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The Case Studies I Can’t Write





As an entrepreneur, one of the things I do a lot is present my company’s services to potential clients. My team and I have developed a presentation that includes case studies describing some of our successes. These case studies talk about the clients’ initial challenges and goals, the solutions we proposed, and the metrics that demonstrate how those solutions worked.

Of course it feels great to show off our successes! And we have many, so it’s not hard to do. But sometimes I also wish I could show the other side of the coin as well. As digital transformation consultants, we can only succeed when our clients trust our expertise and follow our guidance. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen, and the results can be instructive.

Ethically, I have to be careful what information I disclose about current and past clients; I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone. At the same time, I think we can learn from others’ failures so we don’t repeat their mistakes. So I’m going to lay out a few lessons based on past client experiences in order to help people avoid poor outcomes. Key details have been changed to protect confidentiality!


Lesson 1. With digital transformation, patience isn’t just a virtue... it’s a necessity!

The story goes like this. My team and I developed a solid profile-building strategy for a successful independent company owner who wanted to boost his media profile after being in business for over 20 years. When you’re used to traditional media, digital can seem really intangible, and therefore not really real. So while his website traffic was steadily climbing as the weeks went by, this client felt increasingly frustrated that traditional print media, meaning newspapers, weren’t calling for interviews.


We assured him that organic growth in his traffic was establishing him as an authority, and that this would lead to the kind of media attention he was hoping to get. Of course, there are aggressive strategies to boost a digital profile quickly, but most of them involve shady digital practices that my company refuses to employ; we know from experience that they backfire because they damage your credibility in the long run. If this client could be patient, we knew we’d reach his goals and build him a sterling profile as a though leader that would stand the test of time.


Unfortunately, the client pulled the plug on the project. Per his instructions, we stopped all work on the account immediately. A week later, as we were closing out his website permissions and transferring responsibility for his social media accounts before sending his final invoice, we discovered... you guessed it... an interview request from a major newspaper. At this point it was well past the journalist’s deadline, so the client had missed his chance.

What can we learn here? Mostly, that it’s important to trust in the organic growth of your online traffic. An online reputation doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a time and consistency to build. That’s just how it works. But when we assume “digital” means “instant,” and make decisions accordingly, we can lose out on valuable opportunities.


Lesson 2. It’s worth taking a chance on newer types of influence-building.

This client had a digital product to launch, and they asked for advice on how to do it with the greatest impact. We advised, among other things, a digital influencer marketing campaign. They agreed, so we set about recruiting influencers from within the right fields to attract attention and create buzz about this new product.


Influencer marketing is scary if you’re used to traditional marketing. Because the client isn’t providing the copy, or deciding what to say, or hosting the content, they can feel like they don’t really have control over the campaign. And you know what? They don’t! But that’s exactly why influencer marketing is so powerful.


When a company puts out an ad, we all know they’re putting their own spin on things, so as consumers, we take it with a grain of salt. Even the best advertising campaigns fall victim to the simple cynicism of today’s consumers. But when an unaffiliated source says positive things about your product or service, in their own style and voice and on their own platform, your credibility is much higher.


In this case, the client changed their mind partway through the project and scrapped the influencer campaign. Instead, they went for a more traditional digital marketing approach. And while my company did a great job with it nonetheless, to me this felt like a huge missed opportunity. Predictably, when you go with exactly what you’ve always done, you’ll likely get exactly the results you’ve always gotten. The campaign did well, but the client failed to get the powerful reach they had hoped for.


Sometimes, if you want to reach greater heights, you need to take a leap of faith.


Lesson 3. Never, ever lie.

In this case study, the client didn’t scrap the project... we did!

After working with a startup for a little while to clarify what their service was and how best to get it noticed, we realized that they were trying to position themselves in a fundamentally dishonest way, by misrepresenting the nature of their business. This was clearly a case of blatant false advertising.


Have I mentioned my company won’t engage in shady business practices? Well, I’m dead serious. As soon as we realized this client was trying to pull a fast one on its potential customers, we backed out of the project and fired the client. End of story.


No reputable firm will work with a dishonest client—and that means if you choose dishonesty, you miss out on the opportunity to work with the best possible digital support. I’ll never know what successes we could have achieved for this client, and they won’t either. In fact I suspect the startup won’t ever actually start up; or if they do, they’ll end up the subject of articles like this one, as a cautionary tale.


Don’t be like this client. Always do honest business.


What overall lesson can we learn from these failures?

First, I want to stress the vast difference between a tactic—an exciting new technique or tool, for instance—and a strategy. A tactical approach is scattershot, opportunistic, reactive. A well-constructed strategy takes a long view of your goals, and a broad view of how to reach them. It’s backed up by research and data, carefully planned and proactive. It’s an investment, not an experiment. But unlike a tactical approach, a strategic approach doesn’t necessarily pop or bang immediately. It’s often a slightly slower burn with real long-term payoff. And for it to work, you have to trust the process.


Beyond the question of strategy, the overarching theme in all three of these case studies is trust—building trust with an audience, trusting a process even when you can’t control it, and staying fundamentally honest in the business world.


In my experience, a lot of business decisions come down to trust. Funny how even in the field of digital, where we’re working with the freshest and most innovative approaches, we always need to come back to this basic old-school value. If you stick with that, then one day when I’m writing up a case study about you, it will be all about your success!