Epics, User Stories, Sprints,  Scrum, Chickens, Pigs, and Burndown Charts – Agile has a language all its own. How does Agile Marketing work anyway?

Marketing today can be incredibly challenging: how does the marketing team find time to drink from the daily social networking fire hose, create new marketing materials for semi-weekly product releases, write content for the lead nurturing machine, monitor and react to a mountain of marketing analytics, and still find time to think strategically? This is particularly difficult during times when marketing headcount is flat to declining.

While not a panacea, Agile Marketing does bring process to the marketing function in a way that can maximize the available resources, provide focus, and help marketers keep their sanity.

Agile begins with the Sprint Planning session.  The objective of the session, which can last anywhere from an hour to half a day, is to get agreement on the goals of the sprint, the various projects that the team commits to for the sprint and initial assignment of responsibilities. During this time, it is important to involve the business owners, sales and perhaps development. The team must agree upon priorities, and the tasks that the marketing team commits to must fit within the capacity of the team.  Over time, teams get very good at understanding their sustainable performance rate – how many “points”, in Agile-speak, the team is capable of accomplishing in a given period. Trying to fit too many points into a given Sprint, with exhortations from managers of “you can do it”, generally leads to cynicism and burn out. That’s why, in Agile, it is the team members who commit, not the managers who make the commitment on behalf of the team.

The Sprint itself, which is generally 2-4 weeks long, is managed by a process called “Scrum”.  Scrum is at heart a project management method. It was developed to manage software development projects, but with just a few tweaks, marketers can use it to manage marketing projects.

One of the key elements of Scrum is the daily standup meeting. Generally no more than fifteen minutes in length, each person involved in the project reports out on three things:

  • What they did yesterday
  • What they will do today
  • Any obstacles that stand in their way

In the Scrum meeting, there are Core roles, known as Pigs, and Ancilliary roles, known as chickens (after the story of the Chicken and the Pig). Normally, only Pigs speak at the daily standup meeting.

The three core roles are the voice of the customer (in small teams, this may be the same person as the product owner in Agile Development; in larger teams, it may be a separate person), the marketing team and the scrum master. The role of the scrum master is NOT to manage the marketing team, but to run the scrum process and eliminate obstacles on behalf of the team. The Scrum Master is also responsible for updating the Burn Down Chart, which is a publicly displayed chart of the work remaining in the Sprint, usually shown with two lines, one showing the ideal completion of tasks, the other showing actual completion.

At the end of every Sprint, two meetings take place. The first is the Sprint Review, the second is the Sprint Retrospective.

The Sprint Review Meeting is the bookend to the Sprint Planning Meeting. Again, the business owner(s), sales and development are invited. The team reviews the commitments made at the Sprint Planning meeting, demonstrates the work completed, and presents the results. The Sprint Review meeting may also identify uncompleted work or suggestions for new work that are added to the backlog for consideration at the next Sprint Planning meeting. The Sprint Review meeting is invaluable in making sure that the rest of the company is very aware of what marketing is doing and the results they’re producing.

Unlike the Sprint Review meeting, which talks about what was accomplished during the Sprint, the Sprint Retrospective talks about how things went during the Sprint. Each participant answers two questions:

  • What went well during the sprint?
  • What could have been improved during the sprint?

Usually, only the marketing team and the Scrum Master attend the Sprint Retrospective.

The last concept that’s important to understand in Agile Marketing is the concept of User Stories, and the related concepts, Epics and Themes.

A User Story is simply something that a user or buyer wants to accomplish.  Developers typically write user stories as tasks, which translate into features and functions of the product.  For marketing, user stories must be looked at in a slightly different light.

Marketers can look at user stories in two different ways: first, in helping customers get through the buying process, and second, making sure that the marketing team has a deep understanding of the tasks that the customer wants to accomplish.

For business to consumer products, consumers typically go through at least five different stages in the buying decision process (this can get even more complex in business-to-business transactions):

  • Need recognition
  • Information search
  • Evaluation of alternatives
  • Purchase decision
  • Post-purchase behavior

One of the roles of marketing is to aid the buyer in getting through that buying process. To that end, marketing needs to produce materials that help at each step of the way. One way to document this is through user stories.  Each target segment may have slightly different needs in the various stages, so User Stories are written at the “role” level.  For example, if you were marketing a video camera like The Flip camera, you might write a user story as follows:

As a Soccer Mom (one of your target audiences), I need to evaluate alternative video cameras so that I can spontaneously take pictures at the soccer match and share them with friends and family.

The marketing team would satisfy that need by producing material (content marketing, advertising, sales brochures) that helped the buyer through that stage of the buying process.

User Stories can also be used to focus the marketing team on the customer’s viewpoint and benefits. To learn more about this, see my post on User Stories.

Epics are nothing more than big user stories, that typically require more than one Sprint to fulfill. Themes are bundles of User Stories with a (you guessed it) common theme. For example, you could group a series of user stories around the buying process for one of your target audiences.

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Kevin

    I’m used to “agile” in website development. I’m now hearing about it in marketing. I’m in marketing/advertising. Can you point me to some successful marketers who’ve used this process? thanks, kevin

    1. Lauren

      Offside (offsidemedia.com) does a version of agile marketing focused on startups.

  2. Kevin

    I’m used to “agile” in website development. I’m now hearing about it in marketing. I’m in marketing/advertising. Can you point me to some successful marketers who’ve used this process? thanks, kevin

  3. Macie

    Agile marketing helps to improve the speed, predictability, transparency and adaptability to change the function of marketing. Agile marketing process is iterative, allowing for short marketing experiments, feedback and the ability to react to changing market conditions.

  4. Spencer Westwood

    Hi Jim, I’m a Scrum Master and have been working in scrum/agile software development for a while. The one thing I seem to have missed in your article is defining the Product Owner role in your marketing context. Is this something you cover off elsewhere on the blog or something to consider – its useful not to have multiple people deciding on the priorities of activities within a sprint.

    1. Jim Ewel

      Spencer, I haven’t written much about the role of product owner in Agile Marketing. The product owner tends to be the VP of Marketing (in smaller companies) or perhaps a director level person in larger companies. What I’ve seen is that the business owners and sales provide input, the agile marketing team tends to discuss and rank their priorities (self-managing team), with someone senior (the VP or director) breaking ties or overriding priorities as necessary. -Jim

      1. Wietse

        Hi Jim, Spencer, I’m a Scrum Master working in Agile Marketing for a large Telco in the Netherlands. Our marketeers are the Product Owners. In a steering committee with all PO’s and a Super Product Owner (top level management) we decide what stories have the highest business value and/or priority (based on deadlines). Please let me know what you think of this. – Regards, Wietse

        1. Jim Ewel

          Spencer or Wietse, I think it’s great.

  5. Yael

    Hi all,

    If you are practicing agile marketing in your company, I would highly recommend using DaPulse to coordinate and follow up on sprint tasks. It is a work collaboration tool for teams of all sizes designed specifically for agile working teams. They offer a 30-day free trial.


  6. Lydia Sugarman

    Venntive.com has actually included Projects, a project management tool in our marketing automation-sales-CRM platform. Our goal is to provide a complete environment that promotes transparency across an organization, with a focus on aligning marketing and sales. We found that including project management where teams can collaborate made a lot of sense for enabling the overarching goal.

  7. tushar

    Hi, thank you for this post I agree with you that Agile begins with the Sprint Planning session. The objective of the session, which can last anywhere from an hour to half a day, is to get agreement on the goals of the sprint, the various projects that the team commits to for the sprint and initial assignment of responsibilities. very useful information

  8. David

    I have never heard about this marketing term. Great to know about it.

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