In February 2001, a group of software developers met in Utah to discuss alternative approaches to software development. They came up with the Agile Manifesto, a set of values and principles that have since been widely adopted in the industry.
Earlier this week, a group of more than 30 marketers got together for the SprintZero Conference in San Francisco with the intention of coming up with a similar manifesto for "agile marketing." Attendees at the conference ran the gamut from managers at large enterprises and public utilities to marketing directors for startups and independent marketing consultants.
The ideas behind agile development weren't really new in 2001. They focused on collaboration and teamwork, rapid prototyping and testing, and flexibility in the face of changing requirements. The Agile Manifesto consisted of statements outlining value preferences:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
Software development companies that adopted agile methods soon began to see their applicability to marketing, especially as marketing became more technology-based itself. And so the idea of agile marketing was born.
This week’s conference was organized into a morning discussion of agile concepts and methods and an afternoon spent trying to develop value statements that would mimic the Agile Manifesto. The key characteristic of an agile practice is that it is an iterative process organized around "sprints" toward relatively short-term goals. It rejects the conventional, linear process of big ideas leading to big launches requiring big budgets. Rather, it favor microstrategies leading to big insights producing rapid iterations. Rohn Jay Miller, global account director for interactive marketing agency SapientNitro, said that the result is that "your product is just a better prototype."
Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, CMO of software developer Mindjet (which hosted the conference), said that his company had taken an agile approach to its content creation. Instead of the one big white paper--an "epic"--they now introduce smaller user stories whenever they're ready. The result, he said, has been a significant increase in the number of people viewing their content.
The key takeaways from the morning discussion were:
>> Don't focus on the linear approach to campaign development. In fact, don't focus on the "campaign" at all. Instead, break your marketing effort down into smaller pieces that can be executed on relatively quickly, adapt to changing conditions as needed, and roll them out when they're ready. One advantage to this approach, according to Nicholas Muldoon, product manager at software developer Atlassian, was that it gets rid of a lot of deadwood. As circumstances change and you adapt to them, you focus on what you're doing in the next six months; that means you stop worrying about what you didn't get done from last year.
>> But you need a core set of principles to keep the agile activities on track. One attendee said that in her experience, agile marketing makes a brand even more important. One thing long, laborious marketing projects have going for them is that they can make sure every aspect of a campaign is aligned with the brand story. Breaking the campaign into smaller, shorter "sprints" means you need to be firmly aligned around certain values so you can experiment at the edges.
>> An essential part of the agile approach is regular meetings to keep track of progress and of the backlog of goals. In addition to such marketing-only meetings, the approach also calls for everyone's-invited meetings in which the marketing teams can present what they've done to the entire business. That's a big emotional change for marketers, said Kaykas-Wolff, who are used to holding their activities close until the final "unveil" of the brand, Web site, or whatever. It can leave you a lot more open to being challenged throughout the process, he said, but it has benefits, as well, because it lets marketing have a discussion with the rest of the business. Kaykas-Wolff said that once his team exposed all the work they were doing, it started to change the way different parts of the organization interacted with them; it gave them more awareness and more respect.
>> Related to the above is the idea that trust is necessary. Internally, the marketing department has to trust that the process will work: With an ongoing, iterative process, it gets harder to put a campaign in a box and measure specific results. This can also make it hard to sell to other members of the C-suite. Externally, trust is also necessary to collaboration between client and vendor. Kaykas-Wolff described his experience trying to get an agency not to go away for four weeks and come back with boards and a pile of paper, but rather to come back with ideas as they were generated. That approach requires trust on the vendor's part that the won't get punished for presenting a half-formed idea.
Next Page: Not all marketing activities are suited for agile.
>> As Jim Ewel, consultant and CEO of Peel the Layers, pointed out, a lot of marketing activities may not be suited to agile practices--overall brand positioning, for example, or other activities where there's no "product" or "deliverable." Also, Miller said, agile doesn't apply as easily to situations that truly have a beginning, middle, and end, such as a product launch. In those cases, the traditional campaign still rules.
>> Agile is a huge cultural change for any company. People are used to having process documents that spell everything out and clearly define goals and roles. Moving to agile practices, said Miller, requires senior sponsorship and sharing successes. And not everyone is cut out for it: Expect some shifts in personnel, presenters warned, as people self-select based on their comfort with a more organic approach.
>> But it's important to remember that agile is not a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solution. You can take the parts of the approach that work for your company and adapt them appropriately. Some teams might have sprints that last a week, some that last a month. Some might have daily meetings, some weekly. It's not a rigid structure.
In the afternoon, the group turned its attention to value statements along the lines of the original Agile Manifesto's. The organizers had collected 17 suggestions from various agile marketing practitioners, and the attendees voted (with much discussion and revision) on the seven they thought were the best to go forward with. But they weren't intended as the final say on the matter: It was agreed that it would only be appropriate to release them for comments and then revise them appropriately.
The seven highest-rated values turned out to be:
- Validated learning over opinions and conventions.
- Customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy.
- Adaptive and iterative campaigns over big-bang campaigns.
- Process of customer discovery over static prediction.
- Flexible planning vs. rigid planning.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
- Many small experiments over a few large bets.
These values are supported by a set of principles:
- Simplicity is essential.
- Learning via a build, measure, learn feedback loop is the primary measure of success.
- Sustainable marketing requires you to keep a constant pace and pipeline.
- Don't be afraid to fail; just don't fail the same way twice.
- Continuous attention to marketing fundamentals and good design enhances agility.
- Deliver marketing programs frequently, from every couple of weeks to every couple of months, with a preference for a shorter time frame.
- Great marketing resources requires close alignment with the business people, sales, and development.
- Build marketing programs around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Those interested in participating in the ongoing discussion of these values and principles--and agile marketing in general--can join the Agile Marketing Facebook Group. LinkedIn has an agile marketing group as well. More information on agile marketing is also available from the Agile Marketing Blog and its associated podcast, and a downloadable guide is available at AgileMarketing.net.