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The Annoying Truth Behind Case Studies and "Best Practices"

The Annoying Truth Behind Case Studies and "Best Practices"

Every now and then, a friend will give a talk at a conference where they tell this amazing story. You've heard these before. Numbers going up, despite the odds. Stakeholders cheering. Marketing is a hero.

Sometime later, I'll be out for a drink with that friend and they tell me something like this:

"Hey Dave, glad you enjoyed the talk. But actually, the real reason why that worked is ... "

And that's the annoying, inconvenient but cold reality of most case studies you read, most podcast interviews you listen to and most conference talks you'll watch.

You'll never know the REAL reason why something worked.

It's in everyone's best interest to lie

Any time someone (marketer, founder, product person) achieved something remarkable and tells the story in some kind of public medium, you have to assume they're hiding a lot of the key bits of the story.

They're not bad people.

But there are so many perfectly rational reasons not to tell the whole truth:

  • The real story is far too nuanced and nonlinear to explain in a 30 min preso
  • Conference organizers don't want you to advocate doing gray/black hat tactics. It makes them look bad.
  • Why reveal your secret sauce? Your competitors are listening.
  • If you share the true story, with the compromises you had to make and sneaky tricks you tried, people can easily paint a story of you as a bad guy.
  • You really just got lucky, People hate stories where random chance was a factor; it makes us feel powerless.

Here are a few examples:

To give you an idea of how this plays out, here's a few examples from either my own personal experience or stories from people in my network.

How to succeed on social media.

The case study said something about deeply understanding your target audience, creating great content, using different forms of media. Yes, all very important, but the real X factor that wasn't mentioned in the story: use engagement pods – a group of people upvoting or commenting on each others' content to trick the algorithm.

How to dramatically improve your FB ads performance.

Case study: test different audiences, optimize your content, bidding strategies, targeting techniques, etc. Again, all very important. The real trick that wasn't revealed: exchanging customer information (without express consent) with a noncompetitive company in your industry, then building a Lookalike audience based on this data.

How to set up partnerships with unicorns.

Case study: research the company; add value over a long period of time; drive alignment between companies; manage up, so your executives feel invested in the process. Okay, great. The most important factor not mentioned in the story: the partnerships person is the brother-in-law of the CEO of the other company.

I could keep going on and on and on.

The takeaway I hope you get from this post:

The next time you try to copy something you read from a blog post, or hear about on a podcast, and it doesn't work, it's not your fault.

The true story was hidden from you.