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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Agile Will Not Fix Broken Marketing
No matter how you look at it, Agile marketing is a very powerful force.
Its positive impact is felt from the most recently hired individual contributors who are just trying to be better at their jobs, all the way up to the C -suite executives who are just trying to get a handle on what marketing should look like in the twenty-first century.
Its benefits extend to other departments as well. Salespeople enjoy a better relationship with their marketing colleagues (and get more useful marketing programs), and HR can hire more easily and keep marketers around longer.
Customers, whether they know it or not, are also less likely to be annoyed by marketing campaigns produced by an Agile team. The one-two punch of higher quality and customer centricity make the output of Agile marketing teams truly enjoyable.
But despite all of that positive potential, there’s one thing Agile marketing cannot do.
Agile marketing cannot turn crappy marketers into great ones.
This point, while seemingly obvious, is an important one for fledgling Agile marketing teams and departments to understand. It’s related to similar assumptions that Agile will solve any and all marketing problems (again, sadly not true). Let me explain.
Whether you’re using Agile processes, or the most rigid and traditional waterfall structure in the world, your marketing will not work if it’s outdated and out of sync.
Let’s put aside the Agile vs. traditional dichotomy for a moment and think about the cornerstones of effective modern marketing (presented in no particular order):
- Customer focused: Yammering on about features and benefits won’t cut it anymore. Great marketing is focused on solving problems for our customers. In the face of an internet full of helpful and entertaining stuff, why should they care about anything else?
- Data enabled: Gut feelings and brilliant brainstorms are nice, but at the end of the day we need to know — and I mean really know — what’s working and what’s not. For that, we need data. And for data, we need some kind of analytics tools that will track the behavior of customers and prospects throughout their buying journey and across all available channels. That data needs to be reliable, or we revert to liquor and guessing (which may be fun, but aren’t likely to keep us employed).
- Content driven: Effective content marketing is the foundation on which all successful marketing is built. You need outstanding content creation abilities to stay in touch with your customers and prospects. This should not be up for debate at this point.
- Persona powered: You don’t need to spend months and months crafting perfect personas, nor do you need a pristine customer journey map. But you need at least an idea of both those pieces in order to create content that solves real problems for your real customers.
- Choosy about channels: Your customers/audience aren’t on every channel in the world, so you don’t need to be either. Choose your areas of focus carefully, and understand that means you won’t be everywhere. We must break free of shiny object syndrome.
- Strategically centered: Tactical execution cannot happen without a clear, effectively communicated strategy. Create a strategy, share it with your entire department, and use it as your North star. Make it flexible enough to adapt to incoming data, but stable enough to guide daily work. You can’t veer wildly from one strategy to the next every other week and expect people to devote their best efforts to work that could be abandoned at any moment.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked a couple of things here (that’s what blog comments are for, after all). But the point is that you need to follow these marketing best practices whether you choose Agile marketing or not.
Without them, Agile will just allow you to spin your hamster wheel faster.
Agile Won’t Tell You How to Market
I feel the need to include this second point, because I’ve recently had multiple people request a level of detail inside Agile marketing case studies that I find disconcerting.
These Agile enthusiasts want to know the exact composition of the Agile marketing campaigns that have delivered such outstanding results.
How many emails did they send?
What social media channels did they use?
What did the content publication schedule look like?
While that might be interesting to read about, a demand for that level of detail before they’ll consider trying Agile misses the point of case studies entirely.
We need marketing departments who can think for themselves. Who will believe that Agile values are worthwhile, and who will follow that belief by taking Agile processes and adapting them to their own unique contexts.
Hyper-detailed case studies, on the other hand, make it far too easy for us to become paint-by-numbers teams.
Your remember those paint-by-numbers things? Where they put numbers in different spaces on a painting and you just followed along?
Sometimes they turn out nice, but a lot of times you end up smearing big sections, or having colors run together, because you didn’t know which part/colors to do first.
And even if you execute them perfectly, you learn nothing.
You didn’t try out different colors, or experiment with your own layout, or create a laughably terrible composition that you’ll know better than to ever use again.
Agile marketing case studies (and all kinds of case studies, for that matter) are not designed to be paint-by-numbers guides.
They are there to give us hope, to provide proof that these processes really do work inside marketing teams, and to offer up directional data to support arguments for change.
Case studies are not there to tell us how to do our jobs. They don’t know how to market our particular product to our particular audience. They don’t know specific what Agile adaptations we’ll need to make to produce an effective framework for our team(s).
So don’t try paint-by-numbers Agile marketing. It’s not going to be a pretty picture.
Start Strong, Adapt Often
Agile marketing has done (and continues to do) amazing things with teams of all shapes and sizes. Faster campaign releases, higher quality work, more engaged marketers — all these and more are there for the taking if teams are willing to put in the work.
So you see, Agile marketing doesn’t have to be complex, complicated, or convoluted. It’s just 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.
But without a solid marketing function built on modern best practices, Agile marketing is likely to just make failure faster and more enjoyable. Likewise, if teams succumb to the temptation to blindly follow case studies and examples, their innovation muscles won’t develop, and they’ll stagnate in the earliest stages of Agile adoption.
Instead, carefully review the health of your marketing overall, and make changes before you consider an Agile adoption. And, once Agile is on the horizon, don’t fixate on finding a step-by-step manual. Get educated, think critically, and craft your own version of Agile marketing.
With so many ways to make it work, there’s really no excuse not to try!