Best Practices: Do They Exist?

Is there such a thing as a best practice in interactive marketing and advertising?

The question really hadn’t occurred to me. Then suddenly, just over the past week, I began hearing the concept of best practices pooh-poohed at every turn.

Last week, Bryan Eisenberg warned against approaching best practices “as a religion”:

Beware of best practices. Typically, they’re born out of successes gained under very specific circumstances. Many of those circumstances may not apply to you or your marketing situation.

The online channel is still way too young to have established best practices. It’s like studying medicine for 10 years then declaring you know all the answers.

A day or so later at a marketing event, Len Ellis, one of the wisest men in this industry, declaimed from the podium, “Best practices are yesterday’s news. Tell me about emerging practices.”

And just the other day, I attended a meeting of the American Business Media‘s (ABM’s) Digital Media Council (of which I’m a member). The question of including interactive best practices on the Web site arose and was swiftly swatted down. “Best practices don’t exist,” someone scoffed. “It’s all technology. In a year or 18 months, they’re obsolete.”

What Are Best Practices, Anyway?

There seems to be little consensus on what “best practices” actually means. According to Wikipedia a best practice “is a management idea which asserts that there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a project can be rolled out and completed with fewer problems and unforeseen complications.”

But that definition has been disputed by several readers. One commentator wrote: “The article claims that there is one and only one best practice, ‘the right way’. Nonsense. Best practices are a journey, not an endpoint. They are about continual improvement and learning.”

Commonsense Best Practices

There are best practices in interactive marketing and advertising. I’ll bet you hardly even pay any mind to them. The industry may only be 10 years old, but here are a few random, tried-and-true best practices for interactive marketing and advertising:

  • Opt-in is mandatory. Double-confirmed opt-in is a best practice.
  • Regularly practice list hygiene.
  • Audio in ads and on Web sites should be user-initiated.
  • There’s an ideal number of characters to use in an email header (40-55, fewer if the message will likely be displayed on a mobile device).
  • A privacy policy is mandatory for any commercial or corporate Web site.
  • Web pages should have proper meta tags for SEM (define).
  • Negative keywords aid paid search campaigns.
  • A Web page footer containing your organization’s address, city, state, Zip Code, and phone number helps optimize your site for local search.

Duh, right? All the above (and a whole bunch more) are best practices. If you’ve been on the ethical side of this business for any length of time, the above is probably already part of your DNA.

Tactical Vs. Strategic Best Practices

Of course, the chiseled-in-stone best practices enumerated above are tactical, not strategic. When you get into the strategic stuff, best practices become more ephemeral, messier, and harder to nail down. What channels should you use to market your particular widget? How should they be integrated with one another? What proportion of the budget should be allocated to online? Offline? Collateral? Creative?

With strategic decisions, you enter the realm of amorphous best practices, the arena in which the concept should be taken with a grain of salt. Here, best practices are — at best — a baseline. A recipe. And as everyone knows, good cooks never follow a recipe to the letter. They add an extra pinch of this, a dash of something not on the list of ingredients: something seasonal, something already in the larder.

To extend the culinary metaphor (perhaps farther than it should go), best practices, like the best recipes, adhere to discipline-specific rules. Just as you’d never add too much of something savory to a dessert (or something sweet to a main dish), best practices can be sliced and diced according to industry, to vertical, even to the season or time of day.

My advice? Know and keep abreast of tactical best practices in interactive marketing and advertising. Adhere to them. They’re good for you, your brand, your customers and audience, and your overall marketing and advertising initiatives.

It’s your job to stay on top of strategic best practices, too. And to exercise good judgment insofar as how, and to what extent, they’re relevant to your product, service, or industry. Then adjust seasonings to taste — and results.

Meet Rebecca at ClickZ’s Online Video Advertising Forum in New York City, June 16, 2006.

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