Not Just For Acrobats
Agile is a process style and project management philosophy that emphasizes pragmatic solutions, rapid feedback, iterative development, and team communication in order to produce maximum value. Agile is incredibly popular in the software development world, but has various derivatives both in an out of the software world. For example, Lean Software Development is a descendant of Agile that takes large inspiration from the Lean Manufacturing principles forged by thought leaders such as Toyota.
Currently the term Agile Marketing has been garnering attention in the business world and the market is in the process of evaluating the sincerity and merit of this movement.
Let’s takes a look at the ways that marketing can improve vis-a-vis Agile principles, and the insight that can be gained from this movement. In short, answer the question:
“Is there value in this idea to you as a marketer for your organization?”
Definition and Purpose
As with any other business process, marketing campaigns become stale, and a message can lose it’s efficacy. Budgets are determined on a quarterly basis, campaigns continue regardless of (or lack of) results, and reliable post-mortem data, if it being collected properly takes months to evaluate and prove the process. If the results of any such campaign are not successful, it’s blamed on the team who strategized and executed the campaign, and process is left blameless. Business as usual, no lesson learned, and and the next line of defense sent to the front line.
Let’s change strategy and introduce Agile Marketing. For a moment, assume we have a magic wand to grant us the goals of an Agile process (rapid feedback, iterative development, and team communication). The team is making every effort to reach those goals by following an established process. In this marketing process, the team has committed to the minimum elements of the campaign to roll it out in a single market channel. Frequently measuring the impact of this effort, the team applies those readings to predetermined goals. They are evaluating concrete data, looking for subjective insight that goes beyond a bar chart. The additional work to scale a campaign, produce media for every available medium, finalize your approach – none of that work is initiated until the value proposition being offered to customers has real-world results.
Now, the team has moved the work closer to a phase where the goals are clearly defined. A window of time has been created that provides the sales team opportunity to relay evidence from the field. The feedback is collected, reviewed and may potentially alter the strategy before all phases of the campaign are complete. In previous campaigns this data was reviewed at a later time, and a) it was too late to act, or b) hours of hard work were set aside, unbudgeted time used to restrategize and start the work again, from scratch.
This is a solid plan, however “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Does this ideal marketing environment fit with the current business trends? If so, how do we prepare everyone involved to adapt to this new way of thinking? First, let’s look at current business trends.
The world is driven by data, with enough you can dial-in your marketing campaign to reach a precise target market. Data-driven decision making is an unquestioned value. In a world where risk and deviation carry a negative connotation, businesses refrain from relying on gut-intinct, or someone’s feelings. A campaign isn’t successful because it felt right, it’s only right when the data shows it’s success.
Removing subjectivity and focusing on results encourages a non threatening environment where strategic decisions can be made on what needs to be done to meet goals. However, knowing what statistics to look for is an art. Or more cynically, Mark Twain said “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” There is a human quality to picking categories of measurement, interpreting results, and refining your actions based on the results.
Marketing is a canonical example of a results-driven practice. While theories and styles draw a crowd, customers and conversions speak. This may seem antithetical to Agile processes, which is often associated with dogma.
The current business environment is constrained by tight budgets, which means conversion data is used to determine reinvestment in marketing efforts. With limited amount of available marketing dollars- there is much less room for experimentation. This is an ideal environment for an iterative approach.
On a related note, budgets in large business are heavily based on a fixed investment. Agile’s association with undetermined project scope and varying cost make it seem a poor fit for the enterprise. That simply isn’t true.
In fact, Agile was built with pragmatic roots. Time-boxing is a concept founded in the concept that there are limited resources for a project.
Finally, the marketing world is trying to keep up with the new pace set by social media and internet channels. Topics, new terms and judgments take hold in the common court of public opinion happening on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and elsewhere. If the marketing channels of an organization are to stay relevant, they have to speak quickly enough to be a part of the same conversations that the internet is having. Being late to the conversation is the same as not participating at all.
This is a marketing trend that clearly aligns with Agile practices. Doing smaller amounts of work at a faster pace to react and change is a winning formula when participating in the world of social media.
Consider PBS launching Twitter accounts and other channels to promote itself as part of the “Big Bird” conversations launched in response to the 2012 American presidential debates. There was no time to draw up three versions of a campaign, focus test on groups in each region, analyze surveys and prepare a final marketing direction. When the conversation is going to be over in a four weeks, your process needs to enable and enhance your ability to be a participant.
Application – Agile into the Marketing Environment
Agile works when there is art and science, objective and subjective. Consider the scientific method. Start with subjective reasoning, test to get objective reality. And the more frequently you can do that, the closer you will get to truth and understanding.
There is a commonly held belief that iterative methods (like Agile, the scientific method, etc) break down in certain scenarios. A typical example given, is the moon-shot scenario. Where the cost of one attempt is so great, that trying again and again in order to learn is prohibitive.
True Agile (and agility) is focused on bending process to reality (and resisting the tempation to approache vice versa). In this world, context is king. And as such, one launch chance is the primary constraint. The best practitioners who use iterative methods understand and embrace their constraints.
Let us look at the eponymous example of the moon-shot, a rocket trip to the moon. While iteration in multiple launches is not acceptable, most principles still apply. Simpler and smaller systems are built. They are adaptive to the changing environments and change in conditions of the event, and each is prototyped, built and tested to best mitigate risk. They are not optimized for performance, they are optimized for reliability. That is only possible via rigorous feedback and testing which drives out all edge-cases and anomolies.
In a moonshot example, your feedback is a limiting constraint. That does not change the fact that rapid feedback in other forms is still valuable, as well as breaking work into smaller pieces that are done when the most information is available.
Agile processes allow you to follow feedback in a traditional process, but also to use that feedback loop as a safety valve in order to venture into riskier territory.
Why would an organization take such a risk? Why go out on a limb… because that is where the fruit is. There are too many success stories behind the blue ocean strategy to ignore it. Leading in new markets or having a clear differentiator in an existing space is profitable, and you won’t get there via customer testing.
Customers tend to tell you they want some combination of features that are currently in the market, because they understand the market in terms of current entries. So you will need to subjectively interpret the desires of the customer and translate into new entries in the market, which is difficult and risky. By prototyping that effort around channels of feedback, you can evaluate the return of new directions, sometimes ground-breaking, quickly. With efficiency you can determine if your creative innovators have a product that speaks to the market.
Practitioners of Agile methods often find value in the theory of constraints. The core concept of this theory is to greatly impact the most constrained area of your value chain. Improving any other part of the process is not likely to yield gains. For example, in a multitasking kitchen, pouring drinks faster doesn’t expedite the cook time of a 20lb turkey. In this case, the turkey is your constraint.
Making that judgment means you understand what parts of your process produce the most value and are irreplaceable. Those steps define your value chain.
Agile provides a focus on goals over budgets. Budgets are constraints to be respected, but meeting a budget does not define success. Meeting a goal within constraints (including budget) does.
Another value that translates between Agile and Marketing is ubiquity. Everything is a part of the process to an Agile practitioner. Work is to be understood and represented in a realistic fashion, no matter who is doing it or what type of work it is. If it has to do with the project, then work should be tracked analyzed and iterated upon. Similarly, marketing is everywhere. If you are impacting a customer, you are tracking and reacting. This means customer service is a marketing touch-point. Billing is a marketing touch-point. And so forth.
Finally, Agile brings excitement and passion to the table. One can argue causation vs correlation here, but the fact is that a majority of the enthusiastic business community are embracing Agile methods of project management. It’s not only obvious, but proven that enthusiasm, and a positive environment produces a better outcome.
Any mainstream project management philosophy that is executed with enthusiasm will shine in comparison to a method executed without attention or vigor.
What does Agile Marketing Look Like?
The budget and goals should be defined up front, but work can be planned in an iterative fashion that focused on small units of work. What is the minimum amount of work the organization can do before testing (getting feedback) on direction and content?
Focus on the constraints and embrace them. The team should consider all estimates, goals, and timelines within the context of the money and time available.
For example, by creating visual concepts within a time-box (for example, 3 weeks), the team has clearly communicated the expectation and resources available to the creative elements of the team. Now placed at the discretion of the creative elements to produce the maximum value they can within that time-box.
A primary key to success is defining the thresholds of judgment up front. If these targets are not defined up front, they will be missed or met based on the personal bias of team leaders.
A core practice in the world of Agile is the retrospective. It is a meeting to determine what went wrong and what was successful during the last period of work. Clearly this same practice would be a valuable recurring communication channel for members of a marketing team. Providing feedback more often allows quicker and more efficient reaction to customer behavior.
Agile is often considered a mini democracy, in that it’s an attempt to empower and amplify those that are closest to the process and customers. An example of this is the analogy of “Pigs and Chickens” as it relates to meetings, only those who are committed (implementing) should be speaking in the daily status (standup) meeting. That is not to say that management is not important to the process. It is just that the most immediate feedback channel should be dominated by those closest to the customer.
Finally, Agile the name itself implies an ability to react. For the sake of the organization which is trying to maximize return, and for that of you and the other knowledge workers trying to succeed in getting your message out, why wouldn’t reacting faster be a benefit. You are mitigating risk by allowing frequent adjustment. This is the model of a group that can bring insight, actionable data, and successful process to the table.
Setting Up the Agile Marketing Environment
The process starts with setting targets for investment, return, and time. And evaluating your ability to maximize feedback while spending that investment, so you can react and maximize return.
If your organization is struggling, you can look outside for expertise in creative and branding work, business case creation, and data-driven analytics in order to start improving your process.
Let’s Sum Up
While the use of the term Agile in Agile Marketing may be opportunistic, there are clearly analogies between the goals of marketing and that of an Agile process that backup up the validity that this practice and conversation should continue. Agile principles have a place in a marketing environment.
Agile is not a universal truth to replace all business processes. It is rather a meta-tool to improve and tweak business process. As such, it is a very effective way to approach complex and potentially large scale marketing efforts.