Beyond the buzzword: Make agile marketing hum with these 4 crucial shifts

Focus on outcomes instead of outputs, and move from campaigns to continuous improvement. Above all, home in on what your customer wants—not what your team thinks is snazzy.

4 keys to agile marketing

Many marketers are beginning to adopt Agile methodologies as a way to manage marketing, hoping for boosts in productivity and the ability to handle disruptions like the current COVID-19 pandemic and flatlining economy.

This is a good thing. Adopting process management methodologies like Scrum and Kanban can help marketers improve their productivity and how they prioritize. But to achieve the full promise of agile, marketers and their organizations need to do more than simply adopt these processes.

Organizations that want to move beyond agile as a buzzword must make four crucial shifts in their beliefs and behaviors. Where should you start?

1. Shift your focus from outputs to outcomes.

Teams that focus on customer and business outcomes—and are rewarded for achieving those outcomes—produce better results than teams producing more outputs (advertising campaigns, content, events, etc.) and who are measured on throughput.

More marketing output doesn’t translate into better business outcomes. A study by Amplero Research and Globys confirmed this. After implementing a new targeting strategy—personalizing emails to customers—the average customer received just two emails per month, down from 17. However, the lift in average revenue per emailed customer grew from 0.32% to 2.8%, a 9× increase.

Focusing on outcomes transforms marketing from a content factory and cost center to a contributing member of the revenue and profitability team. It changes the relationship between a company’s marketing and business units, aligning the two on common goals.

A focus on outcomes is more than measuring leads and conversions. Yes, this is part of it, but outcomes need to be both tactical (leads and conversions) and strategic. Focus on short-term and long-term outcomes, along with safe bets and riskier bets.

2. Shift from campaigns to continuous improvement.

Most marketers think in terms of campaigns. Instead, they should be thinking about continuous improvement. This requires shifting from a mindset of “we can’t show anything to customers until it’s perfect” to “let’s get something out there, even if it’s not perfect, to test how customers react and get to market sooner.” This shift in mindset is difficult for many marketers.

Campaigns encourage a culture of one and done. We run a campaign, and then we declare it was successful, often using vanity metrics to prove to ourselves that the campaign worked.

But business units don’t care about vanity metrics, measures like reach, frequency, and click-throughs, which make us feel good but do nothing to generate more revenue, profitability, or new customers.

Continuous improvement requires a culture of data-driven decision-making and a willingness to “fail” by running tests that don’t work and improving on those tests by trying something different. It forces marketing organizations to increase their marketing “metabolism:” running tests more frequently to learn at a rapid pace.

3. Shift from an internal focus to customer needs and wants.

The shift to a customer focus must be more than cosmetic. Let’s be honest: Who thinks they’re not customer-focused? But a focus on the customer must be more than happy talk.

The shift to a customer focus can have profound impacts on a business. Forrester Research found that highly customer-focused companies achieved compound annual growth rates that were seven to 30 percentage points higher than industry peers who were less so.

Agile provides a number of techniques and tools for focusing on customer needs and wants, from user stories to robust user personas to well-researched customer journeys.

It also has a requirement you can’t ignore: get out of the building and meet with real customers. As Steve Blank, advisor to a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, once said: “In a startup no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”

4. Shift from top-down decisions to decentralized decision-making.

The shift to decentralized decision-making may be the most difficult of the four shifts for many organizations.

A centralized decision-making model reflects a lack of trust in the people doing the work, and it robs those people of accountability. It can demoralize a team, particularly in the early days of adopting agile when people expect change.

In addition to motivating people and ensuring accountability, decentralized decision-making can speed up the process and result in better decisions because they’re made by people who are closest to the customer. It also frees up management to focus on the decisions and strategies that only they can own.

When I talk with organizations about making the shift from top-down decision-making to decentralized decision-making, I often find a paralyzing dichotomy. Individual contributors and first-line managers tell me, “Management won’t let go. They talk about decentralizing decisions and simultaneously insist on approving everything that goes out.” Managers tell me, “My people aren’t ready to make these decisions. They don’t have the experience or the training.”

They may both be right.

If management wants to decentralize decision-making and then go home at night without the burden of feeling they have to make—or check—every decision, then management must ensure their people have the information, context, and training to make good decisions.

Jim Ewel is one of the leading voices on agile marketing. His new book is The Six Disciplines of Agile Marketing: Proven Practices for More Effective Marketing and Better Business Results. 

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