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PHOTO: Andy Beales

Simply applying a new methodology to your marketing practices is no guarantee that your marketers will magically become more effective and productive. To successfully adopt Agile marketing requires thorough and thoughtful preparation, the encouragement of and facilitation for marketers and stakeholders to change current behaviors, and strong executive support.

By embracing agile marketing, your marketers and their stakeholders in sales, product development and other departments aim for a more iterative and collaborative way of working based on continuous feedback. The goal is to streamline and rethink existing processes to create campaigns, events and supporting collateral (e.g., blogs, case studies, white papers) to the benefit of customers, marketers and the entire organization.

Agile marketing continues to grow in popularity as organizations seek an alternative, more flexible approach to a traditional waterfall methodology with its set deadlines and deliverables. With Agile marketing, as in Agile methodology in the world of software development, there’s a strong emphasis on enabling experimentation, meaning that some projects may be shelved temporarily or permanently and characterized as ‘learning experiences’ rather than failures.

Do Your Homework Before Adopting an Agile Marketing Approach

Before diving into Agile marketing, marketing leaders need to think about why they’re pushing for greater agility in the first place, according to Andrea Fryrear, Agile Marketing coach and trainer, co-founder of AgileSherpas, and author of “Mastering Marketing Agility.” For instance, are marketing leaders seeking faster time-to-market for campaigns, or more innovative, customer-centric marketing? Perhaps, the goal is to keep pace with an Agile product development team, or is it more about improving employee engagement with less burnout?

“All of these (and certainly many others) are legitimate drivers for process change, but each one dictates a different rollout strategy,” Fryrear said. “Beginning with the ‘why,’ and clearly communicating it to the entire marketing organization and its partners, helps reduce resistance and increase excitement about adopting agile ways of working.”

Also critical is for marketers to consider the organizational issues they’ll likely encounter in the move to Agile, said John Cass, digital strategist and host of the Deep Dive into Agile Marketing podcast. He also helps run the Boston Agile Marketing Group meet-up and is a moderator on the group’s Facebook and LinkedIn communities.

“Agile requires a lot of thought about who the marketing team is, who the stakeholders are, how to work with stakeholders and senior managers, and finding out if they are supportive,” Cass said.

If the CMO and CEO and other leaders provide that executive-level support, an organization might choose to embark on a wholescale ‘big bang’ adoption of Agile marketing. However, should managerial support be weak or lacking, the way into Agile may be for marketers to undertake some skunkworks projects, then present the results of that work to garner management buy-in or to simply start with a small Agile marketing project.

Related Article: A Brief History of Agile Marketing

Getting Started With Agile Marketing

“We find it’s best to start small and scale — testing, learning, and building on success with a carefully chosen team who then go on to be the advocates and role models as you scale,” said Zoe Merchant, managing director at B2B Agile marketing consultancy Bright. “A growth mindset really helps — attitude trumps aptitude every time.”

Jim Ewel, president and founder of AgileMarketing.NET and author of “The Six Disciplines of Agile Marketing,” agrees with Merchant.

“I advise that companies start small, learn, adapt and then build on these successes with additional projects and additional teams practicing Agile,” he said. Alignment on the reason or reasons for adopting Agile marketing, what project success looks like, and how to measure that success is critical.

“This isn’t a one-time exercise; teams need to constantly make sure that they’re aligned both internally and externally,” Ewel said. “A second discipline is how to structure teams in an Agile environment. I recommend a mix of cross-functional teams and skill-set teams.”

At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of changing existing mindsets and behaviors in order to realize true marketing agility. “For example, marketing teams need to learn to focus on outcomes over outputs,” Ewel said. “Marketing needs to impact business outcomes, and marketers need to shift their thinking from ‘We produce marketing content and marketing campaigns’ to ‘We assume accountability for improving business outcomes through our marketing.’”

Related Article: 8 Characteristics of High Performing Agile Teams

Common Challenges to Overcome in the Shift to Agile Marketing

As your organization gets underway with Agile marketing, you may well encounter some resistance from team members. “If they’re asking you, ‘How am I going to do all this Agile stuff, while I’m doing my day job?’ — that means that he or she hasn’t got it,” Cass said. “It’s less about a manager who is managing everyone, and more about the team managing itself more expertly.”

The changing role of management in Agile organizations is the most common struggle Ewel has observed. “At the top, leaders must shift some of the decision-making as far down into the organization as they can, to allow those people who are closest to the problem and who have the most information about the problem to solve it,” he said. “The role of middle managers also changes dramatically, from being part of the approval chain and making sure people get the work done to coaching and removing obstacles for the self-managing teams.”

Taking a piecemeal approach to Agile marketing, notably adopting the methodology at the project level, can prove problematic to success.

“Agile ways of working are designed to function within a fully dedicated Agile team,” Fryrear said. “When we shoehorn them into projects and ask people to ‘do Agile’ on a part-time basis, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. To avoid this misstep, pilot teams, not projects.”

She advises organizations to pull together a real Agile marketing team, give them a clear objective (for example, increase marketing qualified leads by x% this quarter or engage a new market segment), and then let the team deploy Agile frameworks to make that goal happen.

“Measure their performance and ensure Agile is delivering the results you want, then spin up more and more of these truly Agile teams,” Fryrear said. “This is how we get the benefits of agility in marketing. Going project by project won’t ever get us there.”

Merchant sees organizations struggle with Agile marketing in three main areas, the first being a realization that this kind of organizational change takes time. “You can’t just flick a switch,” she said. “It’s important to give your team time to get used to the new ways of working, and foster that curiosity needed to establish and maintain a ‘test, learn and build on success’ approach.”

The other two areas are goal setting — breaking down business goals into effective, sprint-based KPIs (key performance indicators) so they are attainable short-term targets — and collaboration to truly empower your marketing team.

“Tear down silos and encourage upskilling and collaboration across teams,” Merchant said. “Involve stakeholders from across business development and beyond to set your goals, make informed decisions, and support a customer-centric approach.”

Related Article: Step Up Your Agile Marketing Game

Is Agile a Good Fit for All Marketing Projects?

By and large, our four experts agree that all marketing projects can benefit from an Agile approach.

Ewel draws a distinction between projects which are complicated versus those which are complex. In his opinion, most marketing projects fall into the ‘complex’ category since markets and user needs are complex, and user reactions to marketing are unpredictable.

A traditional in-person user conference can be classified as a ‘complicated’ project, since it involves many moving parts, but it is also well understood by marketers. Such a conference may not be as good a candidate for Agile marketing as a ‘complex’ project.

“On the other hand, if you need to completely change how you run user conferences in the time of COVID-19, you might well use Agile to take a ‘start small, iterate and learn’ approach, which is inherently Agile,” Ewel said.

Cass noted that often marketers either don’t or are unable to do enough work ahead of a conference to test what will and won’t work at the event. But with an Agile approach, marketers can design and test new messaging or a look of a virtual booth via social media in advance with customers. “You need to break the mold with Agile, think creatively, and use your imagination on how you can do iterative work,” he said. 

Fryrear notes that the kind of marketing work being performed may call for different flavors of Agile. For instance, creative or content teams may prefer more flow-based, Kanban-style practices, while teams with clear deadlines and regular deliverables may find Scrum works better.

“The important thing is to allow the teams doing the work to own and iterate on their process as they become more mature,” she said. “This will ensure that, no matter what type of work they’re doing, it’ll be as effective as possible.”

Merchant talks about breaking down large projects into phases or waves. “We then divide the work and objectives into short sprints of two to four weeks,” she said. “We also set short-term sprint KPIs that align to the phase goals and the overall project and program objectives, and from there we align those with the business goals.”

Related Article: Agile Marketing Your Way Into the Next Recession

Lay the Foundations for Agile Marketing Success

By taking a thoughtful and measured approach to Agile marketing, an organization can ensure that its marketers and their stakeholders are more productive, can demonstrate business value, realize increased return on investment, and prioritize what will contribute the most to delight customers and support the business as a whole, both now and in the future.