Some have suggested that email marketing "best practices" don't really exist, that best practices are really just "recommended practices." I can see why people might take that stance. Lately I've run into several instances where best practices didn't produce the best results.
For instance, at the recent Email Evolution Conference, three agencies squared off during the Email Idol session, redesigning an email from the National Geographic Society. Despite packing their designs full of best practices to make the email more scannable and the call-to-action clearer, none of the new designs bested the control when they were tested. The audience seemed truly shocked -- myself included -- that Nat Geo's subscribers preferred the old design, but they did. You can't argue with the numbers.
During another session, DJ Waldow of Blue Sky Factory expressed his frustrations with the sometimes inconsistent results generated by best practices when he provided a disclaimer for the critiques he and his fellow panelists were about to deliver. He encouraged the audience to take their critiques as food for thought, as fodder for testing. To drive home his point, DJ brought up the design of Publishers' Clearing House emails. I'll spare you the strong language he used, but the gist is that he didn't like it because of all the best practices it violated. However, he acknowledged that despite those apparent failings, the design really worked for PCH.
Through my blog, I've pointed out many occasions when retailers weren't following best practices. For instance, I have recommended that others not follow the lead of Overstock when it comes to writing subject lines. The retailer likes to use screaming all-caps subject lines that are generally vague and one to three words long. For instance, recent subject lines have included "SUPER SALE," "LIQUIDATION" and "HALF-OFF SALE." And those subject lines have been used many, many times in the past, so they're not terribly fresh. However, I've had the opportunity to talk with Overstock strategists about their subject lines and they swear that they A/B test and that these spammy-looking subject lines always outperform more artful ones. They were kind of embarrassed by their subject lines, but these are the ones that work.
In another instance, I said that Alibris was failing to optimize for preview panes with a particular email by using what I thought was an excessively large font. I even produced a mockup of what the email could have looked like had Alibris strategists paid more attention to best practices. Needless to say, I was pleased when they took my advice and used the more thoughtful design in November and again this month. However, I was bummed to hear that the new design didn't actually generate better results. It didn't do any worse than the previous design so they decided to keep using it because it freshened up the design and did look better in preview panes-even if that help the performance.
Although it's not hard to find instances where best practices failed to deliver -- and it can be frustrating because best practices do change over time -- it's important to acknowledge that best practices are called that for a reason: They work most of the time. Considering all the new practitioners coming into the email marketing industry and the regretfully limited amount of testing that many brands do, it only hurts our industry to try to discredit best practices in general. The exceptions don't make the rule. It's not that there aren't best practices -- they just aren't the best in every situation.