Agile marketing offers the opportunity for businesses to achieve their goals more quickly, more efficiently, and with happier employees than traditional marketing tactics. Most marketers say they want to be more flexible/adaptable/agile, but what does it really mean to practice agile marketing?
This beginner’s guide to agile marketing will cover the basics of this highly efficient methodology so you can start making improvements to your marketing efforts today.
(Spoiler: constantly changing your mind about your marketing strategy does not make you agile)
Beginner’s Guide to Agile Marketing Contents:
- Why you should consider agile marketing
If you are interested in responding quickly and meaningfully to your customers, competitors and market conditions, you should be running your department on agile marketing principles.
If you want employees who are invested in the strategies they’re implementing and can communicate that excitement to customers, you should be agile.
If you want to free your management team from hand holding marketing efforts and empower individuals to take ownership of specific objectives, agile is for you.
Curious about what specific outcomes you might get out of going agile? This graphic from Forbes clearly shows the big benefits you might be leaving on the table by sticking with the status quo in your marketing strategies:
Forbes recently reported that CMG Partners polled over 40 marketing professionals in 2013 and came to one simple conclusion: “applying Agile methodology typically used in software development yields greater marketing effectiveness and efficiency.”1
Need a little more hard data? Try this one: “63% of marketing leaders indicate agility as a high priority, but only 40% rate themselves as agile…[and] marketing departments who consider themselves agile are three times more likely to significantly grow market share.”
Many marketers think they are already “doing agile” because they regularly experience shifts in their strategies, techniques and objectives. They understand the need to be responsive, but not necessarily the need for the underlying structures that will support this responsiveness. That’s where the methods we outline below in What does it mean to practice agile marketing? come in.
Agile methodologies are also hugely beneficial in creating self-managing teams of players who take ownership of the tasks they’re responsible for and exceed expectations while they complete them. Daily stand ups, clear task management boards, and accountability to the team allow all members to play a meaningful part in marketing efforts across the organization.
The marketers interviewed by CMG realized that, “employees working in agile environments report a greater overall sense of satisfaction and pride in their work due to feeling more empowered, greater clarity in how their role impacts the business, and a more collaborative work environment.”
If there are any types of marketing departments or companies that would not benefit from implementing agile methodologies, I haven’t encountered or heard of them. Is this you – have you tried agile and found it unhelpful? Shout out in the comments – I’d love to know if there’s an example out there and why these techniques didn’t work.
So it’s pretty clear that agile marketing can help us achieve our business goals. Great…now what?
At its core, agile marketing is a simply another method by which a marketing team communicates the value of their product/service to consumers, with the goal of earning a purchase from those consumers. It distinguishes itself from other marketing strategies by focusing on short term goals whose validity can be tested with hard data and continually revised.
So the on-paper definition seems simple, but the reality of implementation has been tripping people up for years.
When agile marketing first became “a thing” back in 2012 there was a big scramble to be the person who defined it for everyone, but not a lot of folks talking about what it really looks like on a day to day basis. So we’re going to get specific about how an agile marketing effort runs.
Each agile team will look slightly different, but if you are really using agile marketing methodologies, you will have:
- Carefully defined sprints
- Sprint planning meetings
- Regular scrum or stand up meetings
- A highly visible task tracking system
- A sprint retrospective.
These components are what help distinguish a true agile marketing team from one that just changes its mind a lot.
Carefully Defined Sprints: Precise Timeframes for Achieving Marketing Objectives
Agile’s main differentiation from traditional marketing is that agile tackles marketing objectives in short bursts, called sprints, instead of in big chunks, like quarters or years. Sprints can be as short as 2 weeks or as long as 6, depending on the objectives.
The length of each sprint must be carefully defined, because the tasks you are tackling are based directly on the number of hours available to you in the sprint. So if your team has five full time members, and your sprint is four weeks long, you have 160 hours to allocate to tasks.
Most agile teams set aside 10-20% of their time for unforeseen projects; it’s probably a good idea to start with 20% until you fine tune your systems. That means you really have 128 hours over the next four weeks to spend on your marketing goals.
Sprint Planning Meetings: Where Do the Hours and Money Go?
So in our four week sprint with five team members we get 128 hours to allocate. At the sprint planning meeting it’s everyone’s job to choose from among the possible projects and fill those hours (within the set budget). The meeting can last anywhere from an hour to a whole day.
By “everyone” it’s generally meant not only the five members of our fictional agile marketing team (also known as players), but also business owners, a scrum master who runs the meeting, and any fans/interested parties.
Jim Ewel lays out a good sprint planning meeting agenda in his “Basics of Agile Marketing:”
- Establish basic parameters – start and end date of sprint, availability of team members (plan for vacations, training, conflicts), resources available (budget)
- Desired scope – business owners state their desired goals (leads, incremental revenue, visitors to web site, etc.). Players and business owners list projects on sticky notes that contribute to goals; post them on a board and rank them. The group also discusses any assumptions contained in the marketing model, and decides which ones to test.
- Estimation – 10-20% of resources are set aside for the unexpected. Estimates of both time and money are stated by the players for each project in rank order. Projects are accepted until no more resources are available for current sprint. Remaining projects are placed in the backlog.
- Sprint poker – players and owners revisit the desired goals and negotiate what is realistic, given the accepted projects in the estimation section above.
- Assignments – players are assigned responsibilities and interim due dates.
- Agreement – The goals and list of committed projects are confirmed in writing between the players and the business owners.
At the end of a sprint planning meeting, you should have a board with a list of tasks all under a “to do” column. As the sprint progresses the tasks will move from “to do” to “in progress” to “complete.”
Most teams keep this low tech and use a white board with sticky notes to mark task progress, but you can also use an online tool like Trello if you need to interface regularly with off site team members, or just don’t want to rock the white board.
Lots of marketers assume that they’re already “doing” agile marketing because they tweak their social media plans every once in a while, or because they test landing pages or email campaigns and make changes based on the results.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to planning an agile marketing iteration than just tweeting new content or adding a new call to action to your landing page. Making haphazard changes to your marketing strategies or objectives is not the same as running your marketing team using agile methodologies.
If implemented properly, agile principles will be the foundation on which all your marketing efforts are built and will inform how all members of the team do their jobs on a daily basis.
Regular Scrum or Stand Up Meetings: Daily Checks on Progress/Barriers
Once the sprint has been planned, you need to check with all the players to make sure they are making progress on their assigned tasks, and if not what needs to be done to help.
These daily meetings, called scrum or stand ups, should be very short and to the point. Many teams make attendees actually stand up to ensure the meeting stays as short as possible.
Daily stand ups should consist only of each player reporting:
- what they did yesterday
- what they will do today
- any obstacles they’ve encountered
It’s best to have the stand ups in a room where the project board (the one you used for the sprint planning meeting to define the sprint objectives and tasks) lives, so that as tasks are reported complete during stand ups you can move their sticky note across the board.
These daily meetings shouldn’t be thought of as “reporting in” to the scrum master. Rather they are a chance for team collaboration to overcome challenges and ensure a successful sprint.
A Highly Visible Task Tracking System: Everyone Sees Task Progress
This is the white board/sticky note system that we’ve been talking about. It doesn’t have to be this exact set of physical objects, but you need an easy, obvious place to track all the sprint objectives and the high level priorities that make up your backlog.
A Sprint Review and Retrospective: What Did We Learn?
The last two cogs in the agile marketing machine are a sprint review and a sprint retrospective, which are actually two very different meetings.
The review brings together the same members as the sprint planning meeting and addresses the specific tasks from the sprint – were they completed? what were the results of the hypotheses being tested? Are there any tasks that didn’t get done? This is also where business owners can comment and ask questions about the goals/objectives/tasks from the sprint.
A sprint retrospective, on the other hand, is more about the sprint process as a whole. Instead of addressing the individual tasks and objectives being tackled, it asks how the sprint itself went. What went well? What could be improved for next time?
You can invite business owners and fans to this meeting if you like, but it can be most helpful to have just the scrum master and players for optimally productive discussion.
Every agile marketing team will look a little different. If you’re hiring new people and you want them to join an existing agile team, focus on getting marketers with a broad skill set. When pulling together an agile team from existing staff, go for variety; pull from sales, development, product management, and of course marketing departments as needed to get the right mix of skills.
The kinds of skills you’ll need represented will vary depending on your product and market, but you’re almost certainly going to need people who can do the following:
- Create email campaigns, including A/B tests, and track their effectiveness
- Optimize profiles, interact on, and monitor social media channels
- Create, optimize, and test online advertising campaigns, including ads on social media sites as appropriate, and create landing pages for these ads
- Make changes to whatever website you’re using for marketing to test consumer behavior and marketing messages
- Confidently draw conclusions about website behavior using Google analytics or another analytics system
- Write, edit and distribute content
- Spearhead in-person marketing efforts like trade shows, conferences, sponsorships, etc.
- Oversee off-line advertising efforts, such as radio and TV ads
To be clear, I’m not saying you need an agile team member for each of the above skill sets. Just the opposite in fact.
Agile software development was created in large part as a backlash against the perception of programmers as code monkeys who didn’t need to be integrated into any kind of customer feedback loop. Modern developers who are most successful in agile teams can design as well as code, and they can also incorporate customer feedback.
Your agile team members should be similarly flexible. If your email marketing campaign is a big focus, but only one of your team members knows how to run your email software you’re going to run into a bottleneck in that area. Instead you want to have several people who could each be working on different aspects of email marketing simultaneously.
If you want the full benefit of the agile approach to marketing, then yes, you need to go all in and commit.
Where people get tripped up is reading fancy, theoretical “what is agile” blog posts and then going out and implementing what they think they just read about. For example, the Agile Marketing Manifesto states that agile marketers value:2
- Validated learning over opinions and conventions
- Customer focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy
- Adaptive and iterative campaigns over Big-Bang campaigns
- The process of customer discovery over static prediction
- Flexible vs. rigid planning
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Many small experiments over a few large bets
All sounds like pretty common sense stuff to modern marketers, but there’s nothing there about a sprint, scrum, or backlog. And this is why marketers often think that as long as they are looking at some data, don’t have a plan that covers anything longer than the next few months, and are occasionally changing their homepage based on some customer feedback they’re as agile as they need to be.
But in reality they are still stuck in the same “old school” marketing mind set that relies on a large, hegemonic Marketing Plan. Sure they’re a bit more flexible about how they implement The Plan, and they have access to data that drives their decisions, but that doesn’t make them agile.
In fact it might actually be making them worse at their jobs because they aren’t really doing traditional marketing, but they don’t have a structured alternative either.
All the pieces of the agile marketing machine rely on one another to be fully effective, so taking one or two on their own really won’t give you the full picture. Remember our five parts from What Does It Mean to Practice Agile Marketing? None of these make a whole lot of sense in a vacuum:
- Carefully defined sprints
- Sprint planning meetings
- Regular scrum or stand up meetings
- A highly visible task tracking system
- a sprint retrospective.
There are certainly some simple agile experiments you can do to test out these methodologies, but in general our advice is go all the way agile, or don’t go at all.