Case studies. Everyone craves them. But are they success guideposts to follow, or might they have the power to mislead us?

The lure of case studies is that they offer us peeks at others’ success, providing useful models or best practices to follow. But I’ve always feared that case studies can give something a veneer of believability, sparking within us a modicum of false conviction while leaving us no closer to action and success.

In my years covering and leading social media, I have seen the Oreo “Dunk in the Dark” tweet used as a case study dozens of times, and yet no brand has ever repeated that success. That brand victory was a lightning strike–an unrepeatable occurrence that transpired thanks to the exact right mix of event, audience, context, maturity level of social media, creativity, brand, and rapid action. A thousand brands and a million tweets later, few if any have managed to recreate the alchemy of Oreo’s tweet heard round the world.

We may view case studies as patterns to follow, but how many case studies are like the Oreo example? If someone walked into a casino, put chips down on double zero and walked away a thousand dollars richer, his or her case study would not help you. You can step the same way to the same table with the same bet, and your outcome will not be the same. (Well, it would be the same one out of every 35 spins on average, but you could still go broke trying.)

Case studies are created for a reason–most are designed to sell you something or to help a professional promote their career. That should not make them immediately suspect, but it should cause you to ask questions such as:

  • Completeness: Am I getting the whole story? What’s been left out, either because it is proprietary or because it may not tell the story the storyteller wants?
  • Appropriateness: Is my brand in a similar situation with a comparable audience, brand positioning, and opportunity?
  • Capability: Do I have all the same brand ingredients to recreate the recipe, such as the data, channels, customer relationships, and aptitudes?
  • Disposition: Is my brand even willing to do what it takes to recreate the success as suggested in the case study?

This last question is a vital one everyone should ask before citing an example or case study. Covering customer experience, a familiar refrain I hear is that “We want to learn from Amazon.” Really? Because Amazon’s path to success was to prioritise growth and the customer above margin and lose almost $3 billion before making its first dollar of profit. So, ready to sign up?

Amazon is Amazon because it was willing to see and commit to the customer and to a future more than anyone else (including competitors with giant head starts, huge brand awareness, much larger customer bases, and existing and scalable logistics capabilities.)  The secret to Amazon’s success isn’t Prime, One-Click Purchase or AWS–it’s a culture that allowed those bets to be made and were patient as they flourished.

Another example comes from a client of mine who was sent by his boss to attend Zappos Insights training. The famed brand offers executive coaching so that attendees can carry Zappos’ ideas back to their organisations, which is precisely what my client did. But, his attempts to “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” (one of Zappos ten core values) were met with doubt. His ideas to “Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded” were, ironically enough, met with closed minds. Finally, his boss told him he hoped for ideas that would better fit the company culture, and my peer realised that Zappos secret is their culture. You cannot cut and paste specific ideas while omitting others and expect the same result. If you want Zappos customer-centricity and reputation, you have to be willing to be Zappos.

It’s possible case studies may even have a downside. By focusing on others’ unique recipe for success, we may miss our own. In fact, there is evidence that seeing others’ success may increase confidence without improving outcomes. Recent studies have found that watching “how to” videos on YouTube can elevate one’s confidence but have no impact on abilities or performance. Instead, researchers found the secret wasn’t to watch more videos (or case studies) of others’ success but to–shocking!–practice. You can only learn so much from watching others; at some point, the path to change is to do it, gain experience, fail, improve, and find your own success.

By all means, go ahead and gather all the case studies you desire. Learn what worked and what didn’t. But never forget that great companies don’t follow best practices; they create them.

If you want to be Amazon, you need to understand how Amazon got to be Amazon–by taking risks and being braver, smarter, more informed, more customer-centric, more agile, and more patient than everyone else. Their success cannot be found in tactics or even strategies but in their process and culture.

You can learn a lot by studying the customer experience leaders within your vertical and without. But you can learn more by listening to your customers, gathering the right quantitative and qualitative data, probing deeper for customer insight, and blazing your own unique CX trail to success. Just like Amazon did.

*This article is reprinted from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. 

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