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Are you sick of emergencies, of last-minute deadlines, and the stress of messy workflows? If so, agile project management might be just the strategy you need to use. Chances are great that you’ve heard of it before, but do you know how to use agile methodologies in your marketing? Today we’re going to talk about just that with Andrea Fryrear, the president and lead trainer at Agile Sherpas. She’s going to talk to us about what agile marketing is and how you can use it to prioritize your projects. Sit back, relax, and get ready to learn some high-value information that will help your business succeed.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Nathan: Here’s the thing, you’ve probably heard about Agile Project Management. At first, it sounds super intimidating. Because let’s face it, it’s scientifically proven that the forces of change pushing against the forces of resistance make us feel comfortable and compliant with status quo. But if you don’t want anymore of those fire drills, if you don’t want last minute emergencies from David in Sales for projects he wanted done yesterday, if you don’t want messy work flows that don’t actually make work flow smoothly, maybe agile is the perfect solution for your busy marketing team.
That’s why you and I are talking to the smartest person I know who applies agile processes into solid marketing management. Her name’s Andrea Fryrear. She’s the President and Lead Trainer at Agile Sherpas. You’re about to learn what agile marketing actually looks like, how to prioritize your projects, and a handful of different examples to use agile methodologies in your marketing team. I’m Nathan from CoSchedule and this episode is absolutely packed with agile advice, so let’s get into it with Andrea.
Hey Andrea, thank you for being on the podcast today.
Andrea: You’re so welcome, I’m really excited.
Nathan: I’m excited. Can you just kick this off with talking about Agile Sherpas? What it is that you guys do over there?
Andrea: Sure. Agile Sherpas is an agile Marketing training and consulting company. Our mission is basically to make marketing talk a little bit less intimidating. Just helping marketers reform their process by applying agile principles and the agile mindset to the way that we manage our work. We go in and train companies and help walk them through how to get through the process as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Nathan: Makes a lot of sense. I’m so excited about this topic. Let’s just start with the basics. What is agile marketing?
Andrea: Right. The thorning question there. Agile marketing is not just doing things faster. It’s not permission to change your mind all the time and have no plan. Instead, it’s actually using these principles and approaches that were originally developed in the world of software and applying them in a marketing context. It’s actually pretty rigorous when you get down to it. Lots of different ceremonies or meanings and specific ways of handling work.
Scrum is a common one but not the only way to be agile. It’s really more about thinking of your work differently. Small low-risks experiments that you can run and see what’s working and what’s not. Then build on things that are successful and leave things that are not working behind you more quickly.
It’s also very focused on the team. The people who are actually doing the work probably have the best ideas about how to make it better and how to communicate with the audience better. Getting them involved sooner instead of just kicking a project over to your graphics team and saying,”Make this pretty.” You bring them in upfront and make them collaborate on the work.
Nathan: You mentioned the word there that some of us might not be familiar with. What do you mean by Scrum?
Andrea: Scrum is kind of the most popular methodology or approach to agile. It involves these time boxes. We do a sprint that lasts one to four weeks. The team basically commits and says, “We can achieve X amount of work in this amount of time.” Ideally, they are left alone to go execute against only that work over the next couple of weeks, and then they release the work, and talk about how it went, and then make it a little better next time. It’s really about this continuous cycle of releasing new work and then taking on new work. It’s shrinking down the feedback loop. No more quarter-long campaigns where we don’t release anything for three months and then we don’t know if it worked for another three months, that kind of stuff. We wanna shorten that feedback loop and Scrum can help do that.
Nathan: We’ve heard about all sorts of project management methodologies and one of them is Waterfall and we’re talking about agile today. I’m just wondering if you can explain, what’s the difference between Waterfall Project Management and agile?
Andrea: Waterfall assumes that you know everything upfront and therefore you can make this beautifully precise and detailed plan that will be true until the project is finished. If that actually happened, then great. Then Waterfall will work really well for you. But in marketing, we don’t usually know everything upfront. Things change quite a bit between when we make the plan and when we release the work. In those environments then, a more agile approach where we plan a little bit, do a little bit of work, and then stop and evaluate, then repeat that process a lot of times. Usually, it helps us deal with the volatility and certainty that we have to deal with in our day-to-day lives.
Nathan: When you come up with a project plan, it’s kind of just a big huge guess, isn’t it?
Andrea: Yeah, it really is. If you make a big guess and you get it wrong, then it turns into a really big mess.
Nathan: How do you, agile marketers, prioritize the projects? We all have so much work we could do. How do agile marketers focus? What process do you recommend?
Andrea: Agile marketers live and die by their backlog which is basically a prioritized to-do list, and I have a backlog personally that I use to manage my work. A team would have the same thing but it would be the team’s priority. Whenever they have time to work on something new, they take that top item from the backlog and they know the most important work at that moment which means that you do have to have a lot of conversations about the backlog so that it stays current and people are working on the right stuff.
Nathan: Just a prioritized list in some ways.
Andrea: Yeah, definitely. Then you sort of get into the sticky conversation of what actually goes into the backlog and you don’t want it to get too big because then you’re trying to resort and re-prioritize this list of hundreds of things. It can be difficult to know how specific to get as well because you don’t wanna lay out 150 tasks for one project in the backlog because it’s just messy and noisy. It’s kind of a fine line of giving the team enough information to do their work and not micromanaging them to death.
Nathan: One of the things you kind of talked about once you start working on those projects is this idea behind boundaries. I’m wondering if you can explain why it’s important for boundaries to be placed on the work that the team is up to?
Andrea: So many reasons. Just the concept of multitasking alone, if we have 10 things that we’re trying to work on, we’re not doing a very good job on any of them. Whether it’s that sprint time box that I was talking about or other limiting practices that come into play when we can get the team to focus and set the boundaries, then they can stop starting a whole bunch of stuff and actually start finishing projects and getting it out the door.
One of my favorite examples is if I do an outline for a blog post, and I create the skeleton of the new email drip series, and then I come up with a new social media plan but I don’t actually release an article or send an email or update my social media. Did I actually do anything this week? As far as the audience knows, I did nothing. We have to actually balance what we’re doing and get stuff out into the world, and having boundaries help us do that so we’re not constantly coming to the ‘could you just do this for me really quick’ kinds of work.
Nathan: What you kind of alluded to right there is saying no to certain projects or certain tasks or requests. Why is it more important now more than ever for marketers to learn how to say no?
Andrea: Really limiting our work and focusing in is the only way we’re gonna get to the point of doing really good, high-quality work that’s focused on the audience. Otherwise, we’re always gonna be a slave to the next deadline and just trying to get stuff out the door which has gotten us into a pretty bad mess at this point. There’s always more that we could be doing. One of my favorite Agile values is to maximize the amount of work not done, really talk about what’s important, and to only do that. To be able to push back sort of gently so you can say things like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. I’ll put it in the backlog.” Instead of, “No, we’re not doing that.” The conversation is a little bit different.
Nathan: Sometimes with marketing, we just get those requests from sales, we get requests to create things for HR for recruitment campaigns or whatever. Do you have anymore advice for how marketers can say no gracefully or with some tact?
Andrea: Yeah. ‘Not right now’ is my favorite or ‘Okay great, here’s what I’m working on now, which of those things is this more important than?’ Basically, ‘What would you like me to stop working on so that I can take on this “emergency” that has come up?’ Then, often times, when people know what they would be replacing, then it suddenly puts things in perspective, and it doesn’t seem quite so urgent. But without having that visibility and that transparency which you get really from an agile approach, then that conversation feels a lot more personal. It feels like it’s more about ‘my project’ or ‘my idea’ when really, it’s just about ‘my colleagues’ workload’ and their desire to do quality work.
Nathan: We’re kinda talking about setting those boundaries, saying no, but still with marketing, it’s so easy to get lost in that whirlwind of daily activity. You’re kind of mentioning this where you do 10 different things and at the end of the day, you didn’t actually ship anything. How can marketers use agile methodology to focus on those projects that actually make that impact and really not work on those other things?
Andrea: I get this question a lot from clients who are like, “I have to do social media and I have to do content, these are things that I just have to do to keep the lights on. But I wanna do some really innovative and some cool new stuff too. Should I keep the ‘keep the lights on’ off of my agile board and keep it separate?” I think it works better if you have them all out in the open on the same board, whether that’s your wall, or you have a bunch of stickies, or your digital Trello board or whatever it might be. Because then, you can really see how much time you’re spending on each one. If your board is taken up with 80% of daily type tasks, you know you only have 20% of your time to do something really cool and innovative. You might be okay with that or that might not be the balance that you’re after. But you need that visualization to be able to understand how you’re spending your time.
Nathan: If you’re like me, you are learning a ton from Andrea. She is seriously smart. If you like this podcast and you want to hear from more savvy marketers like Andrea, would you do me a favor? I would love a review and rating from you in iTunes. Your reviews help us reach a larger audience so we can continue to attract the top marketers out there as guests for the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Leave your reviews on iTunes, take a screenshot, and send it to email@example.com with your postal mailing address. To return the favor, I will mail you a sweet care package from your friends at CoSchedule so leave your reviews on iTunes and send a screenshot to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your physical mailing address. Alright, let’s get back to it with Andrea.
Another downfall with marketing is the seemingly endless oversight, the approvals, there is revisions going back and forth, the list goes on of all those things. Basically, approval processes just kinda suck. How can marketers use agile to proactively prevent some of those roadblocks?
Andrea: Having that visibility and transparency again is crucial here because then you have a more data-driven discussion around… When we send things to legal, it takes two weeks for us to get it back. We can’t meet our deadlines or whatever the actual result is instead of just coming to people and saying, “You’re making us crazy because you take forever.” Even though that could sometimes be comforting to say to people. Having things out on the board is just so powerful. Just saying like, “Okay, we gave you this piece of content and we’ve been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a feedback.” Then once you have it out there and it’s clear that this is a problem, it’s gumming up your workflow, then you can create some policies.
One team that I worked with was having this huge struggle so they instituted a five-day black hole rule. If they give you something and it takes you more than five days, then that piece of content has fallen into the black hole and it goes back to the bottom of their backlog. You’ve basically been pushed to the bottom of the queue and it’s gonna take a really long time for your project to work its way back up. They started teaching people that if you want our team to work with you effectively, you need to give us feedback faster.
It’s a little bit of an extreme approach but it was an extreme situation that they were in. But just having those clear guidelines for people, ‘Look, here’s our board. Here’s our workflow, here’s where you come in, and this is how we expect you to deal with us’ can really help instead of just ‘can you please just get to this whenever you have a minute.’
Nathan: Just to pick on that just a little bit, when you know that something’s gonna take a while for approval, can you just build that into your workflow? Like X amount of… Legal takes two weeks, could you just say “Hey, we’re gonna get done with this piece on this day, give this team two weeks to do it and we’re gonna ship this piece then after that.” Would that be an effective way of thinking about Agile?
Andrea: Yeah, you could definitely build that into the workflow for sure. Then you can start to get more data around it. You might not know upfront that legal takes two weeks, but if you track it for a couple of iterations, then you can say, “Hey, look. It takes legal about two weeks.” Then, you can work that in or it takes our IT team three days to publish things on average, we’ve measured over enough time that we know that now. Even if they tell they’re gonna try to get to it in a day, we know that it usually takes them three days we can work with that.
Nathan: Nice. I don’t know, I really like that approach because it helps you plan ahead. You can’t control what you can’t control but you’re planning those things into your workflow, and so you can realistically know those publish dates a little bit better.
Andrea: At some point too you can figure where your workflow actually stops. Once content or anything passes out of your control, then you have to stop worrying about it too at some point. Like we were talking about, move on to that next thing and not stay hung up on something when you can’t really control it anymore.
Nathan: How should marketers be using Scrum? How does that process work for marketing specifically?
Andrea: I often say that Scrum has the best PR agency of any of the agile methodologies because it’s just the most well-known and that’s the one people hear about the most. It tends to be where people start often times because they don’t know they have another option. Scrum is great. I’m not an anti-Scrum person. I’ve liked it and I’ve used it with the teams but it can get a little sticky for people because it has really prescribed roles. A Scrum master who’s in-charge of the process, product owner who’s supposed to, in the world of software, be making sure that the programmers are building the right product based on what the business goals are.
We don’t build products usually in marketing. Instantly, as soon as people hear about that, they’re like, “Well, I don’t know how that applies.” Then things start to break pretty quickly. The good thing about Scrum is that it does give you these small time boxes to work in. Sitting people down and saying, “What can we do in the next two weeks? What should we do in the next two weeks?” Can be a much easier conversation than, “What should do this year?” It’s just easier to think in those smaller timeframes. You can also push back on people more effectively when you can say, “We’ll get to that at the beginning of next sprint which starts in five days.” Instead of, “No, I can’t work on that right now. I’ll get to it when I can get to it.” But, framing things in these smaller time horizons can help.
Scrum works nicely in marketing in those ways. When you get into things like creative services, or social media, or content that’s more continuous delivery type of work, the Scrum time boxes can start to feel a little constraining and stressful. My advice is always for people to be open to exploring other options and not feeling like they have to force themselves to fit into this really strict Scrum mold. It doesn’t always fit exactly for marketers.
Nathan: Okay, that’s awesome advice. You had mentioned that there are other things. I know Kanban is one of them. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that and how that might work?
Andrea: Yeah, sure. I love Kanban because it’s designed to work on top of however you’re doing work right now. You don’t have to change anything, and you could start doing it tomorrow, and start finding ways to improve your process which I think is super cool.
What it focuses on is helping you visualize your workflow. What states do things go through. The simplest board is always To-Do, Doing, and Done but of course, we often have, in the world of content, we might have researching, writing, editing, publishing, you might go through several phases. But then you can put limitations on each of those states. Let’s say our team of four people decides we can only be researching one thing at a time, we can be writing three things at a time, we can be editing one thing at a time. It really forces us to move things from one state to another and get them to done, get them to published, before we start picking up anything else.
Those are called WIP limits or Work In Progress limits. Just those two things alone, by visualizing your work and putting some limits on how much of each phase you can be doing, that alone can kick your productivity into high gear and those are the first two simple steps of Kanban and there’s more sophisticated things you can start adding. But those are things you can do literally in a day to get started and get your feet wet. Scrum is much more let’s pause and do sprint planning, and do estimation, and it’s lot more upfront work. Kanban can be more appealing for people who aren’t ready to hit pause and learn a whole new way of working.
Nathan: Just to transition, I think there’s one other methodology that you had written about or talked about before. Talk to me about Scrumban and how marketers might be able to use that process.
Andrea: Scrumban is cool because it lets you go to the agile buffet and bring back anything that looks like it would work for you. If you like those ideas of time boxes or your manager really likes the idea of time boxes so they know you’re gonna be releasing stuff every two weeks, then keep them. If the roles of Scrum don’t seem like they’re working, then don’t use those. If you really like the Work In Progress limits from Kanban, then bring those with you.
It’s just a way to customize the process by pulling from both of those camps. Really, this is where most agile marketing teams end up even if they don’t call it that or they don’t know that’s the name of it because they do have to pick and choose what works for them and to create their own customized approach just because none of this was designed for marketers originally. We are gonna be blazing new ways and trails no matter what we’re doing.
Nathan: Just to button up this episode, Andrea, I’m wondering for marketers who are new, this is a brand new idea to them, they’re just learning about Agile Project Management, what would you recommend that they do first? Where should they focus? How should they start?
Andrea: I would say don’t try to eat this whole elephant in one big bite. If you can, come up with a small project to test it out on or even a small subset of your team that’s really enthusiastic and let them go off and experiment for a little while and come back and share what they’ve learned. As time goes on, you can expand to more projects, expand to more people, then you’re gonna make it, a, way more palatable to your leadership to let you have the leeway to experiment, and b, it’s gonna be way lower risk because you’re not putting all your eggs in this basket right away so there’s not a lot of pressure for you to make it work instantly because it’s not gonna work instantly. It’s a process that has to be refined over time.
Nathan: Nice! Andrea, I can already tell you that this is one of my favorite episodes that I’ve recorded. I think this is super actionable so thank you so much for sharing everything that you shared today.
Andrea: I’m so glad. You’re very welcome!
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