Interested in agile marketing? Read this interview

Jim Ewel

The agile marketing movement is underway, and right in the front lines of the charge is an agile champion named Jim Ewel.

Jim publishes the Agile Marketing.Net blog. He helped organize SprintZero, the first public gathering of agile marketers. He coaches companies on how to implement agile marketing through his consulting practice, Peel the Layers. He’s organized the Seattle Agile Marketing meet-up. And I’m just scratching the surface.

He’s on a mission “to evangelize agile marketing and to help marketers become better practitioners of agile marketing.” And given all the great content produced and community building he’s engaged in, the mission seems to be going splendidly.

I had the chance to ask Jim six questions about his views on agile marketing. Whether you’re new to agile marketing or one of the pioneers of it yourself, I think you’ll find his answers enlightening and insightful.

You’ve become one of the leading advocates for agile marketing. How did you find this calling?

I more or less wandered into it based on a number of experiences in my career. I started out on the technology side, as a developer in the early 80′s. I wrote systems on mainframes, and I saw firsthand the limitations of the waterfall method. I remember one project in particular. We followed all of the then “best practices”: creating thick systems analysis, system design and coding specifications documents, as well as final documentation. From start to finish, it took almost 2.5 years, and by the time we finished, the business had changed dramatically.

Later, when I came across Agile Development methodologies, they made sense to me, and even later, when I saw articles from people like you (Ideas for an agile marketing manifesto) and Neil Perkins of Only Dead Fish talking about applying Agile methods to marketing, it just clicked.

It’s interesting that you started your career in software development and then moved into marketing. We’re seeing more of those transitions these days. How do you think that influenced your thinking and approach to marketing?

I think one of the most important things I learned in high school and college was a deep understanding of the scientific method. Later, when I transitioned to marketing, it was natural to apply some of the same rigor to my marketing approach, particularly after the Internet made it much easier to measure the impact of even small changes to a landing page, an email template, or some other marketing vehicle.

I’m also a big fan of Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, and his Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. That’s influenced my approach to marketing, and my thinking about Agile Marketing.

Earlier this year you helped organized SprintZero, the first real event to bring agile marketers together. What was one of the most interesting aspects of that gathering to you?

I found two aspects of the gathering tremendously interesting. One was the diversity of the audience. In terms of geography, we had people from all over the United States, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, South. In terms of experience, we had attendees ranging from complete neophytes, who had heard the term Agile Marketing and wanted to learn more, to Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, who has been practicing Agile Marketing for 6-7 years across three different organizations. And in terms of work background, we had people from agencies, traditional in-house marketing departments and e-commerce marketers. Each of these brought a different perspective to the day.

The second aspect I found interesting was the immediate acceptance of the need for Agile Marketing — perhaps this won’t be true of the wider audience, but not a single person questioned the need for something dramatically different in the way we do marketing.

Agile marketing is borrowing heavily from agile software development methods such as Scrum and Kanban. How much do you think those methodologies need to be modified — if at all — to thrive in the context of marketing?

Scott, it’s a great question, and I think the full answer will come in time as we apply these methods to marketing. But here are some initial thoughts.

Agile has a very specific format for user stories (As a [role], I want to [task], so that I can [goal or benefit] with acceptance criteria). Marketing can to some extent adopt this format, but marketing user stories are different. They are generally at a higher level, they focus on outcomes rather than functionality, and they don’t have acceptance criteria, but perhaps success criteria. I wrote a couple blog posts about these differences.

Second, I think the role of the product owner will either not exist (because we’ll ask real customers) or it will be dramatically modified.

Third, I think Agile Marketing will focus more on optimizing the whole, the entire value stream delivered to the customer, whereas much of Agile Development decomposes a problem into it’s constituent parts. I’m not quite sure how, but the methodologies may need to be modified to recognize this difference.

If a CMO reads about agile marketing, thinks it sounds great, and wants to implement it in his or her organization, what would be your advice for getting started?

Start small, with a group of 4-7 marketers, and make sure that everyone understands agile marketing and is excited about trying out agile as a methodology. Also make sure that everyone is trained in the basics, and comfortable using the tools.

Get a success under your belt, and then build on it. Have realistic expectations. Some people hear agile, and they think speed — that magically, in the first iteration, marketers are going to get twice as much done in a given period of time. That’s unlikely to happen your first time out — whenever you learn something new, it can be awkward at first. I’d focus on the quality of the results, and the learnings, more than the speed.

Again, I’ve written about Getting Started with Agile Marketing, and I also coach organizations through the process.

What do you think the greatest resistance to adopting agile marketing will be? How can organizations overcome it?

Companies will say: “that’s not for us. We’re too big or we’re too small. That’s for tech companies, and we’re not tech. That’s for agencies and we’re in-house, or vice versa. That will be the initial resistance, and it’s simply not true. Unless you’re living in a world where nothing ever changes, and there has been no impact to your business from the Internet, mobile, social media, or globalization, you can benefit from Agile Marketing.

Second, companies will implement small pieces of Agile Marketing, not see the benefits, and write it off. For example, a company will implement 15-minute standup meetings three times a week for a few weeks, and when that alone doesn’t transform their marketing, they’ll write off Agile Marketing. That doesn’t work for us. Well, there’s a lot more to Agile Marketing than the daily Scrum. If you’re not taking an iterative approach, engaging in validated learning, focusing on the customer and responding to change, you’ll probably not see the results.

Organizations can overcome the “it’s not for us” issue by trying out a skunkworks project. Start small, build on success, and let it spread in a grassroots fashion, organically, rather than top-down. And of course, organizations can avoid the second problem by taking a holistic approach to Agile Marketing, and implementing all the pieces.

Comments

  1. Great post on an important topic. Marketers will face many of the same challenges at the software development teams using agile methods. I look forward to learning more about this topic and discussing it with colleagues and other industry players.

  2. A lot of good points, well made. Keep spreading the word about this game changing way of working!

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