of work you present in your case stories and the types of work you’d like to be hired to do.
#2 – Proper Scope and Scale
For one reason or another, we find firms struggle to share the whole breadth and depth of their client relationships. While there’s surely truth to the fact that some clients want to hire point solutions, this doesn’t make it appropriate to present your work as a portfolio of them. Tell the stories that represent the scale of a relationship you’d like to have with new clients. Of course, a lot of client relationships will start with a specific problem and a point solution to it. Tell that part of the engagement but still tell the broader story whenever possible. 2-3 stories at the right scope and scale are far better than 20-25 tactical projects.
#3 – Recognizable Clients
This criterion is pretty obvious and self-explanatory. But, it doesn’t mean that if you can’t feature your work with Apple, IBM or GE you’re sunk. It simply means that if you have two potential stories to tell that are similar in nature, then generally the one with the higher profile company is the better place to start.
#4 – Clients That Are Open to Sharing
Featuring unnamed case studies in your outward marketing does you absolutely no good. If you find yourself simply unable (or unwilling to do the hardwork necessary) to identify clients that are willing to come forward to tell their stories, then you’d probably be better of using the “McKinsey clause” — make a broad statement that says your work is highly confidential and thus it’s your practice not to share any of it.
That said, it’s our general belief that in any firm there has to be a handful of clients that are willing to come forward and tell their stories. Firms are just reticent to ask or have a tendency to ask the wrong way — they ask for a case study of their great work rather than a case story showcasing their client’s success as an example of best practices.
If all else fails, the other path is to present the case story as an interview within your firm’s thought leadership. A Q+A with the senior leaders of the client organization on a topic can work much like a proxy for your work in their organization. This interview sequence conducted by McKinsey with GE is a pretty solid example — even the casual business reader can see between the lines that there is a deep, strategic business relationship between these two companies that manifested itself as the digital strategy that GE is executing against.
Great case stories cannot be written in a void. All too often, I see firms publish case studies or project profiles for multimillion dollar relationships where it’s clear that no one even bothered to pick up the phone and talk to a client executive on the other side. Talk to your clients. Tell them you want to share their story as a best practices example on how to handle the challenge you helped them traverse.
Ask them to reflect back on the challenges they were looking to solve when they hired you, the journey they went on with you, and what they’ve accomplished (both with your help and on their own). Ask them about decisions they regret or would handle differently given the benefit of hindsight. Make it clear you’re not asking for a testimonial — you’re just looking to tell their story in an interesting way.
If at all possible, take the same approach with your internal project or consulting teams. Use the insight from both parties to tell the whole story (not just your firm’s part of it).
And, finally, resist the urge to feel like you need 40-50 case studies or project profiles to market your firm. If you already have them, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. In either scenario, place your effort towards producing a handful of really high quality case stories — they’ll be worth their weight in gold when it comes to marketing your firm.