Sunday, May 21, 2017

Marketing Best Practices Need Warning Labels

Business leaders of all kinds regard the identification and implementation of best practices as one of the most powerful management tools at their disposal. And why shouldn't they? It seems immanently reasonable to identify the practices of high-performing companies and then emulate those practices.

Marketing leaders are particularly enamored with best practices. After all, marketing success is difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain because the marketing landscape is always changing, and because it's incredibly hard to predict what marketing messages and methods will win the hearts and minds of potential customers. In these circumstances, it shouldn't be surprising that marketers are so fond of "proven" best practices.

Marketing best practices are often portrayed as effective and reliable tools for achieving marketing success, but the reality is somewhat more complicated. Best practices can be helpful when they are understood correctly and used appropriately. However, it's very easy for marketers to become enthralled with the purported benefits of best practices, and to forget about their limitations.

These days, many of the products we buy come with warning labels which highlight the bad things that can happen if we use the product incorrectly. Maybe marketing best practices should come with a set of warnings to remind marketers of their potential "dangers." I can think of several warnings that could be appropriate, but here are three that are particularly important.

Not Comprehensive

"WARNING:  Marketing success results from the interplay of numerous activities and conditions, not all of which are addressed in these best practices. Therefore, these practices may produce less-than-expected results if other factors required for success are absent."

Most marketing best practices are accompanied by an implicit or explicit claim:  Use these practices and your marketing performance will significantly improve. But here's the problem. Most collections of best practices relate to one aspect of marketing, while marketing success usually results from the combined effects of numerous factors, many of which the best practices don't address. Therefore, best practices never provide a truly comprehensive "formula" that will guarantee large-scale improvement in marketing performance.

And even if you assembled a comprehensive list of the marketing best practices that are relevant to your business, you still wouldn't have the magic formula because marketing success is affected by factors that are beyond the scope and control of marketing. These factors include activities in other areas of the business, economic conditions, the actions of competitors, and the unpredictable responses of potential customers. The bottom line is that best practices may be necessary for improving marketing performance, but they aren't sufficient to guarantee marketing success.

Widespread Use Reduces Effectiveness

"WARNING:  The widespread adoption and use of these best practices will reduce their effectiveness."

One of the most paradoxical characteristics of marketing best practices is that the more widely they are used, the less effective they become. Marketing best practices derive their effectiveness from several sources. A practice can be effective because it is based on sound business principles, or because it resonates with how potential customers make decisions, or because it leverages the capabilities of a particular medium of communication.

But best practices are also highly effective because they are usually exceptional. When a best practice is new, it tends to be used by a relatively small number of companies. Therefore, the practice stands out in the marketplace and more effectively captures the attention of potential customers. The distinctiveness also serves to differentiate the company using the practice from its competitors.

Unfortunately, as more and more companies adopt and use a best practice, it loses the distinctiveness that made it highly effective. Content marketing is a great example of a marketing practice that is now more challenging because it is so widely used.

Based on Hindsight

"WARNING:  These best practices have been identified by evaluating past results, and they may be less effective in the future. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results."

Best practices are always based on hindsight. We don't identify a principle or technique as a best practice until we have a fairly significant track record of performance. But as we all know, the marketing environment is constantly evolving. New technologies are appearing at a breathtaking pace, and many of those technologies enable marketing practices that were previously unheard of. Meanwhile, customer expectations are also rapidly changing.

Under these circumstances, marketers should view all best practices as "temporary" and always be alert for developments that may require a change of marketing methods or techniques. It's an overstatement to say that all best practices are obsolete by the time they are recognized as "best." But it's equally wrong to assume that today's best practices will remain unchanged for very long.

Use With Caution

Marketing best practices can help you improve marketing performance and achieve marketing success. But they must be used with caution.

Image courtesy of Travis Wise via Flickr CC.

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