“Agile” methods are typically associated with software development--but to practice them requires acceptance of the philosophy at a business level. Very often, web or software projects are driven by marketing goals, and the way marketing is practiced by a company ends up influencing the way a software project is managed.
This does not bode well for many projects, because traditional marketing planning and execution bears little resemblance to Agile software development. Instead it mimics a waterfall process—which explains why many developers are still stuck doing non-iterative, non-discovery-based development, despite their fervent desires and efforts to practice Agile.
These projects, as defined by the marketing strategists and handed to the development team, are characterized by fixed scope and fixed deadline parameters, demands of predictable milestones and associated costs and timeframes, and a lengthy development cycle with many features and a giant “launch” at the end.
It’s no secret (to developers anyways!) that this approach has an awful track record, often ending up with projects being late, over-budget, substandard, and hard to maintain. In response to this, it is decided to be even stricter the next time around. Even more controls are put into place to ensure that the technical implementation of the project proceeds exactly as required. This, of course, is self-defeating, as those of us in the business know—and makes it ever harder to transition to the more successful model of Agile development.
Marketing success these days is often driven by web and software development, although most companies are oblivious about how to manage such projects, and cling to strategies which are counter-productive to their effective execution. This is understandable, but unfortunate. The antidote is simple; align the marketing and development strategies so that they synergize, instead of conflicting with, and ultimately defeating each other.
In this spirit, I offer an “Agile Marketing Manifesto”; a guideline of values for this new era of marketing in which technology—and the ability to develop it—has become a deciding competitive factor:
Collaboration over Silos and Hierarchy
I touched on this in a prior blog post--The Epic Clash between Marketing and IT—and it bears repeating: collaboration is the new “master key” to success. The Agile movement itself is chiefly based on improved collaboration.
Get decision-makers, product owners, designers, marketing folks, and developers all in the same room and communicating effectively—and frequently--throughout the project, from initiation to launch. It’s when you have people making decisions and planning in isolation that things run into trouble.
The marketing folks don’t understand the technical issues and the technical folks don’t understand the marketing issues, and by not collaborating it sets the stage for missed expectations, frustration, and stress on both sides. This is more than just “feature level” collaboration I’m referring to. The goals, direction, and architecture of the project must be fully understood and accepted by all sides in order for it to be correctly designed and implemented. Those who underestimate the complexity and the dependencies--and interdependencies--are inevitably surprised when things don’t turn out as they assumed!
Lose the politics, the egos, the hierarchy, and the departments, and engage in authentic collaboration.
Strategy Implementation over Strategy Planning
A little planning is good, if it helps you move faster and more efficiently. Unfortunately, what many organizations engage in is a LOT of planning, which results in numerous rounds of analysis, far past the point of diminishing returns.
Long meetings, numerous brainstorming sessions, focus groups, creating presentations, in-depth documentation, bringing in consultants, and repeated evaluations—are the symptoms of a company that is going to have a hard time being Agile. Why? Doesn’t all this planning ensure success?
The fact is, the winners in today’s technology-driven market are the ones who are implementing—even in the face of uncertainty—while others are still poring over the drawing board. The value of long term planning has been diminished by the fact that technology changes, competition changes, and market changes occur at a pace never before seen in the history of commerce.
The “secret” that Agile practitioners know is that change is going to happen—and happen quickly. Even the most well conceived plan has a chance of being rendered obsolete, irrelevant, or inadequate—not in 10 years, or 5 years, or even 1 year—but within months or even weeks! It is common for organizations to spend enormous time and money developing features, that, by the time they are launched, better and more effective ideas have been introduced. Our own marketing strategies and priorities constantly shift as we receive feedback, react to change, and learn or discover new things.
This is why the Agile approach favors implementation—get something out there, then keep adapting to changes. First movers have a tremendous advantage in the web space—while others are busy trying to build a “better mousetrap”, they start small, gradually accumulating users and adding features based on actual feedback and changing conditions. This surprisingly simple strategy is both efficient and effective, and over time creates a “snowball effect” as user adoption and maturation of a product happen together.
Focusing on implementation results in moving quicker, getting superior exposure, adapting better, and competing more effectively. Just do it!
Smaller, More Frequent Deployments over Lengthy, Major Launches
This goes hand in hand with the practice of implementation—in order to get out of the planning-and-perfecting trap, you must think iteratively and incrementally—and keep shipping.
There is a “one-shot” perception carried over from traditional marketing experience—of producing print, radio, or TV advertising—where you literally cannot change anything after you submit your work, and it gets introduced to the audience all at once. There is literally only a “single launch” that matters, and building up to it is the focus.
We need to put this perception aside. Online projects are a continuous endeavor, much like raising a child. Just as we cannot give birth to a fully grown, self-sufficient adult, we must accept a gradual process of nurturing, growth, and gradual improvement. The longer we shelter our “child” from society, the more developmental harm occurs. Opportunities for growth and learning are lost, and ways are set that make it harder to change and adapt. Nevertheless, many companies attempt to skip the “childhood” phase of a project altogether—demanding an enormous scope and endless tweaking before a launch is attempted.
This problem has more to do with fear than any real benefit. The prevailing psychology is that we have to win on more features. We need “more”—more robustness, more versatility—to either trounce our competitors or put ourselves so far ahead they won’t be able to catch up. To deploy anything less suggests we might be dismissed out of hand by a discriminating public, maybe never even get off the ground.
Ironically, the obsession with “more” is counterproductive in numerous ways. It adds complexity, which exponentially increases development time and debugging time. It overwhelms users, who are notoriously impatient and resent learning curves. It dilutes the strength of the project as a whole, because less time and budget is spent improving “core” features. And it’s usually far less valuable to users than is perceived by its creators. The Pareto principle is alive and well; 80% of the value and profit derived from a website or web application comes from just 20% of its features. Do less, but do it better by focusing on the features that matter most. An app that does something simple, but does it exceptionally well and is exceptionally easy to use is a breath of fresh air in this crowded marketplace of feature-bloated offerings and information overload.
I’ve witnessed many times that features added to a scope were considered “must haves” or “competitive advantages” at the time of planning—but after release, they were found to have minimal usage! The money and time spent building such features is a great loss—avoiding this scenario brings us to our next principle.
Testing and Measurement over Expert Opinion
Business in general is rife with personal judgment as a guiding principle. We always tend to judge things by the way we think, the way we perceive, the experiences we’re familiar with. We may apply an Aristotelian logic to support our viewpoint; since gravity affects objects based on their mass, its pull should be stronger on heavier objects—so a heavier object should fall to earth faster than a lighter one (makes sense until you try it!).
Marketing and PR, especially, is beset with folks claiming to be “experts” on consumer behavior and “best practices”—much of which is actually based on personal opinion, anecdotal evidence, or untested theories. This so called “expert opinion” is often very convincing when the rationale behind it is explained.
If expertise is so freely available, what separates the handful of leaders who tend to dominate in their fields? I’ve observed that the answer is simply that they take a more scientific, empirical approach.
Most businesses are used to operating in a kind of “dark ages” mode of thinking, relying on guesswork, consensus, copying others, or “expert opinions”. This is not necessary online, because it is a platform from which results can be measured, and experiments conducted relatively cheaply.
The true experts are applying the scientific method to the online world. They are determining usability not by their own perceptions, but by conducting eye-tracking and click-through research. They measure the business value of features by tracking statistics on their actual use. They judge the appeal of graphics and copy by exposing different versions to users and measuring which lead to more action.
Such an approach requires both humility and investment. The investment part is often overlooked—setting up the experimental architecture and tracking methods. I predict, however, that this trend will continue to grow, and the future leaders in online technology will be pioneers in this area.
The Agile movement itself is fundamentally about applying an empirical process to software development. Doing the same from a marketing perspective is a must.
Authenticity over Image
The projection of image is so over-done in marketing that it’s really hard to take anything at face value anymore. Everyone tries to appear larger than they are, more successful than they are, even more capable than they are. Websites are artfully designed to make businesses appear as if they have a large staff, a vast array of expertise, and a top-notch pedigree. Pretense and clever copy bolster the appearance of being in the “big leagues”.
In contrast, the Agile approach emphasizes transparency and visibility. Information and status is shared freely across all stakeholders, without filtering or interpretation. Such unbridled honesty is scary for a lot of companies. But it creates a real connection with people, and acceptance of your authentic self. This is in contrast to those organizations, seemingly suffering from a sense of inadequacy, that try to project an image of perfection, lest they be spurned by fickle customers.
There has to be a sense of honesty and straightforwardness in order to start simply and grow bigger. You have to be able to say “hey, we admit we’re the small guys, and we don’t do everything, but we’re good at what we do—and we need your help to get better”. Only a company that can admit its shortcomings yet still feel confident in its strengths can implement and do smaller, frequent deployments without feeling inadequate about it. It’s a very human principle, and one that users embrace in an environment filled with faceless, corporate-sounding companies with heavily edited facades. Today’s consumers are drawn to those companies that represent themselves authentically. Even larger companies are learning this lesson—and working towards representing themselves via real faces and authentic sounding voices.
Today’s consumer is more perceptive than ever before—and can detect even subtle attempts to deceive or manipulate them. Armed with social media, the backlash against any perceived lack of integrity is swift and punishing. Honesty and authenticity is expected—and will gain you customer loyalty above and beyond your other offerings.
Execution as Competitive Advantage
This is not so much a principle as it is a conclusion. Back when I was studying business in college I had a professor whose favorite topic was competitive advantage. He enjoyed asking the class for examples of competitive advantage, which he would then gleefully dismantle. We would propose technology, talent, process, service, quality, cost, barriers to entry—and he would methodically explain how each advantage was tenuous and short-lived, and the numerous ways it could be copied or worked around. The concept of sustainable competitive advantage was an elusive one.
Having worked in the business world for many years now, I finally have an answer: the ability to execute well. This has become more prominent because projects today, with their intertwining of strategy, communication, marketing, technology, and project management, are more challenging than ever. The amount of collaboration and knowledge of process required is through the roof. Very few companies can do it well. Great ideas are everywhere; and so is talent. But being able to bring those ideas to life, practically and successfully, is a skill possessed by few. As I often say about Agile, the process is simple and straightforward; it’s the acceptance and implementation which is tricky.
Those companies that can successfully embrace and practice the principles of Agile development and Agile marketing—simple as they are—will find themselves with a competitive advantage that keeps on giving. In the age of manufacturing, executing better and faster was simply a matter of optimizing process and equipment. In the age of online marketing, it’s about collaboration and human-driven effort—which requires a dramatically higher level of skill and leadership. This type of execution is very difficult to master—those that do will be the leaders of tomorrow.