Posted by BenjaminEstes

The Agile movement has done a world of good for digital marketers. The term “Agile marketing” started being thrown around in about 2010 . In 2011-2012 there was a proliferation of content around it. Among many others, Jonathon Colman did a Whiteboard Friday , and Mack Fogelson put her two cents in with a Moz article . At Distilled we’ve incorporated these ideas into our everyday behaviors. We’re better for it.

And yet, I don’t think we’ve captured the full potential the Agile Manifesto offers.

Much “Agile marketing” content is actually about Agile project management methodologies like Scrum . These frameworks are earth-shattering when you first find them. But in the end, they’re helping you get the same things done—just better, or faster, or with a greater rate of success. What happens when you want to dramatically level up your marketing game? or make better strategic decisions? or integrate more closely with other departments? Or make your team vastly more effective?

To answer these questions we must think bigger than project management. We need to address the business culture that shapes the choices we make. That’s what the Agile Manifesto is about. This is the real inspiration behind the Agile movement.

The Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 by developers who wanted to improve their trade. It’s short. Give it a read:


Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Kent Beck, Mike Beedle, Arie van Bennekum, Alistair Cockburn, Ward Cunningham, Martin Fowler, James Grenning, Jim Highsmith, Andrew Hunt, Ron Jeffries, Jon Kern, Brian Marick, Robert C. Martin, Steve Mellor, Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, Dave Thomas

© 2001, the above authors this declaration may be freely copied in any form, but only in its entirety through this notice.


Notice anything strange? This isn’t about project management. It’s about culture. In fact, “Agile” development teams use many different project management styles—like Scrum or Kanban .

Instead, the manifesto promotes four cultural biases. Being “Agile” means allowing these biases to be major influences in decision making. In everyday life “bias” is often a negative word. It suggests a lack of objectivity. However, being opinionated about the choices you make is the essence of company culture. And it turns out that some cultures are more effective than others.

Changing project management styles isn’t enough. Organizations that try to “be Agile” through changing project management styles, without considering culture, may be dissatisfied with the results.

Smart development teams have made cultural changes with this manifesto for over a decade. If marketing managers are to learn from the Agile Manifesto, what would that mean? Let’s look at each of the 4 main points the manifesto presents and find out.

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Digital marketing requires good processes and tools. Moving beyond the basics means dealing with human beings.

Some channels, like organic and paid search, require investment in processes and tools. That’s the nature of the work. Anyone trying to understand a SERP without the Moz Keyword Difficulty tool is fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

But let’s not give the tools too much credit. The effectiveness of our tools and processes isn’t the biggest influencer of success. What else impacts search marketing? A few things that come to mind:

  • Marketing budget owners
  • Willingness of brand owners to test new types of content
  • Onerous content sign-off requirements from legal or management teams
  • Limited bandwidth of teams responsible for site updates
  • Team knowledge of best practices

Notice a theme? It turns out there are a lot of people that influence your search marketing. Great tools and processes help us become the best version of our current selves. To take marketing performance to the next level it’s people that you need to invest in.

In practice: trial engagements vs. RFPs

Distilled routinely fields RFPs from prospective clients. Some of them are truly abysmal. Filling them out is a huge investment. Yet that’s not my main concern—I’d do just about anything to work with a great client. Here’s what gets me: RFPs often aren’t effective selection tools.

A mile-long RFP won’t prove that an agency will integrate with your team. It tests the agency’s ability to write essays. It’s an expensive test that doesn’t map to real life work. An RFP is a tool, but you and your team and your consultants are people. People can’t be quantified like that.

A great alternative to an RFP is to engage an agency for a short period—maybe 3 months. This may be an uncomfortable approach. It means investing in something you acknowledge may not work out. But by actually working together you’ll see what it’s like to collaborate. A good agency partner is invaluable. Take the time to see your potential agency as human beings and it’ll pay off in the long run.

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

Spend less time creating reports. Spend more time marketing.

The Agile Manifesto reflects on software development. But it’s mostly generic enough to apply to marketing. However, for this particular line we need to make some tweaks. I propose:

Working campaigns over comprehensive reporting.

Data analysis helps us feel confident about our marketing. It’s enticing to point to numbers because they let us say we’re doing things that are ‘reasonable’. When analysis helps us make a specific decision, that’s helpful and healthy.

But often reports are pulled without any analysis. Anyone who works at a large organization has seen this. And sometimes, analysis is demanded in situations where it isn’t appropriate—a way to add a hurdle in front of an initiative someone wants blocked.

The numbers are there to help us make good choices. If pulling un-analyzed numbers is taking enough time to prevent things from getting done, reporting is getting in the way. A good rule of thumb: the more frequently a report is pulled, the more it must be automated and the fewer metrics it should have. Prefer forward progress in marketing over time spent reporting.

In practice: weekly reporting

Ecommerce sites commonly break down reports by week. And there are meaningful decisions that can be made on a weekly basis, such as changing advertising spends to compensate for poorer-than-expected performance.

However, recommending an increase in paid spend to compensate for a drop in organic requires remarkably few inputs. Did organic revenue hit target last week? are we on track to hit targets for the month? do we have discretionary budget to spend on paid?

Weekly reports should be brief and include numbers that can trigger action. Creation should be completely automated. If looking at macro numbers suggests questions that want answers, commission ad hoc analysis to answer them. Don’t demand all the numbers by default. If your team is spending 10% of their time pulling regular reports, your mission should be to make that 2%.

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Your customer isn’t an enemy to be conquered, or a black box with a variable conversion rate. She is a human being. Do whatever you can to spend more time engaging her and less time selling to her.

Modern startup culture favors the long play—get people using your product and worry about profit later. This attitude is great from a marketer’s perspective. The more people engage with your product, the more people you have invested in your brand. More word-of-mouth, more opinions, more data. It’s a positive feedback loop.

It’s easy to forget that this attitude wasn’t always prevalent. Once upon a time getting the new version of Adobe’s Creative Suite set you back a big chunk of change. The barrier to entry for a customer was high. These days Creative Cloud available for a low monthly fee . This makes it much more accessible to more people.

It’s more important to have the customer engaged and in your ecosystem than to extract maximum short term value from them. Get your product in the hands of customers. Understand how they use it, and how it satisfies their needs. Leverage your customer relationships to improve your marketing.

In practice: Canva’s pricing model

Canva is a hosted graphic design app. They’ve got a great pricing model. The tool is free for everyone to use. You only pay (~$1) if you use premium design assets in your image. There is no pressure to do so, and certainly no necessity given the power and flexibility of the tool.

Everyone who uses Canva—whether they pay for it or not—benefits from it. That means some users benefit from Canva’s hard work without paying a dime. But that’s OK: Canva benefits from every user, whether they pay or not. More users become more word of mouth, more product feedback, and more mind share. Instead of worrying about extracting the most value possible from each user, Canva sees the bigger picture.

4. Responding to change over following a plan

The state of reality is constant flux. Embracing that change and investing in harnessing gives you a competitive advantage.

One of the promises of agile project management methodologies is that they allow work to be broken into small chunks and reprioritized. This kind of prioritization, though, is only one part of the story. When a big change comes along, anyone can drop everything they are doing and focus on it.

The question isn’t whether you can focus on a new initiative. The question is how effectively you can capture a new opportunity. What have you done to make sure that when you want to make a change you can make that change as easily as possible?

For instance, front-end developer bandwidth might be a bottleneck for you. Being able to effectively prioritize new tasks for their constrained bandwidth is good. But recognizing opportunities to prioritize investing in removing that roadblock is better. It allows you to be more flexible in the future when something bigger comes up. If you go to the dev team any time you need copy updated on your website, what can you do to avoid going to them entirely?

In practice: invest in your platform

Let’s say you’re working for a retail clothing ecommerce site. Your site has a “sandal” category page. But research suggests that your audience actually uses the word “flip flop “. As a result, you might want to test swapping the title tag of the page to use “flip flop” instead. Easy enough, right?

But what does it take to change that title tag? If you’re lucky, you log into an online interface and change the value of a text box. If you’re not lucky, it means defining the changes you want to make, putting them into a spreadsheet, emailing them to the team responsible for metadata updates, hoping your change is prioritized in the next build of your site, and crossing your fingers.

Knowing that you should look into “flip flops” is good. Making it easier to change title tags by improving (or adding) a CMS is better. It sounds simple. Yet there are plenty of organizations—maybe even yours—where a content change as basic as a title tag swap requires a full build of the website. If you’re a marketing manager in such an organization, you’ve found your mission.

Closing thoughts

The cultural biases of the Agile Manifesto are much more important than project management style.

Implementing the tactics you read on blogs like Moz’s will help you make incremental improvements in your marketing program. But by reflecting on how to work more effectively within your organization you take your marketing performance to places you didn’t think it could go. And you may even enjoy your job more!

What do you think? What are the roadblocks you come up against within your organization? What cultural changes would solve them?

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