“We met with our marketing consultant last week” reported an advisor I was working with, “and he congratulated us on the use of case studies on our website. There was only one problem he saw with them – they're boring.”

Case studies can be a great way to communicate to prospective clients the benefits of working with your firm. They can summarize complex concepts and integrate multiple services into a single vignette. They permit us to use language that connects with people. Language that advisors are not predisposed to use.

According to a recent survey of participants in employee benefits plans by Invesco Consulting (I-C) and research firm Maslansky, Luntz + Partners the language used can impact the way we perceive certain ideas. The report, entitle New Word Order, shows that some ways of expressing a financial concept can strike fear into the client and paralyze them, while expressing it another (jargon-free) way might inspire them to action. For example, 51% of employees responded positively to the term "automatic monthly deposits" while only 19% responded to the term "dollar cost averaging.”

Too many case studies are simply a recitation of circumstances and then a reiteration of the same ineffective language too often employed on advisor websites. For example: "John and Sally faced uncertainty in their retirement savings plan. They found our bottom – up cyclical rotational investment strategy was just what they were looking for."

For a case study to be interesting and effective, it needs all the elements of a good story:

  • A hero: The story needs to have a central character. Someone who we find interesting enough for us to want to hear about his adventure, someone we can relate to.
  • A struggle: Our hero needs to meet some kind of challenge, something that creates tension. The character needs to encounter a scenario that persuades the reader to ask “will he be O.K.?” or “what is going to happen next?”
  • A climax: Things need to come to a head. There needs to be a peak in the tension. Our hero needs to find an answer, overcome the struggle, slay the dragon.
  • A resolution: Once we have relieved the tension we need to hear how it all turned out, what our hero’s life is like now. We need to see the benefit of the discovery, of overcoming the obstacle, of winning the battle.

An oversimplified example might be something like this:
John and Sally were good savers, regularly putting money away for the retirement they hoped to create for themselves down the road. They didn’t actually think much about it, since they had been in that habit for so long. Then, as a result of an unfriendly takeover, John suddenly received an early buy-out offer. Passing on it was not really an option, but he and Sally were totally unsure whether the money they saved would be enough. Would John have to go back to work? Could they make the money last all through retirement? We helped them understand that, while they had enough to retire, a sudden downturn in the markets could put their plan at risk. Our strategy to protect against portfolio losses helped them feel comfortable taking the offer. In the five years since leaving his employer, John has found a new mission in his volunteer work, and Sally has loved that they have been able to do it together.

Case studies are a wonderful tool for communicating the reasons for a prospective client to work with you -- as long as they want to read all the way to the end!

Steve is president of The Client Driven Practice, a firm that coaches financial advisors on referral marketing. He is the author of "Stop Asking for Referrals."