Marketers are no strangers to navigating uncharted territory. Once, we could craft campaigns focused only on print; now we need personalized, omnichannel, real-time messaging. There were no blueprints for making that transition, so we figured it out as we went along.
It’s hardly surprising then, that as marketing undergoes its own Agile transformation we’re blazing new trails rather than strictly following the ones created by software developers nearly two decades ago.
The Kapost/AgileSherpas 2018 State of Agile Marketing Report shows a robust, varied landscape taking shape in the world of Agile marketing.
Download the full 1st Annual State of Agile Marketing Report.
Most Agile teams are using hybrid approaches, and there’s a huge variety of practices in place within those methodologies.
Let’s take a look at what Agile marketing looks like in the wild, so if you’re considering embarking on your own Agile journey you’ll be able to spot the right signposts.
Building Our Own Agile Marketing Methodologies
Based on AgileSherpas’ experience with our clients and Kapost’s conversations with their customers, we suspected that few marketing teams were sticking to pure versions of common Agile methodologies.
Scrum is often a common starting point, especially in technology and software companies where product development teams are likely to be using some form of this approach to Agile. As you can see from the 2017 State of Agile Report compiled by VersionOne, Scrum remains the most popular way for technology teams to implement Agile.
Marketers, however, quickly encounter problems with strict Scrum.
Whether it’s emergencies or newsjacking opportunities, things are always coming up to disrupt the Scrum Sprint. There are also typical challenges that emerge if marketing teams attempt to create the flat, cross-functional team that Scrum idolizes because specialization in marketing is practically unavoidable.
For these reasons and many others, only 18% of the hundreds of marketers we surveyed reported using Scrum.
Kanban and Lean, which are far less prescriptive methodologies, came in tied for second place at 13%. While these approaches can be easier to implement initially, they require more proactive effort to deliver over the long term.
These demands, coupled with the fact that the details of these methodologies are simply less well known, most likely explain their lower adoption rates.
As I mentioned, a hybrid approach is the most popular with marketers. An impressive 44% of the Agile marketers we surveyed reported using a hybrid of multiple methodologies.
For those teams considering an Agile approach, it’s clearly important not to lock yourself into a specific methodology. Learn as much as you can about Scrum, Kanban, and Lean so your team is fully prepared to customize Agile to meet its needs.
Techniques and Practices of Agile Marketing Teams
Just as one methodology isn’t enough for Agile marketing teams, we also see a wide variety of techniques and practices emerging.
The three most popular are user stories (51%), frequent releases (47%), and retrospectives (43%), but four other practices are in use by a third or more of the Agile teams we surveyed:
- Daily standup (40%)
- Kanban board (34%)
- Sprint/iteration planning (33%)
- Work in Progress (WIP) limits (33%)
These are some of the practices that we recommend most often to the clients we work with at AgileSherpas, so it’s encouraging to see marketer using best practices as they explore the Agile world. Let’s unpack each of these one by one so you can put them to use in your own team.
These one-sentence descriptions of work help Agile teams stay focused on the audience. They’re particularly useful for content and social media teams, but even those serving an internal business unit can employ user stories to stay on track.
Their typical format in the software world looks like this:
As a [type of user] I would like [a certain feature] so I can [complete a task].
Marketers often rewrite them more like this:
As a [persona] I would like [a type of content] so I can [answer a question/solve a problem/reach a goal].
For more on how user stories work in marketing, check out these resources:
Releasing early and often is a core tenet of agility. It reduces our risk because we don’t spend a lot of time or resources on a project before we put it in front of a customer or audience.
If it was off track, it’s a valuable, inexpensive lesson. If it’s successful, we can quickly expand on the win with our next release.
In the world of content, it looks a little like this:
Frequent releases force marketing teams to abandon Big Bang campaigns that gamble our entire quarterly (or yearly) budget on a single idea. Instead, we experiment and iterate, putting lots of different ideas in front of our audience to see what they like most.
The retrospective meeting, also known as a retro, is one of the most vital pieces of a high performing Agile team. It happens every couple of weeks and provides the team a nice, long space of time to reflect on how their process is going.
I’m delighted that this practice is in the top three because it’s one of the best ways to overcome early Agile challenges and to keep mature teams committed to continuous improvement.
A traditional format for a retrospective is to ask team members what they think they should stop, start, and continue from the most recent round of work. You can also ask them to categorize their feedback into what they liked, lacked, learned, and longed for.
The style is less important than making sure everyone’s input is heard and that the team identifies concrete steps to take to improve their process.
For more on how to keep this crucial meeting working, I recommend this article from the AgileSherpas resources section and the outstanding book Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.
Daily standup meetings follow right behind retros on the list of must-have Agile meetings. As their name suggests, they work best if you have them every single day.
Standups shouldn’t last any longer than 15 minutes, and they focus only on what the team has achieved since the previous standup meeting. Team members report successes as well as impediments that have come up.
This means the longer you wait between meetings, the more risk you’re introducing.
The team and its leadership might not hear about an impediment for 48 hours instead of 24, which is a terribly long time for a team using one- or two-week release cycles.
Made up of multiple vertical columns that represent the stages that work goes through on a team, Kanban boards are common sights on all kinds of Agile teams.
Kanban boards can be physical whiteboards, purely digital creations, or a combination of both. Their format doesn’t matter as long as they accurately visualize what a team is working on.
Here’s a common kanban board that a content team might use:
Sprint or Iteration Planning
This practice is what tells an Agile team what to work on in the near future. It’s a common myth that Agile teams are chaotic and their work haphazard, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, because Sprint or iteration planning happens every few weeks, Agile teams typically plan more often than their traditional counterparts.
I love this illustration of why frequent planning is so much more effective:
When Agile teams plan and execute rapidly, they learn and adapt much more quickly than waterfall teams who draft a huge plan upfront and then follow that plan for months at a time.
Sprint/iteration planning is what makes this possible. In this meeting, an Agile marketing team decides what they’re willing to commit to in the next couple of weeks, based on the projects that are coming up in their backlog.
Then, they go off and complete that work, ideally without any interruptions from outside the team. Since the planning meeting governs everything they’ll be doing for weeks at a time, you can see why it’s so important—and why it falls near the top of the practices Agile marketing teams are using.
Finally, we come to Work in Progress (WIP) limits, one of my personal favorite Agile tools. In a nutshell, WIP limits force teams to stop starting new work and start finishing what they’re already doing.
They’re particularly crucial for marketing because having a bunch of work partially finished is pretty much worthless.
I may have been busy all week outlining a blog post, sketching the flow of a new email nurture campaign, and researching best practices for our new podcast, but as far as my audience is concerned I’ve been totally silent.
WIP limits would help me finish that blog post and send out the first email in the nurture campaign before I started researching podcasts. The audience actually gets to hear from me.
This practice is shockingly powerful on small and large teams alike, which explains why it’s being used on a third of Agile marketing teams (and should probably be in use on more than that).
Pick Your Practices and Make Your Methodology
As you can see, Agile marketing is very much like those old choose-your-own-adventure books. The options are almost innumerable, which means there’s no excuse not to get started.
Pick one or two of these popular practices and start making a methodology that works in your unique situation. With 37% adoption in 2018 and 61% of traditional marketers planning a transformation within the next year, the time to start is now.