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Agile Marketing Series: What is Agile Marketing?

So What Is Agile Marketing?

It’s not that complicated. Agile marketing means taking small steps and not being afraid to fail. It also means never failing the same way twice. Very practically, it’s about putting a time box around a specific set of work and keep an orderly cadence to new work being produced by your team.

To be agile means test ideas and use data to follow up on what’s working and stop doing what’s not working to improve the profit of your business. Sounds like what marketing was supposed to be in the first place, doesn’t it?

Software Of The Fittest

Agile marketing springs from the world of software development, where the emphasis falls on the customer and feature functionality, as fast as possible, with the ability to change direction when new opportunities present themselves, or when the wind changes, which is often in the software world.

Throughout the last decade, software development firms realized that old, hierarchical/waterfall product cycles did not work in the new digital world.

There wasn’t enough time or money to have everything charted out and solidly planned to hand off for testing to get out all the bugs and then pass to design to slap the pretty colors and branding on it and then run by legal and then up the chain of command for approvals and then sent back—

It all took too long, meaning too expensive. And the time to market created a relevancy gap with customers.

Software companies fell by the dozens to abandoned funding, changing platforms, and the chronic threat of obsolescence.

Agile survived. Agile companies used super-short release cycles, constant review, small teams, and remained able to follow the opportunity wherever it lead them. To use the parlance of software development, the main elements of an agile work environment are:


These are 15-minute meetings that encourage camaraderie and communication, but which also uncover potential problems before they get off track. Whether you call them a scrum or not isn’t what is important. It’s the physical act of meeting and communicating with each other on a daily basis that is key.

Pretend you are painting. You need to study the subject, back and forth with small marks in the beginning, to make sure proportions are correct. The work is on the canvas; meeting in the scrum is like stepping back to take a look at the overall subject, again and again.

Agile software teams typically meet everyday and keep an explicit agenda. They answer:

1) what have you done?

2) what are you doing?

3) what roadblocks do you have?

That may or may not work for your marketing team but the idea is right. Learning how often to meet and the set agenda will be the most important thing scrums teach you—because you’ll know when it’s too often by the groans.

Key: Make every minute of the scrum matter.


“Scrums” and “sprints.” The sprint is a ‘execution’ session where the team breaks a large project (an Epic) into smaller chunks (User Stories) so that work teams can deliver and get feedback earlier and more often.

Bring in someone to represent sales and engineering and finance in the sprint. Bring in anyone who is an immediate stakeholder and reviewer. Decide on the user stories together. Marketing is more horizontal than development within an organization and it’s important to include all the relevant stakeholders upfront.

In his 2012 article “The Best-Kept Management Secret on The Planet: Agile,” Steve Denning dates this sort of “pull” approach to the kanban and lean manufacturing systems that software development teams adopted from manufacturing to replace “traditional,” high-inventory, high-sunk-costs methods.

“In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why they [more agile methods] solved the problem. In the 1990s, huge sums of money were being lost because the work of software development was always late, over budget, and plagued by quality problems.

“Clients were upset, and firms lost money. The developers were seen as culprits and were punished. They worked harder and harder. They labored evenings and weekends. They got divorced. It made no difference. The software was still late, over budget, and full of bugs. They were fired, but their replacements did no better.

“The standard prescriptions of management didn’t work with software development. Something different had to be found.”

Key: Agile Marketing creates an interdependent network “pulling” together, not an assembly line “pushing” through. Think stitching the sail, not pushing the sausage.

User Stories

Creating good software requires you know how your customers are using it, and the same applies to all goods and services, really. Getting those kinds of inside stories from customers requires you have a candid and open feedback loop.

What has social media done for companies if not open an immediate and massive feedback loop? That and cat videos.

Jim Ewel of advises you to document user stories in two different ways, those that focus on:

a.) the need for new functionality and

b.) the roles and stages in the buying process.

These stories aren’t necessarily case studies about how “ABC International came to us with a problem…” Instead, they are stories for you to invent and use inside your business to help understand—even dramatize—what’s going on in the market and who your customers are.

And, like all inventions, stories are always evolving the more information you add and the more data you collect.

With agile marketing, you don’t have to have a magic bullet and hit the target against impossible odds. When your teams respond quickly to change, you can throw out the big bets about what will work and the big blame about who was right or wrong.

Save the drama for the stories.

Key: Take little shots, all the way, constantly tuning and honing in.

Burndown Charts

Visualization is homo sapiens. Visualization tells us when the strawberries are ripe and which snake to run from — both red? Curses!

Burndown charts show progress as hours or percent completion of all the many “chunks” or tasks your team is working on. Updated before every scrum meeting, burndowns help everyone see what’s going on, as the fuse burns closer and closer to the BOOM of completion!

Chart on the whiteboard. Get some green and red magnets. Sharpies. Even better? Use a platform like Mindjet.

Key: A picture answers, “What do we need to work on today?” in even fewer words.

Scrum, Sprint, Stories, Charts

An ‘agile’ purist would tell you differently but i’ve been running marketing in agile for about 5 years and I can tell you definitively that what you ‘call’ the structure is irrelevant as long as the spirit is there. The critical success factor is to develop a taste and trust for the agile process. Work, refresh. Work, refresh, the breathing of agile work.

Let go now of the idea that anyone goes off by himself and then, ta-DA, emerges from the dark months later with a “big idea.”

That’s a myth of a bygone era. Besides, you can’t plan for it any more than you can plan for winning the lottery. Daily investment makes much more sense…though perhaps there’s something even more illustrative in those prize-linked savings plans.

Key: It doesn’t matter what you call all this stuff. Just start doing it.

More about that sort of thing—including why now, how to change cultures, who makes the best storytellers, and other agile topics—later on in this series.

Thanks for reading!

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