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Are you using marketing case studies wrong?

Are You Using Marketing Case Studies Wrong?

I love research, and while I can all too easily get on my academic soapbox, I think there is a lot of value in research done by average Joes, Joesephines, and businesses.

I acknowledge that not everyone has the resources or particular “types” of intelligence to complete a higher education degree – and quite frankly not everyone wants to. There’s nothing wrong with learning mostly on your own, even online.

However, as a former psychology student and current master’s candidate for a research degree, I see not just flawed research performed by over-eager marketers, but a whole lot of flawed interpretation and discussion of research.

Case studies are a great tool of exploration, understanding, and example, but they are often weighed far too heavily – enabling poor business decisions.

Here are 3 ways you should avoid using case studies, and a couple of ways you should use case studies.

3. DON’T use a case study to prove your point

Don't use case studies as proof

You can conduct the most in-depth, elaborate study with thousands of participants and tens of thousands of data points, and you still will never prove your point.

You can use data and insights from tens or hundreds or thousands of research studies, and you still will not prove your point.

When you are talking about research, eliminate all iterations of the word “proof” from your vocabulary.

Research provides evidence, but never proves anything with 100% certainty. No matter how much math you use or how fancy it is or how fancy your charts and graphs look, it is impossible to “prove” something. And if you declare in any research paper or blog post reviewing research that something is “proven,” us academics will barf a little in our mouths and silently close the browser tab.

Like any study type, case studies can’t prove anything – but it’s not just statistical significance that inhibits this.

In other types of studies (surveys, observational, experimental, etc.), there are typically at least a couple dozen participants – if not hundreds. With significant findings from an appropriately sized, randomized, and representative sample, we can make an informed assumption that the results would be similar if testing methods were applied to others in the target population (even if the “population” is referring to businesses and not individual people).

Case studies differ in that their sample size is 1 which can hardly be representative of a population, creating an issue of low external validity.

If you’re appealing to your boss for support using a specific tactic, or researching for your next in-depth blog post, be sure to avoid “proving” your point with a case study.

2. DON’T use a case study to create your marketing strategy

Don't copy tactics from case studies

Don’t base your entire marketing strategy (or even a substantial part of it) on a case study.

Even if the case study focuses on a company in your industry or a company with a similar audience, it does not mean that you will have the exact same outcome.

It’s easy to get caught up in dreamland when you come across a super cool case study using practices that promise to explode your web traffic by 500% in 14 days, but there are so many variables involved that can’t be replicated.

For example, even if your website is in the exact same niche as the subject of the case study, there may be dozens of differences including:

  • Age of the domain
  • Size and authority of the website
  • Number and quality of backlinks to the site prior to implementing the new practices
  • Perception of the brand
  • Social presence of the brand
  • Current competition in the SERPs
  • Team members working on the project
  • Existing relationships with other companies, site owners, and editors

Case studies are often used as selling tools for expensive software and services, so if you are considering investing hundreds or thousands of dollars don’t let a case study be the determining factor in the decision.

Consider tactics (or software) used in case studies that have yielded awesome results; but only cautiously after considering both the unique circumstances of the highlighted subject and your own unique situation.

1. DON’T use case studies to generalize

Ultimately all of these “don’ts” come down to avoiding generalization when you discuss, use, or apply case studies.

Don't generalize with case studies

If in a case study a company exploded their traffic by 500% in 14 days by using Pinterest, does that make it safe to say that Pinterest is a good channel for your business?


Does it make it safe to say that Pinterest is a good channel for businesses?


Generalizing results of a case study is a quick way to make yourself look like a fool.

Again, no two businesses or websites are exactly the same. Because case studies focus on a single participant, it is impossible to know how others will react under similar conditions.

Most research is based on a sample that is the closest representation of the general population as possible (or a specific subset of a population).

If you are sending out a survey studying “millennials in the U.S.”, you would strive to send it to a group that has similar representation of age, gender, race, and income as the total population of millennials in the U.S.

We often see the opposite of this in the selection of cases for case studies. Hypothetically a “typical case” could be selected for a case study, but it’s uncommon to find them inspiring – because the results are likely to be typical.

Case studies are chosen because they are extreme or deviant

More commonly we see the use of “extreme” or “deviant” cases, which are selected because the results are not typical.

These cases are selected specifically because they are unique, so it is unlikely that the same methods would yield the same results for a different subject.

Instead of generalizing and “proving” your point with them or applying the concepts learned directly to your own strategy, here are a couple of ways you should be using them:

How to Use Marketing Case Studies for Your Business

DO use case studies to inspire discussion

If you read a case study that seems relevant to your business, one of the most valuable things you can do is use it to inspire discussion.

Bring it up in your next meeting and see what input your coworkers have.

Create a discussion thread online to see what insights others gained from it.

Discuss case studies

Discussing the case study as it may relate to your own business will expose you to different understandings, perspectives, and explanations for the results, and help you better understand where your company is similar or different.

DO use case studies to inspire further research and investigation

Eisenhardt describes case studies as ““useful in early stages of research on a topic or when a fresh perspective is needed”.

Whether you find a case study interesting because it reaffirms your beliefs or contradicts them, they provide a great opportunity to inspire further research. Ideas of further research may include:

  • Seeking out related articles and studies online
  • Surveying your own audience
  • Running a controlled test using one of the tactics or methods used in the study

It’s all too easy to get caught up in dreamland when you read an awesome case study. Keep in mind the subject was likely selected because it was an extreme example, not a typical case. The tactics may very well apply to your business, but it’s vital to slow down and think about context before making a big business decision.

Censoring my Personal Brand Online

Why I Choose Not to Censor My Personal Brand Online

If you haven’t noticed, my personal brand is big, bad, and sassy.

Or something like that.

I use curse words sometimes. I talk about controversial topics sometimes or I talk about non-controversial topics in controversial ways. I post pictures in my sports bras and shorty-shorts.

Sometimes people give me crap about my Instagram because ladies “should” act or dress a certain way *cough my boyfriend*.

Let’s first get this out there.

Ladies should act and dress however the fuck they want

Oh, and for those of you who are visual learners, we can cater to you too:

women living uncensored lives

End of story. Get those narrow, utterly offensive preconceived notions of what women “should” and “shouldn’t” do out of your head right now.

Yes, some attire is more setting-appropriate than other attire. No, that doesn’t mean I would ever walk into an office wearing these shorts:

A photo posted by Annie Singer (@singerswings) on

But I am also going to be unafraid to wear short shorts, and I’m going to be unafraid to wear crop tops and bathing suits in settings where I find it appropriate.

But Annie, people will sexualize your body

Uncensored personal branding

(image by Burnside Photography)

Guess what? People will sexualize my body no matter fucking what.

People sexualize my body when I’m at the store wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

People sexualize my body when I’m walking down the sidewalk in baggy sweats.

When I post fitness pictures in a sports bra, I am not sexualizing my body. Other people will, and I understand that, but most any reasonable person will understand that when I post a flexing picture, the sentiment of my post is “gish dang look me so strng”, not “ooh-la-la I’m so sexy”.

If someone wants to sexualize my body and leave an inappropriate comment, I can easily delete it and block them. If they decide to solicit me in real life, I can exercise the wonderful power of the word “no”.

But is it okay to post sexy/sexualized pictures?

You own your body. There is nothing inherently wrong with posting sexy, sexualized, and/or nude pictures (unless you are under age).

What’s posted online can easily be seen by anyone, even if you have your profiles set to private, so keep in mind what you personally are okay with the world seeing and what repercussions there may be.

But Annie, what if your mom or dad saw those pictures, or saw a post where you used curse words or talked about poop?

Hi Mom, hi Dad.

Guess what? My parents follow my social media accounts and blogs.

They read and share my posts, even some of the ones that talk about tattoos or have the F word in it.

You know why it doesn’t bother me?

  • My parents birthed me. They used to wipe my butt. They are not going to be offended by a picture of me in a bra
  • They do not own my body, and they can’t (and don’t try to) tell me what to do with my body
  • My parents will be the last ones to sexualize my body, not the first. They understand that I am passionate about fitness, and that I am proud of my body
  • My parents can disagree with things that I say or wear without losing respect for me as a person

Actually, the typical rule I go by is if I wouldn’t want my parents to see it, I don’t post it.

But Annie, what if a future employer sees your Instagram or blog?

Censoring personal brand

Future employers will see my Instagram, blog, and other facets of my online presence.

I am okay with that.

In fact, I have already gotten legitimate marketing work from my Instagram page.

Do you know why?

Because employers are interested in hiring people who have a proven track record of their work. If I tell businesses that I can grow their website or Instagram or Pinterest account, then it’s a benefit to me to have a strong presence online.

I am confident in my ability to get work

My problem is not that I can’t find work, it’s that I don’t hardly have the time to do all of the work that I have.

I “accidentally” get jobs more often than not. I get jobs from people who find me on social media. I get jobs from local business owners whom I know personally. I get jobs from business associates who have involvement with other projects.

There undoubtedly will be a time in the future where I am looking for work, and there’s a slight chance that pictures of me in a sports bra on Instagram will negatively impact my ability to land a job.

However I work hard to build up as many opportunities as possible at all times.

If my current job fails for some reason or another, I already have my toes in the door on two other projects run by the company’s manager.

If SEO stops being such an in-demand skillset, then it’s probably a good thing that I am also experienced in social media and other forms of digital marketing, and even better that I will soon have a master’s degree in marketing research.

I have made it a goal for myself to save six months’ worth of living cost to have as a cushion at all times in case there is another recession in the foreseeable future – and if all else fails, I do not see it as “below” me to work at a fast food restaurant, retail store, or temp agency.

I undoubtedly will lose future opportunities based on my choices

But I can say confidently that sporty pictures on Instagram will never make or break my lifestyle, even if it causes a hiring manager to turn up their nose.

I have tattoos all over, including places that cannot be hidden. I post “immodest” pictures, and I use language that some people find offensive.

I acknowledge that I am not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay, because not everyone else is my cup of tea.


Do you censor your online brand?

Why or why not?

Working for Free

Should You Work for Free?

If you specialize in anything – SEO, web design, personal training, music performance, you name it – chances are you’ve been asked to work for free at some point.

In general, this sums up my attitude towards working for free:

However I do believe that there is a place and time where working for free is not only acceptable, but also beneficial.

Here are a few questions to consider if you are thinking about doing work for free.

Do You Have the Time?

If you don’t have the time to take on a new project, absolutely do not work for free. Don’t overwhelm yourself with more than you can handle, especially if it doesn’t pay.

Do You Need the Money?

If you are just scraping by or if an extra few dollars would really help to improve your financial situation, don’t work for free. Instead, when a friend or family asks you to do work for them, pitch your rate. You can even offer them a discount to make them feel special. Otherwise, spend that same time looking for real, paying gigs.

Do You Want to Do It?

If you don’t enjoy what you do, you certainly shouldn’t work for free. On the other hand, if you genuinely enjoy the work that you do, you might want to consider doing it for under certain circumstances.

Is There a Benefit to You?

Unless there is some sort of benefit to you, don’t work for free. However consider a wide variety of benefits that doing certain types of work may provide:

  • Helping a friend with their small business may give you the satisfaction of seeing them succeed
  • Writing a free article for another website may give your site or business more exposure
  • Doing a favor for a friend may inspire them to later help you when you need it
  • Helping a local small business or charity allows you to add relevant experience to your resume

As an SEO and digital marketer, these are a few unpaid opportunities that I sometimes take advantage of:

Guest Posting and Writing for Other Websites

What it does for them: I typically charge clients $75 for a 400-600 word article, but under certain circumstances I will write for free. I might also write an adapted version of content from my own blog to re-purpose it for an external site.

What it does for me: Guest posting and writing for other websites provides SEO value to my own site, boosts my credibility as an author and niche expert, and send qualified traffic to my website.

Giving Website or Business Advice to Friends

Friends don't ask friends for free work

What it does for them: I don’t know if y’all know this, but I’m really good at my job. When my friends and family actually follow the advice that I give them, it’s common for them to see positive results. If a friend launches a new website, I’m usually happy to give it a once-over and tell them a few things that could be improved for the sake of SEO or user experience.

What it does for me: I love my friends and family dearly, and I want them to succeed. If 10 minutes of my time helps them succeed with their business or website, I consider their success a fair payment.

Helping with Google Analytics Issues

What it does for them: I’m pretty non-tech savvy, except when it comes to data. If someone is having trouble with Google Analytics, I’m usually happy to give it my best shot at helping them solve their issue. I’m particularly good at steering people towards the reports that give them the information they’re looking for, but I can sometimes help with setup or troubleshooting.

What it does for me: Solving other peoples’ Google Analytics problems helps me learn more about GA – and I manage a handful of accounts both for work as well as pleasure.

Accepting Product “Sponsorships”

What it does for them: New brands often struggle to gain exposure and traction for their online promotions, so they reach out to people to promote their products. A typical product sponsorship will be a trade of their goods for exposure to my audience.

What it does for me: I’m a sucker for swag. I have offered my soul to multiple companies in exchange for branded swag (joke’s on them, I never had a soul in the first place).

Trading Services

What it does for them: I occasionally trade services with small businesses. This allows them to get marketing services that are otherwise outside of their budget.

What it does for me: When I trade services, it allows me to gain things that are otherwise outside of my budget (or that I don’t want to splurge on). I might trade service for an expensive hair coloring or personal training program.

If you are trading services with other small businesses, make sure that a) you are not compromising your revenue goals, and b) you don’t feel obligated to trade for things you don’t really want.


Here are a few things that I never do for free:

  • If it takes more than an hour, I’m not going to do it for free
  • If I don’t like your business, I’m not going to work for free
  • If it is a large company asking, I’m not going to do it (unless there’s reeealllly sweet swag involved)


Do you ever work for free?

Under what circumstances?

Having the Right Job

What It’s Like to Have the Right Job (And How to Find the Right Job for You)

It struck me today that I have the right job, and I think that’s a really rare thing to say.

Every job will have it’s complications and downsides no matter where you work or whom you work for, but it’s still possible to work at something you enjoy for a company with a culture that helps you succeed.

So far in the short time I’ve been working this job, I’ve found that:

  • Mornings can be lonely
  • If I don’t plan my day out with specific tasks, I feel like I’m working aimlessly and I get bored
  • I’m scared of failing to meet my goals and the goals set by my company

However, a few things are strikingly different with this position than with other jobs I’ve worked.

I look forward to Mondays more than Fridays

I am the Queen Clock-Watcher of all clock watchers. I count down ever minute that I have to work, and celebrate when it’s finally time to get off. I live for Fridays.

But this job is different. Late on a Thursday afternoon I found myself thinking not how excited I was for Friday and the weekend, but how excited I was for the following Monday.



I’m serious. The reason I love Mondays so much is because I am a big gigantic dweeb, and I am simultaneously running a dozen different tests ranging from social media, SEO, and conversion rate optimization. Monday morning means that I can check my numbers, and I might actually be able to see the difference my effort has made.

Data trending upward on laptop

I’m not just paid fairly (but also competitively)

Being paid fairly should be common practice – it’s sad that it’s a rare thing to come by when you are young in your career.

So it’s a pretty great thing when you go from slaving away at $8 an hour and eating bulk rice and not much else to having an actual fair wage.

But when you’ve got a college degree and a few years of experience under your belt (or maybe more experience and less school, or a really unique set of skills), being paid a living wage still doesn’t necessarily feel like enough.

Employers have lots of different ways of telling you that they value you as an employee and that your work is appreciated, the best of that being with money. Knowing that you are making a competitive wage is a great feeling, and it allows you to see a clearer future with your company.

I’ve got non-traditional benefits that mean something to me

With my last job, I got a free gym membership just for working there.

Pretty cool, right?

Well it is, but as an athlete I have specific equipment needs that the provided facility did not have. *Boo-hoo*, the free gym wasn’t good enough, right?

I really did appreciate having non-traditional benefits, but the ill-equipped gym wasn’t a benefit that I ever actually used.

With my new position I have substantially fewer non-traditional benefits, but they make a lot more sense for what I want and need.

  • I get to work from home
  • I got an upgraded work computer (super fast, and equipped with fun software that makes colorful charts and graphs)
  • I have the ability to network – and potentially side hustle – with other startup companies

So while I don’t have a gym membership that I will never ever use, I do have valuable connections and a preferable work environment.

How to Get the Right Job:

typography, school, training

Ha-ha. I have a great job that I love and your job probably sucks.

Just kidding. It’s taken me years to gain the skills necessary to make money doing something I love, and I worked tirelessly to finish my degree while working three jobs.

Here are a few substantial things that I did that helped me land a job that I enjoy:

Find a few things that you love

I didn’t graduate with a degree that is particularly useful or practical to my career field. That’s because I tried LOTS of different things in school, and I changed my mind about what I wanted to do a couple zillion times. I ended up saying, what the hell, I’ll just get a degree in something and figure it out from there.

Here are a few things that I thought I wanted to do as a career:

  • Music – performance and/or teaching
  • Business
  • Sports
  • Writing
  • Psychology – counseling and/or research

Side hustle like a mother #$%@er

I’m a big proponent of side hustling. It can help you make ends meet, and it also helps you understand the practical application of your passions.

I wrote a business plan in exchange for rent, I’ve done free social media work for friends, Craigslist writing gigs that pay scraps, and personal training in exchange for haircuts.

Side hustling allows you to try new “jobs” while still maintaining your work or schoolwork. You may just do it in exchange for other goods or services, or you might want to try freelancing or selling your products that you make. Then when you are ready to take the plunge you already have relevant experience and contacts who may be able to help you.

Ask for what you want

The biggest thing that helped me in my career is asking myself what I want, and then asking for what I want.

I was at a crossroad where I could follow one of a few different paths. Two of the paths were convenient, and one was not.

I easily could have stayed with the company I was working for, or taken a 10% raise by moving to a different local company.

But in asking myself what I actually wanted, I found that neither of those options would actually satisfy me.

Instead I found that what I wanted was the scary and difficult option. I had to pitch my own salary (and hey, I’m great at devaluing my work!) I had to ask to be moved from part time contract work to full-time employee. I had to ask for specific benefits that I wanted.

In asking yourself what you want, the biggest thing to understand is that usually the worst thing that can happen is that someone will tell you no.



Have you ever had a job that you loved?

What changes in culture or benefits would make you love the job you currently have?

Mental Illness in the Workplace

Severe Mental Illness & Career Success Are Not Mutually Exclusive

We don’t talk about mental illness in the workplace enough.

When you struggle with depression or PTSD or bipolar disorder or OCD having a successful career and independent lifestyle can seem intangible or impossible.

In some instances of severe mental illness this is true. In other instances it’s partially true (like the possibility of career success but not a completely independent lifestyle).

In a lot of instances the thought that you can’t have career success if you are mentally ill is bullshit, though.

For me, that’s the case.

I’ve been diagnosed with just about everything – PTSD, eating disorder, major depressive disorder, dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. etc. etc. I’ve taken more medications than I can remember.

And yet, here I am.

I’m 22 years old. I have a college degree. I have a full time job that pays above the national median. I am respected by my coworkers and I do good work with measurable results.

It might be silly to consider myself “successful” in my career because I have been in the working world for such a short time, but you know what? Anyone who tries to tell me otherwise can suck it.

Here is what I have learned in the process of building my career:

You have to work so much harder than everyone else for the same results

If you struggle with depression (or another mental illness), you probably spend more mental and emotional energy trying to convince yourself to get out of bed than a “normal” person spends all day.

Getting through the day is an accomplishment. Sometimes getting dressed in the morning or cooking a real meal instead of eating instant oats for dinner is an accomplishment.

Struggling to get ready in the morning

Existing can be really, really hard. And existing while doing all the things it takes to have a successful career can seem unattainable.

If you struggle with mental illness, things will be hard. Even when you reach certain goals – a higher job title, a higher income level – things will still be harder for you than your peers.

You have to understand your priorities and limitations, and talk about them

My priority is my mental health. End of story.

If I allow myself to slip, I could be risking my life.

Understand where your mental health is (or should be) on your priority list, and figure out what that means.

It might mean setting an alarm so that you remember to take your medication every single day, or calling a friend and asking them to help hold you accountable to refill your prescription on time.

For me it means that I get to bed on time every single night, and that I get enough sleep. If for some reason I can’t get to bed on time, sleeping in becomes a higher priority than work. This could potentially be a big problem in my career because employers tend not to love it when you’re an hour late. I know this, so I make every effort to not have to make this compromise.

It also means that I do not travel for work. My last company would throw conventions and educational tours, which for employees consisted of multiple 16-18 hour days in an unfamiliar city.

Not only did I avoid volunteering, I let my direct manager know that this sort of travel was absolutely out of the question for me.

You will probably have to take a break at some point

I dropped out of college after two years because, to put it nicely, I couldn’t keep my shit together. I would drive half an hour to campus, start crying, and drive home without ever getting out of the car. The few days that I did make it to class, I didn’t have the mental focus to understand anything in the lecture.

I took two years off.

Considering what I struggle with, I anticipate that there will be a point in the future where I have to take a break again. It’s okay to take a break from school or your career and focus on your mental health.

My goal is to buy a house in the near future, save enough money to live off of for at least half a year, and create opportunities to work for myself so that in the future if and when I need to take a break, I can do so while still maintaining my independence as much as possible.

You will have to find creative solutions to unique problems

I have a lot of memory loss. It’s not just my long-term memory, it’s also my short term memory and working memory.

I have trouble reading and comprehending. I have trouble following conversations.

Job interviews are really interesting experiences when you can’t maintain focus long enough to answer a question. I sometimes feel my responses are like a poorly told jokes that never reach the punchline. When I start my response I have a clear point to make, but after just a few seconds I forget what the question was and what I was trying to convey.

When you struggle with mental illness, you will have to work around your own unique challenges. You will have to understand your weaknesses, and find strengths that can help you succeed regardless.

Your career success (or failure) does not define your value as a person

Depressed woman sitting alone

I have been fired from a job.

I have been laid off.

I have received poor performance reviews.

I have had really, really embarrassing conversations with HR.

I have felt like my boss and coworkers hated me.

I have asked my mom for help with rent, and I have gone to the food bank because I couldn’t afford to eat.

Sometimes things don’t go your way in your career, especially when you struggle with mental illness. You may struggle with mental illness so severe that despite all of your hard work and persistence, you feel like you will never be successful.

When you suck at your job or you can’t find a job or you really messed something up, remember that you are worth more than your salary and job title.

You are capable of loving and being loved. You might be really strong. You may be really good at crafts. You might encourage and inspire your son or daughter.

Your value as a human comes from all of your different parts, your career being a very small part in a very big picture.

alt=”” /> alt=”” />Mental Illness & Career Success
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