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There’s a lot of hype around “agile development” and how it can radically impact business success through faster innovation, development cycles, and ultimately faster time-to-market. From a marketing perspective, agile development can prove challenging under the best conditions. But if you happen to be a young SaaS company with a rock star group of engineers who believe that lean, agile development is a religion, as a marketer you’d better get ready. Someone just moved your cheese!
Prior to joining my current company, I had become accustomed to enterprise corporate marketing roles where things ran predictably in cycles –
- Quarterly reviews with product management to outline what was planned for release over the next 4-6 quarters. (Yes - quarters not months).
- What did the latest research tell us? (research that took several months to complete)
- How would we use the research to better position our “integrated marketing campaigns”?
- What campaign would launch for the quarter and how should sales use it? (of course these would have been planned three quarters in advance and no sales person was ever in the room during the discussion)
Walking into my new startup was like BASE jumping from the Hancock building without the parachute. There was no time for market research. Research consisted of talking to a few customers and then coding, doing a few hours of testing and then pushing it to production. Integrated marketing campaigns as I knew them wouldn’t work. As soon as a presentation, case study, white paper, etc was created…it was outdated. We were innovating and shipping in two-week cycles and features were shipped every week.
While engineering seemed completely comfortable with the process, the rest of the company (marketing, sales, and operations) needed to adapt.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
#1: Priority #1 is the customer
This may sound cliché, because as a marketer and former sales professional I’d like to believe the customer has always been my priority. However, I’ve learned that in an agile development cycle everything you do is with the customer at the forefront…not the target market…but each individual customer. Your product releases, messaging and training are focused on the most efficient ways to connect with the customer to get feedback and reiterate. It’s critical to understand their needs and how they use the features and product on a day-to-day basis in ways that help them succeed. Agile marketing requires you forget ‘big bang campaigns” and instead plan for rapid iterations that build on one another to create a robust campaign.
#2: Good can be great over time
When things are happening in near real time, it’s nearly impossible to develop “great” marketing messages and campaigns on a weekly basis. Get comfortable with the idea that it’s more important to communicate in concise sound bites frequently than wait to pull together an integrated campaign on the latest enhancement. I’ve learned that as we deliver new functionality, a short story can grow into a best-selling novel based on feedback from customers. Our messaging and the stories we tell are really compelling because they come from our customers.
This is a tough area to navigate. On one hand, you have a lot to tell your customers, prospects and target audience (remember - new enhancements every week). On the other hand, you don’t want to create so much noise that no one listens. After much debate within our company, we decided to create a weekly cadence around our platform enhancements. If it became too much, we would change course…we’re agile. It turns out, that our customers and prospects love the platform enhancement updates and are now giving us feedback on how they would ideally like to be “trained” on new features. Our community is helping us solve new challenges.
#4: What you announced today will be old news tomorrow
I mean literally old news, because as soon as it’s out the door you’re planning next week’s enhancement update.
#5: Themes drive your campaign
Agile marketing doesn’t mean “campaign marketing” is out. It simply means you need to find a new way to build your campaigns. We’ve learned that most of our enhancements can be placed in buckets that align to our overall strategy. Now, we look for ways to tie new features and enhancements to one of three or four themes. We create messaging, PR, videos, case studies and sales strategies around a broad theme. This gives us the ability to build an integrated campaign around a story that evolves and can last for several months. You just have to accept that you won’t have it all on day one.
#6: Engineering is marketing’s new best friend
In most companies, marketers and engineers are at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, for marketing to integrate in the agile process, collaboration with engineering and development is key. You need to attach yourself to the hip of engineering and keep pace. They will be your best paths to creating meaningful materials that highlight new product functionality. Your new best friends are engineers.
#7: Adaptability is critical
Delivering enhancements every week is one part of the process that is predictable and works flawlessly. The part that is not as predictable and requires a great deal of flexibility is the feature release you prepared for is not what will be delivered. Things change rapidly based on customer requests, market opportunities, and discoveries along the way. As an organization, we’ve accepted this and are prepared to pivot when things change. You have to adapt.
In an organization dedicated to agile development, as a marketer, you need to find balance. The day-to-day activities that go into weekly releases can consume you and if you’re not careful, you will lose sight of the big strategic picture.
As mentioned in the blog, Agile Marketing: A CTO Perspective, we work around three types of product releases. This works well for our product but still leaves a big gap for the company. In an agile marketing process it’s critical to also have a strategic plan to position the company. This is where tried and true marketing strategies come into play, albeit delivered in shorter time frames.
For us, this is a work in process, but we are getting better.
#9: Not all enhancements are equal
Just like most of us, engineers and developers believe their new features and enhancements are “the next big thing.” Some are and some aren’t. There needs to be an open line of communication so everyone is on the same page about: where the opportunities lie, where you’ve had success, to whom you market and where you are willing to spend your precious resources. Because, in a small company with limited resources you can expect to execute on only the top 20 percent of the opportunities presented to you. Be willing to walk away.
#10: Define a repeatable process
You need to create a marketing framework for the organization that defines requirements for each type of release. Minor releases include: customer enhancement email, website content, sales materials, and a blog post or two. Major releases will have additional materials and outreach including: press releases, media interviews and articles, blog post series, videos and more. It takes some effort to find what works and get everyone on the same page, but the cycle is significantly reduced once you land on a process.
Final thoughts: By design, things happen quickly in an agile environment and you will need support from all areas of the company – engineering, operations, support, and sales. It’s important for everyone to know what’s required to successfully deliver enhancements and support them. We’ve learned that our agile marketing structure helps drive the entire organization to be iterative, flexible, customer-centric and focused on high-value priorities. It’s a great place to be.