In defence of case studies in social media

People want simple answers about how to use social media to strengthen their business.

Alas, as with many things in life, complexity reigns.

This doesn’t mean firms shouldn’t seek knowledge from the successes and failures of others. Case studies are a great tool for acquiring these learnings.

Some disagree with case studies and the case method. On a recent episode of Marketing Over Coffee the hosts derided it as a tool of the “majority,” suggesting that firms and folks who sought case studies in social media were behind the curve and not innovative. This perspective is not helpful.

Let’s disclose a bit about me before I get into why Penn and Wall were out to lunch on this (note – I’m a big fan of MOC and they rarely are). I wrote my MA thesis on assassination as a tool of US foreign policy by analyzing 10 cases of attempts on world leaders. I also hold an MBA – a degree where much of the learning comes via the case method. So, maybe I’ve already had too much case Kool Aid.

Truth is, the method is slightly limited.

As Penn and Wall suggested on their podcast, cases are never fully analogous to reality. What happened to Firm X might not happen to Firm Y even if circumstances appear similar. Thus, making business decisions based on “what happened/worked/did not work for the other guy” is a dice roll. As such, the case method is often criticized for a lack of generalizability. Point taken.

However, cases have value in new realms and ones characterized by change. The world of social media, replete with advice but little empirical data, fits this description. However, beyond Motrin Moms, Starbucks, Burger King and other big names who’ve done interesting things there is not a hell of a lot case based info. Some groups are trying to change this, but more dialogue would be helpful.

Case studies help firms understand how actions aimed at solving business problems can go right or wrong. They also illuminate innovative approaches to managing various functional areas.

Yes, if someone in your space is already killing it because of Facebook and you move late then you’re screwed. However, the learnings from cases are not “space specific” (Penn and Wall wrongly suggest they are). In fact, many of the learnings from the case method come BECAUSE  a case looks at a firm in a DIFFERENT industry/vertical etc. For instance, Lincoln Electric’s approach to HR and Toyota’s approach to lean manufacturing have taught many non auto and electrical companies about right ways to apply tools and do business.

Case studies aren’t security blankets or panaceas. Neither are they for laggards or fraidy cats. They’re for smart businesses. What fool would not want to see what worked and failed for others?

If you are in school now studying PR or marketing, do you look at social media cases? If so, what are they? If you are a teacher/instructor/social media consultant do you use cases to educate your students and clients? Why or why not?

If you’ve got an MBA, what do you think about the case method? Was it good for you?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher S. Penn April 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Great perspective – thanks! When I went through B-school (BU MS/MIS ’99) we indeed were hip deep in case studies of every kind. We had to sift through mountains of papers from HBR, Sloan, and every other major establishment – and I have to say, they were profoundly unhelpful in every possible way for what came after for us graduates.

We were, for example, studying Xerox PARC to death as a model of systems innovation in business… which was true, several decades prior, and well before Apple and Microsoft ran off with their goods to obliterate the originating company. Virtually all of the cases were focused on what were supposed to be the hot trends for the new millennium in business and technology, like enterprise knowledge management, the use of Java to completely eliminate “archaic” systems development using C++, and businesses concentrating all of their marketing power inside the enterprise computing mainframe.

How different the decade turned out to be, huh? Nearly every case and framework taught in that program (a combination of MBA and MIS) was made grotesquely obsolete in just a few years, and none of the cases or frameworks were prepared for the advent of consumer generated media or the power of social media.

Some of the concepts and high level strategies still make great sense – SWOT, Marketing Mix/4P, etc. – and can be adapted and applied to today’s situations, but by and large, the case studies used to highlight them were too narrow, too specific, and in a frightening number of cases, the companies held us as gold standards are now mostly out of business.

Thanks for the great feedback and thoughtful critique. We both drank from the Kool Aid pitcher of B-School. I just must have spilled more on my shirt!

Danny Starr April 8, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Well I think it is important to note that the discussion in that episode of MOC was talking about using case studies as a means of convincing upper management on the “power” or whatever you want to call it of social media and stemmed from the idea that people often try to use ROI and therefore $$ get to the C suite to take notice.

So from that perspective, I agree with their point in that case studies are probably not going to be effective in convincing management because circumstances are different as time goes on and vary from company to company. So I have to say that I agree with their point and from personal experience, if try to hold what company X and Y did in front management you will most likely get “we’re not X” thrown back at you and you’re hosed.

The truth is, I bet most companies out there would be best served by improving their product/service than spending time getting into social media. Otherwise it’s like putting perfume on a pig. I know a company that had terrible customer service and didn’t care at all about customers and wanted to get on Twitter to talk to customers. A little hard to do when your reps are only around 9-5…. So the @comcastcares case might sound great but for that company would spell disaster.

Now, speaking from an educational standpoint and from that of having done an MBA – yes, cases and the case method are a great learning tool but I felt that at times they were over used. Perhaps you, like me, felt ill looking HBS cases by the end. Even today if I see the logo, I start to sweat. I figured that I must have read way over 200 cases over my time there but I’m getting off topic.

I think schools are just now starting to pick up on social media. Here’s an article about it:
http://www.socialtimes.com/2010/04/top-business-schools-pumping-out-social-media-savvy-graduates/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+socialtimes+%28SocialTimes.com%29

And I know that one of the awesome marketing profs at UBC (where I did my MBA) was pretty quick to incorporate social media and is actually going to be encouraging tweeting during class this Saturday. I know this, because I follow him and saw him put up the hashtag for us.

But I can see the challenge for schools. One is that most profs are research focused so their tenure is based on publishing research, not being up to speed on social media. The other is that this stuff is moving so quickly and evolving at such a quick pace that it is hard to get cases written fast enough. I’m sure they are just now starting to get into the system.

John Wall April 9, 2010 at 7:33 am

To clarify, I am all for case studies, good ones are my favorite reading.

I stand by my position that case studies on social media are for laggards. I’ve never seen a good case study on how individuals use the telephone, the fax, or email and don’t expect to see one on social media.

Covering social media at the University level is questionable. I’d feel ripped off if I had paid to learn about Second Life two years ago.

Jackson Wightman April 9, 2010 at 8:02 am

Hi Chris, Interesting to hear about your personal experience with cases. Thanks for sharing. I got my MBA rather recently (via an EMBA program in Montreal) so perhaps things will turn out the same way for me – though I hope not.

Jackson Wightman April 9, 2010 at 8:07 am

Thanks John.

We disagree re cases being for laggards. I think they are if and when the person seeking case based info is trying simply to “copy” but, as I stated, sometimes cases from other industries have applicable learnings. So, while nobody in Comcast’s space is gonna do cutting edge work by studying Frank Eliason, perhaps firms in other industries can improve their approach to customer service by looking at elements of the Comcast program.

I do love the show. Kudos to you and Chris.

Jackson Wightman April 9, 2010 at 8:09 am

Thanks for sharing the links Dan. Sounds as though your UBC guy was on to something. I wish we’d had more of that in my studies, but that might be due to your more area specific focus. Take care!

danny April 9, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Well John brings up a good point re: Second Life. I think that schools should not focus on the different platforms or tools themselves but as Joseph Jaffe would say “don’t look at the finger, look at where it is pointing”.

To that end, I would say that profs shouldn’t wait for formal cases to be written up and use real life examples of things happening now. We had a prof start classes by asking the class what was new and interesting that they had seen or heard going on in the world of marketing. Take something and expand on it.

I would also like to say that most MBA programs now have a heavy ethics/corporate social responsibility element built into them and I think they should extend that into the idea of “community”, which I think ties into the communities fostered and engaged through social media.

And yes, some of this was because I was doing a sub-specialization in Marketing for sure however I should point out that one area I really felt was missing that relates to this is the whole communciations/PR angle that gets overlooked in MBA programs. They did a funny exercise in a case discussion where we were ambushed by fake media personalities and grilled but there wasn’t much else to speak of after that. This is a shame as I feel you really can’t talk about social media marketing these days without talking about communications. Look what Chevy did at SXSW with the Volt, that I think was really something that had strong elements of both. Look at the ongoing debate of who should own social media inside companies… it’s something that touches everyone from the CEO down.

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