Iterative, flexible, and customer-centric, agile project management is earning its hype in marketing because it enables organizations to adapt to rapidly changing trends and bring content and concepts to the public faster. Chief marketing officers are paying attention to its benefits: A vast majority – 93% – who have adopted agile report that they’ve seen improvement in ushering ideas, campaigns and products to market by using its principles.
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But agile marketing isn’t a magical approach for making anyone work faster – it doesn’t compel content producers to research, write, or design at lightning speed. That’s because of an important distinction: Agile marketing is about delivering faster.
But how? To fully harness the advantages, a sound strategy is needed – a strategy that employs agile project management. This approach gives teams the necessary mindset, tools, and tactics to deliver value more efficiently. Applied to the world of modern marketing, agile project management can help teams stay responsive in a fast-paced market where adapting quickly is essential – and innovating rapidly is rewarded.
Agile project management empowers cross-functional teams to deliver value to market faster by employing an iterative process aimed at constant improvement. It provides frameworks for these teams to solve complex problems, provide a continuous flow of value to customers, and foster innovation so organizations can stay ahead of the competition.
This article will dive into the key elements of agile project management for marketing, the most common benefits, and five practical tips to help teams get started.
What is Agile Marketing?
Work smarter and deliver value faster. This sounds like a worthy motto for marketing teams, but how exactly does it translate to everyday project management? Agile marketing provides the pathway that can turn a desire for efficiency into real-world achievement.
Agile marketing is derived from the Lean manufacturing techniques used by innovative Japanese automotive companies in the 1970s and 1980s. Motivated by the Lean philosophy of continuous improvement, a group of software developers in the 1990s pioneered a new project management approach called Agile. Tailored to knowledge-based creative work, the new methodology valued early and frequent deliveries of small increments of value, a focus on customer preferences, and other visionary principles outlined in the group’s Agile Manifesto.
Agile differs from the previous “waterfall” approach to managing projects in a few key ways. Waterfall project management values static, long-term planning and a linear, sequential approach.
Take, for example, a waterfall approach to developing a marketing campaign. Like a waterfall, such a process flows downward in one direction: The metrics setting phase is dependent upon the completion of the strategy defining phase, while the strategy phase can’t start until the end of the market research phase, and so on. The phases do not happen concurrently, and teams are siloed and not easily coordinated.
Agile, on the other hand, emphasizes adaptive planning and a simultaneous, layered approach to project management. Its more flexible, iterative approach allows a cross-functional team to collaboratively develop the elements that make up a project.
When an agile project management strategy is applied to a marketing campaign, each element – including market research, strategy development, metrics and media selection, and content creation – goes through multiple versions prior to project completion. One phase of the project doesn’t necessarily end before another begins, and constant improvement, not perfection, is the goal.
Agile values experimentation, encouraging teams to harness failure to inform the next round of work. Teams deliver rounds of work rapidly so elements can be altered according to customer feedback.
Though first used by engineers and developers at software companies, the principles of agile have proven to be successful for other industries, from construction companies to financial institutions to product development firms, over the past 25 to 30 years. Marketing teams are among the groups that have realized how greater agility and collaboration can bring about more consistent and successful marketing content and campaigns.
Essentially, anytime there’s a complex project to undertake, a new product to produce, or service to improve, the principles of agile can help organize a marketing team to produce more value in less time.
The Elements of Agile Marketing
To implement agile marketing, marketing teams typically use systems such as:
- Scrum (born from the world of software development)
- Kanban project management (built in the realm of manufacturing)
- Scrumban (a hybrid of the two)
In Scrum, work is broken up into sprints, or set amounts of time in which segments of work must be completed. Kanban project management favors a “release when ready” approach over timeboxed delivery and limits the number of tasks in order to maximize throughput. The idea with either methodology is to foster a flexible, solution-oriented process, with team members constantly swarming on problems, keeping an eye on prioritization and removing blockers to progress.
Agile project management strategically uses meetings, called “ceremonies” in the Scrum vernacular and “cadences” in Kanban project management, as essential activities for teams to get work done. Depending on the preferred methodology, these events are known by several names, including daily standups, prioritization meetings, sprint planning meetings and retrospectives.
Each meeting has a slightly different purpose, but all are structured to facilitate conversations within the agile marketing team, help the team prioritize their work and then stay focused on those priorities. These conversations cover topics such as:
- What did you deliver yesterday?
- What are you going to deliver today?
- Do you have any roadblocks or impediments?
- How can we work as a team to help you overcome those roadblocks and get that work done?
Scrum marketers advocate for working in “sprints” of activity, often between two and four weeks long, in which a team releases value for a set period, then stops to review and plan for the next sprint. Kanban marketers prefer working in a more continuous fashion – often referred to as “flow” – to keep the execution of work, review and planning unbroken. And marketers who practice Scrumban take elements from each method and tailor their approach to their specific needs and style of working.
Benefits of Agile Marketing
Agile marketing helps marketers stay current and competitive by offering the following benefits.
Speed with Discernment
Whether a company sells cars or shoes, software or content services, agile project management enables marketing teams to deliver value to the market faster, then use a data-driven approach to rapidly receive and respond to feedback.
In fact, after adopting agile marketing practices, organizations move ideas into action in much less time: from several months to less than two weeks, according to McKinsey and Company. CMG Partners’ sixth-annual survey of chief marketing officers (CMOs), “The Agile Advantage,” revealed that 93% of CMOS who employ agile practices say their speed to market for ideas, campaigns, and products has improved.
But “faster” doesn’t mean a lack of planning or an indiscriminate push of content. Agile project management is strategic: It embraces the planning process while saving room to adapt and stay responsive to the market.
As an example, let’s look at the process to create an eBook on content marketing. A standard marketing approach would devote months and a lot of resources into creating such a project and releasing it all at once – without knowing if such content would be worthwhile to the audience.
An agile marketing approach, on the other hand, would create an outline first, then rely on analytics and customer feedback to test what, if anything, resonated with their audience. If data showed the audience responded with greater interest to a chapter on “how to write eBooks” and less on “how to promote eBooks on social media,” then the eBook’s content could be adapted with no real loss of time or resources. The agile approach could help deliver “The Definitive Guide to Writing eBooks” to an already-receptive audience.
If the team had spent months with its head down, writing and releasing the entire eBook, it would have missed vital lessons from its audience – who might respond with a “not interested” click away from the product instead of a “that sounds helpful” click toward more engagement.
Greater Focus and Productivity
Both internal and external stakeholders approach marketing teams with a breadth of needs. In a typical week, it’s not unusual for a marketing team to hear requests such as:
- The customer service team wants broken website links to be fixed right away.
- The European sales team needs a product sheet translated into French.
- The new product team wants to promote its upcoming webinar on social media.
- The membership team would like to capitalize on a customer’s positive experience by having a case study written as soon as possible.
Whether such requests come from inside or outside of your department, such a wide array of work and overlapping deadlines can be difficult for a marketing team to manage and prioritize. Determining who gets attention first is a common dilemma for a marketing team, particularly when its resources are limited.
The agile marketing approach makes those decisions easier by asking, when each request arrives, “What is going to deliver the most value to our customers?” This simple question helps the team prioritize, corral their work and set boundaries.
The team begins by embarking on a planning period in which it defines a set of goals and maps out a specific timeline when work will take place. Armed with these goals – and leadership backup – the agile marketing team can better communicate to requestors when work falls outside that scope and needs to be added to the list of new work.
With such a clear and defined process, it’s harder for stakeholders to claim unfair or preferential treatment. It also gives marketing teams more freedom to concentrate and do their best work without the stress of conflicting priorities.
Visibility and Efficiency
Agile project management tools enable each team member to easily view where projects are in the pipeline. Real-time status updates help teams work more efficiently and self-sufficiently.
In cases where you would traditionally contact the lead project manager or wait for status meetings, these tools allow team members to simply check into the board and see the status in seconds. The visibility helps leadership respond and react to roadblocks before they get outsized and harder to overcome.
Better Morale, Job Pride, and Satisfaction
Agile project management’s gift to morale can’t be overstated. Marketing team members report feeling more satisfied with the product or service they’re helping to produce and more engaged because they have greater control over their work. Job satisfaction is also credited to an agile marketing team’s closer alignment on business objectives, quicker identification of roadblocks, and inevitably higher quality of work.
Tips for Getting Started
While an agile marketing strategy presents significant advantages for a marketing team, it does require a break with tradition and a significant shift in mindset. Even when presented with evidence of agile’s ultimate value, team members might naturally resist such a fundamental change in the way they work.
An agile marketing champion should begin by acknowledging these barriers, then working to ease your team out of its comfort zone. Here are a few guidelines to help accrue the benefits of agile marketing faster.
Don’t Go It Alone
Agile marketing is team-oriented first and foremost. You’re not solving problems on “lone marketer island” – you’re part of an archipelago, surrounding the challenges as a team.
And don’t forget about executive leadership: By getting their buy-in on goals and tasks, you’ll have fewer roadblocks on your path to deliver on overarching company strategy.
View Feedback Early and Often
Part of your workflow should include a process for asking for and receiving feedback not only from your audience, but also from internal stakeholders, particularly those who work on the front lines with customers. Even sharing a small piece of value – releasing one sales enablement email to a subset of your audience or one white paper as part of a larger marketing rollout – can provide vital intelligence.
Invite the audience to react to help your team determine whether it’s best to continue in the same direction or change course. For example, an Agile marketing team might test its audience’s response to one webinar before investing in and rolling out a year’s worth of webinars with the same subject matter expert.
Trust Data to Shape Next Steps
Determine metrics of success for your different sequences of content and use analytics to inform the next stage of your agile project management process. Perhaps it’s important to measure a certain percentage uptick of users reading an email, a certain number of new customers engaging with a webinar, or a certain type of lead asking for more information. These goalposts help you decide when to pivot and move into a slightly different direction, when to persevere and move forward with your plan, or when to abandon the idea altogether and start anew.
Embrace Failure as a Learning Experience
An agile marketing process invites disruption and welcomes the lessons of failure, but it also encourages a team not to fail in the same way twice. (If the word failure elicits too negative of a connotation, use a different phrase, such as a pivot point, a signal post, or a trial and error moment, to help bolster the team.)
Don’t Shoot for Perfection – Aim for Discovery
Realize that the right answer might not come in the first or second iteration. Embrace a nonjudgmental process where you can all learn from your mistakes and build a framework so that the next right answer reveals itself.
By releasing yourself from the restrictive idea of “This must be perfect,” creativity and collaboration can flourish.
Project collaboration software can help your marketing team better visualize and manage all the different tasks involved in such a flexible and fluid process. Such a tool is particularly helpful when it includes document management features that assist in tracking documents, managing the versioning process, and easing a team’s reliance on paper.
If all processes are iterative in a sense, why is agile project management such a transformative approach for marketing? After all, the iterative process that began with the stone wheel ultimately yielded automobiles in the early 20th century, right?
The simple answer is that today’s market doesn’t wait that long, and if you don’t move fast, as the saying goes, you’ll get bypassed. The modern consumer experiences so many marketing messages every day from so many sources that marketing teams don’t have the luxury of years or months to craft major projects – a process of iterative improvement needs to be instituted now. Agile project management provides the adaptive frameworks and mindset shift to propel marketing teams on a path toward continuous improvement, faster delivery, and competitive advantage.