Early this year our marketing team expanded exponentially, and as part of that growth, we decided to move to an agile marketing system.
It’s been about six weeks since we got started, so I wanted to offer some lessons and pointers for those who are considering adopting an agile approach in their own marketing departments.*
As a reminder, three of the most basic benefits of agile marketing are: speed, efficiency, and more satisfied employees.
I’m going to offer up our own personal experiences on how we’ve improved in those three areas in six short weeks, including a 1-5 ranking for each area of improvement.
Finally, I’ll give you the top 3 lessons we learned from our agile marketing growing pains so you can get a head start on your own agile process.
*Note: For those unfamiliar with agile marketing, you may want to check out our overview of agile marketing and the agile marketing glossary first.
Hand to Five Rankings
At the end of every Sprint Kickoff meeting, all our marketers raise a hand indicating how confident they are that our team can complete the tasks we have on our “To Do” list for the week.
Unless every single member of the team raises four or five fingers, we can’t move ahead.
Anybody who is a three or lower needs to clarify where their uncertainty lies, and the rest of the group needs to help raise their confidence level to a four.
Sometimes this means moving a task back into the “On Deck” list; sometimes it means that particular person feels overextended and removing them from a task or two.
These “votes” are vital to making sure everyone is comfortable with the sprint’s goals, so we can all move ahead as a unit. I’m using the same system below for ranking our team’s success over the past 6 weeks.
Agile Marketing and the Need for Speed
Being able to adapt quickly to changes and opportunities is one of the things that makes agile so valuable to marketers, and we’ve loved this aspect of it.
For example, in this short six week period we’ve rolled out two separate iterations of our homepage, tested a new pricing structure, and completely rewritten our first 7-day email series for new customers.
And that’s just a tiny fraction of what we’ve been able to do.
The main driver for speed in our sprints seems to be that when we’re all in a room together (we’ve got 11 people working on our sprints), the collective number of hours we can contribute feels huge.
Even when I’ve got content deadlines looming, and our webmaster is chasing down bugs, and we have a billing problem that pulls a few people off their tasks for half a day, there are still plenty of hands to make light work.
We’ve had a couple of sprints where we overextended ourselves, but we realized our error after a couple of days and pulled some of the tasks back off the “To-Do” list and into the “On Deck.”
The weekly sprint format makes this a relatively risk-free thing to do, because we know that On Deck items will get addressed very soon.
This is one of the biggest wins for us. We complete an agile sprint each week, which means we’re forced to break down bigger tasks into pieces that we can accomplish in five working days.
That means we have improved our efficiency for completing projects exponentially.
Hand to Five Rating for Efficiency: 4
For example, for our sister site SurveyGizmo.com, we wanted to create tutorial videos to help new customers learn the software and create a project quickly and easily.
Pre-agile marketing we might have started with only that kind of big-picture explanation, and then slogged through for a few weeks trying to figure out exactly how to accomplish the huge goal.
Urgent issues would certainly have popped up to derail our focus, and before we knew it six weeks might have gone by and we might have barely written a script for the first video.
Now that we’re using agile methodologies, however, the timeline went like this:
Friday afternoon: During a strategy meeting, we decide that tutorial videos will be a useful tool for customers and a good way to help them learn the software and therefore stay customers longer. The task goes into our “On Deck” list and we create a list of tasks for the first tutorial.
Monday morning: During our Sprint Kickoff Meeting we move the card into our “To-Do” list for the week, and we choose the topic of the first video. Various team members volunteer to work on it.
After the meeting, those members with a stake in the project meet to assign tasks and plan for the week.
Tuesday-Friday: At our daily stand up, each team member reports on their progress; they also keep the team updated by checking off to-do items on the publicly visible Trello card. Some blocking issues come up, and there is a snowstorm during the week that holds up progress, but we make it about 80% through the first video.
Monday morning, again: At the Sprint Retrospective we talk about what worked and what didn’t with the video creation process. The Video Creation Trello card goes into the “Backlog” list, indicating it still needs to be completed.
In the Sprint Planning Meeting, which follows immediately after the Retrospective, we must consider the outstanding items on the first Video Creation task when deciding how much the team can handle for the coming week.
Long-Term Benefit: We’re now on our third tutorial video, and our process has been dramatically streamlined. We can complete an entire video, from scripting to publishing, in a five day work week.
I won’t say we’ve got the efficiency down completely, which is why I’m giving this one a 4 instead of 5.
There have still been some hurdles and distractions that we need to address, one of which is the day-to-day marketing activities that we have to work into our schedules, but our efficiency under the agile system has been greatly improved.
Agile Employees are (More) Happy Employees
So far, there’s a pretty high level of satisfaction amongst our team with the agile process.
As part of our Sprint Kickoff Meetings, we review the numbers from the previous week, and we’ve been able to see significant gains week over week as a result of our sprint tasks.
That’s a great feeling, and a big morale boost right before a kickoff.
And when the numbers falter, it motivates us to tackle something with an even higher possibility of a return in the coming week(s).
Hand to Five Rating for Happiness: 3
I’m only giving this one a three because we’ve had a couple stressful sprints when we overestimated our team’s total bandwidth.
There have also been several weather-related issues that have kept team members out of the office, and that always holds things up and makes for a tough few days.
But in general, our marketers seem to be thriving under the weekly agile iterations. We haven’t tried anything but week-long sprints, but so far those are working well for us (we started with just a week because our developers run on this schedule too).
Our Top 3 Agile Marketing Lessons
- Know Your Total Team Bandwidth: Take into account how many team hours you have during a sprint, and make sure your tasks won’t take more than that.
- Remember to Experiment: Don’t get so caught up what you’re doing that you forget to try something new once in a while. This goes for both marketing tasks and the ways you manage the agile process.
- The Process Matters: Experimenting with your own version of the agile marketing method is great, but some pieces need to be constant.
Know Your Total Team Bandwidth
There have been a couple of times when key members are out for a few days, yet we plan sprint tasks as if we have the regular amount of hours from the team.
As you might guess, this tends to stress the team’s resources and increase the likelihood that we won’t complete all our tasks. We don’t like incomplete tasks.
Similarly, we only have one web designer/webmaster who can handle programming tasks. This limits the number of website intensive tasks we can accomplish in a week, and we have to account for that when choosing projects.
This goes for individual team members too.
For example, I’m the only full-time content marketer we have, so I can’t volunteer for many non-writing/editing tasks without overloading myself.
This can be challenging, but having team members who are overextended put the sprint’s success at risk, and that’s not a good situation to be in.
Remember to Experiment
This is one of the great things about our week-long sprints: we can try something for a week, figure out if it’s working, and if not remove it.
One week isn’t too long for any type of experiment to run, so most of them are low-risk if they fail, but offer strong returns if they succeed.
Agile is about failing fast, so one of our lessons has been to use the sprint format to be braver about what we do and how we get it done.
This approach applies to agile marketing itself as well.
We use Trello to track our sprint tasks, as well as to act as a repository for “Ice Box” items that we want to do someday but aren’t the most beneficial to our current marketing goals. But maybe a simple whiteboard is all your team needs.
Don’t feel married to a particular sprint length, tracking mechanism, or type of project you’re doing. Hypothesize, test, adjust, and repeat. You’re agile. You can handle it.
The Agile Process Matters
I’m going to contradict myself a little bit here. It’s fine to experiment with tracking and other pieces of the agile marketing puzzle, but there are a few things you really need to keep in place to give yourself the best chance of success.
- Sprint Kickoffs: All members of the team need to get together at the start of a sprint to assign themselves to tasks, vote with the Hand to Five technique, and give feedback about the sprint in general. Some teams also have Sprint Planning Meetings; our managers basically do this just before our kickoff.
- Daily Stand Up Meetings: This 15 minute check in process in the morning is vital to making sure that your team is on track to finish their projects for the sprint. All team members report what they did yesterday, what they’re going to do today, and any blocks in their way. We’ve found it helpful to repeat the Hand to Five confidence vote in the middle of the sprint as well; this lets us know if some issues have arisen once work began that we didn’t anticipate during the Kickoff.
- Sprint Retrospectives: These are essential when you’re starting out. During these meetings your team will suggest things about the sprint process they want to stop, start, and continue. We keep a running list of these, so if the same issues come up continually we know that we’ve got a problem. Young agile teams will learn a lot through this review process, and can take that feedback into account during their next iteration.
Conclusion: Agile Marketing is Totally Worth It
I’ve been on a few marketing teams, and none have been as consistently productive or successful as ours since we starting using agile marketing.
Every week we’re improving, both in terms of the metrics for our companies’ growth and our own feelings of confidence in the marketing department.
Sure it was an adjustment at first. Daily stand-ups alone require a shift in mindset, but they also make each member of the team accountable to the others for their part of the sprint.
Agile marketing also fosters feelings of strong team unity, particularly when it becomes clear that a particular sprint item is faltering and everyone pulls together to get it done. Wins are team wins, and failures are team failures.
Words from our Team:
“The past 6 weeks have moved quickly, and I feel like things are only getting faster. Agile marketing is definitely not for someone who doesn’t enjoy what they do. You have to be fully engaged and invested or else you’ll throw a wrench into the gears of your team.” – Heidi
“I’ve worked on development teams doing agile for years, but I’ve never seen it be more effective so quickly than on this marketing team. Our meetings, collaboration and projects are the highlight of my week. It’s all unicorns and rainbows as far as I’m concerned!” – Christian
“So many new discoveries can occur week to week. Its empowering to be able to shift focus to something of higher value and not be tied to a long term project that may not pay off. Retrospectives are key to getting better and more comfortable with the process.” – Joshua
“Fast, engaging, and transparent! We have been able to focus, act, and improve on numerous aspects of our process, business, and product in this short time. Being an ‘Ops’ guy, I have truly enjoyed the implementation of this process at SurveyGizmo.”- Pablo