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Death by 'best practices': why they can kill your business
It was my first job in digital marketing and I wanted to make an impression as quickly as possible.
I was working for a SaaS company in Dublin and one of my objectives was to increase the conversion rate from visitors to paid customers.
I really had no clue where to start.
I remember looking at the websites of major SaaS companies to get some ideas: Mailchimp, SalesForce, Zendesk...
Zendesk's registration form caught my eye. They only had two fields: "First Name" and "Email".
We had eight.
I remember searching for articles mentioning best practices on how to increase form conversions and found plenty. The vast majority had “Reduce the number of fields” as the first item in their list.
Last updated14 Sep 2021
"Bingo!", I thought. "If Zendesk are doing it and so many articles are mentioning it, it must be a best practice and it will work for us, too. After all, if we decrease the number of fields we surely will have more paid customers, it's mathematic: less friction, more conversions."
We remodelled our registration based on what I thought was a marketing best practice. The number of registrations from anonymous visitors to signups skyrocketed. I was ecstatic as it was my first major marketing win.
After a few weeks, we realized that the remodelled form didn't bring more new customers. It only increased the amount of signups, but those signups were less qualified and less inclined to become customers.
We were back to square one.
It was one of the first big lessons as a newbie digital marketer: blindly following best practices won't always work, and can sometimes even harm your business.
Look, I get it...
Whether you're a marketer, designer, or developer, you have targets to reach. You're under pressure to increase conversions by 20%, to boost ROI by 8%, or to maximize profits by 15% by the end of this quarter.
Your performance bonus and your reputation depend on it.
An easy solution is to follow best practices.
They usually come from experiments conducted by one company in one particular context. The extraordinary results coming from these experiments get shared around across multiple sources, and, sure enough, eventually become a blanket statement accepted as correct by the community.
A few examples come to mind:
“The fewer fields on a form, the better.”
“You should be on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.”
“Your call-to-action buttons should be green.”
“The best time to tweet is between 8am and 10am on Tuesdays.”
“Customers don’t know what they want! You shouldn’t listen to them.”
After all, why spend countless hours trying to come up with ideas for improvement when others have already figured things out?
What works for another business might not work for yours
I clearly fell for this one in the example I gave above: Zendesk had a different audience, a different team, a different product, a different customer onboarding process...
Should I go on?
Each business is unique and should be treated as such.
Most best practices are past practices
Think about the time it takes to come up with an experiment, test it, implement it, talk about it, and, finally, have it accepted as a best practice in the industry you are in.
6 months? 1 year? 5 years?
What matters here is the gargantuan delay between the time the first savvy designer comes up with the idea and the time you come across and decide to implement it.
Most of your competitors read the same books, go to the same conferences, and follow the same 'influencers' on Twitter. Chances are: they have also implemented this 'best practice'.
You and your competitors are only playing catch-up while other companies are busy understanding their customers and testing new experiments that will be recognized as 'best practices' in a few years.
Best practices can harm your business (and even kill it)
I used to hear the following statement countless times at startup events and it made my blood boil every single time: "People don’t know what they want! You shouldn’t listen to them.”
Luckily, it seems like more and more companies understand the benefits of providing a great experience to their customers so the latter stick around:
Yet, even if you most definitely agree with the fact that companies must listen to their customers, 42% of startups still fail because there is "no market need" according to an analysis of 101 startup post-mortems by CB Insights.
A lot of new businesses are busy “tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need” because of the assumption that people “don’t know what they want”.
This so-called best practice has been so ingrained in entrepreneurs’ minds that it’s leading almost half of them to failure.
Companies relying solely on following best practices will only be able to reach the status quo and ultimately see their performance decrease in comparison to other, more progressive companies:
Why do we feel the need to blindly follow best practices?
Besides getting a quick and easy win without spending hours experimenting, I believe there are two fundamental reasons why humans are suckers for blindly following best practices.
Conformity to the norm
If you were a fan of the sitcom ‘Friends’, you probably noticed the laugh track at the end of every funny moment.
Why do TV producers use recordings of laughs if the cast's jokes are hilarious on their own?
Because they're taking advantage of what psychologists call "conformity to the norm". We are wired to follow what the majority thinks and does, in order to avoid being ridiculed and treated as outcasts.
Listening to other people's laughter (in this case: Friends' live audience) makes us laugh more.
The same phenomenon happens when blindly following best practices: if all of our competitors and industry influencers are on Periscope, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, then we must be there, too.
Who wants to be an outcast?
Obedience to authority
We humans have the extraordinary ability to collaborate in large numbers. We're able to do so because of our natural tendency to obey authority, which serves us well in most cases, except when the so-called "authority" has wrong intentions.
In a social experiment led by psychologist Charles Hofling, a doctor called Dr. Smith called 22 nurses on the phone and asked them to administer 20mg of 'Astroten' to a patient,Mr. Jones.
21 out of 22 nurses complied with his request and would have killed Mr. Jones on the spot if the dose wasn’t a placebo purposely placed for the purpose of the experiment.
This experiment highlights the formidable power of authority over people's decision-making, because 95% of nurses broke three critical rules and endangered the life of a patient (they should have NEVER accepted instructions over the phone, the dose of "Astroten" prescribed was double the lethal dose (10mg), and the drug was unauthorized for use on a ward).
I believe this is the second fundamental reason why we tend to blindly follow best practices if an authority such as a doctor or, in our case, the Head of Marketing of a respected company suggests it.
In fact, this is exactly what happened to me early in my career: "If Zendesk uses a registration form with only two fields, then we must do the same. After all, they're an authority in the SaaS world!", I thought to myself.
What to do instead of blindly following best practices? The case for continuous improvement.
Blindly following a best practice is like going to your family doctor and getting antibiotics prescribed without a diagnosis.
You simply can’t apply a solution if you don’t know the problem, very much like a doctor won’t usually prescribe you a new medicine if she doesn’t know what disease you suffer from in the first place.
At Hotjar, we do a thorough diagnostic investigation before prescribing a dose of 'best practice' or trying something new.
Step 1: identify your biggest problem
If your family doctor told you she'd like to treat your small headache first, instead of looking at your excruciatingly painful throat infection, you would leave her practice without looking back.
The same principle applies in the business world: focus on your biggest, most painful problem first.
To do so, ask yourself: "What is the most serious and common problem preventing me/us from reaching our objectives?"
If it is too difficult to pick just one problem, try to rate them on a scale from 0 to 10 for both of these variables:
How common the problem is: does it affect 2% of your customers or ALL of them?
How serious the problem is: does it prevent you from doing your job or is it just a small stone in your shoe? Aggregate the two scores to get an idea of the biggest, most pressing problem you should probably focus on right now:
For the sake of this article, let's say that the lack of sales on your e-commerce website is by far the biggest problem you are facing right now.
Step 2: identify its root cause
Once your doctor has identified the biggest problem (your painful throat), she moves on to assess its cause by questioning you about your pain level, your past medical history, and even examining your throat for any outside clues.
Once you have your biggest problem in sight, it's time to identify its root cause.
Toyota has developed a methodology in the 1950s called ‘The Five Whys’ in order to solve problems in their product lines.
Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System, described it as: “The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach: by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”
This methodology enables you to be honest, because it identifies the fundamental root cause behind each problem.
To apply this methodology in your business, ask yourself "Why is it happening?" followed by "Why is that?" four times. If the last answer is something you cannot control, go back to the previous response.
To go back to our example, you're in a panic because your e-commerce sales are much lower than the same month last year. Instead of blindly applying a best practice to solve this problem, let's apply ‘The Five Whys’ methodology.
Why are you generating fewer sales?
Because, even though your website traffic has slightly increased compared to last year, your conversion rate has decreased.
Why is that?
Because fewer visitors buy on the website.
Why is that?
Because these visitors don't seem to be ready to buy yet.
Why is that?
Because they are not in a "buying mood".
Why is that?
Because they came from Facebook.
There we have it.
The root cause of our biggest problem.
The solution is in sight.
Step 3: come up with hypotheses
After assessing your symptoms, your doctor has identified the cause of your illness and she can now prescribe the best possible treatment to fight your throat infection.
Luckily, in today's medical world, most illnesses (or problems) are associated with a treatment (or solution).
This isn't always the case in business.
There are always multiple ways to solve a problem.
You could make a list of best practices you have read in a marketing blog, brainstorm multiple ideas with your team, or even look outside of your industry to find inspiration elsewhere.
To decide in which direction to go, you should come up with testable hypotheses, following this format:
If [variable], then [result].
The variable is the element you want to modify, add, or take away.
The result is the expected outcome.
Or, in other words, if [we do this thing], then we will [see a change in a specific metric].
Once you have a list of hypotheses, which one should you test first?
At Hotjar, we look at two key aspects:
How easy it is to implement the hypothesis? How many hours will it take to complete the changes? How complex are the changes?
How likely is this hypothesis going to solve the problem? Is it rooted in science or is it a wild guess?
You can then rate each of your hypotheses for each of these criteria and prioritize them:
Going back to our example, your sales have dropped because most visitors come from Facebook and are not ready to buy just yet.
Our hypotheses are as follow:
In this instance, it seems like building a free course using Facebook Messenger marketing should be the first hypothesis to test.
Step 4: Prototype and test
The last step to continuously improve and break away from the status quo is to implement and test your hypotheses.
Are your assumptions correct? Will this solution actually work for your business? Or will it fail?
I have been surprised many, many, times over by the results of past experiments. The only true way to know for sure if your solution will work is to test it with real people.
Regardless of the performance of your experiment, you're learning and slowly escaping the inevitable decline that comes from blindly applying best practices.
To conclude: build your own bank of best practices.
At Hotjar, we avoid blindly applying best practices because we know they could seriously harm our business. We know that we don't know everything, which is why we constantly run tests and survey our users, to find out from both qualitative and quantitative sources what works and what does not.
So, what's the alternative to blindly following best practices?
We advise you to discover and document your own internal best practices.
Remember, what works for you might not work for others, which can help you to break away from the status quo and gain a solid competitive advantage.
A big "thank you" to the Hotjar Beta Readers who helped us to find a great title for this article. Special mentions to Simone Puorto, Philip Jeyes, Tristin Roney, and Filippo Livorno who came up with the "best practices kill" concept.
Cartoon illustrations crafted by the amazing Manuel Berbin.
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