In the Summer of 2009, while I was still on the board of the San Francisco Chapter of the American Marketing Association, I met Mehrdad Saberi at one of our events after the Ad:Tech conference. He shared with me a remarkable story about a business that he had built from the ground up that has been providing storage, backup, and virtual computing services since long before anyone used the term “cloud computing.” While he’d started by catering to ventures in Silicon Valley he has been expanding and outgrowing his britches website-wise. He came to the event looking for help creating a better online experience that included social features, SEM, improved content management and more. After discussing his business, I ended up working with him to reposition Carrott and create a new website to support the next phase of his company’s growth.
Today it’s fun working with small and medium sized businesses, because there are many inexpensive tools available that can be used to make a significant impact. In this post, I’ll share some of the work we did together and how it impacted Mehrdad’s business, Carrott Cloud Backup & Recovery.
Carrott was started back in 1994 as an off-site data protection and information storage service for Silicon Valley ventures. Since them, they have explored a variety of opportunities around that industry space including backup recovery, virtualization, data-security consulting and more. In the meantime, the industry itself has evolved, segmented, and grown. In order for Carrott to be competitive moving forward it was clear that they needed to reposition themselves relative to their competitors before starting the process of building an refreshed website.
Right from the start Mehrdad was clear that he had limited resources to dedicate to this project, so he was looking for a highly efficient and pragmatic approach. He knew that repositioning was going to be important because he’d been watching new competitors spring up in a variety of niches around his business. He also knew that his website needed to include some social hooks to feel contemporary. And finally, he understood that findability online was very important and wanted to make sure that whatever solution we came up with would include an SEM plan.
As with many small and medium sized businesses, Mehrdad had an ambitious set of goals but limited resources. Fortunately, one thing that Mehrdad also had was a deep understanding of the competitive landscape and lots of information that he’d been collecting in advance of the project. It’s a great experience to work with a client who’s able to hand over a bunch of research before you even start.
With his research in hand we started a three day sprint that includedÂ additional competitive landscape research, a positioning exercise, and an elevator pitch exercise. We quickly identified the key market segments and found that Carrott was straddling several niches without coming across as best in class at any of them. Nor was Carrot positioned as a full-service enterprise solution that could afford to back up a truly comprehensive service offering. Part of what we also realized was that Carrott’s messaging needed to be updated to reflect and anticipate new industry terminology.
By working closely with Mehrdad, it quickly became clear that Carrott’s real unique value proposition lay withing the backup and recovery space. Though Carrott had been providing “cloud” solutions before it’s competitors it was not positioning as such. Further, there were few brands trying to own the term “cloud backup and recovery” which was the perfect fit for Carrott. At this point in the project things really started to gel.
To solidify the new positioning, unique value propositions, and messaging we jumped into an information architecture exercise to organize the content of a new site. At the same time, we started thinking about our SEM plan and how a blog might fit into the new site, what kinds of content categories might we offer? How could we use Twitter? What other online channels should we investigate, and how should we manage the social media mix? There was also some planning involved at this point because Mehrdad needed to know what kinds of ongoing costs would be associated with maintaining a blog, AdWords program, or other programs.
Once we plowed through those questions, we were ready to take on the final phase of the project which was wire-framing. I’ve taken many different approaches to wire-framing from rough hand sketches to high-fidelity illustrator decks. In this case, Mehrdad was most comfortable working with PowerPoint, so we developed the wire-frame with that software. It was a first for me, but it ended up working really well. Though the site was mocked up with boxes and lines, it was able to contain interactive links and call-outs which gave Mehrdad what he needed to approve the design.
There are many turning points and hard choices in any project like this one, here are a few choices of note:
Because Mehrdad doesn’t have a huge staff to manage a website, he knew he wanted something that would be easy to use when updating content and easy to keep maintained. After many such projects, I didn’t have to do any research here because I knew that WordPress was the perfect fit. With a large portfolio of third-party plug-ins we had everything from Google Analytics, to Feedburner and Twitter integrated quickly.
We also wanted to make it easy for Carrott to throw up landing pages as needed for their SEM campaigns, events, or other sales initiatives. With WordPress we created templates that make this a snap.
The Home Page
Part of Carrott’s positioning is around high-touch customer service, so we put the contact number right up top. We wanted customers to know that there were real people behind the scenes ready to answer questions and recover their data if necessary. In addition, we wanted to make it super easy and fast to get a quote, so we put a contact form prominently on the home page. We located it just to the right of an animated content frame so we could drive people’s eyes to the contact form as the animation resolved.
The animation frame itself will allow Mehrdad to quickly update the main interactive content of the site as needed. And, below this frame there are three content wells, two of which surface dynamic content. The first highlights the most recent testimonials about his service and links to related case studies. The second surfaces the latest entries from his blog Carrott Talk. In the center well, visitors can find the top ten reasons to choose Carrott.
The Carrot Talk blog is an important area of the site because it is designed to be the most active area. We can up with a category scheme that would support the two live content wells on the home page as well as case studies and SEM results. Two key categories are “Jargon Watch” and “Myths Unveiled” that serve to educate anyone looking for the straight story about cloud storage. We also set up a Twitter micro-blog that Mehrdad can use to share links to all the ongoing research he does about the industry.
Carrott used to be “Carrot Technologies” but with the repositioning we decided to change the name to “Carrott” and drop the word “technologies” in favor of “cloud backup and recovery”. One benefit of this is that people trying to find the site would be more likely to use the domain name that Mehrdad uses for the company, www.carrott.com.
Taking a quick look at the old homepage there is a cluttered visual design with both a horizontal and vertical navigation scheme that isaÂ confusing starting point. The main content area shows a mother and child in front of a computer, but it’s unclear how this relates to the service offering which is positioned as “communication networks.” The logo breaks the rigid visual grid of the page which makes the whole experience feel of balance. Finally, there isn’t anything that feels fresh on the page, no immediate way to get in touch and no clear call to action.
The new Carrott site opens with an animation that shares key positioning points, selling points, and a call to action. From there, visitors can immediately get in touch and indicate what they’re looking for via the input form on the right. The content wells at the bottom of the page contain dynamic content and make the experience feel more engaging. The clean overall design is balanced and light rather than rigid and static.
Finally, the site is fully plugged into Google Analytics so Mehrdad can track how the site performs moving forward. That said, the site itself is really a foundation to support his ongoing efforts to deliver value to his customers and provide them with tools to help spread the word about his service. I’ll write an update to this post when Mehrdad has data to share about his success publishing shareable content through his blog and setting up landing pages for a e-mail campaign or AdWords Campaign. In the meantime, check out his site to learn more.
This post is a summary of what I’ve learned over the years about developing case studies. I hope this will serve as a reference, and save some effort, for anyone in the process of telling stories about their work. As I’ve written many times in this blog, telling compelling and engaging stories is one of the central duties of marketing. When it comes to case studies, I think I’m fortunate because I’ve discovered thatÂ I am better at telling real stories than I am at making them up from scratch. Oh well, no great novels for me.
A Word About Format
Case studies can be prepared in a variety of formats, but the process of collecting information should not change significantly. The format, or formats, that you choose to present the stories in should address the needs of the reader you are targeting. Is this for people visiting your website? For a sales presentation? Or, a presentation at a conference? No matter who it’s for, remember that case studies are just another way of making products and services tangible. thereby building credibility and trust. Here is aÂ list of relevant formats:
- ABSTRACT – A concise presentation of information that explains what took place. Abstracts are well suited for internal training, bringing new employees up to speed, or refreshing you memory in advance of a presentation.
- SHORT-FORM – A brief version of the case study that highlights the challenge, intervention, and result. Typically this format focuses on the broad strokes. The short-form might also include your best image or testimonial. These work well in the context of websites, or to present a variety of studies to a client before diving deeper into the most relevant example.
- LONG-FORM – This is the full blown case study with supporting materials such as testimonials, press coverage, and deliverables. These work well as presentations, and as printed collateral that you can leave with a client. Sometimes. however, you won’t have permission to give away a printed version of the presentation, though you may have the right to incorporate it into a presentation deck during a sales meeting.
- THUMBNAIL – This is a very brief summary, often just the challenge and results, that serves as a teaser to get people interested in reading more. The thumbnail works well in to context of an online presentation if you have a page of thumbnails organized by industry category.
Now that we’ve talked about different formats, let’s talk about the internal structure of the case study itself. Most case studies have a fairly simple and straightforward format. Sometimes the format is highlighted by standard section titles (see examples below) and sometimes, these titles are replace with more colorful phrases that imply which section is about to follow.
- THE TITLE – The title is very important because it’s the first thing the reader will see. The best titles are descriptive and to the point. Try incorporating the client’s name, their industry, or theÂ product/service name. I wrote a case study for Adaptive Path about a project they did for MySpace, the title of that was “The Little User Research Project That Changed The Future Of MySpace In A Big Way.
- THUMBNAIL – If a thumbnail is included in a longer form, then it should follow directly after the title. This is you chance to really set the hook and engage the reader. This is also the point at which most readers will either commit to reading the study, or move on to another one. The best thumbnails are concise, colorful, and inspiring. Here’s the thumbnail from the MySpace case study: As the largest social network in the U.S., with over 76 million users, MySpace’s decision to overhaul all of the major sections of the site could not be taken lightly. Redesigning MySpace demanded a great deal of empathy for a diverse user base and clarification of what makes MySpace unique in the saturated social networking space. The resulting redesign was welcomed by users and shot MySpace to the top of online ad views.
- ABOUT THE CLIENT – This is the part of the case study where you establish who the client is, what industry they are in, and how they fit into the larger industry. It’s essentially an opportunity to set the scene and establish the backdrop for the rest of the study. This section can end with a statement of the goal of the engagement, which serves as a good transition to the next section. You can see an example of this from a recent case study I developed about PayCycle.
- THE CHALLENGE – Like the title states, this is about the challenge that your product or service took on. Define a problem, flush out the context in which it arose in greater detail, illuminate any other information that will either affect, or be affected by, your work.
- WHAT WE DID – Again, very straightforward. What did you do? Walk through the process step by step if necessary, and highlight key moments. This is an important place to also highlight what the client contributed to the solution. A successful case study should not only support your practice, but should support the organization that you’re working with. This will also help immensely when it comes to getting approval for the case study (more on that later).
- THE RESULTS – This is the most important section, and also the hardest to complete. It’s the most important because it offers the metrics of success that allows potential clients to measure the return on a potential investment in your product or service. It’s the hardest because results take time to measure. It can be hard to convince a client to go through the follow up measurement process once they’ve moved on to other things. Fortunately,Â it’s in your mutual interest to do so, which is what you’ll have to explain (again, more on that later).
Because the results is the last section of the case study it’s at the end of the attrition curve for readers. One way to offset this issue is to place some of the results early in the case study in a inset box or column. The visual design and layout can have a huge impact here. Here’s a quick sketch of what a printed long-form might look like. In the context of online case studies there are many ways to manage this issue with interaction design as well.
It Starts With Research
Now that we’ve got an idea of what a case study looks like, where do we start the process of creating one? Before we write anything we need to do some research; like any research, you’ll want to have a structure to work within to make sure you ask the right questions and get a good sample of data. In the past, I’ve created a case study worksheet which I used as a guide to the research process. You can see a list of sample questions you might want to include in your worksheet here.
The design of your worksheet is important because you, and you team, will probably spend a significant amount of time with it. Plus, it can be a helpful asset in the future if you ever want to review the project at a very detailed level. Unfortunately, most people don’t enjoy filling out forms, which is what the worksheet really is … so here are a couple things you can do to deal with this reality:
- Have your team fill out the worksheet while they do the project, thus completing the task in increments over time.
- Build the completed worksheets into the end-of-project team review meeting.
- Make it accessible online (Survey Monkey, Google Forms, BaseCamp, etc) so that it’s available to the whole team, and allow them to collaborate as they fill it out.
- Use the form as a guide to an in-person interview with the project team.
My experience has been that the success of these techniques depends on the individuals you’re working with and the culture of your organization. As a general rule, the interview approach will almost always work so long as you can find a time to meet. though it’s generally more time consuming for everyone involved (this is one good reason to embed it in the post-project review meeting). As a general rule it should take no more than 3 hours to thoroughly fill out the worksheet and collect the related assets.
Part of the worksheet process includes getting a set of sample deliverables that you can embed into the story. These can be images, quotes from research participants, design assets, or information about a particular practice or method used in the project. Once you’ve got the worksheet complete and an inventory of assets to work with, it’s time to analyze the data.
Analyzing The Data
Since the data is structured, it easy to get a handle on things fairly quickly. This is the time to ask what the story is really about, and how it fits into the larger portfolio of stories you tell. If the story is about a medical device and you already have some great stories in this area, maybe this one should be a short-form or thumbnail. Or, maybe you have a great story in the area but you only have permission to use it in the context of sales meetings. Or, maybe you turn it into a story about a particular design method or practice, such as interaction design?
One good way to evaluate the story is to create a case study matrix for your team. This will help put each story in context, and will also help your team select the most relevant story for the client their talking with. Here’s what such a matrix might look like:
As you can see, the empty boxes are areas where there are no case studies available. The Y axis shows practice areas, and the X axis shows the industries that you’ve worked in and will sell your products or services to. You’ll obviously want to adjust these to conform to the information architecture you use to qualify your leads. You’ll also probably want some sort of color coding to indicate where you can use these case studies (i.e. internal use only, sales meetings, public). Depending on the size of your firm you might need anywhere from six to eighteen case studies because more involved projects will cover multiple areas of the matrix.
Getting It In Writing
So now you know how your story relates to the case studies you’ve already got, and what the best format should be. In theory, as you work with the matrix you should be able to identify projects that are likely to fill in gaps before they even start. This is important because it allows you to get into the project early and set expectations with your internal team, and with the client. It’s great if the sales team is also involved so that they can take this into account as they sell. If there’s a project that can complete the matrix, it might be consistent with the larger business strategy to make some sacrifices to win the project. This is particularly relevant if you’re trying to bring your products and services into new industries or markets where you have not worked before.
When this is the case, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve got clear language in your contract that will allow you to talk about the project. This is a significant challenge, particularly when you’re working with large companies, so be prepared to negotiate. Also, go into the process understanding that it’s probably not worth blowing the deal, and that your chances of getting what you want might only be 50%.
- THE CONTRACT – You’ll probably want to consult your lawyer but the goal is to get some language into the contract that says that you can talk about the project, list the client on your website, get a testimonial, represent a deliverable, etc. They probably won’t agree to anything that doesn’t require their approval, but you can use language that states that they must be “reasonable” with respect to the approve process, and turn around time. Also, make sure that they’re on board with the commitment to share follow up project data with you, or your results section will be weak.
- THE SACRIFICES – Depending on what your product or service is, you may be able to provide an incentive for your clients to allow you to create a case study with discounts, offers to submit the work to competitions, faster turn around time, participation of senior staff, etc.
- THE EARLY START – If you’re working on a project that you think has significant potential as a case study, get in early and connect with the most senior person you can. Communicate that case studies are essential to your business, that as clients they relied on a case study in their decision to work with you, and talk about how it can provide value for them as well.
And Finally, Writing It
Here’s a good formula to follow:
- Start by writing the project abstract.
- Get approval from the project team that it’s an accurate representation of the project.
- Send the abstract to the client and tell them that this will be the basis for a case study. Explain that this version is for internal use only.
- Once you have approval, try your hand at the thumbnail. I recommend this because it’s a great way of setting the tone of the case study. I find it’s helpful to have someone of the project team check in on your progress as you go.
- With an solid thumbnail, outline the format you’ve decided to go with. If you’re doing both a short and long-form version, I recommend starting with the short-form, and then expanding it into the long-form later.
- This is a good time to check back in with the internal team and any other stakeholders.
- Assuming all is well, it’s time to bring in a copy-editor to clean it up.
- With the copy edited version in hand, it’s time to get approval from the client. Embedding the copy in a rich visual presentation may be more compelling, but you might also end up having to make a significant number of edits …. just something to be aware of.
- Once you have approval, it’s time to turn it over to a designer for each of the presentation formats you’re working with.
I have been asked whether it makes more sense to have a copywriter manage the whole process, or if it makes more sense to write it yourself and then work with a copy editor. The short answer is that it depends on how your organization is set up. The main thing is that one person manages the process from start to finish.
I hope this is helpful, and I look forward to any feedback and comments on how to improve these guidelines.