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How to Work Smarter: Agile for Content Marketing

January 31, 2018

When everything is a priority, nothing is.

Does that sound familiar?

About a year ago, our marketing team set everything as a priority. They decided that there had to be a better process for balancing last-minute requests with maintaining a regular content publishing schedule. When adding members to the small team wasn’t a viable solution at the time, we had to figure out a new way to work.

Enter: Agile Scrum

The tech team experienced many of the same challenges as marketing, but found better results after adopting the Agile method (specifically, the Scrum version of Agile). Because of this success, the marketing team decided to see if it could work for them as well.

What are Agile and Scrum?

“Agile” is more of a philosophy than a set of rigid processes. The essence of Agile is continuous incremental improvements by completing discrete tasks over short periods of work, rather than trying to tackle it all at once. Projects are broken down into pieces, which are prioritized and typically delivered in two-week cycles. To paraphrase: Think big, start small, build fast.

To be “Agile” is to put into practice the principles and values that it preaches. There are many flavors of Agile out there. And the one we subscribe to is Scrum.

At its core, Scrum is about getting people to work together to deliver the maximum value for the lowest risk. Originally, Scrum was created to empower software teams to quickly code and deploy updates in weeks rather than months or years. It’s adaptable enough to extend beyond software development and can successfully support other business areas, such as sales, operations and even marketing.

Our Approach to Implementing Agile Scrum for Marketing

Step 1: Define roles and accountabilities

Product Owners: These are the stakeholders who are accountable for determining what marketing tasks are the top priority. In the Brandpoint flavor of Scrum, we assigned product owners for each of our products. These are the leaders of our business units and own the scope, timeline and budget.

ScrumMaster: In Scrum, this role is classified as a servant-leader for the team. Our marketing director at Brandpoint is also the ScrumMaster and is tasked with coordinating between the product owners and their teams to ensure everyone is operating within the Scrum framework.

Development Team: The remainder of our marketing team (referred to as the Development Team in Scrum) is a group that is accountable to themselves and their team members. They’re each focused on their areas of expertise and are 100 percent dedicated to delivering marketing solutions for Brandpoint. They are not involved in other work within the organization — this would split their focus and accountabilities.

[RELATED: How to structure a marketing team with the right roles and tools]

Step 2: Articulate the vision

To be successful, you need to start at the beginning by defining where you want to end up. The Scrum vision expects you to paint the big picture of your idea and give it strength and structure. The vision should answer “WHY are we doing this?” The vision informs the Agile roadmap and ultimately becomes the touchstone for all work generated to support it.

Step 3: Create a road map

Like all maps, Scrum road maps are constantly evolving and are subject to alteration as new details or business needs emerge. The road map for a specific product will change as tasks are completed and released, and as new work is staged and prioritized. At Brandpoint, our road maps are formalized quarterly and used as a planning tool. They’re revised continuously throughout the quarter to support the next quarterly planning session. The structure we found works best is to bucket tasks into one of three categories:

  • Now (today–3 months out): The current 3-month period (we go by calendar quarters). This is the most detailed section and should be ordered by priority. It will directly inform the tasks stored in the backlog.
  • Next (4–12 months out): A little less detailed and focusing more on high-level initiatives. These should be the focus areas covered during leadership-level planning sessions.
  • Later (12+ months out): The least detailed and most aspirational. This is where the big wishes, hopes and dreams are stored.

Step 4: Build a backlog

The Scrum backlog is a prioritized to-do list that’s owned and regularly groomed by the Product Owner, who adds detail to relevant tasks and removes outdated tasks. When presented with new requests, the Scrum backlog offers the marketing team a new way to say “Not right now, because we’re doing this next.”

Each task in the backlog is called a user story in Scrum, focused on providing benefits to a specific audience. User stories can be short and are required to capture answers to three questions: Who is the primary audience? What do they need? And why is that valuable to them? The format typically follows this structure: “As a ___, I want ___, so that ___.”

Each task should also include acceptance criteria, which include details like a description of the task and what it looks like when completed. We use our own content marketing platform, BrandpointHUB to help us organize and outline the specs of all our content projects.

One of the key benefits of the backlog is that it should be transparent and accessible to all stakeholders throughout the organization, which is why the HUB (a cloud-based platform) is a great tool for Scrum — we can give access to as many people as needed. The backlog also sets the stage for the sprint.

Step 5: Start sprinting

This is where all that planning work moves to execution: the Scrum sprint. The sprint is essentially a commitment made by the team to complete a chunk of work. In practice, we found two-week sprints to be optimal for completing a variety of small and large tasks. But before the team starts working, we first need to agree what needs to be done.

We do this planning during the conclusion of each sprint. The Product Owners, ScrumMaster, marketing team and any other stakeholders that want to hang out with us, walk through the task requests and decide what to commit to completing in the next sprint.

During sprint planning, the real priorities should become clear and product owners should collectively agree to the priorities. After the team commits to the workload for the sprint, they are focused on completing only those tasks.

But what if someone requests a task mid-sprint? Marketing emergencies do and will happen. While these “should” be few and far between, Product Owners are allowed to “spike” in new tasks so long as they are deemed truly urgent and important. There’s a great way to triage that by using Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle.

However, in order to add a task, another task inevitably needs to be pulled out of the sprint. We found it’s better to consciously decide which task won’t get done rather than roll the dice to see what won’t get completed. This task can then return to the backlog so it won’t be forgotten.

Step 6: Begin daily check-ins

A daily scrum or “standup” is a quick 15-minute check with the team to eliminate roadblocks and keep everyone focused. Each member is accountable for answering three questions: What did I do yesterday? What do I plan to do today? And is there anything holding me back?

We’ve found this goes a long way toward resolving bottlenecks and minimizing distractions caused by drop-by check-ins throughout the day. There’s even a study that shows it can take over 25 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted.

Step 7: Review your work

The Sprint review is where the team gets to show off their hard work, review what got accomplished and hand out kudos. This also helps the Product Owners know what work will be deployed (if it hasn’t already) and capture input and feedback to influence tasks in the backlog.

Step 8: Refine your process

We’ve found that you’re never truly done adopting Scrum. A principle of Agile is to acknowledge that people are always evolving and learning how to do it better. The Sprint retrospective is an open and honest conversation about the past Scrum, the overall Scrum process and the team health. It’s used as a way to determine what adjustments should be made in the next sprint for the betterment of the team and the organization.

The Benefits of Agile

Six months after implementing Agile Scrum, our team took the principles to heart and engaged in a retrospective on how far we’d come and the impact on our work and work product. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Maximized resources

The switch immediately created focus for the team. With more accountability to define the requests, Product Owners are compelled to ensure that tasks are in-check and ready for prioritizing. With a clearly defined pipeline of work and fewer distractions, we didn’t have to put in more work to get more done — we just started working smarter.

Optimal workload

With a two-week work period for each sprint, we found that completing tasks on a regular schedule led to a more consistent delivery of finished projects.

We can also predict how much work we can complete in each sprint (and each month, quarter, year) by calculating velocity: distance divided by the weight of a task. This leads to only putting in as many tasks as the team can manage to complete within the sprint, so there is less churn and incomplete work.

Lowered risk of failure

With each task completed, there is a calculable amount of risk tied up in the investment (resources) spent. Ideally, the ROI on the work will be less than the investment made. Scrum helped us mitigate our risk by breaking up large tasks into smaller, incremental tasks, which also reduces the risk per task.

Increased value

These benefits are compounded as the risk of the work is diminished and the value is raised with each iteration. This is because the results of each task include a review to determine if there’s been an increase in value sufficient enough to warrant implementing the next iteration. Value in this context becomes a measurement of quality by tracking the expanded reach and increased engagement the work provided.

Making the work measurable becomes the key to shifting toward a data-driven organization. Iterating allows you to optimize, pursue what works and abandon what doesn’t. Higher-quality marketing deliverables ultimately drove better results.

Is Agile right for your marketing team?

For our team, Agile provided us with the structure to get the right things done quickly, establish a data-driven practice, and drive results that are positively impacting our organization.

Don’t just take our word for it. Scrum’s creator, Jeff Sutherland, reports upwards of a 400 percent productivity boost for teams that adopt an Agile approach. Imagine what results you could achieve if you were able to produce four times the quality content that you are today. Yes, switching to Agile for your marketing requires some upfront effort, but if you commit to it, a significant reward follows.

January 31, 2018

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