The Problem with Marketing Best Practices


Marketing Best PracticesBest practices are best practices for a reason – right?

You’ve probably heard people say the same thing about stereotypes. There may be a grain of truth behind some stereotypes, but mostly they’re just an excuse for lazy thinking.

Marketing best practices – supposedly tried and true guidelines – are the same way. Some of them are at least partly true; others are based on pure assumption or are so hypothetical as to be basically meaningless to your particular company.

Take, for example, the “best practice” that content for the internet should be brief. Many people assume that web readers don’t want to deal with long-form content, so web writers should always favor brevity over depth.

Recently, we’ve found the opposite to be true: Our longer blog posts tend to get better metrics across the board: more page views, more links, more social shares, more comments, longer time on page. These are the kind of engagement metrics we care about, so we’ve changed our internal blogging best practice from Publish quickly and often, to Publish less often if necessary in order to publish longer, more in-depth content.

John Doherty quotes a Salon writer discovering the same thing:

We’ve tried to work longer on stories for greater impact, and publish fewer quick-takes that we know you can consume elsewhere. We’re actually publishing, on average, roughly one-third fewer posts on Salon than we were a year ago ... So: 33 percent fewer posts; 40 percent greater traffic. It sounds simple, maybe obvious, but: We’ve gone back to our primary mission and have been focusing on originality. And it’s working.

Same goes for us: we’re writing fewer total posts, but meeting all our content goals, simply by bucking this content marketing “best practice.” We’ve found that, when aiming for brevity, quality and originality get sacrificed too often.

That’s one example of a marketing best practice that doesn’t work for us. Here are five more reasons to ignore “best practices” and forge your own path.

1. Best practices fall out of date.

A lot of marketing best practices are the equivalent of old wives’ tales. Even if they’ve been debunked or have fallen out of date, they keep getting repeated, over and over, taking on a life of their own. A huge body of evidence accrues, suggesting that the “best practice” is actually a worst practice, but it simply refuses to die. Every time you read a list of 10 best practices for such and such marketing tactic, you’re probably looking at several tips that are already out of date or falling out of favor fast.

For example, I heard for years that shorter email subject lines perform better in email marketing. But a recent report from Adestra contradicts that supposed best practice. They found that using 90 characters or more in the subject line increased clicks and opens significantly – probably because more characters allow you to communicate more benefits. (Sounds similar to our finding about longer blog posts, doesn’t it?)

Email Marketing Best Practices

The original “best practice” about short subject lines may date back to a time when people had smaller computer screens and therefore less room in their email programs to take them in. Times change, technologies change, and “best practices” don’t always keep up with the changes. You need to be wary of received wisdom becoming entrenched without sufficient evidence. After all, this could easily swing back the other way with the rise of mobile.

2. Best practices don’t work for everyone.

Most best practices begin with an assumption: that everyone is basically the same and wants basically the same things. To an extent, this is true – I mean, people need food, water and shelter; businesses exist to make money. But (duh) it’s more complicated than that.

Every business is offering something slightly different and has slightly different goals, especially over time. A brand-new business might simply be trying to raise brand awareness and drive some traffic to their website. To meet this goal, aggressive PPC bidding on a lot of broad match terms could be beneficial.

However, in PPC, you don’t always want more clicks. You could probably raise your click-through rate on any given ad by saying that you’re giving something away for free (like “Free Shipping!”). But if people click your ad, then get to your site and find out that it’s not true, they’re not going to buy anything. For most businesses, raising clicks at the expense of conversions is a complete waste of money. What most marketers really want is to maximize clicks while also qualifying visitors so they know what they’re getting.

The point is, as a marketer or business owner, you yourself are in the best position to a) define what you want to achieve and b) understand the value of what you’re selling. Because best practices are general, they can only get you part of the way there. Before you embrace any best practice, test it on your site and with your audience. Take the best practice that mobile campaigns should have their own dedicated mobile landing pages. Jeff Allen of Hanapin Marketing found that in one mobile campaign, the desktop version of the landing page “drastically outperformed” the mobile version!

3. Best practices become clichés.

I said above that best practices are always getting repeated and passed around, even when they’re no longer true. The other problem with their prevalence in marketing culture: they become clichés. That is to say, it’s hard to stand out if you’re just following best practices.

Best practices are boring because everyone else is following them, and the goal in marketing is never to blend in. You want to stand out and be remembered. And copying what seems to be working for everyone else is not the best way to stand out.

When I first started working at WordStream, I added a ton of search marketing blogs to my Google Reader and noticed that a certain style of post was very popular, and the headlines always came in this format: “X Things You Can Learn from Y About Z.” For example, “10 Things You Can Learn About SEO from Monty Python.” I wrote about this linkbait formula over three years ago, way back in 2009.

Recently, Michael Kovis complained about the same thing in a post called “What Your ‘X Taught Me About Y’ Post Actually Taught Me”:

The idea of comparing two dissimilar concepts and fabricating similarities between each is nonsensical with a side of pointless. How is comparing a prostate exam to social media helpful to anyone? It isn’t. What does a reader actually learn from such drivel? Nothing … Simply, this style of writing has been overused.

I agree. If this style of writing corresponds to a “best practice,” it’s probably “Make it relatable with a pop culture analogy” and/or “Turn it into a list.” Of course, I’m not saying blog posts that use analogies and lists and reference Monty Python can’t succeed. I’m saying that as a marketer, you should always be wary of falling back on a cliché. Or, to quote Ezra Pound, “Make it new.” (In poetry, this quotation has certainly become a cliché, but I don’t think it’s a marketing cliché – yet!)

4. Best practices limit creativity and discovery.

Expanding on my last point: Marketing best practices get boring through familiarity. But they also actively inhibit you from making your own marketing discoveries.

Jellybean JarTo illustrate this, let me tell you about a little thing called the anchoring effect, which is a tendency to rely too heavily on an initial piece of information, or “anchor.” Here’s how it works: If someone asks you to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar, and then tells you that the last guy guessed 1,000, your guess is likely to be affected by that number – you’ll probably guess a number closer to 1,000 than if the person didn’t tell you any other guesses to start off with. The problem is, that initial guess of 1,000 may be totally wrong. You have no reason to let it affect your guess, but you just do. It’s a cognitive bias that is almost impossible to ignore.

The same goes for marketing best practices. Even if you know you’re supposed to test best practices, the tests you come up with are likely to use the best practices you’ve read and heard about as starting points. You can then get incrementally better from there, but you’ll never know where you would have ended up if you’d started from scratch with a completely new idea.

The downside here is that it’s a lot harder to start from scratch. If you start with a model you can get to “done” faster. And sometimes, yes, you have to attack the low-hanging fruit and just cross some stuff off your list. But if you’re trying to be great, you can sometimes go farther by starting without a model or “anchor,” which can place implicit limits on your creative thinking.

5. People learn by doing, not reading.

Best practice, worst practice, whatever: Nothing ever really sinks in until you do it and see the results for yourself. Blog posts (like this one!) are great for getting ideas. But at some point you need to put down the blog post and actually do something. Stop reading, start doing.

Marketing Best Practices Wisdom

I used to write a weekly online marketing “roundup” post every Friday. I’d summarize the search marketing news that struck me as most important that week, as well as the blog posts I’d read that I thought were most insightful or helpful. These posts had a lot of benefits, including:

  • We covered a lot of important and timely news
  • We built relationships
  • We learned which blogs and marketers and companies were creating the most interesting content

But these posts rarely did as well as I wanted them to. I chalk this up to three main problems:

  • Fridays just aren’t a good traffic day for us
  • Being news-focused, they didn’t always have evergreen value
  • Being “roundups,” they weren’t always focused on a single topic, so they were hard to optimize for search

Eventually (I mean, like, years later) I decided that the bad outweighed the good, and I don’t write Friday roundups anymore. I’m sure one or two people miss them (aw, wipe that tear away), but now I can spend more time on posts that create more value for our company: Articles that focus on a single topic/keyword and answer a single question thoroughly. They have a longer shelf life and get far more reads over time. Despite always having a vague sense that evergreen posts are more worthwhile than news-y posts for our business, I had to learn by doing that writing an evergreen post on a Tuesday would produce better results than writing a news-related post on a Thursday afternoon. Now I’m practicing what I preach instead of just preaching it.

Marketing Best Practices Revisited

These are some of the reasons to ignore best practices. There are also plenty of reasons not to ignore them. Namely, if you literally ignore all received wisdom, you’ll waste a lot of time essentially reinventing the wheel. So don’t take this post as gospel either. Read widely, but do widely too. Make your own best practices.

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Victor Pan
Dec 12, 2012

People are just too used to getting easily digestible, instantly grantifying, pageview-driven posts. That was the "best practice" for the eyeball-evaluation generation of the internet - it'll continue to be so for websites like BuzzFeed where writers are compensated by pageviews - but for B2B businesses, the best practice will vary depending on your goals (it certainly isn't pageviews).What an epic piece of thought leadership. I'm a big fan of Jakob Nielson ( - visit it, it'll change the way you think about the web), and quite frankly, I think creating content that convert boils down to impressing the reader.Remind me again that I need to ship more inspiring ideas ;)

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 12, 2012

Thank you Victor! Agreed that B2B companies especially need to set themselves apart from sites that are driven by page views and ad revenue.BTW: I was surprised to read a very #longread on BuzzFeed this weekend -- a history of the rise and fall of Google Reader. Maybe they're trying out a new best practice too.

Victor Pan
Dec 12, 2012

"Rob Fishman is the social media editor at the Huffington Post. He is a graduate of Cornell University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and lives in New York."Well that explains. TBH, I do think he needs more section headings. Quantity =/= Quality.

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 12, 2012

I enjoyed the article, but then it's kind of a pet topic for me.

Ken Pedersen
Dec 12, 2012

I really enjoyed the part about email campaigning and the length of the subject line. Very informative.

Ben Oren
Dec 12, 2012

Thanks for posting this, I agree that best practices can be misunderstood for practices that must be implemented, when oftentimes they can go out of date and even become worst practices. It is important to do adequate research before employing a "best practice" to determine if it might be beneficial for you. 

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 12, 2012

Thanks, Ben!

Dwayne Campbell
Dec 15, 2012

I would really appreciate anyone that knows Wordpress could find the time to look at my site and tell me what I can do to get out of the sixfigure search ranking with Alexa and how to get Yahoo and Bing to actually crawl and rank my site.  I have both Yahoo and Bing in my robots.txt file and I also have sitemap.xml in the root directory.  Thank you in advance for your comments and help.Take care and God Bless

Dec 15, 2012

I think this only proves that the best practices are not really best after all. They become old and outdated and that's the reason they get out of the "best list". Marketing changes from time to time and  a companies ability to adapt is a crucial factor. One must always think uniquely to captivate and capture the audience attention. 

Shiful Alam
Dec 16, 2012

Thanks Elisa! This is a unique and well-researched article. I agree with you. What is the best way today can be worst tomorrow. It totally depends on situation. Nothing is unique. For example, a new company or even a new brand of an established company may try to increase the brand awareness, where a well-established brand may try to increase the brand loyalty. So their ‘best practices’ are different from each other.

Dec 17, 2012

Interesting commentary and valuable conclusion, I recently scanned round a load of Internet marketing blogs to see what was interesting, and something like 90% are self styled marketing gurus churning out the same drivel day after day following most of the techniques you've outlined above, copywritten to death with dumb analogies, leading short sentences and smugness ("you see what I did there? How clever my copywriting is?" etc), it's refreshing to have found a few blogs like this one challenging what has been written in a thousand e-books and expert blogs already.

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 17, 2012

Thanks Steve, I appreciate it!

MegaMind Design
Dec 20, 2012

Great little article and the final stanza "people learn by doing, not reading" couldn't be more true of PPC and AdWords in particular.

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 20, 2012

Thanks, and your use of the word "stanza" makes me happy!

Jul 08, 2013

If you take the argument beyond the social media context, I think real life experience using a product of service is indeed the most important element to establish a brand. Apple became Apple not because of all the advertising and branding, but because of user’s superior experience over that of competitor’s.

stuart walker
Jan 05, 2014

Very informative post and I enjoyed reading about email marketing as I am new to this aspect

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