Everybody loves best practices. If you’ve ever worked for a marketing agency, you’ve received plenty of RFPs stating the need for best practices for everything ranging from search engine optimization to user experience to graphical design to source code. If you’ve worked on the client side, you’ve probably written about the need for these same best practices in your own RFPs, and no doubt your supervisor or Board of Directors is clamoring for a next generation website and/or digital marketing campaign with plenty of best practices baked right in.
Marketing is undergoing a huge paradigm shift to become more scientific, rational, and analytic…
Taken to a logical extreme, one might think that building a personalized website, launching innovative display advertising, or nurturing leads with next generation machine learning was akin to baking a holiday pie: Perfectly measure the ingredients for the crust, add the right amount of sugar for the filling, sprinkle a few extra seasonings in equally precise quantities, bake in a properly heated oven, and the end result is the ideal lead generation engine.
Of course, the real world doesn’t work quite like that. Marketing is undergoing a huge paradigm shift to become more scientific, rational, and analytic, but there’s still a lot of art, creativity, and judgement required to develop the best campaigns. The question remains: where does that leave us with best practices?
We might start by asking if industry leaders like Google have anything to say on the matter. Fortunately or unfortunately, they are providing easy answers. In fact, if you check out Google’s two largest properties, the main search site and YouTube, you see two totally different approaches:
Of course, the reason for the differences should be obvious to anyone familiar with their respective business strategies. Google Search makes money when a user clicks on a search ad, therefore the search box is just about the only relevant item on the page. YouTube makes most of its money from ads embedded in video streams, therefore the page is devoted to a variety of video content with thumbnails to entice clicks.
Your strategic approach, creative, and content is going to be very different if you’re selling Coke or launching a new wearable.
I would suggest that both are adhering best practices in their respective spaces, but that best practices for UX and content presentation are wildly different depending on the nature of the site. Or, put another way, there is no best way to design a website, but there are some strategies that can address certain desired outcomes. The adherence and usage of best practices can also depend on what aspect of the project you are considering. For example, on a website redesign project:
- Underlying code: Almost exclusively driven by best-practices for marketing technology initiatives. While I don’t want to suggest that there is no art in the coding process, it’s usually reserved for a much higher level (think developing Google’s new Assistant) than websites or marketing automation. Therefore, your development teams and partners should stick to proven principles and follow published standards.
- Implementation and customization: Highly driven by best practices, but also subject to how a particular application will be used and the skill level of the user. For example, there are usually many ways to achieve the same goal in a modern Content Management System. The precise way that is best for your organization can only be determined based on how you see a feature evolving in the future and who in your organization will support it. Best practices should be considered in the planning stages to identify the ideal solution for your unique needs.
- UX + Design: Partially driven by best practices. There are some established standards around screen sizes, interface methodologies such as the hamburger menu, and user expectations, but ultimately this is the project phase were the “art” aspect starts becoming more important, as do the specific business goals. The most important thing is to create something that works for you and achieves your goals. As your goals are going to be unique to your organization, there is only so much you can learn from everyone else.
Other aspects of your digital transformation are going to align along a similar spectrum. When it comes to display advertising, for example, your initial ad selection and placement is going to be highly influenced by whether you’re following a demand generation strategy or going straight to capturing leads. It’s also going to be critical to consider how you integrate retargeting. There are going to be best practices around the types of ads available, the best performing sizes and placements, and no shortage of research on where to market, but ultimately your strategic approach, creative, and content is going to be very different if you’re selling Coke or launching a new wearable.
Best practices are and will continue to be a critical part of any engagement strategy, they aren’t a substitute for judgement, taste, and…
Of course, you can also use A/B or multivariate testing to experiment with different approaches, and identify the best performing strategies based on real world results; the possibilities are exciting and practically limitless. We truly are embarking on a brave new era in marketing with a tighter combination of both art and science, but — as in all revolutions in human behavior — it’s important to make sure we don’t lose sight of where we’ve been and how we got here.
The machines aren’t going to do our work for us anymore than someone else is going to write the perfect practices for our businesses. We can learn from others, and the best practices that result will continue to be a critical part of any engagement strategy, but they shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for judgement, taste, and a well-formed strategy in the first place.