The Web is awash in articles and blog posts with headlines like "The Five Best Practices of Twitter," "Seven Facebook Page Dos and Don’ts," "25 iPhone Apps You Just Can’t Do Without!" and "10 Things You Need to Do Right Now If You Want to Eat Lunch at the Cool Kids’ Table."

If you read enough of them, they start looping back on themselves and you notice that items listed in one person’s "15 Most Awesome Techniques for Converting Leads via Twitter" is listed in another person’s "12 Examples of Horrible Social Media Backwardness."

What do we do with all that? Well here’s what I do. I don’t believe in "best practices." That’s right. No best practices for me.

The Web is awash in articles and blog posts with headlines like "The Five Best Practices of Twitter," "Seven Facebook Page Dos and Don’ts," "25 iPhone Apps You Just Can’t Do Without!" and "10 Things You Need to Do Right Now If You Want to Eat Lunch at the Cool Kids’ Table."

If you read enough of them, they start looping back on themselves and you notice that items listed in one person’s "15 Most Awesome Techniques for Converting Leads via Twitter" is listed in another person’s "12 Examples of Horrible Social Media Backwardness."

What do we do with all that? Well here’s what I do. I don’t believe in "best practices." That’s right. No best practices for me.

Well, maybe one best practice: Test everything I can test. That’s my best practice. And if someone else’s best practice can’t be tested then I just ask myself if life might be more fun if I tried their best practice. If so, then I adopt it, if not then "meh."

And it isn’t enough that the person touting the best practice did the testing. It certainly helps, but it’s still not good enough for me. The reason is that the person’s best practice may, in fact, be awesome — for that person. It might indeed have led to significantly more sales — for that person. But his audience, market, industry, branding, positioning, history, etc. may be radically different from mine. Even if we’re in the same business. Even if we’re in the same town.

Differences between you and the proponent of a best practice are significant

For marketing techniques and technologies, the audience is really the most important factor in whether something is going to work. If the person promoting a best practice has a different audience from you, even slightly different, then the best practice might not translate to your business. The only way to know is to test it. Without testing, a best practice is just an observation of how something worked — for one person’s organization — in dealing with their target audience.

In real estate these differences in audience can be significant. For example, a common practice in search-engine optimization is to target a keyword that is formatted: "property type, city, state." One of life’s persistent questions is whether to spell out the whole state name or use an abbreviation. In terms of lead quality (in this case, likelihood of people searching on a specific term to convert) I’ve seen a noticeable difference.

Sometimes real estate professionals operating in the same market have had different results. If there had been a "best practice is to optimize for state abbreviation" one of them would have been ill-served. I haven’t seen a one-size-fits-all answer to the "spell out the state name or abbreviate it?" question. Only way to find out is to test. …CONTINUED

A method for approaching best practices

When encountering a best practice I like to apply the "observe-orient-decide-act" method (aka Jonathan Boyd’s "OODA loop"). Becoming aware of the best practice is an observation: "Oh, someone has this idea." Next up, I like to orient the best practice with whatever other related information is available: "Did they test their idea? Can I test their idea? Are there studies of this available?"

Then I can make a decision: "Based on this person’s idea and the related data, can I try this idea out and test the results?" If yes, then I go on to acting on the idea and testing it. Note that I don’t adopt it into my own personal best practices until I’ve run through all of these steps. That’s my best practice.

Here’s an example: A few weeks ago I had a passing mention to the concept of "retweeting" (reposting someone else’s Twitter post, also known as "RT") in a column (you know: "Hey everyone I’ve got a great idea! Please RT!"). Real estate blogging superhuman Jay Thompson remarked in the comments that he feels that stating "Please RT" in a tweet is cheesy.

For the record, I agree with Jay. It can be terribly cheesy. However, Dan Zarella’s research suggests that Twitter posts with the word "Please" in them are retweeted about five times more often than those without.

Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Observe

  • Jay Thompson thinks putting "please RT" in a twitter post is cheesy.
  • I feel the same way.

2. Orient

  • I happen to know that Jay Thompson tests things.
  • Dan Zarella’s research makes a strong argument for including "please RT" in twitter posts. …CONTINUED

3. Decide

  • While Zarella’s research-based argument is strong, it is a little old. I should test it.
  • I know I can test the effectiveness of Twitter posts.
  • Conducting the test is fairly easy for me and doesn’t put much drag on my social media efforts.

(Geeky aside: I know I can test the effectiveness of Twitter posts containing links using the metrics built into the bit.ly URL-shortening service and/or use campaign-tagging to see how visitors arriving on my site via a "please RT" URL vs. a "non-please RT" URL behave — i.e., does including "please RT" have any effect on site conversions? I can also track whether it results in an increase in the rate of my Twitter "unfollows," but I’m not going to bother with that because I’m not going to be overly obnoxious in my "please RT" testing. I’ll probably keep an eye on it but I won’t obsess over it.)

4. Act

  • I implement the test and wait for it to complete.

A best practice

I’ll close out this "anti-best-practice" article with my own best practice suggestion: Use all those best practice blog posts as awesome ideas for tests. Test everything before you adopt it into your regular routine. And for those things that fail, go back and test again later. Or test a different variation on it.

If you learn how to test your efforts then you’re building a skill that doesn’t get obsolete with each new technology or shift in the market. Instead, you build up useful experience and knowledge about how your specific audience responds to your specific efforts.

(Please note that Jay Thompson never said that avoiding "Please RT" was a best practice — he was just stating his preference. However, the process I went through was the same as if it were a best practice. And testing has shown me that if I mention Jay Thompson, more of you will read through to the end!)

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.

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