Frequently, marketers’ ears perk up when they hear "best practices" are going to be shared in a breakout session, webinar or whitepaper.

A best practice is defined by Wikipedia as “a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means.” Who wouldn’t want to hear what leading brands such as Apple, Coca-Cola or Nike are doing with their marketing efforts? No marketer wants to be left behind or pass up an opportunity to put themselves a step ahead of their competitors.

Pursuing and adopting best practices offers several benefits to marketers. A best practice can act like a shortcut where marketers don’t need to waste time and effort reinventing the wheel -- they can just replicate what works for market leaders. They also don’t have to make the same time-consuming or costly mistakes that preceded its discovery. Often adopting a best practice will run into less resistance from management because it's perceived as being proven and less risky.

However, in the wrong circumstances, a generally accepted best practice can inadvertently do more harm than good. For example, landing page experts recommend showing a demo video where a product or service is shown being used in context. What if the majority of visitors hit the landing page from mobile devices with limited data bandwidth? When the featured video sputters or fails to play, the effectiveness of the landing page is jeopardized.

This is a very real scenario that can be avoided with the understanding that best practices aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions. However, in the race to adopt the latest tips, marketers don’t always put the necessary thought and analysis into the implementation. For example, the pitfall above could easily be avoided if the marketer is knowledgeable enough to layer responsive design on top of the video, which will adapt it to mobile devices.

A useful analogy is to compare best practices to medicine -- and not just because they can be equally addictive and damaging if abused. Like medication, best practices come in all forms. Some best practices are fairly innocuous and available over the counter. Marketers can self-diagnose some problems and then choose an appropriate best practice. Sometimes you may need to check with an expert for guidance on how a best practice should be used and under what circumstances. Just like with drugs, certain combinations of best practices can cause unintended hazardous side effects.

Unfortunately, unlike medicine, there’s no uniform way of validating marketing best practices. New drugs go through clinical trials and government approvals before they’re brought to market. In the fast-paced marketing world, digital best practices are often shared before they’ve been adequately field tested and verified.

Also, in many cases the “dosage level” for a best practice may need to be modified to the company’s size, budget or maturity level. For example, a startup won’t be able to leverage resource-intensive best practices in the same way as established firms with fully-staffed marketing teams and agency partners. The startup may need to hack or modify certain best practices to accommodate their limited capacity. For example, a company should ideally have at least one dedicated analyst who can analyze digital campaigns and run A/B tests to optimize performance. However, a cash-strapped startup may have to settle for an existing employee to shoulder some of that responsibility or hire an external expert on a part-time basis to augment their data-driven capabilities.

The key is to consider the side effects and how they may impact your health, just like whenever you’re taking pills. Relying heavily on best practices can have similar unintended consequences:

  • Complacency: By adopting all the industry best practices, marketers won’t feel pressure to explore new ways to raise their game above what the industry is already doing.
  • Misdirection: Common practices can be confused for best practices because everyone is doing them. Rather than raising the bar, marketers end up benchmarking their efforts against what might be an inefficient standard.
  • Bias: Believing what worked in the past will work in the future could prevent marketers from identifying better solutions.
  • Lack of innovation/differentiation: By always following best practices, marketers are not innovating and coming up with their own secret sauce. While they don’t need to be pioneering on all fronts, there will be strategic marketing efforts where they should seek to lead not just follow.

If a marketing team regularly tries to adhere to industry best practices, it’s important to consider the long-term side effects and not just the short-term benefits.

As a marketer, I love hearing about best practices. But as a former consultant, I embrace them with eyes wide open, being aware of their addictive power and understanding how contextual details can influence their effectiveness and broad application. Many will look to best practices that have worked in the past. Some are disciplined enough to adapt these practices to the present. Only a few will innovate and create future best practices. In my mind, to the innovator go the true spoils.