Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a strategy consultant named Steve Shapiro who wrote a book with an intriguing title: Best Practices Are Stupid. I haven’t read it yet, but I absolutely will. (With a title like that, how could I resist?) It got me thinking about patterns in general and the fact that it’s often every bit as important to study worst practices—what not to do. After all, as Shapiro suggests, following someone else’s patterns is often the opposite of innovation.

If you ask me, the best strategies are informed by both patterns and anti-patterns.

Patterns are the repeatable abstractions of road-tested success. They’re the examples we celebrate and the case studies we cite. Anti-patterns, as you’ve already concluded, are the exact opposite. They come directly from the mistakes that we should know better than to repeat.

In the business of digital marketing, we’re still in the early days of building our collective compendium of patterns and anti-patterns—but the examples are emerging. In fact, you can probably recite some of them by heart. Social marketing has plenty:

  • Oreo’s masterful tweet in the dark? Pattern.
  • Auto-posting on Marathon Monday. Anti-pattern.

Mobile marketing has its share, too:

  • Sephora’s in-store mobile programs? Total pattern.
  • JCPenney’s iPad at every checkout? You get the point.

The point is that we should reflect on (and off of) both documented successes and failures to define digital strategies that yield more of the former and far, far fewer of the latter.

To that end, let’s take a closer look at these specific examples:

  • PATTERN: Oreo’s slam dunk. It was the tweet heard around the world. How did they pull it off? Oreo’s agency ran a fully staffed war room, including lawyers at the ready. When the moment struck, they were there. The lesson? Real-time is often anything but.
  • ANTI-PATTERN: Social media on autopilot. The scores of brands that failed to suspend auto-posting on the day of the Boston Marathon were deemed unintentionally tone deaf as a tragedy unfolded. The lesson? Timing is everything.
  • PATTERN: Sephora’s mobile beauty. By finding the opportunity hidden inside the showrooming risk, Sephora deepened engagement with its customers and then turned the mobile web into its endless aisle. The lesson? Recast a threat as your best opportunity.
  • ANTI-PATTERN: JCPenney’s overnight transformation. Ousted CEO Ron Johnson took a page from the Apple and Target playbooks, wildly missing the mark with a tired brand unready for such aggressive change. It turns out that, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. The lesson? Know your customer. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

This last example has stuck with us, both because of the egregiousness of its miscalculations and the scale and consequence of its failure. In an effort to attract a younger, more affluent demographic, Johnson alienated his core customer. He transformed the in-store experience with iPads at every checkout and an everyday low-price strategy that took the fun out of shopping. Traditional customers fled en masse and the aspirational target never materialized.

For me, what is most significant about this particular failure is that it represents a failure of customer empathy. Simply taking a close look at their brand loyalists should have been an indication that these aggressive changes were an anti-pattern in the making.

The lesson? It’s more fun to talk about victories, but sometimes the more important truths are found in failure.



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