What is agile marketing and should you be sprinting to it?

Agile marketing, an adaptation of the agile software development methodology, is a real thing. If you have any doubt, check out what your competition is doing. Here seven things you need to know about agile marketing.

Agile marketing is hot. At the March 2016 MarTech conference in San Francisco, there were two regular sessions and one lunch session devoted to the topic. Conference attendees buzzed about whether their marketing organization was “agile” or if it was still following the “waterfall’”process.

In short, agile marketing is now officially a thing. The benefits of achieving an agile marketing organization can be enormous — but the challenges in getting there can be equally big.

Hare the the top seven things you should know about agile marketing.

1. What is agile marketing?

Agile marketing is a process in which the marketing workflow is broken into smaller chunks and experiments, traditional silos between departments are removed, and customer and transaction data is shared across teams and disciplines.

The end goal is to rapidly respond to changing market conditions, new data and new forms of customer engagement with tightly focused, targeted marketing. Ultimately, agile marketing is about consistently and quickly delivering a superior customer experience across multiple channels.

“Agile marketing is about making organizations great at learning as much about their customers as quickly as possible,” said Barre Hardy, associate partner, CMG, at the MarTech conference.

Or put another way: “Agile marketing is about communicating with your target audience, tailoring your marketing efforts to them, and adapting those efforts” as needed, as fast as possible, said David Lesué, creative director, Workfront, in the same MarTech session.

2. Where does the agile marketing concept come from?

Agile marketing is an evolution and adaptation of agile software development. The method of agile software development began nearly 60 years ago at IBM, when it was described as “iterative and incremental development,” according to a 2003 article in the journal Computer.

Agile differs from more traditional waterfall software development techniques. Waterfall is a sequential design process in which after one stage is completed, developers move on to the next stage. The problem is, waterfall by its nature is the opposite of agile. If something doesn’t work out in, say, the second stage, you have to go back and start over.

By the late 1990s, agile software development practices became more widely adopted. Agile software development “emphasized close collaboration between the development team and business stakeholders; frequent delivery of business value; tight, self-organizing teams; and smart ways to craft, confirm, and deliver code,” according to Agile Alliance’s website. Substitute code for optimum customer experiences and you have the gist of agile marketing.

In 2001, 17 software developers collaborated on defining their ideas and approaches for agile software development. The result: the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, built upon 12 principles.

3. When did marketers start practicing agile marketing?

Several high-tech marketers began experimenting with agile techniques in the early-mid 2000s.

One of the first blog posts on agile marketing practices appeared in February 2006, published by Matt Blumberg, chairman and CEO of Return Path. In his post, Blumberg wrote about the challenges that faced Return Path’s marketing efforts at that time: “Multiple external and internal stakeholders with competing priorities. Poor communication. Needing to be nimble and agile in a process that has some inherent long lead-time items.”

To get beyond those roadblocks, Return Path experimented with agile marketing. The results, according to Blumberg’s post:

“We now plan marketing in six-week ‘releases,’ each of which has 1-2 core themes and a planning session up front with our head of sales and business GMs. Each release has two, three-week ‘iterations’ where we do mid-course corrections and track our marketing team members’ utilization on projects very deliberately...The marketing team has a daily stand-up (meeting) to review progress and identify roadblocks. And we still have enough slack in the system that we can handle a couple of last-minute opportunistic items…which invariably come up.”

4. Why you need agile marketing?

“Agility is the new name of the marketing game,” said Shubu Mitra, director of connection planning effectiveness and productivity for Coca-Cola, in a MarTech session on agile marketing. “New consumer touch points, like Snapchat, are appearing fast and furious. Touch point behavior morphs fast, like Instagram changing from a chronological feed to a more personalized feed.”

oreo tweet

This famous Oreo tweet during a Super Bowl power outage in 2013 is an early example of agile marketing.

With technology driving so much rapid change, marketing organizations today need to be ready to spring into action or change course at a moment’s notice. “Planning is important, but it’s more important to be ready to modify your plans,” Mitra added.

5. What’s an example of agile marketing?

“Digital is a huge part of marketing today,” added Mitra, mentioning a now-famous Oreo tweet at MarTech as a good example of agile marketing.

On February 3, 2013, a power outage hit the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during the Super Bowl. The digital marketing agency behind Nabisco’s Oreo cookie, 360i, reportedly designed, captioned, approved and posted to Twitter and Facebook within minutes an image of an Oreo cookie illuminated with what looked like a lantern or flashlight beam. The image, posted to the @Oreo Twitter account, featured the caption: “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.”

The tweet was retweeted more than 14,000 times and earned more than 20,000 likes on Facebook. BuzzFeed raved that the tweet was “perfectly zeitgeisty” and was “the most powerful bit of marketing during the advertising industry’s most expensive day.”

“All the decisions were made in real-time quickly because marketers and agency members were sitting together at a ‘mission control’ center, or a social-media war room of sorts,” Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of 360i, told BuzzFeed.

Oreo’s famous Super Bowl touchdown “was not big in scale, but it was huge in impact,” writes Scott Brinker in his book “Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster, and More Innovative.” (Brinker is also editor of the chiefmartec.com blog and was program chair for the spring MarTech conference.)

6. What are the benefits of agile marketing?

At a high level, agile marketing — when done right — enables brands to stay close to their customers and top-of-mind across multiple digital channels, whether it’s via mobile, social media, Internet, email, or all of the above. Cross-departmental teams collaborate use shared (not siloed) data to achieve a common goal.

Other benefits can include increased transparency into what marketing does, thanks to cross-departmental collaboration, which can help increase support of marketing initiatives throughout an organization; better prioritization of marketing initiatives; improved productivity; the flexibility to increase speed-to-market; and ultimately, when all goes well, increased revenues and customer loyalty.

“Every business today is wrestling with change,” Brinker tells CIO. “For classic management methods, which emphasize long-cycle, top-down planning, change is your enemy, because it disrupts those plans. Managers find themselves fighting change.

“Agile management methods, in contrast, start with the assumption that change is going to happen — so let's build into our process a systematic way to detect and adapt to those changes,” Brinker explained. “That's the overarching benefit of moving to shorter, iterative planning cycles that allow us to incrementally adjust our strategy based on real-world feedback. For companies who are good at this, change is their friend.”

7. What are the challenges in implementing agile marketing?

To become agile, marketing organizations must transition from orchestras — highly structured organizations with everyone following the same sheet music — into jazz bands, which are often looser in structure and highly improvisational, observed Pat Spenner, strategic initiatives leader, CEB, at MarTech.

If such a transition doesn’t sound easy, it’s because it isn’t. Becoming an agile marketing organization is challenging in part because so many jobs and departments today are siloed, Martin Kihn, a Gartner research vice president, tells CIO.

“There are too many people with distinct jobs who don’t talk to each other, and there are too many VPs: VPs of customer loyalty, VPs of customer success,” Kihn says. “They all report to the CMO and rarely meet.”

Companies need to restructure roles and responsibilities and break down barriers if they want to have an agile marketing organization, Kihn addes. “You need teams that form around a project and work together on the outcome,” he says. “That’s how you gain traction today.”

Like any marketing structure, agile marketing requires strong measurement and analytics, in order to track the outcomes of your efforts and inform future initiatives. In the past, that data was often not shared throughout an organization.

But in an agile marketing structure, siloed data must be integrated, connected and shared, says Mitra. When it isn’t, you can move fast, he says, but it might be in the wrong direction.

A realignment of any organization can be difficult to achieve. But to be agile, it’s essential that marketing departments get organized around martech tools and marketing projects.

For example, scrum is an often-used component of agile marketing and it differs from how some teams are used to working.

Scrum is an agile framework that begins with a prioritized to-do or wish list, according to the definition posted by the Scrum Alliance. A marketing team focuses on a small chunk at the top of the list and has a short amount of time to tackle it; that’s known as a sprint. A ScrumMaster keeps the team focused. And at the end of the sprint, the process is reviewed for lessons learned; that’s called retrospective.

The scrum technique in marketing can cause the potential problems of a marketing initiative “to rise to the surface quickly,” says Hardy.

Scrum teams are becoming “a formal part of the management structure” at many organizations, due to the growing awareness of an agile framework’s benefits, said David Edelman, partner and global co-leader of McKinsey & Company’s Digital and Marketing & Sales practices, at MarTech.

Simply stated, use agile marketing to “focus on the customer experience, develop hypotheses about the customer experience and test them regularly,” Hardy said.

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