We have long known that the traditional approach to marketing planning—logically integrating and sequentially attacking the many different sub-disciplines of marketing—does not necessarily work for marketers at startups. As a result, smart early-stage organizations have adopted the breakthrough concepts of agile marketing and have experienced outstanding results.

Agile marketing follows the lead set by agile software development, an iterative and incremental approach in which requirements and solutions evolve through self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Like agile software development, agile marketing relies on speed, lots of communication, rapid iteration, and highly measurable results. Let's take a closer look at this emerging discipline.

Agile Product Marketing

The tight linkage between product development and product marketing makes it easy to see how agile marketing follows on the heels of agile development. According to Dan Darnell, Baynote VP of marketing and product, "Agile product marketing starts with the customer point of view, then works through rapid iterations of customer needs, prototyping them back to the customer. This means you must start engaging the customer early on."

By engaging customers early on, accelerated design and review cycles allow you to understand what works for the customer before time and effort are spent on fully developing and implementing product features. The result is early and ongoing customer feedback and an engaged, committed customer base, rather than waiting until very late in the process as is the case with the traditional approach. In addition, limited resources are not spent on development and implementation of product marketing that does not resonate with the intended audience.

Flexibility, cost-effectiveness, learning, and transparency are the four key aspects of agile marketing that must be integrated into an organization before it can produce benefits:

  1. Flexibility is a must, because a rigid culture cannot embrace agile marketing. But flexibility also means severing the ties to pet projects and favorite ideas: When you get a thumbs-down from customers, you need to drop that idea and move on.
  2. Cost-effectiveness comes in many forms, not the least of which is the ability to rapidly prototype a concept and test it before committing lots of resources.
  3. A learning environment is essential. "Agile product marketing requires a whole-company commitment," said Darnell. "You need to build an organization that values learning—failures as well as successes."
  4. Transparency both supports and is supported by a learning organization. The knowledge gained through agile marketing must be shared openly with the entire company; no hiding behind bad news; no hoarding of good news.

There are some costs and risks associated with agile product marketing. It can be time-consuming, and it definitely calls for a very structured relationship with the customer.

Expectations, timelines, and communication must be spelled out in advance, and, of course, you are beholden to the customer's timetable. You have to be flexible when customer time conflicts come up.

Agile Corporate Marketing

From the corporate marketing point of view, agile marketing takes on a different flavor. Here, it is more of a process for doing marketing by using small, targeted teams to work on projects that can be completed very quickly. For many startups and companies with a disruptive product, resources are limited, yet the universe of things to be done is endless. The savvy marketing executive knows that while most things need to be done, not all of them will require in-house expertise.

According to Marti Tedesco, Baynote senior director of corporate marketing, there are two key tenets to corporate marketing: Pick a few things you can do very well; shop the rest out. Here is how to go about that process:

  • Figure out which are the most important things you need to do, whether lead generation, awareness, etc. Identify the top priority activities.
  • Then, when you find something outside the top priorities that must be done, find someone and outsource it. Event management, Web development and design, and the like are prime candidates for outsourcing.
  • Look to organizations and groups like Women in Consulting and LinkedIn Groups to find talent. Put yourself in the places where you will find the people who can make good referrals.
  • Be ready and willing to make changes. This works best as an iterative process, with frequent evaluation of the success or failure of projects. Reprioritization is important, as is being willing and able to back out of projects when things aren't working.

As with agile product marketing, there is a very real requirement to be extremely clear, up front, on the goals, service agreements, pricing, and communication mechanisms. Take the time to write the job description or project outline thoroughly. Establish a framework for constant dialog and conversations.

According to Tedesco, "You will likely find that your new extended team is open, honest, capable, and meets the deadlines. However, something will go wrong, something will change, and you need to know when to follow the plan, and when to go to a backup plan!"

Agile marketing is not for everyone, but if you are operating in a situation of limited budget, market uncertainty, and tough competition, it's worth a second look. Take the advice of the experts: Do your planning up front, communicate clearly and often, learn from mistakes and make agility part of your work habits.

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Agile: What Marketers Can Learn From Software Developers

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image of Tanya Candia

Tanya Candia is president and CEO of international marketing and strategy consulting company Candia Communications LLC. She has more than 25 years of experience with startups (including two IPOs) and established companies.