Screw best practices. Why marketers should try new things fearlessly.

Screw best practices. I really mean it. Well, mostly, at least.

We hear the phrase a hundred times a day, no matter what field we work in. IT, sales, marketing, finance – everything is about following best practices, taking a “best practices approach,” learning from industry best practices, blah blah blah blah. So when should you use best practices in marketing – or anywhere else – and when should you march to the beat of your own drum? What’s so wrong with going the proven way to begin with?Here are my beefs:

  • - If we all follow best practices, who will ever do something new?
  • - We are all too quick to assume “best practices” are final and definitive, and that there couldn’t be an even “better” practice that is either untried or less successfully publicized.
  • - There is no regulation on the use of “best practices.” Anyone can make up a best practice and declare it as such, as I am doing now by formally declaring it a best practice to slip a poop reference into any conversation you have with someone senior to you in your place of employment.
  • - Best practices are always changing, but our own knowledge is not. Have you ever been told by someone on your search or U/X or writing or creative teams that they made a decision based on a best practice, when in reality you know that the practice they are referring to is out of date? I have certainly had this happen to me, and as a human, have probably also done the same to those I have advised.
  • In marketing, the quickest way to get me to vomit directly on you is to say “but best practices say” when I am talking about an out of the box idea. I like to take calculated risks. I like to push how we might do things tomorrow, not base them entirely on how they were done yesterday or today. I know there are similar thinkers in I.T. and all other industries, or we would all still be churning our own butter manually and I’d be writing this with a chisel.

In perhaps the ultimate example of hypocrisy (and tongue in cheek wit), here are my best practices for using best practices:

  1. Identify what you get by using them. Seriously. Then look for gaps against what you hoped to deliver. I.e. if best practices tell me that a headline should be 5 words or less, and I write a headline that fits the bill perfectly – but doesn’t make sense, or is no longer exciting – is the best practice serving me well? For years, best practices said that shorter email subject lines performed best – until they didn’t, and best practices changed to say that more specific, longer subject lines could actually outperform the shorter ones. Fortunately, throughout that time, I was trying what worked for my audience – and challenging the status quo (sometimes to our advantage, and sometimes not.)
  2. Decide whether the area is one in which you would like to lead or follow. Sometimes, following the masses isn’t bad. Maybe you don’t want to stand out, or the best practice truly is best.
  3. Setting, or even challenging, best practices are great ways to demonstrate leadership – as long as you get uptake. The risk is that you end up the BetaMax, marching to your own drum without anyone else behind you. I naturally gravitate to seminars and webinars and articles that challenge the critical mass and that introduce controversy into seemingly “solved” topics.
  4. Never assume that what works best for someone else will by default work for you. Test things. Be inquisitive. Sip the kool-aide before you drink it and serve it to your friends.
  5. And lastly, the cop out. Don’t think twice about using best practices when they are the right fit (which is why I hesitated in my opening line a bit. It would be foolish to ignore great advice).  A great example is ITIL, a comprehensive best practices framework for I.T. service management. In organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, it doesn’t always pay to try to reinvent the wheel just because you feel like it. When there are long established, well-proven models you can follow, go for it. Just remember that in most instances, you shouldn’t stop at best practice attainment. Once you are there, what can you do to innovate and push your success and performance further?

Social media is an area ripe with experts offering “best practices,” but truth be told, the area is too young to have much deeply seated expertise. I am actually weary of people touting themselves as “experts” or advising my company around tried and true practices when I see them changing and evolving so quickly every day.

Twitter experts would have you believe that the most noble use of the platform is to build a good-sized and seriously engaged following, which is certainly one (of many) goals you could strive for. But I see very few people talking about the value of following – what immeasurable value could a Fortune 500 company gain from cross-referencing there opt-in database against social media platforms, and using their presence on Twitter to follow their own customers and prospects – and listen to what they are talking about? Is it all about engagement, or is research perhaps an equal (or more?) valuable use of the platform? I’m not positing a theory here – just showing how dramatically different the possibilities can be, and how if you only follow the trending articles and advice, you may end up overlooking something untried or unpopular, but equally (or exponentially more) effective.

Lastly, in an ultimate conspiracy theory, I’ll leave you with this: can best practices be used as weapons? I can envision a scenario where seemingly “best” practices are promoted into an industry, then while most major players are adopting and practicing them, a much more devious and brilliant competitor is going against the grain and truly differentiating themselves. Maybe a clever ad agency starts pushing social media strategy as the key place to focus marketing dollars, then uses the downturn in email volume to win big in prospect’s inboxes. Any real world examples?

One Response to Screw best practices. Why marketers should try new things fearlessly.
  1. Xavier Argenti Reply

    Couldn’t agree more with you on this. The Best Practices word should be banned from any marketer’s vocabulary. I don’t know how many times potential creative outcomes didn’t happen because of that word being thrown out in the meetings I was in.

    At the same time, I would counterbalance it a tiny bit now. I believe it’s important to understand and be aware of rules & conventions in order to know when & why you need to break them. Remember the “Copy/Transform/Combine” creative process discussed here – http://vimeo.com/25380454# – It outlines the importance of copying first as the initial step of the creative process. So I guess you can start copying a successful “best practices” first, then assemble it with an other, then transform it all in order to create a whole new one and still be creative I guess! I like knowing which best practice I try to ignore when I do so.

    Re. conspiracy theory, I think Jakob Nielsen might be secretly working for Apple. His “above the fold” best practice might just have been introduced to delay Samsung ;-)

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