Don’t let ‘best practice’ take over your brand

Marketing loses out when we start using ‘best practice’ to stamp out any deviation from an orthodox approach

October 10, 2018

Don’t let ‘best practice’ take over your brand

A couple of weeks ago, I was party to a conversation about ‘best practice’ for posting on LinkedIn. It wasn’t a bad-tempered conversation – but there was something about it I didn’t like. It left me pondering how restrictive the concept of ‘best practice’ can become when we apply it too widely or thoughtlessly. Best practice can be a great source of insight when it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s intended. However, it can also be used to stamp out any deviation from the orthodox. And when that happens, we’re all in trouble.

One party in this conversation had been sharing a lot of content on LinkedIn – and the other person, who happened to be connected to them, was irritated about it. However, they didn’t put things in these terms. Instead they talked about ‘best practice’: how various thought leaders had set down that once a day was the maximum frequency with which people should be posting on LinkedIn. The implication was that once something has been declared ‘best practice’, it’s a sacred rule. If you go against it, you’re either a fool or some type of antisocial menace. When you pass on wisdom in the form of ‘best practice’, nobody’s allowed to question it.

I should add that this discussion all ended very amicably. The first person apologised, explained that they’d been experimenting with posting more often and that they’d take the other person’s comments on board. No hard feelings, it seemed.

Only that’s not the feeling it left me with. In fact, it started me thinking very seriously about the way that ‘best practice’ can be used – in marketing, but also in life.

The limitations of best practice
I’m definitely not arguing that best practice has no value as a concept. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I did, because I’ve spent my career as a content marketer and a professional studying best practice, often following it, and often benefiting from it. When I see clear evidence that a particular way of doing things is effective, I share it with others. I deal in best practice too.

But just because there’s wisdom and insight in best practice doesn’t mean you can deploy it here, there and everywhere to tell people what they should and shouldn’t be doing on social media. Best practice is not some gospel-like rulebook of eternal truths that applies to each and every situation you might encounter. It’s not a black mark against anyone who ever deviates from it. That’s entirely the wrong way to get value from best practice – and entirely the wrong approach if you want to be a genuinely evidence-based, data-driven marketer.

The fact is that every piece of best practice you’ll ever come across comes with limitations to where and how it should be applied – two particular types of limitations, to be precise. Best practice should always be specific, which means it’s limited to a particular context or objective. It’s also a reflection of the consensus view – the average. It’s a great starting point, but if you allow it to define everything that you do, you could be placing some fairly severe constraints on your strategy.

The dangers of taking best practice out of context
The conversation I was party to seemed to me to ignore the first limitation on best practice: specificity. In this case, best practice for brands posting on LinkedIn isn’t necessarily relevant when it comes to individuals posting on LinkedIn.

Your personal brand is an authentic reflection of you – and you shouldn’t be fitting it to a predetermined calendar in the same way that you might do for a content marketing strategy. There are lots of different factors at play when it comes to how you engage as an individual on LinkedIn, including your personality, your relationship to the connections in your network, what you have to say, and how you naturally express yourself. The best guide to all this is experience and experimentation. There is no secret formula – and the ideal frequency of posting will be the one that both resonates with your audience and leaves you feeling inspired and engaged.

Posting on LinkedIn isn’t a one-way broadcast; it’s a conversation that has to give value to both sides. If you’re posting to meet some theoretical frequency that some B2B expert has supposedly come up with, then you won’t be engaging in a natural and authentic way – and consequently you’ll get a lot less out of the conversation. Post when you can, when you want to, and when you have something interesting to say. Take inspiration from others, but certainly don’t take criticism from them just for trying something different.

How best practice can mislead marketers
When best practice overreaches, it can become downright misleading. And this applies to different areas of marketing just as much as it does to the difference between your business’s brands and your personal brand.

Audience expectations and rules of engagement vary hugely between B2B and B2C marketing, for example – and just because a format, style or frequency of content works for a particular demographic on Facebook doesn’t mean that’s the way to go when talking to a different demographic on LinkedIn. When LinkedIn and Buzzsumo conducted in-depth research into the most influential social media posts across different sectors, we found significant differences between the posts that most engaged marketers and those that most engaged lawyers, doctors or engineers. Best practice for a content marketing strategy needs to reflect this reality. There is simply no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to the most effective approach.

Take influencer marketing. Do you think for a minute that the same rules apply when partnering with fashion influencers on Instagram as when working with expert influencers for your sector on LinkedIn? Of course not. How about video? Just because Facebook recommends that its video ads are shorter than 15 seconds doesn’t make that the benchmark for B2B video on LinkedIn. In fact, the data suggests that the optimal length for LinkedIn video is between 30 and 90 seconds. That’s long enough to capture attention and deliver just the right amount of meaningful detail, and it’s two to six times longer than the videos you’d be posting if you were arbitrarily applying video best practice with no regard to audience and environment.

Before you start applying best practice – and before you start lecturing others about it – you need to take the time to study what it’s actually based on: which audiences, which sectors, which marketing formats or strategies. You need to check when it was published, because as we all know, marketing’s relationship to platforms, formats and audiences changes over time. You need to remind yourself what the purpose of best practice is – and what it isn’t. And you need to be ready to test that best practice for yourself before urging others to follow it. This is where too many marketers fall down – and they miss out as a result. They ignore the second limitation on best practice.

The dangers of just following the standard
As a rule, best practice isn’t written to help you deliver exceptional marketing. It’s not a strategy designed for your brand and tailored to your particular needs and objectives. Best practice is a reference guide based on the aggregate experience of lots of different campaigns; suggestions that have tended to work consistently in the past. By definition, when you follow best practice, you’re following a well-informed crowd of other marketers. You’re standing on the shoulders of others’ experiences, and avoiding having to reinvent the wheel and learn everything about how to use a specific platform from scratch. But you’re still following the crowd.

There is nothing wrong with this in as far as it goes – but as a marketer, it’s worth recognising that it only goes so far. It’s equally important to keep pushing the boundaries, deliberately breaking the rules in order to create impact and differentiate yourself from others. Rather than be bound by best practice, treat it as one approach that received wisdom tells you will work – and then experiment and test to see if you can find other approaches that work even better.

Data-driven marketing doesn’t just follow best practice – it defines it
Marketers who follow best practice too slavishly will often claim that they are being guided by data. In fact though, too much allegiance to best practice stands in the way of being a data-driven marketer. When you only operate within a standard approach, you restrict the scope of meaningful testing that you can carry out – and you restrict the capacity of data to challenge received wisdom and move things forward. Truly data-driven marketers aim to establish best practice rather than just follow it – discovering for themselves what works best for their particular business and their particular audience. They are scientists trying to expand marketing’s understanding rather than be limited by it.

If we all just followed best practice and never tested the alternatives then all content marketers would still be creating blog posts that were exclusively between 500 and 750 words long. That was the doctrinaire best practice for years, since any expert would confidently tell you that your audience didn’t have the attention span to read anything longer. Data and science have since shown this to be nonsense. Our research with Buzzsumo proved that the most effective posts in any B2B sector are over 1,000 words long – and that the most influential posts of all tend to be over 2,000 words long. And contrary to the received wisdom, audiences have no problem concentrating on something for longer periods – providing it’s interesting. None of this prevented disposable, snackable content being enshrined as best practice for years.

Don’t ignore the outliers – aim to become one
Even when best practice is guided by sound data, it can’t avoid oversimplifying complex data sets. It’s based around the average (either the mean or the median), which tends to obscure the significance of outliers – campaigns that break the rules and succeed anyway, or follow the rules but still fail. Just because most marketers, on average, don’t succeed with content of a particular length, format, style and frequency doesn’t mean that no marketer ever can. It’s important to test your own boundaries and discover what works for you – and be guided by testing and data when doing so.

Rather than being humbled for daring to experiment outside ‘best practice’, I’d encourage anybody to ignore the criticism, keep trying different approaches, and discover what works best for your brand, audience and style of content. That’s not to say you should push on stubbornly in the face of all evidence, though. If you depart from best practice, then you have to pay close attention to the results and be ready to respond quickly. That’s what being a data-driven marketer is all about.

Best practice has real value for marketers, especially content marketers who operate across a range of different platforms and formats. It saves time, gets us up and running quickly, and gives us a fantastic foundation from which to test, experiment – and help to evolve that best practice. However, if you refuse to ever step outside of the best practice comfort zone (or spend your time lambasting others for doing so) then you’re imprisoning your brand in the conventional way of doing things and severely restricting your creative and strategic options. You’re also helping to keep best practice itself imprisoned in the past – and that’s the last thing we need.

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