It's Time to Toss Those 'Best Practices' Out the Window

Here's Why: They're Commoditized, Over-generalized, Limiting and Just Plain Wrong

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Zephrin Lasker
Zephrin Lasker
I admit to being as guilty as the next person when it comes to labeling ideas and tips as "best practices." Well, not anymore. Now I'm kicking that habit and doing it without a patch. I'm going cold turkey. And you should, too.

Here's why:

1. They don't really mean anything anymore.
If you Google "online advertising best practices," you get pages and pages of results, ranging from the viewpoints of companies such as Dynamic Logic and PointRoll to small SEO firms and personal blogs. Anyone who has run an advertising campaign, from established industry leaders to random pontificators, seems to have a list of best practices to share. This is counterintuitive to a fundamental lesson we all learn as kids: not everything you do is the best. Just because you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and decide to take a crack at putting together a list, doesn't make it an industry-wide mantra. It might have been great for whoever wrote the post, but it might not be best for your particular needs. Don't get me wrong -- there's a need for guidelines that marketers should follow (especially in the context of legal and ethical codes of conduct). But there's a difference between standards and practices. Unlike practices, which are subjective and often self-interested, standards are common frameworks from which people can individuate and innovate. For example, W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is an international community that develops industry-wide definitions for HTML, CSS, XML, and so on.

2. They can be overly reductive.
Ad Age recently published a great article by Deena Montoya-Crawley, from the agency McKee Wallwork Cleveland. Montoya-Crawley calls out the need to look beyond so-called best practices when targeting groups like Hispanics. She states, "As a Hispanic, I have seen far too many ads that have focused on blatantly obvious cultural representations like 'quinceaƱeras,' 'piƱatas' and 'empanadas.'" These kinds of gaffes, in addition to a sad statement on cultural awareness, are the result of a compulsive need to "look up" what to do when faced with a new challenge and then blindly follow. There are two faulty assumptions at play here: 1.) All "Hispanics" can be reduced to a few broad generalizations and can therefore be marketed to in the same way and 2.) Whatever source these advertisers used was an authority on the subject. There are a multitude of factors to take into account when targeting anyone. Montoya-Crowley points out a few of them: lifestyles, attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and wants and needs. Honing in on each of these for your specific target audience, Hispanic or otherwise, is what will result in a well-researched, thoughtful campaign -- not a Google search.

3. They limit innovation.
There doesn't need to a precedent. In fact, sometimes, the best thing to do is work against established rules -- to disrupt can have a positive outcome. One of the best examples of a disrupting technology is the Amazon Kindle. Rather than follow the accepted best practices for e-books, Amazon created something different. They ignored the so-called standards for electronic publishing (i.e. backlighting, computer reliance, unrealistic ink), and created a game-changing product with highly innovative features such as no backlight, wireless downloading, and E Ink. Had Amazon worked within the existing parameters of PDF e-reading by creating, for example, a better lighting system and faster computer synching, the publishing industry would not be as impacted as it is today, and Amazon would not be in the position to sell $750 million in Kindles this year.

4. They can actually be the wrong thing to do.
Sometimes the reason people undertake a supposed best practice is because "everybody else is doing it." True innovation in many cases is breaking away from a best practice; not building on it.

At the beginning of the decade, Steve Jobs launched the first iPod. This intuitive, powerful device allowed users to take donkey loads of music with them. Apple also launched the iTunes store that allowed users to buy songs (as opposed to entire albums). This was a blatant case of breaking away from a best practice. Apple could have joined the music industry and spent a majority of their time in cracking down on file-sharing in an attempt to shut the windows on the winds of change. But they didn't. Instead, they introduced a device that recognized that people now consume media in a fragmented way across multiple devices.

In the online advertising industry, we've seen the effects of relying on the online banner. The online banner that is measured by impressions and reliant on click-throughs is a carryover from the broadcasting era, when people consumed media passively. Study after study has shown that users don't click on banners or even look at them. But we continue to persist in building best practices around an ad format that has largely failed to harness the true interactivity of the Internet.

This article isn't going to stop people from writing best practices articles and publishing best practices white papers. But what I hope it does do is remind you that what's actually a best practice is something that you and your team come up with -- which because it's unique to you, is actually a best practice ... for you.

Zephrin Lasker is CEO of Pontiflex, a New York-based CPL lead-generation market.
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