The following is an excerpt from my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It’s now available on Amazon.
How often do you step back from your work as a marketer to judge whether you’re truly doing your absolute best? What do you think you’d find if you did?
I think we’d all encounter a gap. It’s a gap between the work we aspire to do … and the work we’re actually doing; the results we’d like to see … and the results we’re really seeing. Few things can feel more frustrating than that, especially when you consider how hard we’re working.
So what does it really take to do our best work?
If we examine our normal behavior when we try to close that gap, I think we’ll find our answers. Because what do we normally do when we need better results as content marketers? We look for best practices.
That makes sense at first glance. We believe best practices will help our work look something like this:
The reality looks a lot more like this:
Over and over, we find another best practice, try the latest trend, or follow the smartest guru, and we just keep hoping and praying that one of them, one time, will finally deliver as promised. Worse, in the internet age, this process has gotten insane. However, our problem isn’t the volume of information; it’s how we make sense of it all. Our biggest issue is how we make decisions in our work as content marketers.
We tend to make our decisions in one of three ways, each of which can be rather troublesome.
Sometimes, we make decisions based on the best practice that carries the most weight in our minds. This is the path of conventional wisdom. But just because something is the most common approach doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for us. The newspaper industry learned this the hard way.
The problem with conventional wisdom
In an article for Fast Company, Contently co-founder Shane Snow shares the hilarious yet horrifying story that reveals the problem with conventional wisdom. In the newspaper business, it’s common to print your issues on something called “broadsheets,” which are 22-inch sheets of paper. However, in the early 2000s, The Independent decided to shrink their pages to something called tabloid pages, and they were criticized by their peers. Unfortunately for those peers, they clearly didn’t realize where broadsheets came from in the first place.
In 1712, the British government imposed a tax on newspapers based on the number of pages that they published. In response, most publishers began using larger pages. They could print the same number of words on fewer sheets and thus avoid the tax. That is how broadsheets were born.
In the 1800s, the tax was repealed, but by then it didn’t matter: Broadsheets had become the conventional wisdom. As a result, when The Independent decided to break from that tradition, they were ridiculed. But what’s more ridiculous? Relying on a best practice established centuries ago, based on a law that no longer applies, or questioning that notion to think for yourself instead? When the Harvard Business Review spoke with the publishers of The Independent, they learned that not only did the paper save money after the switch, they sold more print editions.
Snow’s article is appropriately titled “The Problem With Best Practices,” and he cuts to the core of this ridiculousness when he writes, “The ‘best practice’ is one of the business world’s most common conventions, but it’s often arbitrary and based mainly on habit—the result of conditions that no longer apply.”
Conditions may change, but too often, we don’t. As a result, our knowledge can grow stale. Let this story be a warning to us all: We shouldn’t let a false sense of certainty about knowing “the” answer prevent us from seizing new opportunities. In our efforts to close the gap between average and exceptional work, we shouldn’t base our decisions on whatever feels most common.
Google’s new feature and starting with your context
On the other hand, we shouldn’t base our decisions on whatever seems newest, either. This is the second way we often look for best practices: We obsess over trendy tactics. We herald the arrival of a new technology or technique as the latest and greatest approach. We love when a marketing leader can tell us what 2019 will be “The Year Of” in our industry.
Quick, do you remember what 2017 was the year of? Nope! But we still crave the new, and that can be dangerous too.
For example, in 2010, Google introduced SiteLinks, a new feature of its AdWords product that would allow marketers to append four additional links just below their search ads. They look something like this:
As long as I live, I will never forget SiteLinks, or the number Google used to convince advertisers to adopt this feature: 30 percent. That stat is burned into my brain forever. See, I was part of the sales team at Google that helped launch SiteLinks to advertisers. During beta testing, Google found that ad clicks increased by “30 percent on average” using SiteLinks—a line I used thousands of times in emails, phone calls, and meetings. As an account manager, I had over 1,000 small business clients, all of which received “scalable sales initiatives” from me and my teammates. Since my clients were small businesses, Google didn’t invest in one-on-one or in-person support. Instead, I’d receive spreadsheets and training modules from Mothership Googs, instructing me to send batch emails or pitch decks, or to call a certain subset of accounts to prescribe the same change. In 2010, that change was to enable SiteLinks.
The logic was simple: “We’ve seen advertisers get 30 percent more clicks on average. If you enable them, you’ll also get more clicks. More clicks means more sales on your website.” But this was faulty logic, especially considering that small business websites are typically a mess. There’s no guarantee they’d see more sales, despite additional traffic. However, there was one thing that was a guarantee: Google would generate more revenue.
Conditions may change, but too often, we don’t.
Despite being in my early twenties, marketing executives and practitioners thought I knew something, and I suppose I did know something: I knew what worked on average.As for what might work for my specific clients? That was something I couldn’t tell them. I just prayed those questions never came. When they didn’t, I was grateful at the time, but now I wonder, why didn’t they? Why didn’t my clients start their thinking by considering their context first, and then make sense of this new trend, given what they knew to be true about their own businesses?
Instead, history repeated with SiteLinks, just as it had with every sale we made. Clients conflated what works in general with what works for them. In under a year, millions of businesses had adopted SiteLinks. Google had activated its massive reach and unleashed legions of charismatic salespeople (and also me) upon their clients, and they simply brute-forced a new trend into existence.
Why are SiteLinks a best practice? Because Google wants them to be.
Months later, when clients complained that their budgets were drained without seeing corresponding sales, I was told to ask if they’d tried Google Analytics on their sites. Google laughed all the way to the bank while I stared at my sales quota and felt sick to my stomach: 104 percent to target. (Hurray, me. Ugh.)
Just because we’re doing what seems newest doesn’t guarantee we’re doing what works best for us.
Like the newspaper publishers that doubted The Independent or my clients who trusted my advice as a Google sales rep, in our efforts to get better results, we often seek best practices through conventional wisdom or trendy new tactics. This merely biases our thinking toward whatever is most common or newest. But there’s a third, equally dangerous way we sometimes conduct ourselves at work: we thrash.
It’s never been easier to be average
All too often, our behavior reveals that we have no idea what we’re trying to do. We send or receive panicked emails. (What’s our Snapchat strategy?!) We slap more logos on our website and add more skills to our LinkedIn profiles. We run reports to show others all the projects we finished or “pieces” we published or campaigns we planned. In this frenetic and exhausting race for better results, we try lots and lots of stuff without really knowing why.
There’s just one problem here. (Actually, no, there are at least twenty-three problems here.) Just because we’re doing lots of stuff doesn’t mean any of it is the best stuff for us. Additionally, the more stuff we do, the harder it becomes to identify what’s working and what needs fixing. In our desire to see better results, we can get so overwhelmed, stressed, or confused that we simply churn out more. In doing so, we bias our work toward activities, not results or fulfillment. We prioritize tactics over strategy. This rarely, if ever, leads to exceptional work.
Unfortunately, this lack of clarity is enabled by the very things supposed to deliver clarity in the first place. Who hasn’t gone down a rabbit hole of searches, videos, podcasts, and posts? The internet age has a dark side in our work: Advice Overload. It’s just so tempting and easy to seek our answers elsewhere that we find ourselves with far too many of them, far too quickly.
For example, maybe you’re a big brand executive and want to capitalize on a new trend—something like predictive analytics. To get your team up to speed, you can simply visit YouTube and pull up tens of thousands of videos from experts. In seconds, you’ve accessed millions of hours of advice that you and your team can use.
Maybe you’re not an executive. Maybe you’re just entering the workforce looking for a marketing job, or you’re trying to switch career paths, or you’re seeking that next promotion. If that’s you, why not visit Amazon and buy any of the 47,046 books offering career advice, many from the world’s biggest names in business and self-help?
Maybe you love your current job, but you’re trying to grow your company’s Twitter following. Well, when should you send out your tweets? Quick, can you tell me the best time for a business to tweet? Time’s up, but it doesn’t matter if you knew the answer anyway, because in under a second, you can get 35 million results on Google. Even better, you won’t need to read any of those pages. You can just glance at the little box at the top that Google uses to share the most popular answers on their search results pages. (Apparently, you should tweet at 3 p.m. local time.)
My friend, this world is flooded with advice and ideas for our work, all of which we can access in an instant—but so can everyone else. Guess what happens when I tell readers that the best time to tweet is 3 p.m.? That is no longer the best time to tweet!
My point is this: It has never been easier to be average. If we don’t have an answer or an idea, we can find and follow everyone else’s. As a result, much of our work is derivative. We may not aspire to build average careers or companies, but when we purely rely on the ideas and answers of others, we wind up creating commodity work.
It’s like we’re trapped. We’re trapped in this never-ending cycle of best practices. It’s like this constantly spinning wheel. The character Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones nails it when she says the ruling families of her world, Westeros, are all “just spokes on a wheel.” First one is on top, then another’s on top, and on and on this wheel spins. We might not live in Westeros (thank God—it’s pretty murdery there), but we’re similarly caught on our own version of that ever-spinning wheel. First one best practice is on top, then another, and another. We just keep hoping and praying that we’ll find one to save us. But they’re merely spokes on a wheel.
When we base our decisions on conventional wisdom, we’re just clinging to one spoke and risk getting crushed as the world turns. When we rely too much on new trends, we stretch ourselves thin, reaching across the wheel to grab the next spoke, then the next, never fully grasping anything, constantly reacting to everything we see coming. When we lack clarity, our work devolves into chaos as the wheel spins out of control.
On and on this wheel spins, taking us to the one place we don’t want our careers or companies to be: average.
In my decade as a marketer, I’ve watched as my peers and leaders obsessed over banner advertising, then organic search (SEO), then paid search. Before long, it was all about social media, then content marketing, then influencer marketing. As I write these very words, the industry is abuzz about account-based marketing and artificial intelligence. Every year, we write predictions of what the next twelve months will bring, and every year, I wait for someone to admit, “It depends.” It depends on your unique situation. Instead, people claim to know “the” answer in some general sense.
It’s time we got specific. We’re told best practices work best for others, but the question we need to ask more often is, “What works best for us?” Better yet, what works for you? Admittedly, it’s not an easy question to answer, especially when we’re constantly pressured to deliver results. But we shouldn’t make decisions based on whatever is most common or newest. There’s a certain clarity and subsequent power that comes with better self-awareness and situational awareness.
Today more than ever, it’s so incredibly easy to be average. But I know you want something more. It’s my fiercest belief that exceptional work only happens when we find and follow what makes our situation an exception. So how do we do that? And can we make it as simple as finding and following the most common, the latest, or the easiest best practice?
I believe we can. It all starts with a single mentality shift. We have to ask better questions. We have to stop obsessing over everyone else’s “right answers,” and start asking ourselves the right questions.
Will you continue relying on answers from experts or start asking yourself better questions? Will you blindly trust the next influencer who hands you an idea, or will you try to craft your own? If we start our process there, we’d see the wheel for what it is. We’d make better decisions than any best practice can provide. In the end, exceptional work isn’t created by the answers others give us, but by the questions we ask ourselves.
Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.