A Case Study That Didn’t Go Well

This post was written by John White on Thu, 30 Apr 2009 20:16:05 +0000
Posted Under: case studies,interviewing customers,marketing manager,subject matter experts

“We need you to interview the VP of marketing at Zog Systems and write up a case study on how they use our software tools,” said the product manager. To me.

“But if you want a technical case study, why interview the VP of marketing?”

“He’s the interview we can get. Make it work.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. One of my best friends is a VP of marketing and a very technically knowledgeable guy. He can keep up with engineers, but he knows that writing is the process of taking the cut-up dead chicken parts that engineers use to describe things, and turning them into “finger-lickin’ good” marketing content.

Most VPs of marketing don’t think that way.

So, when we got him on the phone, the VP spent most of his time telling us about Zog Systems and its 24-carat, ironclad commitment to customer satisfaction, instead of how his employees use our products. I gently guided him back to talking about our tools, but it was obvious from his bland remarks that he didn’t know much about them. He also pointed out that he couldn’t tell us much about his customers (“too confidential”) or very much about the applications on which Zog Systems had used our tools (“mostly consumer and high-tech electronics”).

Also, since our product manager was on the call, the VP misinterpreted the interview for a focus group, first by telling the product manager how to make the tools better – to which lecture the product manager studiously listened –  then by educating us on how we should position the tools against competitors.

After the call, I confided to the product manager that the interview had left me with little more than a bag of rocks, but that I was pretty confident I could make something of it. That the conversation had been a flop was lost on the product manager.

“I thought that went pretty well, didn’t you?” he asked.


So I wrote up the case study and the product manager liked it. He asked me to send it to the VP at Zog and to get some graphics from him to include in the piece. That was in September. After several empty assurances via e-mail that he would review it “right away,” I reached the VP by phone in late November. “I’ve got too many things going right now and I can’t focus on that until next month,” he barked.

I told the product manager that I didn’t want to strain a lucrative business relationship over a two-page case study, and that it was his call, since it was his relationship. In February they conversed, and after a few more weeks Zog’s VP gave me approval on the case study along with a graphic.

It wasn’t a disaster, but it certainly didn’t go well.


  • There’s something about VPs of marketing as subject-matter experts that doesn’t always work to the writer’s advantage.
  • Record your interviews, because if you can’t find any meat on the big bones, you need to be able to pick through lots of small ones to salvage a decent story.
  • Inform any of your co-workers on the call that the objective is to get a story, not to collect product requirements.

Not only that, but I’m glad there’s apparently no such company as Zog Systems, a name I just concocted. Maybe I’ll buy the domain just so I can use it in future posts…

Reader Comments

Ah, case studies. The most important marketing task to the company when it’s assigned, and the least important when it needs to be read/edited/approved. I wonder how many case studies are dying a slow death in inboxes everywhere, until the point where they are no longer relevant. What do you think, John?

Written By Suzannah on May 8th, 2009 @ 18:01

I find that, when Sales drives them, Sales seems to push to get them finished.

Written By John White on May 9th, 2009 @ 6:09