Describing his skepticism about best practices, David Baker, VP of E-mail Solutions at Avenue A/Razorfish, web consultants to some of the best known brands in the world (including Oxfam, for whom they created this gifting website), says this:

Best practices are like benchmarks. They are very personal and contextual. Applied incorrectly, best practices can become handcuffs. Let’s face it, you can’t build a differentiated business or strategy around some other company’s work. While I don’t completely discount looking at what’s happening with your competitors or others in the online marketing space–and I’ve stolen an more than an idea or two that way myself–too many marketers and consultants have a copy-and-paste mentality these days.

“Best practices can become handcuffs.” Boy, is he on the money! And not just in terms of commercial online marketing. I would say his warning applies equally to every aspect of nonprofit marketing … online engagement, direct mail fundraising, donor communications, website development, designing major gift and planned giving programs, you name it.

Should you ignore “best practices?” Of course not.

Assuming they are proffered by someone who passes the sniff test for ample and relevant experience, you can accept that the recommended practices probably have worked with some consistency in some number of similar situations. They are worth considering.

But the key question remains: Are they right for you?

Whatever the marketing channel or strategy you are employing, before slavishly copying “best practices,” do these things:

1. Understand fully the specific context in which they did work. Does your situation differ in some pertinent way … different target audience characteristics, different underlying economics, different organizational competencies?

2. Understand the marketing principle or hypothesis behind the purported best practice (i.e. why it might work). Sound marketing is grounded upon verities of individual and social psychology, cognitive and emotional processing, and embedded human needs. If you can’t identify and “buy” an intuitively cogent marketing principle underlying the recommended practice, think twice about using it.

3. Test the waters before diving head first. Pre-analyze per above as best you can. But even “best practices” require validation. There’s no substitute for “wet testing” a recommended practice in a controlled setting before betting the family jewels. Then, if it indeed proves out in your context, go ahead and shamelessly copy!

4. Finally, despite the cautionary nature of the previous steps, dare to explore and experiment with variations on the theme. Think of “best” practices as merely “better” practices … guideposts that you might actually improve upon! There’s always fresh gound to be broken, new standards to be set.

Now, I hesitate to call these four recommendations “best practices” … but you are free to do so if they happen to work for you.

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