At its core, Agile marketing is a tactical marketing approach in which teams identify and focus their collective efforts on high value projects, complete those projects cooperatively, measure their impact, and then continuously and incrementally improve the results over time. Also, Agile marketing is simply a less stressful way to be a marketer. And that alone makes it worthwhile.
What is Agile marketing?
Agile marketing is a tactical marketing approach in which marketing teams collectively identify high-value projects on which to focus their collective efforts.
Agile marketing teams use sprints (short, finite periods of intensive work) to complete those projects cooperatively. After each sprint, they measure the impact of the projects and then continuously and incrementally improve the results over time.
Agile teams may also determine that a project was not valuable and should not be repeated, but this is still considered a success. Agile marketing embraces failure so long as it comes with lessons and produces future potentially powerful projects.
The way that Agile marketing teams work becomes more clear when you look at what are typically listed as the "values" of Agile marketing:
Responding to change over following a plan
Rapid iterations over big-bang campaigns
Testing and data over opinions and conventions
Numerous small experiments over a few big bets
Individuals and interactions over large markets
Collaboration over silos and hierarchy
Now this is starting to look like something that can actually be helpful.
Note that we've chosen to focus on the tactics of marketing as opposed to the strategy.
You certainly need an overarching strategy to underpin your Agile methods, but strategy is something that every marketing department should be focused on regardless of how they plan to implement it.
Whether you use collaborative or top-down methods to come up with your strategy, you can still bring it to life using Agile marketing techniques.
Whitepaper: Agile Marketing for Creative Teams
Whitepaper: How to Become an Agile Agency
A history of Agile marketing
On June 11, 2012, an intrepid band of forward thinkers met to formulate a document that would guide the future of modern marketing.
Known as Sprint Zero, this two-day gathering of marketing luminaries discussed the emerging concept of Agile marketing. Their goal was to establish a shared understanding of core values and principles, as well as to illuminate a path to future evangelism around the movement.
The main result of their 48-hour intensive meetings was the insightful Agile Marketing Manifesto, a thorough consolidation of multiple previous ideas, that is still the gold standard for what Agile marketing really means.
Sprint Zero recently celebrated its fourth anniversary, so this seems like an ideal time to take a glance backward at the work of these clever folks and the early days of the movement that they kicked off.
How Agile marketing’s Sprint Zero ignited a movement
The old Eventbrite description for Sprint Zero is still around, and it includes this description of the event:
“SprintZero is a one-day free event that will bring together marketers who are passionate about Agile and incorporating it into their marketing practices. Our goal is to share, collaborate and discuss the latest best practices and operating principles of agile marketing. We also hope to explore how we can spread the word about the benefits of Agile for marketers.”
A little over 20 people gathered in San Francisco to spend two days geeking out over Agile marketing, presenting their ideas, successes, and failures with their fellow practitioners.
As mentioned, the primary document that emerged from the gather was the Agile Marketing Manifesto. But it also sparked dozens of articles and blog posts, lending fuel to the steadily growing fire around the idea of changing marketing into an Agile profession.
Early arguments for Agile marketing
Prior to the end of Sprint Zero, there were many different people putting forward their own versions and visions of an Agile Marketing Manifesto.
The groundswell of discussion during 2011 and 2012 was vibrant and important, but it was also creating a very wide variety of manifestos. Which one was “right”? What about the ones that seemed contradictory? How could Agile marketing become a mature movement if we couldn’t get past arguing about the values that should guide it?
By 2012, it was clear that if Agile marketing was going to become a real movement, it needed a single point of reference. This, then, was the primary (and seriously lofty) goal of Sprint Zero.
Managing a manifesto
Agile software development produced their own Agile Manifesto back in the early days of the 21st Century, and it was a catalyst for the solidification of that movement.
Similarly, 2012’s Agile Marketing Manifesto has done a lot to circle the wagons around a central idea of what agility in marketing actually means. Although you still see quite a lot of, “What is Agile Marketing?” articles popping up, there are nearly as many on more specific, tactical topics.
By taking the time to get a group consensus around what values should inform the agile marketing movement, the members of Sprint Zero drove us into the next phase of the agile revolution.
The post-Manifesto years of Agile marketing
Nonetheless, many people ask why Agile marketing hasn’t caught on like wildfire. If this is such a great idea, the argument goes, then why the heck isn’t everybody and their dog doing it?
The answers lie in marketing as a profession.
Its historical position within organizations has marginalized and silenced many marketing teams, forcing them to claw their way back into the conversation in recent years. It’s hard to fight for a voice while simultaneously learning a new Agile language.
On the flip side is the nature of marketers as individual professionals. “Old school” marketers à la Don Draper were simply a different breed of worker than their modern counterparts.
Consider the number of marketers who were in the midst of their careers during the advent of digital marketing, and it’s easy to understand how simply keeping up with the breakneck pace of change has eclipsed other forms of professional evolution.
Then, of course, there’s the 24/7 nature of marketing work to contend with. In a nutshell, the agile marketers who left Sprint Zero full of revolutionary zeal were fighting an uphill battle.
How to implement Agile marketing
Epics, User Stories, Sprints, Scrum, Chickens, Pigs, and Burndown Charts—Agile marketing has a language all its own. How does Agile marketing work anyway? Each marketing department will find the precise Agile format that works best for them, but an Agile marketing implementation will have these four features in some form or fashion:
Sprints - A sprint is how long you give your team to complete their current projects. Typically these range from two to six weeks. Some bigger initiatives won't fit into a single sprint, so you'll need to break those up into bite-sized pieces that you can tackle sprint by sprint.
Stand up meetings - Every day your team needs to get together and have a very brief check in. These should be 15 minutes at the most. Each team member goes over what they did the day before, what they're planning to do today, and any blocks they've encountered. Blocks should be addressed right away.
Board to track project progress - Whether it's the good ole' whiteboard with sticky notes, a nice and simple Kanban board, or a big fancy specialized software, you need a centralized way to track your sprint that everyone has access to.
Teamwork - While an individual may "own" a project, the success or failure of the sprint rests on all the team members. Everybody has to be prepared to collaborate and assist in the Agile marketing framework.
What an Agile marketing department can do
By following the methods established by developers (with our own twists, of course), marketers can open up entirely new ways to reach audiences and goals.
Agile marketing allows marketers to:
Respond quickly to changes in the market
Produce rapid campaigns that can be tested and optimized over time
Try lots of things and repeat the ones that succeed
Use input from other departments to augment marketing efforts
Justify choices in campaigns and projects with hard data
Collaborate with team members to prevent a tunnel-vision approach to marketing
And that's the high-level version of the list.
When you start getting more specific and looking at the possibilities on a project-by-project and sprint-by-sprint basis, the list of Agile marketing possibilities is virtually endless.
Datasheet: The Agile Marketing Cheat Sheet
Should I implement Agile marketing?
It’s important to spend some time contemplating these big questions before you run out and spend a month’s budget on whiteboards and sticky notes, because your “why” should inform your “how.”
Maybe your team members are buckling under their immense workloads. If you’re experiencing high turnover rates or seeing signs of burnout from your marketers, reducing the burden on your team needs to be your top priority.
You don’t want to adopt an approach like Scrum that demands a lot of up-front education or role changes; that’s just going to stress everyone out more.
If, on the other hand, your team is already healthy and stable, you may want to opt for the methodology that will give you the most significant competitive advantage in the market. In this case, Scrumban may be the right starting point.
Then again, your marketing team may not be a factor in your decision at all. If external interruptions routinely derail your projects and destroy your deadlines, you need to build a wall around your work. The structure and boundaries of Scrum may be your saviors.
Consider what you hope to accomplish by taking your marketing team Agile, and choose a methodology that will get you to those goals.
Agile marketing isn’t just about you
Marketing isn’t a stand-alone profession; it’s integrated at every level of a modern organization. That means that marketing’s relationships with other departments must influence our Agile transformations.
To start unraveling the tangle of your interdepartmental dynamics, think about the level of political capital your team enjoys. Do other managers and executives have confidence that high-quality work will go out when you say it will, or do they see your deadlines and project descriptions as fantasies?
Marketing departments who haven’t earned trust need to focus, first and foremost, on using agile processes to set—and hit—deadlines religiously for several months. Once levels of political capital rise, continuous improvement becomes easier, because stakeholders will give you more autonomy.
If you’re already fortunate enough to control your own marketing destiny, you can start with more serious workflow adjustments, which you’ll get from tools like the WIP limits used in Kanban and Scrumban. These get you quicker results, but they require an independent team.
Think about the factors that influence your team, and make sure the methodology you choose meshes well with those relationships.
Agile marketing requires Agile marketers
Regardless of the methodology that you choose, it’s the individuals on your team who are going to make it work or sabotage it from within.
Be realistic about the personnel you’re working with, and make a smart choice about your Agile marketing transformation based on the team you have, not the one you want.
Are my marketers willing to go Agile?
Most importantly, evaluate your team’s willingness to change.
If you have people at their wits’ end and willing to try anything to make their professional lives better, Agile marketing can seem like divine intervention. You won’t encounter much internal resistance, so you can look to the external factors we’ve outlined to guide your choice of methodology.
If, however, your team is invested in the status quo and unwilling to experiment with alternatives to “the way we do things around here,” you may have a battle on your hands. You’re going to need to start with the lightest weight method available (i.e., Kanban) to try and minimize reluctance.
Adaptability is important, but your team’s cross-functionality (or lack thereof) is almost as important as their openness to change.
Do you have cross-functional marketers?
Cross-functional marketing teams have a wide variety of skills, specifically ones that enable them to complete the full life cycle of projects. They can work autonomously most of the time, relying little on other resources to move forward.
The more cross-functional your team, the greater their initial level of agility. There’s no reason that a highly specialized team can’t be Agile; they will just rely more heavily on outside help to complete their work.
Some methodologies, like Scrum, are designed for highly cross-functional teams. Others, like Scrumban and Kanban, can accommodate teams with more variation in skill sets.
Team size matters
Last, but certainly not least, the size of your team should inform your choice of methodology.
The classic formula for Scrum teams is 7 members, plus or minus 2, but it doesn’t always break down on teams outside that range. Teams as small as 3 can use this methodology, and, with some additional coordination, huge departments can break into multiple Scrum teams.
Kanban and Scrumban, on the other hand, scale up and down more readily.
If you’re new to Agile marketing, choose Scrum only if your team size falls in the traditional 5-9 range. Otherwise, opt to start elsewhere and adopt Scrum practices as needed.
Marketing teams who shouldn’t go Agile
If you ask me, there aren’t very many marketing teams who won’t benefit from adopting an Agile marketing approach to their work. Some additional thought, patience, and experimentation should get you around any major hurdles.
However, Agile marketing was created to help manage the uncertainty around complicated knowledge work. If you don’t have any uncertainty in your work—you know 100% of the requirements before you start and nothing ever changes while you work—then agile may not significantly improve your team.
I have a hard time imagining modern marketing work that isn’t complex in at least one way, but maybe it’s out there somewhere. Outside the team, unwilling executives may seem like insurmountable obstacles, but these are manageable too. They’ll just require you to be a little stealthy.
Pilot programs—small, low-risk, visible experiments that you can run using an agile methodology—are a great way to prove the value of transformation without up-front buy-in. A few marketers are needed to execute a pilot program, so you’ll need at least a handful of willing souls, but it’s typically easier to get buy-in for these types of initiatives. Content marketing, social media, and online advertising all make great pilot candidates.
Training: Agile Marketing 101 Training
Blog: Agile vs Waterfall
Real examples Agile marketing
MarketerGizmo has been using Agile marketing techniques exclusively, and their successes are beyond exciting. Here are just three of their early wins using the Agile marketing approach:
1. SurveyGizmo example pages
SurveyGizmo saw that their existing and potential customers were often searching for "survey examples," but that their current offerings weren't doing a great job of meeting that need.
Over the course of a one-week sprint they wrote six new guides to common survey types and created templates for those surveys that customers could add to their accounts with a single click.
The page views for the examples landing page climbed 252%. The conversions earned from that page skyrocketed 810%.
2. Content marketing velocity
Before Agile marketing processes, MarketerGizmo were creating content, but at a plodding pace. Now that they can more accurately measure the team's bandwidth, they can devote time each sprint to creating and distributing content.
Across two separate sites, their content production is now four times higher than it once was, without any loss of quality.
3. Group accountability and the ability to swarm
MarketerGizmo has daily stand up meetings to check in with their team, during which they identify any blocking issues that are preventing them from meeting sprint goals.
More than once, a team member will encounter an obstacle, either internal (a customer needs my help!) or external (my dog ate a sock!), and they can immediately bring it to the team who can rally around the endangered project to make sure it doesn't suffer.
This means that emails don't go out late when someone gets sick, they don't miss a blog post deadline because an editor gets pulled into a meeting, and no amount of vet visits can derail their goals. All team members are up to date on projects and progress, so they are all empowered to make sure things get done.
Agile marketing saves the day, but requires devotion
These success stories may make you want to run out and go Agile right this very minute, and I won't be the one to stop you, but I will remind you that it's not a quick fix.
Learning the ins and outs of a true Agile marketing system takes time, and your first sprint will feel more like a crawl. But in the long run, Agile marketing can help marketing departments of just about any shape and size be more efficient, serve their customers better, and be more fully integrated into the work of the business as a whole.
Agile is quickly gaining momentum and popularity in marketing circles. This kind of flexibility speeds up the production and approvals processes, reduces the amount of time spent in meetings, and maximizes the amount of time the creative staff spends on actual creative work. Strangely enough, few marketing work management solutions have caught onto this trend and fewer still can handle multiple methodologies simultaneously.
If creative teams can find a solution that will help them manage their Agile marketing process, they will be among the first to reap the benefits of this new and exciting trend.
The Agile marketing revolution is calling. Are you ready to answer?
The Advanced Guide to Agile Marketing
Download the Advanced Guide to Agile Marketing to learn:
- The nuances of the Agile Marketing mindset
- What it means to be truly Agile
- How to manage Agile projects and campaigns
- All about Kanban as an alternative to Scrum