“But George, what am I to do then?
What am I do to when Bob the Manager wants to “do that best practices thing” because… “that’s what competitors do, duh”?
When Jenny B-School returns from her weekend retreat, armed with the unique, innovative strategies she read in this year’s NYT Marketing Best-Seller (… she and a few hundred thousand competitors)?”
Listen. You copy competitors. Competitors copy you. And soon, before you know it, you commit marketing incest.
Marketing incest works like real incest. Soon, everybody gets stupid.
Now, if you’re reading this, I know you’re no Manager Bob or Jenny B-School.
So I invite you to start pushing an ethical drug called “critical thinking” across your organization.
I invite you to rip off any certainty and rigidity, opinion, conviction, implacability, and stubbornness from any Bob’s and any Jenny’s brain.
Instead, I propose we collectively adopt and preach what I’ve started calling “enlightened ignorance.”
What is Enlightened Ignorance?
Enlightened ignorance is to know when we don’t know something.
Enlightened ignorance is to be willing, even eager to test established paradigms, beliefs, assumptions, strengths, weaknesses, strategies, and tactics.
Enlightened ignorance is to have the guts to tell our colleagues, our boss (and even ourselves), “We don’t know, but let’s find out!”
Adopting this way of thinking is hard.
For example, I was trained in traditional, direct-response copywriting. I got my marketing feet wet writing 5-10k word sales letters for D2C supplement companies.
Coming from a 100% long-form copy background, I wholeheartedly believed the old-school copywriting adage of “the more you tell, the more you sell.”
Imagine my surprise when I realized that…
15 – 30s, “scroll stopper” video ads with barely any text at all are king in e-commerce.
I stubbornly resisted that notion for waaay too long.
“But everybody says that if the copy is relevant,” I’d tell myself, “people will read every word.”
“Why would we make short ads, when people are reading 5k words of sales writing in one-sitting and buying too?“
"Apples vs oranges!"
Not only was the business model different, but also the funnel step (ad vs sales page), traffic source (affiliate & native vs social), pricing strategy and more.
Even more importantly, my stubborn views were completely irrelevant.
Because at the end of the day, if we want to get the best results we can, it doesn’t matter what we think, what others tell us, or what we read (yes, even in NYT Best Sellers!).
The only thing that matters is what IS – aka, reality.
And the only way to find out what is, is to set aside the ego, the assumptions, the beliefs, the opinions of experts and not-so-experts and…
Test “best practices” and million-dollar expert opinions against reality.
Let’s take scarcity.
Uhm, sorry, what is scarcity again?
Briefly, the principle of scarcity suggests that things become more valuable when they become less available.
And we can further dimensionalize scarcity in time (“This offer ends in 09:59!”) and quantity (“Only 5 units left!”).
To learn more, check out Dr. Cialdini’s “Influence.”
Everybody talks about how scarcity “just works”.
Precious few talk about how psychological triggers like scarcity may backfire. Fewer still understand how to minimize those risks.
And so an incredible number of companies slap in fake urgency timers, fake discounts, fake limited stocks…
Oblivious to the permanent, self-discrediting damage they inflict upon their brand.
All because they never bothered to challenge what this “best practice” means in context.
As of the writing of this article, I’ve been involved – first as a copywriter, then as a marketing manager – in 197 e-commerce product launches (yes, this wasn’t a typo).
By e-commerce product launches I mean hardcore, direct-to-consumer, “perform-or-die” advertising campaigns.
(Frankly, if you’ve ever been to Europe, then it’s fairly likely you’ve seen one of my ads.)
I can assure you that the only time “best practices” are guaranteed to be useful is when they’re UX and bug related (improving site speed, responsiveness, fixing broken code etc).
In nearly every other case, “best practices” may work better, worse, or the same.
As good as guess as any.
And speaking of guessing, I’ve done A LOT of guesswork in my time because “I read it in a book”, “The Expert recommended it”, or it was considered a “best practice”.
Here’s a short and certainly not exhaustive list.
Awkward BS I've tried.
Trying to copy Amazon’s “perfect” UX. If it works for Amazon, then it should work for us, right? Wrong. A terrible idea, which dropped performance across ALL campaigns.
In hindsight, that’s like a random person wearing a surgeon’s clothes and expecting people to suddenly let him cut them open.
The business model, traffic sources, personas, pricing, and most importantly, brand equity were dramatically different. Bad idea. It would probably be a bad idea for you too.
Please, don’t copy Amazon.
“Review-mining” on related products. This is about messaging. The idea here is that you may identify user motivations, desired outcomes, use cases, objections, anxieties and more by analyzing what people write in reviews.
Good idea, except everybody does it, so you’ll end up writing the crappy sequel of your competitor’s copy. Good idea, except related product =/= same product. Good idea, except – again – traffic sources (and so, behaviour) are different.
(Hint: Learning how to do this though, may result in better results.)
“Persona-matching” images on our pages. We experienced notably worse performance than when we used professional models.
You probably should copy this from Amazon.
According to Fast Company, “Today, the most innovative businesses run thousands of experiments–Intuit: 1,300, P&G: 7,000–10,000, Google: 7,000, Amazon: 1,976, and Netflix: 1,000–thanks to a combination of new technologies and “lean” business approaches.”
That’s what I mean by enlightened ignorance. If those giants are so eager to move outside their circle of knowledge, why not us?
“Supermodel-type” images on our pages. A vocal customer segment would consistently complain that we ought to use people with “more meat in their bones”.
I’m inclined to believe that the safest option in these cases is to use imagery of people who are slightly more beautiful/successful/happier than your actual customers (but only slightly, lest you incur their wrath).
“Hype” advertising. Marketers always like to talk about how people buy emotionally, so you gotta make claims bigger than life, but the plain truth I’ve experienced is that you can’t get far without also making an irrefutable, grounded logical case.
What I have observed, though, is that “hype” advertising tends to perform better with older demographics (45-54 and older). Maybe because those segments have higher disposable income. Maybe because they’re not digital natives.
Regardless, I’m very suspicious of the “bigger = better” approach that’s often peddled as the most effective way of selling.
Rewarding “customer loyalty” with vouchers. In so doing, we cultivated bad habits instead of a community.
For example, we had instances of people giving us bad ratings because free 25€ coupons “were not good enough.”
(I can’t make this up.)
So, are best practices useless?
No, though they’re not to be taken for granted nor are they nearly as helpful as the people that peddle them would have you believe.
Mostly because everybody does them, and thus they eventually stop working well.
Mostly because they’re not custom-fit, fine-tuned and context-dependent.
In short, best practices are comfortable (lazy) mental shortcuts.
They’re great for feeling secure, stable, and psychologically safe in the exponential, fast-changing world we live in.
And, well, if someone’s so inclined, they’re also a great tool to absolve oneself of responsibility and blame.
(“Well, we were following best practices! Can’t be our fault. Riiight?”)
Tricky. Immature too, but it happens. Hail corporate life!
Best Practices = Sh*t Everybody Else Does = Comfortable Mental Shortcuts
Dare to do this instead.
- Adopt enlightened ignorance (“We don’t know, but let’s find out!”).
- Be excited when you’re wrong (you will be proven wrong anyway, so why not enjoy it?).
- Document what you learn.
- Transfer it to others.
- Keep learning.