Best practice sounds like the sunny uplands. But for marketers and brand-builders it can do more harm than good. Digital marketing looks for proven techniques, to establish “best practice”. That leads to observing and following competitors. But here’s the rub. Best practice is about doing things the right way. Brand and marketing are about effective expression of your own business strategy. No other business can show you the right way to be you.

There are some areas of business where there are right or best ways to do things, such as operational safety, legal and regulatory compliance, cyber-security. Marketing has its own best practices, in the principles of strategic marketing: understanding and segmenting the market, knowing the target customer and how to create value for them, delivering on the expectation set up by the proposition and brand. Those principles are just as relevant in a digital world. But these shouldn’t be confused with an actual proposition, or a brand’s look and feel; these are brand-specific.

As digital marketers rise to become the marketing leaders in their businesses, there is a growing tension. Non-marketers will naturally value the digital native advocating best practice in the brave new digital world. But so-called best practice is no substitute for brand strategy. Applied in the wrong places, it dampens down personality and flattens a brand’s distinctive voice into a monotone.  It stifles proposition development and communication, tending to generic output when something distinctive may be more effective. Best practice can kill innovation stone dead. If everyone is copying everyone else, how does anything new appear? If Steve Jobs had followed industry best practice, we might all still be logging in on a DOS screen.

Here are the warning signs that digital marketing’s voice may be too loud in your business:

Website design that is based largely on how others do it, rather than what users of your website need and want. Counter this with user journeys. They prompt everyone to think about the needs of the various types of people who may visit the site, including current and potential customers and others like media and investors.

Calls to action everywhere on the website, especially the same CTA. Digital marketers are often measured on lead generation but a website is not a brochure or a sales pitch to potential customers. Nor will a sophisticated buyer be impressed. If I’m browsing in a clothes shop, I don’t want someone constantly at my shoulder saying, like to try anything on? This is easily solved with tailored landing pages for lead gen campaigns; there’s no need for the website to seek to ensnare the idle browser (or current client, or curious investor, or future employee) at every turn.

Marketing planning conversations that aren’t about customers or different user needs. Colleagues who are driven by lead generation tend to be single-minded about getting short term measurable outcomes. This can compromise the building of trust with prospects. It may also be at the expense of other audiences who matter to the long term success of the business. A customer-centred approach will help you find common ground.

Pointing to direct competitors as the key justification for recommendations. Fear Of Missing Out is not a strategy. Other brands’ choices are interesting and informative but unless their strategy is the same as yours they are not a reliable guide.

Try these simple rules to stay on track:

Have your own brand personality and tone of voice, and use it as a reference across everything. Bearing in mind, of course, that brand-building is not an end in itself – the goal is effective customer connection, not self-expression.

Speak the customer’s language not your own. In b2b, use their generic industry terms not yours. Prospective customers are experts in their business, not in ours. So we need to get into their world, and speak their language. For example, a software provider to the HR sector needs to speak HR language so as to connect with primary decision-makers, who will be HR people not IT experts.

Go where your customers are. Best practice steers you to focus on what competitors are doing. A brand-centric approach dares you to be different. Combine this with customer-centric thinking and go to their industry events, not your own. Don’t worry about where your competitors are. This can deliver tactical advantage – you may find you’re the only one of your type in a sea of potential clients.

Copy if it saves you reinventing something where it’s ok to be the same as everyone else. Some digital marketing best practice is valuable. Generic industry-standard language is essential for search engine optimisation, for strong natural search results – bearing in mind it’s the search terms clients and prospects use that matter, not what the experts say. Some standardisation of a site such as icons, and perhaps navigation, can make sense if they’re familiar to your customers and prospects. That means referencing their world, not just your direct competitors’ activity.

Don’t copy in any area where differentiation matters. If innovation seeks the next big idea, best practice leads to conformity. If you’re aiming to create an exciting new flavour, don’t end up vanilla.

The golden rule: Set up your marketing communications and interfaces to enable customers to get what they need, not what you want them to do. If you’ve followed marketing best practice, your proposition will give them what they need, and they’ll click on the “Call me” button, not out of frustration but because they want it.

Thought leadership | March 2020