Best Practices Are Not A Crutch

The buzz phrase for years has been, "let's apply best practices" to help improve our e-mail or online programs. We go through the same motions, we look at what has worked for others and try to repurpose the key call-outs for our own programs.

I'm as guilty as every other strategist or consultant in our space who makes "best practices" presentations to clients, spouting every statistic in the book to describe the consumer/marketer landscape and what works. But when push comes to shove, and I have to show five "best practices" examples of relevancy in e-mail programs, triggered e-mail programs, surveys, opt-in registration pages, or media creative... I grit my teeth and smile and present work from the industry to show what others are doing. Does that make it "best practices," though? I've seen three presentations from e-mail vendors in the last month about "best practices," and I find them less and less useful.

Best practices are like benchmarks. They are very personal and contextual. Applied incorrectly, best practices can become handcuffs. Let's face it, you can't build a differentiated business or strategy around some other company's work. While I don't completely discount looking at what's happening with your competitors or others in the online marketing space--and I've stolen an more than an idea or two that way myself--too many marketers and consultants have a copy-and-paste mentality these days. We're 10 years into this channel, and there are very few things that we haven't tried in e-mail marketing. Yes, the landscape has changed; we have more robust technology, better reporting, more dynamic abilities, a more complex delivery environment, and a more complex consumer to reach. However, the principles of what works in marketing have not changed. Honestly, I still refresh from best practice presentations from years ago and chuckle when I see the same content re invented today.

I tend to scoff at people who tout the "best practices" as a test-and-learn approach. They remind me of the consultant who did a brainstorming session and wrote everyone's comments on a large sheet of paper. After the session he walked out of the meeting and left the sheet with all the critical feedback on it behind. What's worse, he never realized his mistake or called up to ask for it. We felt cheated, as is the case with most "testing" strategies.

When you've been in the space long enough, you have already learned or figured out 80% of what you need to do to be successful at e-mail and integrating it into your interactive or customer relationship programs. The value you bring is your ability to apply it as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is called "applied learning".

As marketers, we are so tasked with production-side marketing that we are relying on artificial creativity to spawn our programs. We need to build interruption exercises into our routine to infuse creativity into our programs. (See my article from last week on how to run a creative brainstorming session.)

While many folks make a living off copying other programs and tactics and re-applying them in a different context, the best marketing programs don't rely on best practices alone. They rely on a mix of discipline, business rules, creativity, and timely intervention to reinvigorate the programs and teams.

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