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This year, master best practices—then break them

By Hana Abaza / January 9, 2019

It’s human nature to want to know the best way to do something in the shortest amount of time. It’s part of the reason why “marketing best practices” continues to trend as a Google search term. It’s why Dummies books were so beloved for so long. It’s why “how to” articles exist.

If you’re trying to learn a new thing, it’s natural to want the shortcut. And sometimes that works. You want to know somebody has done it before. You want to know the rules to follow to do something equally impactful.

A solid foundation is necessary. But the paradox is: once you’ve mastered marketing best practices, it’s the right time to break them.

A deep understanding is just the beginning

In order to break best practices in a way that is productive, first you have to master them, or have a deep understanding of them. Are you proficient in your field, role and subject matter? Can you generate consistent and repeatable results? Bluntly said, do you know your sh*t?

If you have a solid foundation, now you’re ready to make it better. Where can you experiment? Where are you ready to challenge assumptions and best practices?

Breaking best practices may or may not lead to a better outcome. But the willingness to break best practices is at the root of an experimentation mindset that enables you to push boundaries and challenge assumptions that may be masquerading as “best practices”. This ultimately helps create change for your whole organization: a culture of formulating and testing hypotheses, based on what you are trying to accomplish.

Don’t break stuff for the sake of breaking stuff. I’ve seen the pendulum swing too far in that direction. Ask yourself, “Am I going against the grain for the sake of going against the grain, or for a better outcome?”

If it’s the former, pause and re-evaluate. If it’s the latter, keep going.

Creating a culture of breaking best practices

At Shopify, we’re always trying to question the why. That extends beyond marketing, across the entire company. We try to be conscious of not doing something just because it’s the norm or because most organizations do it or most marketing teams do it. We have a healthy skepticism, which we try to use when considering all our decisions.

And like many other companies, our culture is important to us. This traces back to the type of people we hire. Shopify employees are very entrepreneurial. Some have run companies in the past, and others come from bigger companies, but bring an entrepreneurial mindset. This sets our team up to question, challenge and ultimately deliver better results.

When you’re ready to accept that marketing best practices might not actually be your best option, are you hiring people who bring this inquisitive, entrepreneurial perspective? Or are you hiring people who will replicate more of the exact same thinking and the exact same results?

Once you’ve hired right, another way to make sure you’re breaking best practices is to change the way you’re setting goals and constructing strategy as an organization. Most companies set strategy and goals with a top-down approach. But, more and more, companies are starting to use a bottom-up approach as they build out their overall growth and corporate strategies.

To effectively break best practices in your organization, you need a thorough understanding of why the commonly held belief or current best practice is what it is, and why it’s not working.

Getting internal buy-in for breaking best practices

One of the strongest barriers between breaking best practices and maintaining what you’ve been doing is getting internal buy-in from your peers, from management and from leadership.

First, you need credibility. You need to have mastered the best practice.

Next, it’s about building a persuasive argument or case for whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Sitting down in front of people and presenting them with a bunch of data and facts doesn’t usually do the trick.

What you need to do is persuade your team with a compelling story that weaves in those data points and gets people excited about the potential of a new approach.

“Here’s how we’ve done things. Here are the best ways of doing things. Here are our commonly held beliefs. Here’s what usually happens. Here’s why.”

After creating shared context for your starting point, assure your audience and empathize to make it a constructive conversation.

“It totally makes sense that this is what we did in the past..”

And then hit them with the good news (and data):

“But now we have this new information. Now we know this thing.”

These are the same persuasive tactics you would use to sell a product. You would never get on a call and trash a potential customer for picking the competition, telling them that they made a terrible choice and rubbing salt in the wound with an aggressive pitch.

You would never approach it that way. Instead, you’d empathize—”I totally understand why you went with that other software.”—and then make your offer—”Let me share some new information with you that might change your mind.”

You must validate where your audience is coming from and their current beliefs first. Then present them with new information that gives them the space to actually change their mind.

You have to empathize with their perspective to change it, so remember to listen: listening first allows you to understand how to frame your point, which smooths the path and brings your peers and leadership along for the ride.

Customer connection is the ultimate goal

The technical side of marketing—optimization, campaigns, distribution—is fairly well understood. We know the standard marketing best practices like the back of our hands. We know how to optimize a landing page or email or distribution channel. It’s hard to do, but we have the tools to do it. There are endless resources available.

The hardest part is figuring out how to truly connect with your audience.

And now I’ve circled back to the idea of puking rainbows—running on assumptions and fantasies about your customers, instead of objective knowledge. Most marketers gloss over the customer and don’t spend enough time understanding their needs and tastes.

Take, for example, Cards Against Humanity. For Black Friday, they designed a temporary site where they sold a wide range of items for 99% off.

It was basically “what not to do” on a landing page. Distracting, flashing graphics; blinding colors; multiple, competing CTA’s.

But the copy was amazing, “Cards Against Humanity” style: hilarious, irreverent, absorbing. It made you want to read every single word on the page, including the FAQ.

And who reads an FAQ?

Breaking best practices can be your key to breaking through. To connecting with people. To connecting with your people. And if you have the opportunity to create real connection, why would you ever settle for less?

Hana Abaza

Hana Abaza

Hana Abaza is the Head of Marketing for Shopify Plus, the commerce platform powering Fortune 500s to the world’s fastest-growing brands including Nestle, MVMT, The New York Times, Leesa, Fashion Nova, Rebecca Minkoff, Kylie Cosmetics and thousands more. Prior to joining Shopify, Hana led marketing and growth in a variety of industries with a proven track record for scaling teams, revenue and customers.
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