At a recent Agile Meetup here in Denver, I was in a group that was role-playing a typical daily standup, and one member’s fictional update included new user stories being added to the backlog after a stakeholder meeting.
Another member of our group then proceeded to derail the rest of the exercise by lecturing us all on why this completely hypothetical situation should never have happened.
Only the Product Owner, she reminded us with a Very Serious Face, should be the one adding to the backlog, and this person was not role playing as the Product Owner. She went on at length about why this crucial, and she may have even quoted the Scrum Guide at one point.
For me, it was a surreal moment.
As an agile marketer, I quickly became accustomed to playing fast and loose with Agile “rules.” None of the trainings I’ve been to are designed for my teams or my work, so I live in a perpetual gray area of adjustment and adaptation.
What allows me and other adaptable agilists to do this is a little thing known as The Agile Marketing Manifesto. It’s a document that early leaders of the agile marketing movement wrote to provide a foundation for the emerging ideas of running marketing using an agile approach.
The thing is, I worry that a lot of people just don’t get the manifesto.
It’s more than a little abstract (as it should be), which can make it challenging to apply it to real life sometimes.
So, I want to walk through it piece by piece to offer my own interpretation of its Values and Principles; hopefully that will help others learn to adapt and iterate using these ideals.
Agile Marketing Values
According to both the original Agile Manifesto for Software Development and the marketing version, these values emerge as a profession evolves.
The software manifesto states, “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value…”
For marketing, we’re arriving at the values in a similar way: “We are discovering better ways of creating value for our customers and for our organizations through new approaches to marketing. Through this we, we have come to value…”
We’re going to walk through each of these one by one, but these are all the values:
- 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 versus rigid planning
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Many small experiments over a few large bets
It’s important to note that the things on the right still have value, but the new ways of marketing result in us giving more emphasis and importance to the things on the left. Let’s talk about what that means.
Learning Over Conventions
Marketers often run the risk of suffering death by best practices. We get so focused on how other people have done something that we ignore the opportunity to do it better.
If convention says that most successful landing pages are designed a certain way, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way your particular landing page can work. Start with the conventional design, but try to validate it through experimentation.
Split test multiple versions until you’re sure you’ve got the best one for your particular audience.
Or maybe reconsider the idea of a landing page altogether. Seriously.
Maybe there’s a better way to achieve your goal. How will you know if you don’t try?
When you use agile marketing, you can release small experiments rapidly and regularly, making these kinds of experiments easier and less risky (more on this later).
Our past experience of what works does matter, but we should always be striving for lessons backed by data.
Customer-Focused Collaboration Over Silos
I recently chatted with a company that’s got a silo problem. Multiple teams — not all of them in-house — create customer-facing content, and as a result customers often get an inconsistent experience when they encounter content created by lots of different groups.
Agile marketing tries to break out of this cycle by turning the focus onto our customers.
Teams should be designed to collaborate to solve our customer’s problems, and our internal structure needs to be malleable enough to allow this to happen.
Silos facilitate knowledge hoarding, which means that what one group or individual learns doesn’t get shared with other teams. This lengthens improvement cycles because each team has to learn independently.
Collaboration distributes knowledge freely, which means we can all apply it to our work and produce better, more customer-centric marketing.
Adaptive Campaigns Over Big Bang Campaigns
One of the best examples of Big Bang campaigns are old school marketing plans, the kind that took months to complete and were then fanatically followed for the next 1-5 years.
After The Plan was in place, each campaign within it would be meticulously planned and executed. Some organizations would only release a single campaign per year.
If it didn’t work, they had a problem. A very big problem.
Adaptive campaigns, on the other hand, thrive on interaction with their audience. They’re living, breathing pieces that are made to evolve based on changing circumstances.
If they don’t work, it’s not a problem. It’s a lesson on what to do next time.
Adaptive campaigns require fewer resources to complete, which makes them less risky, which means we can do a lot of them very quickly, which means we can learn a lot in a short time.
Customer Discovery Over Static Prediction
At this point you probably see a theme emerging: the values tend to favor exploration.
Specific to this one is an emphasis on ongoing discovery of our customers. What do they like? How do they think? What’s their favorite topic? What’s their biggest worry?
By structuring all of our marketing as a learning exercise with our customer base at its center, we can continually refine our understanding of who we’re communicating with. This stands in stark contrast to older approaches that made a grand prediction and stuck by it, no matter what.
If you predicted that your audience would like to consume video content, and then poured tens of thousands of dollars into producing your first video, only to have it bomb spectacularly upon release, you’d probably cling to your prediction too.
Surely the video itself was flawed. Or the timing was bad. Maybe the promotion wasn’t flashy enough.
Whatever the problem, it couldn’t be the prediction itself. The marketing executive who made it gets very invested in ensuring that it’s anything but their idea that gets the blame. You can see how this would become a problem.
Flexible vs. Rigid Planning
I want to point out that this value doesn’t exempt agile marketers from planning altogether.
The level of complexity inherent in a modern marketing campaign requires a plan; otherwise, it’s doomed to failure.
So, agile teams need plans, but they prefer plans with a little bit of give built in. When circumstances change, or new data comes in, or the market changes, the plan can adapt.
No need to throw it out altogether and start over, just modify the plan based on what you’re encountering.
This one’s very important so I’m going to say it one more time: plans are still valued on agile teams. Flexible ones are preferred over rigid ones.
Responding to Change Over Following a Plan
Along the same lines, agile marketers prefer to respond to change as it happens rather than blindly follow a plan.
This one always reminds me of a robot exhibit that I went to with my four year-old son. There was an old computer program, whose goal was to get a digital robot from one place to another in ten steps.
There were obstacles to avoid and barriers to go around, but you “programmed” the steps all at once and then hit “Start.” Once the steps were locked in, the robot was following them no matter what.
My son was very, very bad at this game.
He didn’t learn from his mistakes, and the robot mindlessly followed the plan he set down, resulting in its repeated destruction.
As you can imagine, marketing departments that are married to a plan and stick to it in the face of overwhelmingly negative evidence are doomed to a similar fate.
Small Experiments Over Large Bets
And finally, we have a preference for small projects over large campaigns. As I mentioned earlier, small experiments can be completed and released faster, leading to a more rapid iteration cycle.
Small experiments also require fewer resources, meaning it’s less risky to release them. If they don’t do well, you’re not out a whole lot of budget.
Large bets can result in big wins, or they can blow up in your face.
Agile marketers don’t shy away from all types of big marketing campaigns, however. They just wait until they’ve conducted enough small experiments to make a big bet with confidence.
Agile Marketing Principles
The principles are based on the values, and they go into more detail about the foundation of a truly agile team. These don’t require as much explanation as the values, so I’ll leave you with a brief comment after each one.
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of marketing that solves problems.
The highest priority of an agile team isn’t MQLs or sales or website traffic. It’s customer satisfaction, which we get by solving problems through the marketing collateral that we produce.
Like most things on this list, it’s easy to say, but much harder to do.
We welcome and plan for change. We believe that our ability to quickly respond to change is a source of competitive advantage.
This one is huge, in my opinion. Instead of fearing change, agile teams can embrace it as a means of getting ahead.
When there’s a shift of any kind, they know it works to their advantage because they have processes in place that help them identify, navigate, and excel during change.
Deliver marketing programs frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
I understand that teams with lots of review requirements often end up at the “months” end of this timescale, but if you can start getting down into days, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
Remember the agile ideals of iteration. The first thing you produce doesn’t have to be the Mona Lisa, it just has to be a coherent sketch. Then you can improve it as you go along.
And, if you release often, those improvements happen super rapidly.
Great marketing requires close alignment with the business people, sales, and development.
As we saw earlier, silos are the enemy of agility. That goes for between departments as well as within the team itself.
Communication, visibility, and transparency are all cornerstones of a successful agile team, because they help us avoid surprises, increase organizational buy in, and reduce interdepartmental conflict that slows us down.
Build marketing programs around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
I love this one, but it tends to get overlooked. Agile marketing is a team sport, but it relies on qualified, committed individuals.
I often tell new agile marketing teams that they should be prepared for some non-believers. There are simply some people who don’t jive with this approach, and you’ve got to be prepared to deal with that situation.
Learning, through the build-measure-learn feedback loop, is the primary measure of progress.
Each piece of marketing collateral that we release should teach us something about our audience. We should be able to measure its performance, and we should take the time to consider its lessons so we can do a little bit better next time.
Straightforward phrases to write; complex ideas to implement.
Sustainable marketing requires you to keep a constant pace and pipeline.
I love the “motivated individuals” principle, but this one might be my favorite.
If you want to be able to keep up a consistent release schedule (which is crucial for content marketing success), you can’t burn out your marketing team every other quarter.
The pace should be rapid, but not frenetic.
Agile marketers are fast, but we’re not chaotic.
Don’t be afraid to fail; just don’t fail the same way twice.
Failure is feedback, but this has to be a department-wide understanding.
If some team members can accept a setback as a lesson, while others see it as a major problem, you won’t have an environment that’s conducive to real learning.
Continuous attention to marketing fundamentals and good design enhances agility.
Doing things the right way — as we understand it based on our experience and education — helps us be more agile. We don’t need to research how to tweet every time we post on Twitter. We can follow general best practices when designing our home pages.
But we can also bake experimentation into these fundamentals in a way that just doesn’t happen on traditional waterfall teams.
Simplicity is essential.
In this case, simplicity means maximizing the amount of work that you choose not to do.
It doesn’t mean being lazy, or trying to avoid work. Just the opposite.
By simplifying workflow, the number of projects we’re working on, and the different tasks we’re responsible for each day, agile marketers actually get more done than their non-agile counterparts.
Eliminate waste. Focus on flow. And above all, keep it simple.