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Insight/ Strategic Planning

Agility In Action: How Four Brands Are Using Agile Marketing

by Elana Varon
Contributing Writer
CMO.com

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Article Highlights:

  • Agile marketing is a big change from the traditional marketing approach to a product launch.
  • Improving the agility of the marketing team doesn't always mean using formal agile practices.
  • One common approach to agile marketing has been to launch it within one group.

Talk about agile marketing often references social media. Indeed, Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels are pushing marketers to react in real time to events and conversations among their customers. But rapid response isn't the only benefit, say CMOs who are delving into the approach.

Agile management methods, they say, provide a framework for making better decisions and improving overall productivity.

"One focus of agility is understanding the relative value of the initiatives you want to work on and prioritizing them," said Barre Hardy, senior director with marketing consultancy CMG Partners, in an interview with CMO.com. "A lot of companies are not great at doing that today."

But there's potential for big improvements to how CMOs manage marketing initiatives, if the results from software development, where the methodology originated, are any guide. A survey by VersionOne of IT organizations that use agile methods found 90 percent of respondents improved their ability to manage changing priorities, 85 percent increased productivity, and 84 percent improved project visibility as well as team morale. (VersionOne sells tools used for agile software development.)

CMO.com talked to marketers at four companies in different industries about their paths to greater agility. Here's what they said.

Carsurfing
What the company does:
The startup offers an app for finding rides to and from events, such as concerts. People offering or seeking rides enter information about the event they're going to and other relevant details. Carsurfing matches them and helps them make arrangements.

Integration with Facebook, so that people can see which events their friends are attending and using the Carsurfing platform to coordinate transportation, is a key feature.

Why agile marketing is important: Agile marketing is part of the product development process, said Ben Watson, CMO with marketing software vendor WhatsNexx, who is advising Carsurfing and several other startups. (Watson has also served as vice president of marketing at HootSuite and as principal customer experience strategist with the Adobe digital marketing team.)                                                

"We're combining marketing, technology, and the creative process into one set of iterations," Watson told CMO.com. "We're building the look and feel of the Web site, the customer journey, [and] our knowledge of persona into the product design and content at the same time."

How the company does agile: Last year, as developers were importing events listed on Facebook into the Carsurfing platform, they noticed a spike in connections related to Burning Man, an annual art festival in Nevada.

"We dropped everything and focused on getting people connected on Facebook so they could find their way to Burning Man," Watson said. They built a dedicated landing page for Facebook users going to the event. "In a couple of weeks, we helped to arrange 800 rides on a platform that was barely alpha." Carsurfing was able to validate its technology, its ideas about how consumers would use it, and the user interface at the same time.

The takeaway: Agile marketing is a big change from the traditional marketing approach to a product launch. There's no "big unveil" after months of development, Watson said.

But by incorporating feedback during the development process, a product is more likely to meet customer expectations, and the marketing is more likely to hit its mark. Thanks to the Internet, "you can put something in the market and know fairly instantaneously whether it's working or not," CMG Partners’ Hardy said, "and you can test concepts before you go out and spend big dollars on advertising."

Teradata Applications
What the company does:
The division of Teradata (formerly Aprimo) sells software to support marketing, including operations management, campaign management, and analytics tools.

Why agile marketing is important: Like many marketers, CMO Lisa Arthur views agile marketing as synonymous with getting faster and more responsive. She is streamlining processes so her team can respond more quickly to business and customer needs, including tactical activities such as issuing press releases or managing an event.

How the company does agile: "We're in the early phase of adoption because of organizational changes we're still driving," Arthur told CMO.com. One area she has emphasized is to improve communication during a project. Another is to use data more effectively to quickly develop and execute "microcampaigns" and interact with customers.

For example, "we know from our data that third-party reports can be some of the best information to produce a follow-on conversation," she said. Earlier this year, when Teradata Applications secured a leading place in Gartner's Magic Quadrant, an annual ranking of IT vendors and competitors within various market niches, Arthur wanted to be first with the announcement. "We had a benchmark that we had been slow,” she said.

Getting ahead of the competition required coordination with Gartner, which produces the research, as well as internal collaboration to create a landing page for the report, write the announcement email, identify who should receive it, and make sure every element was approved.

Arthur and her team automated the workflow and approval process. But they also made sure to define who within Teradata Applications and at Gartner had to be involved and when. "We improved communication within the expanded ecosystem," she said.

The takeaway: Improving the agility of the marketing team doesn't always mean using formal agile practices, Hardy said. When CMG Partners interviewed several dozen marketers recently, it found few companies were using agile management methods. But they did say they were taking steps to be more customer-centric, to become more efficient, and to use data more effectively in order to execute projects faster.

"Shortening time to insight has been really critical," Arthur said. "How quickly can you synthesize data and take action on it?"

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CafePress
What the company does:
CafePress sells themed gifts and provides custom-design services for people who want to create their own merchandise. Many of the products CafePress sells are related to popular culture and current events.

These include items with licensed designs, such as "Mad Men" mugs. But most designs are customer-generated. Dozens, for example, riff on the "Keep Calm" Internet meme.

Why agile marketing important: CafePress wants to engage consumers in conversation and collaborate with them in real-time as they upload their designs. "When consumers say I need to buy a gift for a friend or a T-shirt to wear to the Star Trek premiere, we want them to come to us first," said Jason Falls, CafePress’ vice president for digital strategy, in an interview with CMO.com. Top search terms on the site early this month included "Class of 2013" and "zombies," while "Hillary 2016" was popular among people looking for political-themed items. "Where we can see there are designs around a given topic, we can put those at the forefront of our Web site" or use social channels to promote them, Falls said.

How the company does agile: Falls joined CafePress last December to build a social media presence for the company. "I wouldn't say we're doing 'agile' consciously," he said. But interacting with consumers in social spaces requires speed and flexibility.

So far, like Teradata’s Arthur, Falls has taken steps to improve internal communication. He's also investing in customer service; the company recently assigned a dedicated representative to handle questions or complaints it gets through social channels. "We've gotten really good at the reactive stuff," he said. "I don't think we've gotten into a sweet spot of having a lot of proactive agile marketing."

One key to marketing agility, Falls said, is a closer relationship with company lawyers. The legal team needs to be an active participant in marketing decisions. Marketers "need to know what they can and cannot say," he adds. "But you can't afford a 24-hour legal team response. I think I've done a good job relating why we need a less-than-20-minute turnaround on things."

The takeaway: You need cross-functional teams or, at least, close collaboration across marketing--and business--functions. "Being truly agile really does require a lot of people's work to come together at one point in time," Watson said.

"I've never run into a member of a legal team that has resisted something," said Falls, who has been a consultant to companies on their social media strategies.

Nevertheless, WhatsNexx’s Watson said, marketers are generally uncomfortable with formal agile methods because the emphasis on collaboration and constant iteration changes how individuals are recognized. "The advantage of traditional waterfall phases," where projects are completed in discrete steps, "is that they come with a pat on the back." Management, Watson added, must find ways "to recognize people based on their contributions to broader goals, but do it in a way that enforces agility as a desired behavior."

Xerox
What the company does:
In recent years, the 107-year-old company branched out into document management, IT, and business process outsourcing services in addition to selling multifunction printers, software, and supplies. The Xerox.com Web site, managed by the company's digital marketing team, provides information and access to corporate and customer support, as well as drivers for its products, in 26 languages for customers in 173 countries.

Why agile marketing is important: To keep up with demand from customers and internal marketing teams around the globe, "We knew we needed to simplify how work was being processed," said Judith Frey, vice president for interactive marketing, who runs the team. Agile methods have made the team better at predicting and meeting its delivery dates.

"We would focus on a project at a time, and that did not allow us to be adaptable or flexible to handle new initiatives," she told CMO.com. When an urgent project came along, the team would either stop what it was going to do the new project or try to work on both simultaneously with the same resources. These shifts were stressful and sapped productivity.

But the short, iterative work cycles that define agile marketing mean multiple deliverables are completed in two weeks or less, and the team is constantly making room for new ones. "You're able to adapt to any inquiry that's coming in," Frey said. You don't have to refocus the team; you can reprioritize the work and quickly move it through the queue."

How the company does agile: Beginning in 2009, the digital marketing team adapted agile work processes used by its product development teams. They set up three queues: one for work that required new development, one for creative projects, such as artwork, and a "rapid response" queue for site updates that take eight hours or less to complete. Projects are broken into small chunks, which the team calls "user stories," and prioritized according to the business objective. "Anything date-driven goes to the top of the queue," Frey said.

Recently, the team built a case-study selector for the site, which allows customers and others who are interested in case studies to filter them by industry, service, product, or company. The team began by talking with stakeholders about their requirements and business objectives, Frey said. A cross-functional team broke the project into user stories, each of which could be completed within three days. Each story was prioritized weekly and worked in order from the queue.

The takeaway: One common approach to agile marketing has been to launch it within one group--typically digital marketing and e-commerce, CMG Partners’ Hardy said. "Because of the volume of projects that come up in the Web environment, you're changing things on an ongoing basis. A way to manage those and prioritize them so you're always working on the highest value projects is very much congruent with how agile operates."

Even so, it took time and training for the Xerox.com team to change the way it works. Frey had worked in operations, so she knew how to lead and manage change. To head up the transition to agile, she chose the person who proposed it and had a technical marketing background.

"He had been with Xerox for a while," Frey said. "People trusted him. He was very flexible. He had no personal ties to what was getting done. His foremost responsibility was to deliver quality in short, iterative cycles that were meeting the needs of the business."

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