The Death of Best Practices

Best practice by definition is the best possible way of doing something. Most marketers look at implementing best practices as executing standards to make improvement. Unfortunately, this one-way, one-size fits all standardization mentality is not an effective practice for digital marketers. It’s lazy marketing. Old school. Our world needs to be ruled by looking at our audience as different segments, not homogenous masses, and delivering relevance. What we learn from doing segmentation is that what is best for one audience does not always work for another. There are no standards. There really is no such thing as a best practice.

Can there be best practices within a segment? The answer is no, and yes. Even within a segment behavior can vary based on a number of factors. There are just too many variables from vertical to vertical, audience to audience, site to site, and page to page to feel confident that something that has worked for somebody else’s business, even, will work for you online. However, through testing and optimization you can discover best practices specific to your audience segments.

Also, people just don’t do what you think they will. Over the past few years through testing I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve observed and analyzed in online behavior is counterintuitive. Expect the unexpected, prepare for the unexpected and be able to act on the unexpected.

Let’s look at Social Media as an example of the absence of best practices. Facebook tells us a best practice for social media properties is to have gated groups. MySpace tells us the best practice is to have an open access. Clearly some users find one preferable to the other. Some users are not aware that alternatives exist. Some users are motivated by outside influences (peers). These dynamics are not that different than any other digital presence or vertical. Granted, these are core business models, however I have used these to exemplify and magnify how even within verticals best practices for your business are unique. So you can do one of three things. Copy, differentiate, or test. There is of course only one way of finding what is optimal and that is testing.

But here’s where it gets tricky (and where we say some more prayers for best practices). Optimal is changing all the time. With the spread of Rich Internet Applications the web becomes a much more dynamic and engaging place. So too is the way people interact with it changing. This is the natural evolution of user interaction and experience. Those that study HCI observe continued change and can see distinct differences in behavior among segments. Bottom line is that the web is just too dynamic and evolving too fast as a medium to say what is good today will be good tomorrow. Or what worked for you will work me.

So what to do when we don’t know what will deliver the best results?

Get off your butt and think. Create. Ideas can be good or bad but to prejudge them before they are placed in front of an audience is just not smart. Take the time to brainstorm and overcome the hurdles to act and measure your ideas. The best practices that I preach are not the specific layouts or messages that the clients are asking for, but rather methodologies to provide relevance like segmentation, simplicity, reinforcement and testing. These serve as the foundation for discovery. It takes some work before we can implement actionable insights for the client’s business to derive benefit but when we do they have the best practice for their audiences and their business…and the results to prove it.

I’ll be speaking on the ideas of “best practices” and presenting a case study where we improved AOV over 50% for a client at the ad:tech panel Next Generation Strategies for eCommerce, November 7th in New York. Stop by and say hello.

7 thoughts on “The Death of Best Practices

  1. Love it.
    But perhaps the new “best practices” are not answers, but ways of attacking questions.
    Old school best practices were incredibly useful when doing something inevitably required a great deal of time and money. Whether it was setting up a print or manufacturing run or a planogram, it was effort and did not lend itself to changes late in the game.
    A best practice that avoided total failure was useful.
    But when the cost of trying new models, copy, pricing, etc. approaches zero, so then does the value of a predetermined best practice.


  2. Matthew,
    That’s precisely right. Figuring out what questions to ask, whom to ask them to, and how to act on the answer is the “new” best practice.


  3. Your general point is well taken, but the Wikipedia definition of “best practice” you cite doesn’t say what you say it says. It defines best practice not as the best “possible” way to do something (an ideal that no one will ever reach), but rather the best among those practices currently in use. It goes on to say that “best practices” are constantly evolving. So that definition doesn’t make your point about people getting stuck on some predefined notion of a “best practice” to the extent that they remain on their butts, unthinking.


  4. Dave,
    Such is the nature of Wikipedia that definitions change. I did a “define:best practices” search on Google and the Wikipedia result was what I cited. It’s still there if you search it yourself.
    As for your second point I am just expressing my personal experience.


  5. Even in 2010, this article is relevant. 🙂
    While traditional “best practices” are going away, high-level best practices will always help: segmentation, simplicity, creativity (most importantly, IMHO), testing, analyze, then repeat.


  6. Hi Jonathan,
    Great point. I’d like to rename them “good practices”.
    I think good practices are a fine place to get ideas, avoid common mistakes and learn from others who have larger budgets, experience and sample sizes than you do. They are one data point in formulating good plans.
    For example, I relied on your experience documented on this blog when putting together a testing plan for a client 🙂


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