In software the term “Agile” with a Capital A has a particular meaning, not simply that you’re fleet-footed and flexible. Since 2001 the Agile Movement has been promoting a set of principles and techniques to improve the success rate in delivering software. The Lean Startup movement, driven by Eric Ries, has also promoted the use of Agile and Lean Manufacturing techniques in other areas of business. There is now growing interest in applying these techniques to Marketing. The potential benefits include faster delivery speeds, better outputs, less wasted effort, weight loss and improved concentration (… sorry, those last two were thrown in to make sure you’re paying attention).
Brief History of Agile in the Software Industry
Before looking at what the Agile techniques are and how you could use them in marketing, let’s look at why they were introduced to the software industry. Historically software projects have had an unacceptably high rate of failure. A survey by the Standish Group showed that 31% of projects were cancelled before they completed, and 52% ran over budget by more than 180%. In an effort to address the problem, software development teams in the 1970s borrowed approaches from manufacturing and construction to improve their success rate. They adopted a stage-by-stage approach known as the Waterfall model to develop software. In the Waterfall approach you first prepared detailed written specifications of what a new system was supposed to do. These specifications were then handed over to software designers to create a technical design. Then the design was handed over to programmers to actually write the software and then this software was handed over to a test department to check that it did what it was supposed to do.
This all sounded reasonable but in a lot of cases it didn’t work. People spent too long developing detailed specification documents that few others fully read or understood. Customers didn’t or couldn’t contribute to the specifications as they grew larger because they didn’t understand the technical descriptions. It became a higher priority to complete the various documents required for a project than to communicate with customers and team members and build a working system. And while business requirements changed during the 12 or 18 months it took to produce a first version of a software system, those changes couldn’t be easily accommodated without throwing the project further off schedule.
A great essay called “No Silver Bullet” by Fred Brooks looked at some of the reasons for these kinds of failure rates and advocated prototyping as part of the solution. Agile development techniques such as XP (extreme programming) and SCRUM were also developed as an answer to those problems. Instead of large teams using rigid procedures, Agile promoted small, cross-functional 5 to 9 person teams who communicated face-to-face daily. Instead of producing large specification documents, teams produced prototypes as quickly as possible and shared them with the customer and their colleagues so they could quickly identify what worked and what was needed next. And instead of an 18 month “death march” to produce a system, teams worked in short phases of 4 to 6 weeks, building up the system through a series of iterations.
Does Agile work? I think anyone with direct experience of Agile software development will say that it does. (I’ve had direct experience as a product manager with Siemens and during my time as head of Marketing at Business Process Management vendor Singularity, now part of Kofax). Customers are more likely to get what they want in an agreed timeframe and team members are more likely to enjoy delivering working systems in a collaborative atmosphere. And its success is borne out by its increasing adoption.
So what is Agile Marketing?
How to Select a Target Market for New Product Launch. But there doesn’t appear to be a widely accepted definition of Agile Marketing (yet).
Again, I think it’s useful to look at how Agile is defined for the software industry to help think about how it can be defined for Marketing. In 2001, 17 programmers published a manifesto (“Manifesto for Agile Software Development”) and 12 principles.
The Manifesto read as follows:
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
The Twelve principles were:
- Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
- Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
- Working software is the principal measure of progress
- Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
- Close, daily co-operation between business people and developers
- Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
- Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
- Simplicity- The art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential
- Self-organizing teams
- Regular adaptation to changing circumstances
So we can take the manifesto and these principles and try applying them in some form to Marketing.
Which Agile Principles and Techniques Can be Used by Marketers?
To get started I would advise “cherry picking” principles and techniques to see how they work for your marketing unit. You can apply Agile at different levels in marketing – from high-level planning through to high speed, iterative execution. Take a 3 month period and identify some of the tools and techniques you want to try out.
Remember that Agile evolved in software as a response to failed software projects and unhappy software developers who felt locked into a bureaucratic project management approach that stifled initiative, froze out change and encouraged waste. Does Marketing have similar problems on a similar scale? I think so:
- Lack of Clear Value – the concept of Value crops up throughout Agile- you are encouraged to prioritize what you do based on the value it creates. Marketing can’t always point to a concrete measure of value for their marketing activities, so I think borrowing some tools from Agile will help. For example, take the Agile idea of estimating the business value of a “user story” (a description of a desired outcome) and apply this to your marketing planning. This will force you to discuss the business value of proposed activities with your team and with other units like sales and customer support before you commit to their execution. If you combine this with Agile planning you can ensure that you re-evaluate your business case throughout the year, adjusting as necessary.
- Long planning and execution cycles – planning is good, but often the planning cycle in Marketing takes too long. Marketers should shift away from detailed annual plans to a high level sketch of objectives, more detail at quarterly and monthly level, and then hand over to “self organizing teams” and “motivated individuals” to help figure out how to execute. And execution should be completed in weeks, not months. This will help you have the flexibility to “welcome changing requirements” as they occur so you can react faster to new opportunities or apply new tactics.
- Speed of change: I think most marketers feel a pressure to move faster (i.e. deliver more campaigns in shorter periods) and respond to a fast-changing environment (e.g. skill up on new online marketing channels and techniques). So the Agile focus on rapid delivery and ability to deal with changing requirements are relevant for marketers.
- Losing Closeness to the Customer –Marketing should have a close understanding of the customer. You can’t develop an intimate understanding of your clients through surveys and 3rd party feedback. To really understand them you have to “get out of the building” – i.e. talk with them on a day-to-day basis. Again the Agile principle of “face to face communication” and associated tools like “user stories” combined with marketing “personas” are valuable here.
- Poor alignment with other business units – In a lot of companies there is poor alignment between the Marketing and Sales teams and possibly with the Product Development, Finance or Support units. The Agile focus on collaboration, close daily co-operation and face-to-face communication helps to address these problems.
- Functional or Technical specializations (“silos”) – Marketers are having to learn and maintain a lot of new skills, from Search Engine Optimization through pay-per-click ad management, web conversion optimization, email marketing and a broad range of social media tools and techniques. Most marketing departments that have sufficient resources are dedicating team members to particular specializations e.g. someone looks after search engine optimization while someone else is dedicated to social media. This can lead to disjointed planning and execution where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Adopting the Agile approach encourages the development of small, cross functional teams who have a holistic view of what they are trying to achieve – so, for example, the SEO person can explain to her colleague why certain keyword phrases need to be used in all social media activity in support of an upcoming campaign.
- Complexity – Marketing is becoming more complex. There has been a proliferation in channels (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, email, paid search) and a corresponding growth in tools for managing those channels. This makes it easy to get lost in frenetic activity that may not actually contribute much to outcomes. So the Agile focus on simplicity and “maximising the amount of work not done” is really important. Marketers should set an objective to reduce, automate and simplify what they are doing each year, each quarter and each month.
- Committing to Big Bets – In the past Marketing often had to make big up-front commitments to product launches, tradeshows and new promotional campaigns without being sure of the payback. Adopting the Agile focus on prototyping and iteration (and using the great web-based marketing tools now available) means you can “smoke test” a lot of ideas before betting the farm.
- Lack of Automation – if you do the same thing twice, automate it. Agile software development only works when teams adopt tools for automating testing and managing the overall process. Marketers also need to look at how to automate parts of what they do (this lines up with “maximising the amount of work not done”).
- Subjective Decisions Versus Testing and Data-Driven Decisions – Agile is based on iterative development coupled with regular assessment of progress. Marketers are already adopting the same approach, using the great tools we now have available to tell us what’s going on and techniques like “A/B testing”. For instance, we can test a new product or service idea by using a website landing page, Google Analytics, pay-per-click ad campaigns, social media and online surveys to assess potential customer interest. (Avinash Kaushik is the leading proponent of data-driven decisions and his books on web analytics are a must-read for marketers). If you test small you can identify what does or doesn’t work at less cost. If you gather and understand the data you can avoid subjective discussions and having to comply with HiPPOs (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).
- Top down management versus self-organizing teams– one of the key elements in the Agile approach is trust: “projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted” and “self-organizing teams”. I think this simply reflects a broader realisation that this is the most effective way to manage highly-skilled knowledge workers. (For a great overview of how managing skilled teams differs from previous forms of management, I recommend Thomas Davenport’s book “Thinking for a Living”). This doesn’t mean the Agile approach advocates anarchy. Instead, it recommends that you clearly describe the objectives you are trying to achieve and the parameters within which you have to operate (e.g. budget, time) then let your team help you figure out the best way to hit your targets. This approach reduces the workload on the marketing manager, increases the enjoyment, motivation and commitment of team members and, most importantly, delivers better results faster.
So Who Does Agile Marketing?
It turns out quite a few people have been thinking about this. There was a recent meet-up of Agile Marketers call Sprint 0 – Martin Smith’s blog covers the meeting and lists some recent attempts at defining an Agile Manifesto. There’s also an excellent list of Agile Marketing resources prepared by Marti Constant on List.ly. Travis Arnold has published a list of Agile Marketing manifestos.
Scott Brinker, CTO with digital marketing agency ION Interactive, wrote a March 2010 blog post on how Agile techniques could be applied to improve online marketing conversion rates. He also wrote the posts, “Agile Marketing in a Single Whiteboard Sketch” and “Everything is Marketing, Everyone Must be Agile” and he has an interesting interview with Agile Marketing evangelist Jim Ewel .
Jim Ewel publishes the Agile Marketing.net blog and in it he has a list of “Who’s doing Agile Marketing?” He has also created a variation of the manifesto and principles for Marketers. Jim also appears interviewed in another Agile Marketing blog.
There’s a useful introductory slide deck “4 Principles and 13 Hacks” presented at the SEOMoz conference earlier in 2012.
Next Steps If You’re Interested in Agile Marketing
If you’d like to get started, then read some of the Agile resources above, maybe talk to some software people who are using Agile, arm yourself with a little information, then give it a shot. Speed and experimentation are more important than careful analysis and getting everything right first time. Test things on a small scale by starting with a small campaign or project and applying some of the Agile techniques for planning, team organization and execution and see how it works. Base your subsequent decisions on real data rather than opinion i.e. measure the effort expended and the outputs, discuss with your team what did or didn’t work and then start again, getting better each time.
Later, when you have developed confidence in the approach and persuaded your team and management that it’s a good idea, look at adopting more of the specific Agile tools and techniques such as Scrum, sprints, user stories, playbacks and backlogs. In particular consider using simple tools like the Agile Kanban approach to displaying progress.