On Uncertainty, Case Studies, and the Great Race to Be Second

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April 2015
by Suw Charman-Anderson

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People behave in many different ways when they are unsure what is expected of them, but one of the most common tactics is hanging back and watching what others do. It’s often smart. It allows us to observe the behaviors and expectations of others, see how transgressors are dealt with, and, in the light of that information, choose a course of action that we hope will result in a good outcome for ourselves while avoiding the wrath of those around us.

This tactic breaks down either when the crowd doesn’t know what’s going on and so cannot clearly demonstrate the preferred or most effective behaviors, or when the crowd is simply wrong. In the first case, hesitancy can result in poor outcomes for everyone, and in the second case, bad decisions made by early actors result in bad decisions by those who copy them.

If you want a good example of extreme uncertainty, you need look no further than the use of social media in business. The last decade has seen a transformation in the way that businesses and their customers communicate, and not just in terms of new tools arriving on the scene. There have also been major changes in expectations regarding tone, accessibility, and response times. Many of these changes are alien to business managers, young and old, who simply don’t know how to cope with them.

This uncertainty has resulted in a lot of people milling about, looking for examples of what other companies have done so that they can copy them. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re supposed to be doing but you know that you have to do something, then it’s tempting to copy someone else. And the main way people find things to copy is by reading case studies.

Case Studies Conundrums

The problem with relying on case studies as a learning tool is that they give readers a highly filtered view of reality. In fact, it’s often so filtered that it’s misleading.

The first issue is success bias. The projects that get published writeups are the ones that succeeded. It is very, very rare for a company to write a case study of a project that didn’t go as planned. Those are buried, unexamined by the public or by social media professionals.

This is a shame, because failures offer a lot of insights into how social media works, what people respond well to (or not), and what pitfalls exist. Publishing only case studies of success robs us of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

The second issue is glossing over. Projects that are ultimately deemed successful often include missteps and misunderstandings, yet these are often airbrushed out of any resultant case study. Instead, we get a narrative in which only successful decisions are made and everyone gets everything right the first time.

Some companies are brave enough to include a section about “Challenges,” but usually these are just minor speed bumps that were overcome without affecting the overall outcome of the project. The truth is that most case studies have a skeleton or two in the closet, so you have to maintain a degree of skepticism because you are being given only part of the story: the pretty part.

The third issue is context. A case study is often relevant only to the company that executed the project at the time it executed it. For example, a Facebook marketing case study from five years ago won’t be relevant this year, because Facebook has changed massively, and the tactics that worked then may well fall flat now.

Even within one company, case studies may not be generalizable. For example, if you’re a publisher with a romance imprint and a factual books imprint, it’s likely that what works for the romance audience on social media won’t work for the factual books audience because what they want from social media interactions will be different.

Sure, some aspects of social media are universal, but the specifics of any strategy or campaign will depend on audience. So for a case study to be useful, you have to precisely understand the context and conditions in which the original project was implemented, how your situation differs, and how the differences will affect your own implementation of something similar.

If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you may as well start from first principles and learn how to construct a strategy from the ground up.

The Great Race to Be Second

A dependency on case studies can also mutate into something far, far worse: a refusal to act until someone else has already demonstrated results. This Great Race to Be Second is pervasive in the field of social media, and it illustrates the extreme insecurity of those making the decisions.

No one gets fired for spending millions on Microsoft products, but spend a few thousand on an untried social tool and suddenly you may have to justify your decision. The easiest way to do this is to be able to point to the competition and say, “But this is what they’re doing!”

This way of thinking is highly problematic for several reasons:

  • Your competition might not actually know what they’re doing, so copying them can result in poor results for you.
  • Your competition might be doing what’s right for them, but that might not be right for you.
  • Waiting for someone else to go first introduces unnecessary delays and may give someone else the competitive advantage.
  • Copying others can be a very shallow way of learning how to do something, resulting in only superficial knowledge.
  • Copying others results in a loss of flexibility. If your situation changes in a way that differs from that of your competition, you will have no one to copy and will lack the understanding needed to diverge from your competitor’s path

Instead of waiting to be second, a business must learn from first principles, developing a solid understanding of the foundations of social media in order to craft a strategy and roadmap that is right for it, in its market, for its audience.

Waiting for others to move first and relying on their strategies to inform yours is a recipe for disaster, and not just because you’re ceding that first-mover advantage to someone else. The Great Race to Be Second can yield only a substandard result, both in the short term, through suboptimal strategy and execution, and in the long term, through a failure to acquire the foundational knowledge needed to understand future changes in the social media landscape.

What Case Studies Can Contribute

All the above does not mean that case studies are entirely useless. They’re not. In fact, they can be very useful indeed as sources of ideas. Seeing what other people have done and how they’ve done it can provide inspiration. You just have to remember that other people’s projects should be viewed only as suggestive of possible avenues to explore, and must not be read as concrete recommendations.

Ultimately, your social media activity must be driven by the needs of your business and the needs and wants of your audience. And, since it will be constrained by the limitations on your resources and the cultural expectations of your audience, you cannot build a robust strategy piecemeal out of other people’s case studies because they do not take your specifics into account.

So, by all means, read case studies, but do so knowing that they are not blueprints for success. At best, they are back-of-a-napkin sketches to be investigated further.


About the Author:

Suw-Charman-AndersonSuw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist with more than 10 years of experience in social media. She advises clients worldwide on using social tools for collaboration and communication internally and for building customer relationships externally; and she offers her “Write Your Own Social Media Strategy” course at udemy.com/write-your-own-social-media-strategy. To get a 50 percent discount, use the code IBPACS or follow this link: udemy.com/write-your-own-social-media-strategy/?couponCode=IBPACS. To learn more: suw.charman-anderson.com.

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