My parents have a lot of photos. An entire ottoman full of photos, to be exact.
I discovered just how many they have—and how terribly organized they are—when I was looking for embarrassing photos of my dad for a birthday collage. (Spoiler: he was a teenager in the 70s—embarrassing photos abound in that ottoman.)
All those photos, grouped haphazardly, some with names, dates, locations written on the back, most without.
All that data.
But until someone does something with that data, those photos and names and dates, all we have is a painful process for finding images. The information is there, of course, but are we using it as best we can?
The manufacturing difference
To be sure, IOT has the power to disrupt nearly every area of our lives, from industry to home. And while an automatically restocking smart fridge may seem like something out of The Jetsons (or does it?) manufacturing companies are in a unique position as we get deeper and deeper into the digital revolution.
Because manufacturing has always created and used data—inventories and production times and costing per unit. Add in instrumentation and control systems and you’re now generating usable data at an exponential rate.
Termed “the new currency”, data can be an all-powerful source for beefing up efficiency, profits, and worker satisfaction in any company. “However, for all its value, data alone is inherently powerless,” writes Praba Shan for DigitalistMag.com. “It doesn’t actually do anything unless you know how to use it”.
Mo’ data, mo’ problems… or opportunities?
As with any industrial upheaval, the new infrastructure and employee training required by Industry 4.0 is significant—let’s not downplay the cost or effort of this. And with the world’s devices creating 2.5 exabytes (2.5 quintillion bytes) of data every day, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
But companies who see beyond the immediate problems have concrete opportunities for improvement:
This isn’t the future. This is process instrumentation and control systems combined with big, glorious data—and it’s happening right now, in manufacturing plants worldwide.
Industry isn’t just getting swept along by the digitalization wave—in many cases, they’re leading it because they’ve been working with data all along, in the form of process instrumentation and analytics. Willem Sundblad writes for Forbes.com: “Industry 4.0 unlocks… data barriers and positions manufacturers as forward-thinking technology leaders.”
Big data = teenage sex?
But no matter what stage of the digital transformation your plant is sitting at, it’s never too late to explore new ways that data can change your operations.
As Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely put it way back in 2013:
“Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”
Or for something a bit more PG, perhaps, we look to Glinda, that wand-waving good witch from The Wizard of Oz: “You’ve always had the power” (or data, as the case may be—with instruments spitting it out by the second).
Your data just needs to be freed from your industrial ottomans and given a brief moment to stretch—before putting it to work in countless applications across your plant.
My feet were tired. Not used to the stiffness of my new steel-toed boots as we walked past what seemed like miles of aggregate plant equipment, I was ready for a break.
But I was here—in the UK’s Midlands, along with another marketing team member and product management colleagues—to get a story. So I kept walking, and taking photos, and asking questions.
It was a great day for a tour—and for photos—warm but not hot, cloudy but not dreary, and a relaxed day at the plant.
Don’t get me wrong, workers were still going about their jobs, driving impossibly huge trucks to and from the limestone quarry, keeping the crushers fed. But nothing catastrophic was happening with either the machinery or the instrumentation.
As we walked into a dusty yet cozy kitchen of sorts, I silently breathed a sigh of relief.
Our host brewed some strong tea in mismatched, well worn mugs and passed them around.
“Bicky, anyone?” asked my British colleague.
Our jaws dropped in astonishment as he reached into the pocket of his baggy coveralls and pulled out a pack of Jaffa Cakes (which he’d apparently been carrying around all morning).
Taking a break and talking shop
Sitting there eating a slightly squished, but otherwise delicious, orange-flavoured cookie, listening to the group chat about operations, about daily tasks, about instrumentation, I realized that my story was right here in front of me.
My story was that reliable process instrumentation and control systems don’t just deliver plant efficiencies, increased safety, and cost savings, but give operators days like these.
Days where they can sit down for a cup of tea and a biscuit knowing that they don’t need to rush off to the primary crusher to adjust a sensor. Or to one of their belt scales to re-calibrate (again!) after a heavy rain.
They get the chance to unwind for a moment, chat with fellow workers, and even come up with solutions for process improvements—precisely because they have the downtime to do so.
Solving problems, one bicky at a time
In fact, as we were tucking into our second cookie, two of the plant operators brought up and then resolved an issue one had been having while setting up permissions on a new controller’s browser software.
And sure, maybe your operators would’ve come up with the same solution during one of your process improvement team meetings, but then again, maybe not.
Maybe they’re too stressed to brainstorm creatively, thinking instead about getting back to the list of temperamental instruments waiting for them once the meeting ends. There’s a reason why deals are made on the golf course.
As we washed out our mugs and I slung my camera back around my neck, I couldn’t wait to get back to the office, check out my photos, and start writing this story.
And take off my now ever-so-slightly more broken in work boots.
Any parents of preschoolers share my pain at the earworm song “You’re Welcome” from the Disney movie Moana permanently etched into our brains after too many repeat listens.
What’s worse is that there’s no escaping it, even in my own freelance writing. Literally every time I sit down to work on a case study, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson sings to me:
“What’s the lesson? What is the takeaway?”
Whether it’s a “you had what you were looking for all along” Disney-type lesson or a “why should I read this piece of content” that your potential readers are looking for in your case study, every story needs a “So what?”.
But how do you make sure your writing has a takeaway? Let’s take a look:
Bring the pain
Too often, case studies get hung up on describing our new products or services—the features, the add-ons, all those shiny bells and whistles. Which, don’t get me wrong, are absolutely important to showcase, but in a less in-your-face way than in a product catalogue, for example.
What do any of these features mean for your current or potential customers’ bottom lines? For their workplace health and safety initiatives? For their peace of mind?
Always, always drive the focus on your customer’s pain, the problem(s) your product solved. This is where the “So what?” lives.
What would it have cost your customer (and, by extension, your reader) had they not found a solution to the problem?
As Ann Handley, content marketer extraordinaire, writes, “Ask ‘So what?’ and then answer, ‘Because…’ until you’ve exhausted your ability to reach an answer.”
Getting this specific is sometimes tricky in case studies—not all customers want to share how much time they were previously spending (wasting!) on lesser-than products. They’ll think it might not look that great to their own clients—not to mention to senior management!
But this is a chance to bring out your storytelling tools, showing your customer as the hero who solved their problems with a little help from your product.
“We were previously spending ten hours a month recalibrating our XYZ device after a change in the application environment. But, our technicians had heard about ABC device and discovered it’d basically eliminate the need for recalibration.”
Everyone loves a good redemption story. Build up your heroes and make them shine in your next case study and then use that example to coax other, more hesitant customers into getting down to specifics.
Keep digging for those nuggets of case study gold—the real-world, specific moments of “this product saved us [time/money/headaches/etc.]”. They’re there, but might take some coaxing and hero-building along the way.
Building on what I wrote in my last post on being specific in your case study, there’s no place it matters more than in the “So what?” description.
If you can actually show the time savings (ten hours a month) or the cost reductions (savings of $100,000 over the lifetime of the device), then do it!
Get out your calculator and do the math: a certain feature saves $200 per year over the device’s 10-year lifetime, multiplied by 50 of the devices across your customer’s plant.
Sing out that $100K savings loud and proud, while showing specifically how you got to that number—so that readers take out their calculators and start doing the math for their own operations.
Even if you don’t have an exact dollar value on cost savings, you can still be as specific as possible. “With this new device, we’ve increased plant safety: operators can remotely access the device without entering the hazardous environment.” (And then don’t forget to describe that hazardous environment so that readers understand what a relief it is for your workers!)
So, what’s the takeaway to this article on takeaways?
And… maybe add some Lion King into your child’s YouTube playlist for some balance. You’re welcome.
My husband is terrible at gossip. Hopeless. He’s telling me a story—of something that happened at work, or with his mother, or even at the grocery store—and I want the details.
All the details.
“But what was her tone?” I ask. “What was her expression? What exactly did she say?”
He gives me a blank look. “I have no idea what you’re asking.”
Maybe it’s from hours spent with my best friend as teens, analyzing every nuance of a conversation with a crush. Or maybe my unconscious habit of reading aloud a line from a novel, trying to figure out how exactly a character spoke in a certain situation.
Or maybe my husband just has a bad memory.
In any case, the devil’s in the case study details, so here are a few tips on how to be teenaged girl-specific in your next case study.
Take a number
There’s a reason why Discovery Channel’s long-running How It’s Made uses numbers to describe the manufacturing processes featured on the show.
Because we’re curious.
Because amounts give context.
Because sizes and quantities are super impressive in large-scale manufacturing. Which do you prefer:
Such-and-Such Mill produces a lot of flour each year.
Such-and-Such Mill produces 54,000 tons of flour every year—or enough to make more than 195 million pizzas!
So ask for those amounts/sizes/temperatures from your product managers and customers. Each will help scratch your reader’s curiosity itch and make the story more relatable in the process.
On this day in history
How long has your customer been in business? How many employees have they hired over that time? What has changed since the first days of the company?
Again, context. Your customer doesn’t exist in a vacuum—and they’ve been doing successful business for longer than your product has been solving their problems.
Describe that success. That vision. Their modernization over the years.
It’s a nod to your customer, who has given their time (and permission!) to make this case study a reality.
But don’t just “In 1976 Such-and-Such Company was founded” the history part of your writing—set the scene.
300 years. Since the days of Sir Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, workers have been digging clay at Such-and-Such Company’s site.
The knee bone’s connected to the…
Describe the process. Back to How It’s Made (I’m a bit obsessed, I know): sitting on his couch, the viewer has almost certainly never—and likely will never—walk through a peanut butter factory.
But after watching that five-minute segment on the show, he now not only knows the number of peanuts in a jar (1,100, remember? You’re welcome for that bit of trivia now burned into your brain), but also understands—in a general sense—how his PB is made.
Similarly, your case study is a window into what your customers—and potential customers—deal with every day.
Without giving away a company’s manufacturing trade secrets, show the process and how your product is saving your customer time and money.
Who knows? Maybe a potential client reading your article can relate.
“Hmm… so they’re using a point level switch there? I wonder if that would work in my [insert type of production line].”
Life is in the details—whether it’s the quantity of flour manufactured each year to the way your mother-in-law tilted her head while she spoke to your husband about you.
Be specific. Make it interesting. And tell a good story.
In my last post on breaking out of the traditional “challenge + solution + benefits” case study, I talked a bit about setting the scene for your readers.
A customer reference article is just that—a written piece about a real customer, with a real working environment. In other words, your products or services are being used in a location. I think sometimes we get too caught up in the what and how in our stories that we forget to describe the where.
Can you imagine reading a story without a setting? What’s left of one of the great opening paragraphs in literature if you remove Hemingway’s scene description from A Farewell to Arms?
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village. Troops went by the house. The leaves fell early that year. After the troops were gone, the road was bare except for the leaves.
Hemingway describes that scene so you can hear the river moving over those pebbles. You can feel the dust rising in the air from the soldiers’ boots. You can see the empty road littered with leaves after the troops are gone. You get it—you’re right there with the narrator.
Okay, okay, enough geeking out on Hemingway.
While your case studies might not be the next great American novel, your readers are looking for many of the same things they are while reading literature: believable characters, interesting plot, challenging obstacles—and a setting in which all of this takes place.
So, how can you give your readers a descriptive case study that will make them feel they’re right there beside you?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Use your senses (or someone else’s).
Even if you haven’t physically been on site, ask these questions of your product manager, salesperson, or customer. The more you can appeal to a reader’s senses, the richer your story and the more readers will engage with your heroes (namely, your company’s technicians or salespeople who eased your customer’s pains).
2. Get on site, whenever possible.
Put on your safety boots and hardhat, and get out there! While asking the right questions will help you write great stories from the comfort of your cubicle, there is no better way to amp up your descriptive abilities than actually seeing, hearing, smelling the application environment you’re writing about.
The added bonus to getting on site is that you can now follow the process and see how your company’s products are actually working in the field. Watching how that ultrasonic level controller helps transform sludgy wastewater into clean, sparkling effluent is so much more than you can imagine from your office chair.
It also gives you a better sense of the customer’s business and the operators and technicians who work there—more great material to help flesh out your story.
3. Bring it back to the reader.
How big is a 30-meter silo? Can you really visualize how tall that is—and how much of a hassle it would be for operators to climb all the way up it in the middle of winter to fix a malfunctioning radar instrument?
And if you can’t picture it, can your readers?
If someone reading your case study can’t truly understand your customer’s pain, how can they grasp what a success your product is in the application?
So, with every description in your case study—if a reader can’t immediately visualize how big/heavy/hot/etc. something is, you need to compare it to something relatable for them.
At the end of the day, with better scene setting, readers can better engage with your writing: with your staff, your products, and your company as a solution provider. And isn’t that what we all want from our case studies?
Sitting at my desk at my second job after graduation, staring at a blank cursor blinking.
The assignment? Write my first case study (customer reference article), as this would make up the largest part of my marketing communications job going forward.
Where to start? Of course, by describing the:
And write those I did—for a number of my early case studies: three headings, a couple of paragraphs for each, with a pretty standard company description for an intro. Done and done.
Company XYZ is located in Sometown, USA and manufactures widgets. Their challenge: the company’s previous product required a great deal of maintenance. The solution: My Company’s super-awesome product, with This Amazing Feature and That Incredible Feature. The benefits: Company XYZ’s operators save so much time that they now buy all of their products from My Company.
I exaggerate. But only a little. (Although rest assured that I haven’t actually used the phrase “super-awesome” to describe an industrial process instrument… yet.)
As I found my own writing voice, those challenge + solution + benefits case studies gradually became actual stories. I still started with those three case study topics while researching—they’re a great jumping off point for product managers to think about the details of a successful installation—but I didn’t get tied down by them.
A few ideas to help you break the case study mold:
1. Tell readers a story (more about this in future posts).
Give them heroes to root for:
Villains to hiss and boo at:
And descriptive settings that make them feel they’re right there with you:
2. Beef up your customer description.
Is the customer the biggest widget manufacturer in the state/country/world? How many widgets do they manufacture each year? Give your readers a context for the company.
And don’t forget to celebrate your customer’s achievements: in product innovation, a dedication to plant safety, contributions to their local community, etc.
3. Use descriptive headings that draw readers into the following paragraphs.
If a section is titled “Challenge”, I’m less apt to dive in. Don’t be afraid to get a bit clickbaity (if that’s a word). Maybe not as extreme as “You won’t believe what this plant manager did next!”, but what about:
Go beyond those tired case study pillars and breathe some new life into your stories. Your readers—and your customers—will thank you.