5 Agile Practices That Are Fueling Marketing Teams
Each spring, the annual State of Agile Marketing Report sheds light on how Agile ways of working are being adopted within marketing. This year, for the first time in the report’s three-year history, Agile techniques overtook those maintaining traditional processes.
Those who know Agile as a buzzword will likely tell you it’s a way for teams to go faster. For marketers, some of the most overburdened members of our organizations, that is certainly part of the allure.
Fifty-three percent of marketers are, in fact, experiencing faster times to get their campaigns released than if they were using a traditional process methodology, like waterfall.
But Agile is about more than just speed. The most recent report shows other benefits:
- 53% of marketers experience higher levels of productivity with their teams.
- 53% prioritize their work more effectively.
- 51% can change gears quickly based on feedback from customers.
- 51% achieve higher quality of work.
- 46% increase visibility into project status during the work process.
This post expands on the findings from that report to show you which Agile practices are proving most useful to marketers, and how to implement them.
Agile for developers is not Agile for marketers.
The differences between how agility manifests in a marketing team vs. a software team can be striking. While software developers prefer more prescriptive methods, like Scrum, marketers borrow heavily from the Kanban framework.
To operate as a pure Scrum marketing team, marketers would need to timebox their to-do list and commit to getting a specific cluster of tasks out the door after 2–4 weeks of active work.
For this structure to work for a marketing team, the team would need a finite scope of work and little to no unplanned requests—which rarely happens.
Most marketers simply don’t have this visibility, and the success of their projects often relies on prioritizing unplanned requests. That’s why they opt for a continuous model of value delivery with the Kanban framework, which accounts for the spontaneity of the marketing context.
The most recent stats show that 47% of marketers are using a hybrid approach, and only 14% actually use pure Scrum.
There are other differences. In a software team, a full-time Product Owner and separate Scrum Master work together to ensure the team is working on the right work at the right time, but they stay away from rolling up their sleeves and executing work.
Marketers, on the other hand, are used to wearing many hats and are unlikely to step away from execution work to focus on process alone. By blending the role of the Team Lead and Process Owner (Agile Coach or Scrum Master) into one, marketers take advantage of the methodology’s benefits without losing an execution team member.
While developers may measure success based on “working code,” a functioning campaign is not enough for marketing success.
With actual customer outcomes in mind, marketers spend longer in planning and insist on more access to customer data. In department-level planning sessions, marketers are much more involved, not only in understanding overarching strategy but in influencing it, too.
In the marketing version of Agile, the execution team and partners develop an in-depth understanding of the customer first to make more informed decisions as they plan on the tactical level.
To top it off, marketers even have their own Agile marketing manifesto, separate from the Agile manifesto created by software developers in 2001. This document, published in 2012, transforms the original manifesto into a codex of Agile values and principles in the marketing language.
Examples of principles that appear in the Agile marketing manifesto—but not in the one for software development—include:
- Simplicity is essential.
- Continuous attention to marketing fundamentals and good design enhances agility.
- Build marketing programs around motivated individuals.
- Deliver marketing programs frequently.
- We welcome and plan for change.
To embody these principles and others that figure in the manifesto for marketing, marketers have adapted five Agile practices.
5 Agile practices adapted for marketing
According to the most recent findings, daily stand-ups, user stories, retrospectives, frequent releases, and digital Kanban boards are the most popular Agile practices that marketing departments implement for Agile success.
1. Daily stand-ups
These daily, short-term strategy sessions among direct team members are a marketer favorite. When things are moving fast, this quick 15-minute touchpoint with the team is essential to keep complex initiatives with lots of moving parts from derailing.
Fifty-eight percent of marketers are practicing some form of the daily stand-up, making it the most popular Agile practice in marketing departments.
In the Agile software development context, a stand-up might follow the structure:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What will I do today?
- Am I blocked on anything?
If all team members are working on the same projects, this format can be particularly helpful to help keep everyone on track.
But when clusters of the team focus on entirely different initiatives, each micro team presents project updates that are irrelevant to others, causing people to disengage. With this in mind, marketing teams have taken the Agile software structure and crafted their own set of recommended questions.
The preferred adapted stand-up format that keeps this meeting as productive as possible focuses instead on questions like:
- Am I blocked on anything? Do I need help? An opportunity for impediments to float up immediately and a way for the group to rally around them at the very start of the stand-up meeting.
- What will I do today to move forward on strategic projects (not BAU)? The focus is only on relevant OKR-related projects that the team members are all aware of or working on together. Updates on independent projects can live on the team’s visual workflow, where they’re accessible to all team members.
- Have I discovered a new learning or hack to share with my teammates today? A way to increase the collective knowledge of the team and skill-share quickly and regularly (without setting up a special, separate meeting for this purpose).
2. User stories
While software developers implement user stories to describe the desired functions of their products, marketers have found many and varied uses to “see through the eyes of their customers.”
A whopping 46% of marketers are already using user stories as a solution to a common marketing problem: lack of alignment with strategic, tactical, and internal goals.
Strategic-level user stories guide marketers in their tactical decision-making. These user stories are overarching and encompass large initiatives defined by leadership during quarterly planning, referred to as Big Room Planning. This forum includes the perspectives of marketing leadership as well as input from execution teams, who are closest to the work.
Consensus around quarterly objectives is what drives confident execution. A typical structure for a strategic-level user story is: “As a customer persona type X, I want PRODUCT X, so I can achieve goal X, Y, Z.”
Tactical-level user stories are heavily influenced by strategic user stories. At the execution level, however, objectives break down into more granular, detailed pieces. To ensure daily work continues to align with objectives, marketers might phrase their actionable tasks in the following way:
As a potential online conference attendee, I would like a user-friendly landing page about the upcoming event, so I can get acquainted with the program, plan ahead which talks I want to attend virtually, and RSVP, so I can add the date to my calendar.
Internal team user stories are granular enough to give actionable directions to the team. However, their focus is not the customer; instead, they focus on the needs of the internal team during the work process.
To understand the tasks initiating from within the direct team (e.g., process improvements, automations), a marketing team’s workflow includes internal user stories such as:
As a marketing team member, I would like a robust tool with heat mapping to measure how customers are interacting with new landing pages to help develop new hypotheses that I can test.
If you think that’s excessive, consider the fact that marketers’ raison d’être is to be customer-centric in all and everything that they do. By switching to a short-form structure that leaves the customer out of daily tasks, marketers risk working on outputs that don’t achieve the customer outcomes their organization needs.
Meeting to discuss what went right and wrong in the work process is a newer habit among marketing teams. This valuable practice is at the heart of continuous improvement.
That is why 43% of marketers have already embraced retrospectives—but admit that they’re still getting their footing in regards to keeping retros fresh.
Most marketers are already straying from the typical retrospective format of “Stop, Start, Continue,” in which the team uses Post-its to brain dump some of their best and worst process practices, and moving to more creative means of expression to keep the team engaged.
The Sailboat Retrospective technique, in which the team maps out their anchors (what’s holding them back), wind in their sails (what’s helping them move forward) and rocks (potential risks they might face in the future) is an alternative way to coax out the key challenges the team might be experiencing.
While considered too “artsy” for some software teams, the Sailboat technique is popular among more creative departments, like marketing.
4. Frequent releases
Before Agile entered the picture, it often took years for software developers to deliver any value to their customers (e.g., waiting years for a 90s-era Windows update—and hating everything about it when it came out).
Similarly, marketers have adapted this practice to move away from their own 6–8 month campaign release times and start delivering value to their customers every 1–3 weeks.
Forty-one percent of marketers say they’re making use of more frequent releases by delivering smaller initiatives regularly to build up to larger campaigns, instead of going for a Big Bang.
By adjusting how larger projects are developed and then released, marketers can collect feedback from customers as they deliver incremental value. The alternative—launching huge, expensive initiatives all at once and hoping customers respond well—bears the same risks as a radical redesign.
Unlike software developers, who collect lines of code that combine into features for the next product release, marketers have more frequent touchpoints. For example, a marketer can release new collateral to customers every day if it aligns with customer demand. You’d be hard-pressed to find a software team shipping new features daily.
5. Digital Kanban boards
A visual workflow is any Agile implementation’s bread and butter. Thirty-eight percent of marketers are already using this essential Agile practice with their teams.
However, unlike software developers, marketers (being the creatives that they are) are more experimental with how they structure their workflows.
A simple development workflow on a Kanban board might look like this:
Marketers also use horizontal swimlanes to separate work by the business unit from which it originated (or type) and color code to indicate work that should be treated differently as it flows through the process (e.g., urgent, deadline, maintenance):
Due to external dependencies, most Kanban boards include a “Pending” (PEN) column. Tasks in this process stage are still visualized in the team process yet outside of the team’s control (e.g., legal or compliance review). Enterprise teams will be all too familiar with the column.
A crucial role of any marketing team lead is to monitor this area of the workflow and influence external stakeholders to meet their SLAs.
Visualizing the queue of Pending work items that depend on other departments (dragging their feet) helps the team lead rally the appropriate parties and speed up the marketing process.
If you’re a marketer looking to apply Agile ways of working, you’re much more likely to reap the full benefits by tailoring existing frameworks and practices to fit your unique context. Replicating another team’s implementation is not a best practice when it comes to process change.
That’s why education about Agile values and principles, as well as its two most popular frameworks of application, Kanban and Scrum, is essential on your journey toward marketing agility.
Know your options to make informed decisions about how to use tried-and-tested Agile techniques in your daily work.
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