Agile is an adjective used to describe a person who’s quick, flexible, and coordinated. It’s also a project management methodology used in software development that’s designed to inspire those same qualities.
Software development companies have been using agile methodologies for more than 15 years now—since 2001 when a group of thought leaders emerged from a meeting in Utah with a document called the Agile Manifesto. The reasoning behind the Agile Manifesto was simple: Waterfall methodologies weren’t working for anything but Dilbert comics, and software developers needed a better method of executing requests.
Agile software development employs the values used to describe an agile individual:
- It’s focused on quick delivery. Developing and delivering code in increments, agile development teams are able to release new functionality more quickly to users.
- It’s flexible. Agile teams don’t fear change—they welcome it.
- It’s coordinated. Agile teams are cross-functional; they’re composed of individuals who need to collaborate in order to complete a task.
Agile project management has been adopted widely in the last 15 years by companies all over the world. Why? Because it works. And the beauty of agile is that its principles are universal—they can be applied to any workflow to achieve successful outcomes. Personally, I used the principles of agile to plan my wedding and, later, to move my family across the country.
Agile works particularly well for software development because the process of writing and releasing code is exceptionally complex. For the same reason, it’s also effective when used for content marketing. By applying the following seven agile principles to your content marketing initiatives, you can reduce waste, deliver campaigns with proven effectiveness, and improve the efficiency with which your team operates.
Principle 1: Customer-Focused Delivery
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
The first principle of agile highlights the fact that its practices are focused first and foremost on delivering value to customers.
As a content marketer, creating content that benefits your audience should always be your top priority. However, it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re faced with ambitious expectations to drive exponential growth in traffic, leads, and conversions.
To refocus all tasks on their value to your audience, consider adopting the agile practice of writing tasks in the form of user stories. User stories define requirements from the user’s perspective and contain the audience, need, and reasoning for each task. They are written using a simple formula: “As a [who], I want [what] so that [why].”
In user story format, the task “write a case study about how X company achieved success using our marketing tool” becomes “As a CMO researching marketing automation benefits, I want to read case studies of similar businesses who’ve had success with the software so that I can determine my organization’s likelihood of achieving similar successes.”
By writing the task in user story format, you’re able to define the type of person that’s likely to be interested in the specific piece of content you’re writing, determine the needs driving his/her actions, and define how this task provides value to the consumer. This allows you to focus your thoughts on your audience before you even start writing.
As a bonus, it also allows you to eliminate tasks where either the value to your audience is unclear or no value exists. If you can’t come up with a user, need, and value, the task probably isn’t worth completing.
Principle 2: Change Is a Good Thing
Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
Content marketing isn’t a siloed activity. Success, in large part, is dependent on the rules and conventions of the systems used for publication. For example, if your goal in producing content is to grow organic traffic to your website, disregarding SEO makes all of your efforts futile. It’s critical to follow the best practices of the channels you utilize to achieve success with content marketing.
The problem with following the best practices of publication channels is that they change—frequently. Twitter shuts down Vine; Facebook’s algorithm shifts and degrades organic visibility; Google announces that it’s going to start indexing the mobile version of sites rather than the desktop version. These changes can have devastating impacts on your plans and efforts.
Rather than ignoring the changes or throwing your hands up in the air, agile advocates welcoming those changes, adjusting accordingly, and moving forward with a revised plan of action. It’s impossible to know everything when forming a plan, so we have to be prepared to change plans—make shifts—at any moment to ensure we’re always making the right decisions, employing the appropriate techniques, and moving forward in a measured way that drives business value across time.
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld
The unknown unknowns are the ones that can destroy plans. Rather than fearing them, or ignoring them when they become known, you must adopt a process that welcomes them and enables easy adjustment. Digital marketing is a complex field where changes happen quickly, and successful organizations employ processes that enable quick recovery when plans are no longer relevant.
Principle 3: Plan and Deliver in Increments
Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
You could spend weeks at the end of the year with your entire team forming a content marketing plan for the next year, but how much of that planning will still be relevant halfway through the year? Agile advocates for planning and delivering in shorter timeframes. While you shouldn’t abandon future planning, you also shouldn’t bother articulating it in great detail because things change.
Two major principles of agile come into play when planning and delivering in increments: prioritization and iteration.
Planning begins with brainstorming and hypothesizing. You sit down with your team and come up with a list of tens, hundreds, or thousands of ideas for content or campaigns that you want to release in the future. After forming the list, you make hypotheses about the potential user and business value of each. Tasks are then prioritized relatively for execution—those that provide the most user and business value are at the top of the list, and those with unknown value are at the bottom.
After forming a prioritized list, you begin executing in increments. Increments can be of any time period you think is appropriate, though most agile teams work in two-week increments. Each two weeks, you review your prioritized list and choose the highest priority items that can be completed in that iteration. During the iteration, you produce work, publish it, and measure results. The learnings from those two weeks are used to adjust future iteration plans.
Items that will be completed in the next two iterations should be fully defined, but items two, six, or nine months out should be loosely defined. By measuring after each iteration, you’ll learn new things. You’ll discover what worked well and what fell flat. Maybe some of the things that fell flat had similar tasks in future iterations. If you spent a lot of time planning for those things and then learn they should be discarded, you’ve wasted a lot of time and effort.
By prioritizing tasks and working in short iterations, you give your team the flexibility to adjust, you reduce waste, and you validate early hypothesis so that learnings—not assumptions—can be applied to future efforts. Over time, you’ll have created a well-oiled team that delivers on proven measures and laughs in the face of major change.
Principle 4: Cross-Department Collaboration is Key
Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
It’s critical for content marketers to have a working knowledge of SEO, social media marketing, and user experience, but they shouldn’t be expected to be the experts on these ancillary focus areas. Instead, most businesses and agencies employ SEO experts, social media marketers, and UX designers to assist with optimizing content, promoting it on social channels, and adding relevant imagery.
The problem is when these departments work in silos and simply toss their work over a wall to the subsequent recipient. That method looks like this: the content marketing team comes up with an idea and then tells the SEO team to provide keywords. Once the content is finished, they send it to the design team to add images (or format the content in the case of infographics or PDFs). Then the content is published and forwarded to the social media marketing team for promotion.
The issue with this model is it doesn’t give the ancillary teams the opportunity to lend their ideas and expertise to content planning. As an example, the SEO team can do more than just keyword research for an established idea—they can tell you what content you should be writing based on overall keyword research. Their data is invaluable in forming your overall plan, but you can only take advantage of their knowledge and data if they have a seat at the table.
In order for teams across departments to drive toward delivering the right campaigns, at the right time, on the right channels, those teams must collaborate—not only when expertise is needed, but every day. They should meet, discuss, hypothesize, and plan together. Every department that has a role in creating and publishing a piece of content or campaign needs a seat at the table when discussing ideas, planning, and reflecting.
Principle 5: Sustainable Working Models
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
So you have a prioritized list, you’ve planned your work for the next two weeks, and you’re executing your responsibilities. Unfortunately, the CEO read an article over the weekend about how a competitor earned 10,000 incoming links with a piece of interactive content, and now you’ve been tasked with getting a similar piece of content published before the end of the month. Do you work overtime for the next two weeks to complete this new project and your existing initiatives? Agile says no.
At the beginning of your iteration, you planned your work for the next two weeks from your list of highest priorities. You have 80 hours over two weeks to complete whatever tasks are highest priority, so when priorities change, your plan needs to as well. When major changes occur in the middle of an iteration, the entire team needs to regroup and re-plan the iteration. Otherwise, your team will eventually burnout and start producing low-quality work.
Re-planning also affords your team the opportunity to negotiate the ask. You can go back to the CEO and say “Here are the things we had planned. We have 60 hours left in this iteration. If we take on this new project, these 5 things will get pushed to the next iteration.” Then the CEO must make the decision to push existing plans back. This allows you to highlight the implications of sudden decisions and demands.
Maybe this knowledge will change the CEO’s mind about the new requirement, and maybe it won’t. Either way, you’re set up to handle sudden changes without working yourself and your team into the ground.
Principle 6: Reducing Waste
Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
You started off your content marketing plan by brainstorming a long list of tasks. As you move forward, your goal will be to complete as few of those tasks as possible.
That statement is an oversimplification, but the bottom line is that you should only complete work that provides definable value and results. The process you’re going to employ as you iterate through your task list will be produce, publish, measure, adjust. Inevitably, some of the hypotheses you made in the beginning are going to be disproven along the way, and when that happens, you should deprioritize—if not discard—all other related tasks.
For example, at the beginning of the year, you decided to try producing content for Snapchat. You did it for a while but didn’t see worthwhile results. You should remove—or deprioritize—all Snapchat items in your list. Likewise, if you planned to build an e-book from several blog posts, but the first three blog posts you published drew few shares and generated little traffic, it’s safe to assume that the e-book won’t be popular either. Abandon it for tasks you know will drive success.
In agile, you must measure to validate that the work you’re doing is providing value. By doing so, you can stop wasting time on ineffective tasks. You plan in detail for things that need to be completed soon, and allow tasks that will be completed much later to exist as vague ideas. In doing so, you avoid wasting time on planning things you may delete after finding that your original hypothesis was incorrect.
Principle 7: Reflect, Measure, and Adjust
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
The biggest benefit of working in increments is that it allows you to dedicate time to reflection. Agile software development teams generally do this as a closing ceremony at the end of each iteration called a retrospective. In the retrospective, the whole team meets to discuss what went well during the iteration and what didn’t go well, and they form actionable plans for improving future iterations.
For content marketers, the retrospective is a good time to review the performance of campaigns that were executed both in the current iteration and those that came before it. Review your metrics:
- What pieces of content or campaigns are driving the traffic, leads, and conversions required to meet your goals?
- What campaigns are producing lackluster results?
- For the disappointing campaigns, are there opportunities for revision? Or if the idea fell totally flat, are there similar tasks that should be abandoned?
The learnings from the retrospective should be applied to planning for future iterations as well as your entire list of tasks. In this way, you reduce waste, execute tasks with the greatest user- and business-value potential, and improve your progress towards meeting your goals.
Getting Started with Agile
The best way to shift from your current model to agile content marketing is to take an agile approach. Chose one thing from this list and adopt it, utilize its methods, and learn from the results. Planning and working in iterations is a good place to start, even if the task list you’re working from isn’t prioritized yet. Transforming tasks into user stories is another great starting point because it can help you identify tasks with little-to-no value for your audience.
Once you’ve mastered the first agile principle you adopted, adopt another. Over time, you’ll become a fully functional agile content marketing team that enjoys all of the benefits of this working model: you’ll meet your goals easily while providing a tremendous amount of value to your audience in the process.