Trim the Fat from Your Online Marketing with Agile Methods

April 3, 2015

Marketing. Between social and content, paid and organic, PR and community management, marketing is a supersize topic, and one that’s becoming a part of every employee’s job thanks to technology and growing consumer expectations of brands.

The breadth of the discipline has created generalists and specialists, with hybrids in between. Yet despite the tremendous impact good, smart marketing can have on an organization, marketing professionals are often the first weight to be shed when a company decides it’s time to slim down. Why is that?

Where Marketing Teams Can Fail

I generally attribute that type of short-term reaction (off with their heads!) to operational issues decision-makers might be reluctant to accept. Most times, the issue really isn’t rooted in the last weak campaign, poorly-tweeted blog post or lackluster media reception, although those events can be the catalyst. The part that’s broken is the marketing planning process.

A lot of marketing attempts fail – making some execs feel validated in their decisions to chop off marketing folks if business gets rough – because we attempt to do too much, too quickly, too perfectly, with too little tactical forethought, and without full transparency across tertiary influencers and primary decision-makers alike. An agile approach to marketing can solve all these problems.

Competing Priorities, Limited Resources

Many companies have 3 to 5 big online marketing priorities going on at any time, typifying the notion of “a full plate.” And you can count on some HiPPo (that’s Highest Paid Person in the room) tossing a hot buttered grand new idea on top of the teetering pile of regular projects the team is already (always) working on. 

These projects – the planned and the floofy – vie for resources from scant budget dollars to the VP’s approving eyeballs to moments of the in-house code monkey’s valuable time and your customer’s eyeballs (ever wonder if your company feeds them too much and too often?). Systemic, bulky and competing priorities paired with unoriginal thinking (“Harried and shifting is just the way we do things here!”) generally creates workflow bottlenecks leading to – you guessed it – more inefficiency, less productivity, and suboptimal outcomes. Folks just end up pointing fingers instead of basking in the incremental progress of a fresh new release.

You might ask, Is it even possible to accomplish daily, routine work alongside big or enterprise marketing projects? The answer is yes – again, with an agile model for marketing teams.

Agile Marketing Process, Agile Marketing

When And How Does Big Marketing Get Done?

Everyone knows the company website needs an overhaul and the newsletter is all self-indulgent puffery and somebody better think long and hard about the impact of AuthorRank fast. But unfortunately, folks are too busy doing the “day to day” work of adding new products to the e-commerce platform, debugging the portal, and fielding customer calls while dodging those swift-walking HiPPos wearing grand if unrealistic agendas on their sleeves. Who has time to design surveys that could inform product strategy or test and tweak advertising time of day for a gazillion ad groups? And where would you find a developer with the time to tackle a new landing page for the return customer conversion project?

While most employees may shrug their shoulders at the inefficient corporate bloat while groping for their next latte, you know it’s time for a change. Real, necessary work can’t get done the way things are now. But things can improve, the company can become more efficient, and you can prove your mettle so you’re not the one getting P90X’d when the advisory council insists the CEO cut some fat from the overhead.

Agile Marketing: Break Bad Habits & Commit To A New Routine

In most organizations, marketing is tackled using the typical waterfall method of project completion. Some folks support this method – hey, it’s what most of us cut our teeth on, and familiar bad methods are somehow more comfortable than unfamiliar good methods. But many software development companies have come to realize the shortcomings in assuming all requirements for a project will be known in advance. In reality, new realizations about a project materialize during its life – things that impact scope, direction, capabilities, design, installation, etc. – that simply make it unrealistic to expect perfection right outta the box. Plus, timing is everything – the market won’t wait for your company to get a product 100% right before emotionally and financially committing to a solution (the first laptop left a bit to be desired but managed to start a tech revolution anyway).

If you ask me, Waterfall is why so many people get frustrated with their work and ultimately burn out, exhausting their passion for the cause. We want our work to be released into the wild so we can see how customers and tire-kickers respond. We want the sense of achievement that comes from closing a phase, even if we’re only moving on to the next phase of the same project or issue. And let’s face it, if what we’re working on is good enough, people will snap it up, partially perfect or not (and wait anxiously to see what we do next).

In comparison to Waterfall, the Agile method popular among software developers and tech companies takes into account the nature of continual learning and feedback loops and the concept of practical discovery. At its most basic level, Agile forces internal groups to focus on fewer objectives for a set period of time and requires incremental progress that’s regularly reported (and thus significantly transparent) to the group.

Rather than a hierarchical structure in which folks can get tripped up about hitting a boss’s personal hot buttons (Derek prefers the display network and hates retargeting), Agile relies more on shared purpose and vision, and can work outside the normal reporting structure. For instance, one doesn’t have to work in the marketing department to participate in an Agile scrum meeting or even sprint cycle. That person just has to have some useful input to what’s presently being worked on.

But How Will Agile Make Great Marketing?

Agile is clearly a useful method for introducing new software or release updates into circulation because it’s a process that, along with a rigorous problem definition and requirements stage, incorporates a variety of perspectives on the planning/doing side of things while feeding on the needs and input offered by the user base.

Three of the elements that make Agile so valuable in software development come into play when adopting agile methods for online marketing efforts, too.

The 3 Elements of Agile Marketing

Agile Marketing Principles
#1: Focus:  Today’s marketing teams are challenged with doing more magic with fewer rabbits and a short deck of cards. The frenetic pace of juggling a long list of really important things while simultaneously in pursuit of the perfect, spot-free project is counterproductive to shipping real results (albeit potentially flawed) out the warehouse door.

Part of the simple beauty and effectiveness of agile marketing is that every need and want is important enough to capture. Before you riot on me (“I thought you said we should focus, not expand!”), re-read my words: important enough to capture. Capture doesn’t necessarily lead to execution. Simmer, not boil.

By capturing all the needs and wants of a user base alongside the fantastical whims of the idea people (this is done on a scrum wall), you can create artifacts that can be sifted, weighed, measured, grouped and prioritized according to an ever-changing market continuum (Panda, Penguin, 3-Toed Sloth, et al.). On top of that, you could build a corporate culture that says everyone matters, regardless of title or station.

Just by capturing the 99,998 ideas (and wants and needs) floating around the marketing department, agile marketing can trigger an endorphin high. While select projects will be tapped for development and execution each sprint, it doesn’t mean the others will be wholly sacrificed. And hey, doesn’t that feel good?

#2 Objectives:  A shared and firm grasp of sprint objectives is one of the values that keep resources efficient under the agile marketing method. Have you ever had a personal objective for a project, only to learn that your boss and other higher-ups had something different in mind? That can change the entire meaning of success, not to mention your manner of approach! When agile marketing is in place, stakeholders agree to a succinct, specific user story, then build the project around that scenario. The project won’t mean different things to different people because the objective will be centralized and finite.

#3 Accountability: Usually when we talk about being accountable in business, we’re thinking about achieving certain metrics. The concept of accountability has two meanings in an agile marketing model:

Group achievement over individual success. The interesting thing about establishing numbers for a marketing project to hit is that individual contributors can become overly preoccupied with a benchmark figure (which, admittedly, is important to keep in mind) tied to their personal role and no longer think about the collective body of work and big outcomes. Should the graphic designer or copywriter find their neck on the chopping block if the email open rate is 5% instead of the 7% goal? Agile marketing places emphasis on people, ideas, and effort over (often arbitrary) metrics.

Reliable contributions and consistent commitment. Yeah, we’re all *supposed* to do our jobs. That’s what’s expected in exchange for a paycheck and bennies, right? But we have all probably experienced um, some slackage from a coworker or two. Somehow, amazingly, the HiPPos can be blind to this. One intrinsic benefit to adopting agile marketing in your online marketing department is that everyone is painfully, obviously, in the game. If, during one of the 10-minute stand-up meetings Joe Bob can’t report incremental progress, then that’s on him. And no one is left to wonder why the guy down the chain of interlocking or sequential tasks can’t get his part done.

Now, there are other shared elements, like testing and data-gathering. But I’m sure by now you’re getting the picture – agile marketing is good for marketing (including big marketing projects), and it’s good for the entire business.

More Agile Marketing Reading

Lots has been written in the past year or two on Agile marketing and scrum topics from geekier (I mean that in a good way) people than I.  So check these beauties out before rolling up your sleeves and diving in:

Scott Brinker contributed this post introducing two values central to agile marketing at Search Engine Land, and another on his own blog detailing 10 principles of agile marketing management.

The smart folks at Ant’s Eye View have a great presentation on SlideShare that dives into the tactical differences between Waterfall and Agile methods, and how Agile complements our increasingly digital work pad.

Jonathan Colman takes a fun approach to teaching readers how to adopt agile methods into their online marketing and SEO. He also has a neat Whiteboard Friday segment on agile marketing over at SEOmoz.

Agile Marketing For Life

Once maximum disruption settles down and people stop chaffing at the perceived restraints created by a forced focus on fewer, very specific tasks within a finite (and completely visible lazy-has-nowhere-to-hide) time box, they may be able to offer useful suggestions for adapting the agile model to better fit your company’s unique operations and structure. Not only is continual adaptation and refinement of agile a healthy way to meld corporate culture with an innovative spirit, but it can help ensure team commitment and ongoing support.

And hey, by taking point on such an over-arching organizational project, you’re bound to look lean & mean to the brass.

Have you spent time researching the adoption of agile methods in marketing? Has agile even been implemented in your department? What have you learned?


Heather Rast
by Heather Rast. As Principal of Insights & Ingenuity, Heather helps brands earn customer preference. Specializing in digital channels, Heather’s firm provides brand-building positioning and content strategies to B2C and B2B companies.  She’s a contributing author to Social Media Explorer, Content Marketing Institute, Shareaholic, MarketingProfs, and other media outlets. Find Heather on Twitter as @heatherrast or circle her up on G+ at gplus.to/heatherrast.
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