How to Avoid the Best Practices Trap
Kirsten Pickworth May 8 2017
We’re all busy, which means we’re all occasionally guilty of relying on executive summaries and best practices guides to get things done.
Give me a quick guide to optimizing landing pages?
Can you send best practices for social media at events?
What template should I use for our site’s metadata?
How frequently should keywords be incorporated on a page?
Best practices are not all bad. But they can lead to and affirm bad behavior – focusing on keyword rankings over site content, writing blog posts of only one length, or optimizing for the wrong audience. And even worse, after everyone flocks around the new industry standard and gets comfortable, the channel or conversation becomes saturated with that approach and users start to tune out.
As agencies, it’s easy to write best practices blog posts and guides for clients. These lists are requested and well received. And we’re hired by busy clients because we’re experts, so it makes sense to impart our knowledge in short form rather than explaining why an approach is important and customizing it to the situation. But as an industry we risk creating major problems for clients when we only give them a to-do list as a gold standard and leave out the context and coaching for their product or audience.
As a digital marketing manager, these guides are helpful in setting priorities and sharing opportunities across teams and with leadership. And they’re great to reference when your boss tries to poke holes in a new strategy.
Here are a few tips for how to use best practices, while maintaining the integrity of your marketing program and avoiding complacency.
1. Engage and get to know your users
This should already be one of your priorities. If you’re don’t care about adding value for your users, then you might as well close up shop now, as you’ll continue to lose not only traffic but your user’s interest. There’s no hack or shortcut in the world that can stop this.
Digital marketing, now more than ever, demands that you research and seek to understand who your audience is, what they are looking for, and how and when they are searching.
For example, new clients often ask us: how many times should a keyword should appear on a page for us to rank? Deep sigh. There is no right answer to this question, it’s missing the point, and it comes from following hugely outdated best practices.
You should be creating content on topics that matter to your users, then assessing how they engage with that content (e.g. A/B testing, heat mapping, etc.). Writing in natural language about relevant topics, in a way that demonstrates more than superficial understanding of both the topic and the audience, will help you stand out and remain relevant more than adhering to any formula.
2. Be proactive
You’re much less likely to get stuck with an outdated site and marketing strategy and lost in the crowd if you proactively test campaigns with new content types and try new channels. Or you could just assume the best practices you read last year are still fine, rinse and repeat the same format over and over, and fade slowly into the crowd.
For example, when was the last time you heard that ”600-800 words was a good length for a blog article”? Because guess what, it’s official, we collectively ruined the 400-800 word blog post.
If I were to compare this to software installation, I’d be telling you to choose the “Custom (Advanced)” approach instead of the “Default (Recommended)” option. You should know your audience better than anyone else. Don’t let a talking head tell you otherwise. Again, I’m not condemning the use of best practices and templates, but adapt them, test them and trust your instincts to continue seeking new approaches.
3. Improve your distance from perfect
Algorithms are always changing, new channels are gaining attention, and success really is a moving target. How’s that for definitive next steps?! But try this on for size: we have a phrase at Portent that our CEO Ian has written about for years called “distance from perfect.” For Portent, and for our clients, this means continuous striving and optimizing to improve your site and user engagement across channels. It’s looking for all those seemingly little things that don’t feel or work quite right, and taking the time to fix it. To shape it, and make it yours. And the sum total of all those little tweaks, to make your site and your communication the best they can be, can’t help but put you in a far better place.
If you take the time to run a campaign, to write a piece of content that’s true to what you offer customers and you’ve done good up-front audience alignment work, they’ll reward you with attention, connection, and ultimately some dollars. Do that enough, and you’ll actually be able to sway the almighty Google, by virtue of it’s own machine learning around deep reading and engagement.
So, next time you read a best practices guide, think twice about taking it at face value. First, is it relevant to your business and audience? Second, how can you adapt the recommendations to stand out from instead of keep up with the industry standard?
I hope this not-best-practices post gives you some helpful food for thought.
And if you’d like to explore this idea further, our CEO Ian Lurie wrote a great post on the perils of marketing survivorship bias.
Client Partner Team Lead
Kirsten leads the Client Partner team at Portent with nine years of experience spanning integrated marketing, nonprofit fundraising and international community development fields. She is a marketing nerd who is always learning and looking for ways to empower people with excellent communication strategies. When Kirsten isn't connecting with clients and collaborating with coworkers, you might find her cooking, writing or outside somewhere soaking up the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Read More