Let’s talk about an epidemic.

In the digital marketing industry (and many other industries that aren’t the focus of this blog) there is something of a perverse fascination with the notion of “best practices.” Here’s the problem:

Best practices don’t exist.

Though well intentioned, the very notion of a best practice can serve as a foil to its own supposed cause.

I’ll wax poetic on this in a bit, but first, allow me to recount a personal experience— one that all you PPC types can hopefully empathize with— when best practices held me over the fire and scorched me.

I was somewhat green in the industry, and handling a new client in the healthcare vertical. One of their primary concerns on arriving under my management was their lead quality. A quick glance into the account illuminated the source of the problem (or so I thought) – broad match keywords. Broad match everywhere.

Seemed like an easy win to just get some exact and modified broad match up in the account. And even better, this account was linked up to Salesforce, enabling me to track lead quality all the way down to keyword level.

So I paused a bunch of those broad matches, added their exact and modified broad match counterparts, and sat back to watch the lead quality improve. Boy, was I wrong. At first the leads seemed choked off a bit, which was to be expected— the whole thought process is that we were creating a more exclusive funnel, open only to those whose search queries specifically indicated intent to research this product.

And then the leads started coming through…and were getting disqualified almost invariably. It didn’t make sense. I couldn’t generate a qualified lead to save my life. I tried everything— new ad copy, landing page split tests, different information requirements on the lead form, so on and so forth.

Eventually, totally at a loss, I just turned the broad match keywords back on. I don’t think 24 hours had passed before two leads floated on in and were coolly qualified. Somewhat bewildered by the whole thing, I discussed it with many of my colleagues, and discovered that this wasn’t quite so rare as you’d be led to believe.

Which is more to the point: so much of the inherent danger of subscribing blindly to best practices is that they’re almost always rooted in cold hard logic. They absolutely make sense, and so it’s easy to think, “yeah, I’ll do this!”

The problem is implementing so-called best practices in an industry that transcends logic with great regularity. There are too many external factors— marketplace shifts, the natural variance of human behavior, etc— to expect industry trends at large to lie dormant— which is exactly the supposition that “best practices” make.

It’s a culinary best practice to add ketchup to your hamburger, right? You ate it and it was delicious. The next evening you whip up some chicken alfredo. Do you add ketchup? No, you do not add ketchup to your chicken alfredo because that would be disgusting.

Do all parts of that (by turns delicious and horrific) metaphor translate to digital marketing? Probably not, but you get the point.

None of this is the real issue with best practices, though. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The words “best practice” have become something of automatic rationalizer, exculpating the actions behind them. Ever had this conversation with a client, or someone above you in your marketing department?

You: “How would you feel about [doing a thing]”

Client: “Why do you want to do that?”

You: “Because it’s an industry best practice.”

Client: “Oh, okay. Let’s give it a shot.”

Who sees the problem here? Best practices are too commonly used as a substitute for intellectual creativity, for thinking outside the box and developing opinions or ideas specifically curated to any given situation.

In short, a reliance on best practices is to settle for the possibility of acceptability, instead of searching for the path to excellence (and yeah, that bit definitely doesn’t just apply to PPC). And this point is what makes the very words “best practice” toxic hyperbole; best practices are very rarely the best option.

It’s a fib inherent— a breaking of the truth so thoroughly ingrained in our way of professional communication that we’ve actually trained ourselves to believe it. It might be a common practice, or a logical practice, but the best practice will never be something handed to you on a silver platter.

There really are no exceptions. Even the golden mantra “test early and test often” won’t be universally applicable. Losing tests minimize share of goal metrics after all, and while many outlets value to knowledge of what’s worked and what hasn’t, many others take the stance that the risk of performance loss isn’t worth the knowledge gains.

Every PPC account— and zoomed out, every business, and zoomed out even further, every marketplace— exists under its own set of circumstances. Those circumstances don’t remain static, and neither should marketing strategy. The river flows with the bend, not over it. Best practices, conceptually, don’t make that bend, which is why reliance on them is a brittle thing.

As digital marketers, it’s our technical knowledge of the industry, as well as our past experiences, that allow us to develop strategy with efficacy. Adaptability, reactivity (or better yet, proactivity), and creativity are keys to success. They’re the bridges over the troubled water of stagnation, whereas best practices are the stepping stones, rising just above the surface and liable to be submerged at any given moment.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully none of this argument will be misinterpreted. Best practices exist because, for someone, somewhere, at some time, they’ve worked well. That person probably informed a colleague, who saw some measure of success as well. Thus a strategy was born, and that strategy gradually inflated into what we now conceptualize as a best practice.

What you, the practitioner of your craft, need to recognize is that any strategy extracted from the tremendously unique fabric of your own thinking has the potential to be the actual best practice for your situation— not one that simply holds the title due to semantics (or lack thereof).

Best practice minimizes thinking, when you should be thinking a lot. Think about bidding down when convention says bid up. Think about opening budget when it seems like maybe you should close it. Think about everything. Weigh the consequences. Rationally consider the rewards. Piece together your own approach. You never know, it could work great for you. Then maybe it could work great for someone else.

And then maybe one day an entire industry will refer to your strategy as a best practice.