Everything You Need to Know to Start Agile Marketing

As the buzz around Agile marketing grows ever louder, it can be easier to feel as if it’s too complicated to digest. 

There are terms and tools and tactics that are unfamiliar to many marketers, most of whom have never been on a dedicated Agile team. 

But the good news is that Agile can be quite accessible, especially if we’re agile about it and don’t get bogged down in rigid, prescriptive approaches that aren’t useful for the way we work anyway. 

With all that in mind, this article offers a straightforward introduction to Agile for marketing. Where I’ve used terms that may be unfamiliar I’ve tried to explain them clearly and/or link to more detailed resources.

My genuine hope is that you’ll find your own path to agility here, because it’s not just a buzzword. It’s a fundamentally better way of working for any and all marketers. 

What is Agile Marketing Anyway?

Let me start with what Agile marketing is NOT. Agile marketing is not this tweet:

This tweet is newsjacking, or inserting your brand into an emerging news event. 

Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t have anything against this tweet per se. 

It’s awesome. But it’s not Agile. 

Agile marketing is a fundamental change in the way we work. It’s far more apparent in how work gets done than it is in the work itself. 

The Oreo tweet could have been produced by an Agile team, but it also could have been produced by a traditional team who had a great moment of inspiration during a nationally-televised event. 

You would expect an Agile marketing team to release campaigns, content, and all kinds of marketing output more quickly. The work they deliver will probably be more open to iteration than a traditional huge Big Bang campaign

But the biggest changes around Agile marketing happen at the level of process, workflow, and operations. 

Principles Over Practices

This is where we start to encounter the Agile values and principles, which form the foundation for any and all good Agile implementations, whether inside of marketing or out. 

Core Agile values include: 

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Responding to change over following a plan

Working [something] over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

In the original Agile Manifesto for Software Development, the [something] said “software,” but if we swap that out these values become quite applicable to all kinds of knowledge work. 

They also represent the real revolutionary power of Agile ways of working. 

No need to design a convoluted RACI diagram for your whole department or a Gantt chart that spans 1200 rows and columns. Just get the right people together and allow them to hash out problems. 

That’s individuals and interactions over processes and tools. 

The items to the right of “over” in these value statements don’t go away, of course; we can’t execute a complex omnichannel initiative without some kind of plan, after all. 

But when faced with a choice, an Agile team will default to the items on the left. 

No Prescriptive Practices

The Manifesto goes on to outline a dozen Agile principles, which include such gems as:

“Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.“

“Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.”

“Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” 

But nowhere in the document does it decree, “Thou shalt have two week sprints” or “Thou shalt stand up for 15 minutes everyday.” 

Practices like Scrum-based sprints and daily standup meetings have been developed (many by the authors of the Manifesto themselves) to bring these principles to life, but they aren’t the only options. 

There are tons of ways to do Agile. 

Agile Marketing, Not Agile Development

This flexibility is what allows us as marketers to create our own version of Agile. 

As long as its based on the Agile values and principles, it’s Agile. It doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of Agile software development. 

In many cases that means marketers will use a hybrid framework, a combination of practices pulled from multiple Agile frameworks, to execute their version of agility. 

In fact, data shows that marketers are more than twice as likely to use a hybrid approach as they are to use Scrum, the most common approach inside of software and IT: 

Picking the Right Framework(s)

This flexibility can be empowering for marketing teams seeking an Agile approach of their own, but it also means we have to spend more time up front learning about the available options. 

Since we likely won’t be using a single framework, but rather a hybrid of two or more, we have to know about them all. 

This may be why education remains one of the major hurdles to agility for marketers:

So, in the interest of education, here’s an overview of the two most common frameworks: 

Kanban

This framework is all about flow. It’s designed to create a system that continually delivers value to a customer, and it does so through creating visibility and focus. 

Visibility comes through the well-known Kanban board. This includes vertical columns that represent stages of work; at its simplest this can be “To do, Doing, Done.” Here’s a slightly more complex version:

The point of a board like this is simple: show what a team is working on. 

Once we know where effort is going, we can decide if those are the right places. 

We can then create focus by applying WIP (Work in Progress) limits. These hard ceilings place limitations on how many items can be in a particular stage of work (e.g. only 5 things “In Progress” on our sample board). 

It’s counterintuitive, but when we have fewer things in progress everything gets done much faster. But these limits are also not our natural inclination as knowledge workers (or as marketers). 

2019 research from MarketingProfs revealed a shockingly high percentage of marketers who can’t ever say no to incoming requests, even when those requests don’t align to goals. WIP limits and visualized work help with this problem (and many others). 

Kanban has more complexity than just a board and WIP limits, but these two are plenty to get you started. Over time you can incorporate more practices as needed as you mature in your use of the framework: 

Finally, while Kanban doesn’t have the rigid meeting structure that we’ll find in Scrum, you should still plan to hold daily standup meetings (15-minute check ins each morning with team members) and regular retrospectives to keep your process humming. 

Scrum

While Kanban provides continuous flow, Scrum’s focus is more on recurring incremental delivery. 

By using short sprints, or bursts of focused work, Scrum also looks to create focus on valuable work and remove distractions. But it does so through timeboxing rather than hard limits on work in progress. 

Each sprint requires the team to decide how much they think they can accomplish from their prioritized to-do list or backlog. They then commit to completing that within the next few weeks, which is called a sprint. 

Ideally they’re focused on those items (and only those items) until the sprint is over, creating some valuable piece of work by the end. 

The team manages this process with a few meetings:

  • Sprint Planning: outline upcoming work and commit to completing it as a team
  • Daily Standup: team assesses its progress, how to help one another succeed, and what blocks are holding them back
  • Sprint Review: demo or show and tell for people outside the team to see what’s been accomplished during the sprint
  • Sprint Retrospective: team reviews their process over the past few weeks and identifies areas of improvement

Scrum also has very clearly defined roles within the process:

  • Scrum Master: Owns the process, including facilitating meetings and managing interpersonal relationships within the team
  • Product Owner: Makes sure the team is doing the right work at the right time; analogous to a project owner in many ways, but devoted to a single team
  • Team Members: little to no hierarchy within the team; everyone works together for mutual success

Hybrid Agile Marketing Frameworks

Scrum is very prescriptive, but this can feel comforting to teams with no experience using Agile. Kanban, on the other hand, is adaptive; you can start by visualizing  the process you have and then going on from there. 

But as we’ve seen, most marketers are using a hybrid of some kind. 

So don’t be afraid to try sprints with a board and WIP limits inside them. 

Or use Kanban and add in regular review meetings. 

There are an infinite number of variations, so don’t be afraid to experiment and build your own hybrid.

Getting Started in 3 Steps

Moving to Agile marketing can feel overwhelming, especially if you aren’t a CMO with the right to sweepingly reform the process of an entire department. 

But never fear; there are simple ways that anybody can start using Agile in three easy steps:

  1. Build a Backlog: This is a strictly prioritized to-do list, which you (or your team) will use to identify the highest value work to do next. It needs to be updated often, otherwise you risk doing the wrong work. 
  2. Visualize Your Work: In other words, build a kanban board. If it’s just for you as an individual, start with “To Do, Doing, Done” as your columns. If you’re using it for a team, consider the different phases work passes through, and/or the handoffs needed to complete work. These are good candidates for columns too. 
  3. Apply WIP Limits: Create some hard limits on how much you can work on at a given time. My personal kanban board has a WIP limit of 2, which I run into pretty much everyday. It kind of sucks in the moment, but it forces me to finish action items before I can start on new ones (which is the whole point of a WIP limit). If you have more than one person on your board, you can set up WIP limits per person, or on the different columns of your board. The point is to create focus, and force everyone to stop starting new things and start finishing what they’re working on. 

Within these three steps you should also plan for some regularly touchpoints to evaluate and improve your process. If you’re in a team, a daily standup meeting around the kanban board is ideal, along with a retrospective meeting every two weeks. 

If you’re a team of one, sit down and review your board every morning with your coffee or tea, and then every couple of weeks make a list of new improvements you want to try and implement one. 

Start Going Agile by Being Agile

So you see, Agile marketing doesn’t have to be complex, complicated, or convoluted.

It’s a way of managing our work that creates focused effort on high value projects, sometimes through boards and WIP limits, sometimes through sprints, and sometimes through a combination of the two. 

With so many ways to make it work, there’s really no excuse not to try.

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