Updated Sept. 26, 2022
Efficiency is rarely a primary concern for content marketing teams. You talk about quality, conversions, and brand alignment. Your major concerns center around the awesomeness of what you do and the results the work provides. Systems and processes take a back seat.
However, particularly in uncertain times, having a system becomes vitally important. It lets you do the right work at the right time with as little waste as possible.
A growing number of marketing leaders are experimenting with methods and tools for boosting agility to improve the efficiency of their teams. According to a 2022 survey by AgileSherpas of 513 business owners, marketing directors, and managers, huge growth is happening in understanding the need for marketing process optimization and facilitating business agility in general.
The report shows that 43% of marketing teams in North America have adopted practices from the Agile methodology for boosting marketing efficiency. While 91% of traditional marketing teams with interest in Agile planned to adopt it within the next 12 months.
Interest is one thing, but launching a full-scale marketing transformation can overwhelm you. This article explores the most popular Agile practices you can start using tomorrow based on data from the AgileSherpas report. You can apply them quickly, together or separately, and boost your marketing efficiency to maximize its awesomeness even in the face of uncertainty.
Plan in iterations
The planning process often is far from efficient, especially in larger organizations. Mapping content marketing execution in excruciating detail for the year ahead is an old-school, still widely adopted approach. It’s one of the main culprits of inefficiency.
In theory, it gives direction to your content marketing strategy, but this approach breaks down under changing circumstances. When unplanned barriers appear, most (if not all) elements of the original plan must be changed to account for the new reality.
Not only does this create chaos and uncertainty within your team, it generates administrative overhead to revise your plan documentation. It wastes time that could otherwise have been spent on execution.
Innovative marketing leaders are experimenting with an Agile approach to plan in short-term iterations. Agile planning creates a shared understanding around the long-term goal while allowing the team to figure out the details along the way. Whereas traditional plans are done annually, rigid, and could become irrelevant, iterative planning is short-term, flexible, and relevant.
How an Agile-based plan works
To illustrate the difference between the traditional approach and an iterative plan, let’s use a typical content marketing plan.
Traditionally, a content marketing plan for the year would document all the content assets to create and deliver, including titles, target keywords, campaigns to support, publishing dates, authors, and as many other details as you could collect.
With Agile planning, you start with the desired results from your content marketing strategy for the year (e.g., generate 2,000 marketing-qualified leads from the blog). Then, you would anticipate the effort required to achieve those results (e.g., publish three SEO-optimized blog posts per week and actively promote each for three weeks on social media).
Recognizing many things can change along the way, you don’t waste time detailing the blog posts and their titles, nor do you lay out posting dates on your social media calendar.
Instead – after agreeing on the deliverables – you lay out the blog post specifics for the following month and keep your social media calendar flexible. If something unexpected happens that makes the planned content irrelevant, you can respond swiftly and act decisively.
Repeat this process each month to remain agile and account for changing circumstances.
Keep your work process visualized
Even flawless planning doesn’t guarantee perfect execution by the team to deliver the desired results. Unfortunately, ad hoc tasks often derail the planned work and require marketers to multitask, expanding the time it takes to finish everything.
Visualizing the process step by step, including individual tasks, can shed light on your team’s day-to-day activities and draw attention to undesired scope creep that usually goes unnoticed or distracts lower-priority ad hoc tasks.
Workflow visualization is a fundamental part of the Agile methodology because it provides this transparency and creates a bridge between your team and other marketing stakeholders.
You can apply it easily by putting a Kanban board in an accessible place in your office or setting up a digital project board using a platform like Trello. When work in progress and the backlog of assignments are visible to everyone within your company, prioritization becomes easier.
If you update your visualization often enough, your team board gives an instant progress report. This eliminates the need to schedule unnecessary meetings with stakeholders or prepare long status updates. Also, if an ad hoc request arrives, you can quickly compare its importance to current assignments and act accordingly to keep your efficiency high.
Visualizing the workflow also allows everyone to see the big picture. This helps them focus their efforts where they have the most impact.
Limit work in progress
Humans are good at starting new work but not so good at pushing it past the finish line. That’s why marketers often find themselves working on five or more projects simultaneously. Despite everybody working like crazy, little gets done. To put it simply, the more you try to do at the same time, the longer it all takes. This Kanban board without work-in-progress limits illustrates how projects get stuck in copy and design phases, with few actually making it to the publish stage and even fewer in the done stage.
To make matters worse, frequently switching from one context to another results in poorer quality work and additional time to rework the less-than-desirable deliverables.
To avoid these problems, marketing leaders embracing Agile have found a simple solution: Limit the amount of work to be in progress at the same time.
At first sight, this seems counterintuitive because of the cult of multitasking. In reality, limiting work in progress (WIP) allows individuals to boost productivity significantly by protecting their focused time. On the team level, it prevents distractions and allows members to quickly finish what has been started. It forces the team to work to reduce the time tasks wait in the process.
In this Kanban board image, when work-in-progress limits are implemented, eight projects are in the done phase, with only five in the copy phase, three in design, and two in publish.
When you start a task, put it on hold to work on another assignment, then go on to another assignment – and repeat this several times – multiple work items are not actively progressing. As a result, they end up taking a lot more time to be delivered.
Applying WIP limits allows team members to deliver value more often at a higher quality because they can focus their efforts and avoid switching contexts frequently.
Keep your meetings short
Marketing professionals are extremely prone to attending a lot of meetings even when they don’t provide much value. Importance is equated to the number of calendar invites. It leaves little time to sit down and focus on value-adding work.
In fact, long meetings without a clear agenda are among the biggest time wasters. They easily go off track and produce little to no value for the organization while hindering the efficiency of your team.
Forward-thinking marketing leaders have found a remedy by adopting daily stand-up meetings. They are the most widely implemented Agile practice for marketers, cited by 50% of Agile marketers in our 2020 report. They are short, on point, and on foot … literally.
The stand-up meeting is an efficient way to gather your team and communicate progress and workflow impediments. As the name suggests, everybody stands, which contributes to the brevity of the conversation.
During the meeting, everybody on the team gathers with the project board in view and answers three questions:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What am I planning to do today?
- Am I blocked by anything?
You can also try a different approach to stand-up meetings that we apply at AgileSherpas. It puts more focus on collaboration and team spirit and includes the following questions:
- What’s my priority for the day?
- Are there challenges that I’m facing and/or need help with?
- Are there big wins that I want to share with the team?
- Are there any dependencies that I need to flag?
- What else does the team need to know?
The goal is to meet for less than 15 minutes. If further discussion on something mentioned by a colleague is necessary, the affected team members can discuss it separately after the stand-up meeting. If the concern is a big issue that requires a dedicated meeting, it is scheduled for another time.
Do frequent retrospectives
To boost the efficiency of your marketing team, you should revisit your team’s work process frequently and identify room for improvement during a dedicated meeting for the purpose. This meeting is known as a retrospective or retro.
In an Agile context, this meeting among your team members discusses only three fundamental topics about your process:
- What should you start doing?
- What should you stop doing?
- What should you keep doing?
Retrospectives are extremely important for continuously improving the performance of your team, sharing new knowledge, and encouraging innovation.
Depending on the way you work, you can hold retros in various cadences. For example, if you’re practicing Scrum, the retrospective should happen after each sprint. If you’re working in a continuous delivery workflow, schedule a weekly or biweekly retro. The goal is to analyze the way you work frequently and inspire process ownership within your team.
TIP: Stakeholders and company leaders should not be invited. To facilitate the desired spirit of innovation and participation, team members should feel safe to open up about problems they are experiencing and propose creative solutions without worrying about ruffling anyone’s feathers outside the team.
Introduce other business departments to Agile
Marketing is a linchpin function in departments like sales, finance, HR, etc. Therefore, efficiency is directly affected by the way you collaborate with stakeholders from outside the marketing team.
Even if you are applying all of the Agile practices showcased in this article, you can’t expect efficient collaboration with other teams when they don’t understand your way of working. In 2022, 74% of Agile marketers said it would be easier to work with other departments if they followed an Agile methodology.
Thankfully, marketing agility can unlock business agility within an organization. When involved in projects that go beyond marketing, you can introduce other departments to Agile. All you have to do is start sharing with them the value you are getting from implementing practices like workflow visualization, limiting WIP, and others.
The marketing leader can have a huge contribution to this effort by engaging with the leaders of the sales, HR, and finance departments and sharing practices that have brought great process improvements to your team.
As business leaders outside of marketing realize the need for process agility, you might find yourself in a perfect position to incentivize transformations within the departments you collaborate with. This would contribute not only to improving marketing efficiency but the efficiency of the whole business.
Putting marketing agility into action
Adopting Agile marketing doesn’t have to be an intimidating process. By simply planning differently, visualizing your work on a Kanban board, limiting the amount of work in progress, and managing the process with stand-ups and retrospectives, you stand to gain huge process efficiencies.
These straightforward steps can help you join the ranks of Agile marketers who already enjoy efficiency, quality, and business alignment.
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Cover by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute