Embrace chaos: How data empowers the agile marketing opportunity

Kathleen Schaub

Kathleen Schaub is the vice-president of IDC’s CMO Advisory Practice in the US.

As marketing emerges from the black-arts and into the clear light of science, the new availability of data offers a bonus opportunity. Not only will data predict buyer behaviour and make marketing more accountable to the business, it can also ignite a more effective management style – agile.

Agile methods are spreading like wildfire in situations where requirements are a complex, moving, target. Agile it simply works better than traditional, methodical, ‘waterfall’ approaches to management when these conditions are present.

Technology organisations are the biggest proponents and agile methods are being adopted in other dynamic settings including the military, aviation, surgery, and gaming. Agile acknowledges that sometimes the desired end-state just can't be fully known or is in flux. To get better results in these situations, agile embraces the chaos – and makes it a benefit rather than a problem.

Marketing is a fantastic candidate for Agile. The marketing function faces challenges similar to the technology organisations where Agile has proven successful. Both organisations must deal with service demands that exceed resources, many stakeholders with competing agendas, constantly evolving requirements (for marketing the evolution includes changing market dynamics, shifting consumer behaviour and expectations, and the changes required to deploy marketing technology). Technology organisations and marketing also share the need for speedy execution and for innovation and both find it difficult to measure returns-on-investment (ROI).

Data is becoming increasingly available to marketing through the use of digital communication channels and marketing technology. In the process, data availability opens up a huge opportunity for marketing organisations to overcome some of their biggest historical management challenges. Great places to apply agile include marketing campaigns, sales enablement programs and content marketing.

Data is a key component of why agile works. The availability of data is a key enabler for agile success, but it's not always top of mind. Many people first associate agile with its unique terms and practices. They may be aware of ‘sprints’ - work cycles of up to four weeks that encapsulate an entire project lifecycle from envisioning through creation, testing and launch. Or they may have heard of ‘stand-ups’ – the daily project review meetings short enough to be held while everyone is standing.

These practices are not oddities. They have purpose within the agile method. However, data is a critical component that makes practices like sprints and stand-ups work. Here are the primary applications of data in the agile method.

  • Feedback Loops: Agile methods enable a marketing team to ‘skate to where the puck is going’ rather than reacting to the past. Agile practitioners continually measure the status quo to test the viability of what is being worked on and ensure fitness to changing requirements. By quickly getting deliverables out in front of stakeholders (do), incorporating feedback (confirm), and then adjusting to reality (adapt), the marketing team dramatically lowers the risk of missing the mark. A rich flow of data makes possible the critical feedback loop in the confirmation step.

  • Prioritisation: Agile methods enable a marketing team to ‘do the right thing’ rather than suffering through the storms caused by competing internal interests, too much work, and too few resources. In agile, any stakeholder can add to the backlog (burn down list) of possible projects. However, the backlog is prioritised to ensure that the most important and impactful work is done first. Objective data is a critical component for prioritisation criteria. Data provides the necessary (and previously missing) information on customer and sales partner needs, expectations and behaviour as well as how marketing programs are performing against business goals.

  • Transparency: Agile methods increase marketing's visibility to management and provide greater understanding about the value of marketing projects. At the beginning of each sprint, agile practitioners publicly report what they are doing and why. At the end, they use data to report what was actually accomplished. This transparency facilitates collaboration and alignment with product teams and with sales.

    It helps set expectations and assists senior management to understand resource constraints. Even on an individual level, it brings transparency to ‘who is doing what’. High performers are obvious and slackers have nowhere to hide. Data is needed to set appropriate goals and provide objective measures of results.

Agile can be a lever to propel marketing into management style that is a far better match for today's reality. The ability to adopt agile methods is just one more great reason for CMOs to invest their next available dollar in data-related capabilities.

Tags: data-driven marketing, CMO role, agile marketing

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