Before you start reading. These are the benefits of running marketing sprints. Continue reading if you would like to know more.
Sprints are a way of working used by the Scrum methodology which is a methodology often used within IT projects. As a former IT project manager I have had the opportunity to manage IT projects using these techniques. When I moved towards more commercial functions I thought about how to fit this way of working into a commercial organization. Where there are ways to use the sprint methodology in sales, I have found it especially interesting to be used within a marketing environment. For the last 6 years I have ran my commercial teams using sprints.
Scrum is a way of working where instead of working iterative onto a project, you will cut the project into several smaller pieces and try to finish the specific pieces within a set amount of time called a sprint. The idea is, that at the end of the sprint, you can show a working prototype of what you have been trying to achieve.
A sprint is a period of time, typically between 1 week and 1 month that will allow you to deliver such a piece of content. It is actually a short time frame where it is expected your team can deliver a 'working' piece or 'finalized' piece of a bigger project.
First of all. Typically, marketing experiments aren’t that big, so we’re not running scrum, we’ll just be using the idea of a sprint. That said, if you happen to have a bigger project, you can use the scrum methodology to cut the project into smaller pieces.
Secondly, the whole scrum methodology works with roles and responsibilities like a scrum master, a product owner, and the scrum team. Let’s not take those roles into our way of running marketing sprints as this would over complicate the process.
For this reason I actually prefer to call the way of working agile sprints. Where the goal is to deliver a set of challenges within a period of two weeks, but allows you to be agile enough to re-prioritize different tasks when necessary.
So as described earlier, a sprint is a period of time where it is expected for the team to deliver actual results, but also give the freedom to prioritize these tasks within the time frame hence we call it agile. What are actual marketing results? The creation of a new blog post, creating and sending out a newsletter, running a specific ad words campaign, running a specific social ad campaign, improving your SEO by adding meta tags to all the pages are all good examples of a marketing result. It is actually a task that can be defined and done within the time frame of the sprint. The time frame can be anything from a week to a month, however, I have found a period of 2 weeks to work the most efficient for marketing teams.
First you’ll have to select a tool to manage your sprints. In the early days, people were running sprints using post-its and a whiteboard.
Today, tools like Trello allow you to easily create a marketing sprint board. In IT the most commonly used tool to manage sprints is called JIRA. Although you can use it to run marketing sprints, I’ve found this tool to be far too advanced to run a marketing sprint with it, mainly because marketing teams in B2B tend to be 3 to 5 FTE in size. So in our example we will be using Trello.
Let’s start with the configuration of Trello. The first thing we need to do is to configure some lanes in which we will put tickets. In a basic setup, you’ll typically use the following lanes.
Now that we have columns we can try to create tickets. A ticket is actually a task with specific requirements that have to be done by the end of the sprint. Have a look at the ticket below which illustrates a ticket to write a new blog post.
As you notice, the ticket consists of a number of steps (Checklist) to be done in order to finalize the ticket. First the team needs to come up with an idea (identify a topic for the blogpost), secondly we need to write an outline of the blogpost (write an outline of the blogpost), thirdly the outline needs to receive input from product management and get approved (get product management approval), fourth the content needs to be written (write blogpost), fifth the blogpost need to be published (publish blogpost), sixth the post needs to be shared on social media (share on social media).
Once a ticket is created we can add it in the ToDo lane of our sprint. After a while we will have several tickets in our ToDo lane. When you’re creating these tickets, make sure you can deliver the single ticket into a two week time frame. If for instance, it requires you two weeks to get an approval by product management, cut the ticket in two and make sure that by the end of sprint you have product management approval, so you can finalize the blog post in the next sprint.
Before the starting day of the sprint (typically a Monday), we will populate the ToDo lane with an amount of tickets we believe the team should be able to handle by the end of the sprint. We typically estimate the tickets up to an 80% capacity of the team’s capabilities.
IT teams might say, 80% what a joke, we do 90% or even 95%, and that’s possible. But remember, we're only getting started with sprints. So 80% is a good percentage to start with and allows your organisation to adopt to this new approach.
The 20% capacity that isn't allocated, foresees enough time to handle all tasks marketing gets à-la-minute, like can you publish this blog post today, can you review my PowerPoint,... However, and we will talk about that later, it makes more sense to push some of these requests to the next sprint if possible. That said, regardless of your processes, your business objectives have a higher priority over your sprint process objectives. So we will discuss on how to find the right balance later.
With all the tickets created, we have defined the scope of the sprint.
As a marketing director I always made sure the tickets were created Friday noon, before sprint start on Monday. This allowed the team to have a look at the different tasks and give feedback if they thought it would be either too challenging or not, prior to the sprint start.
After the weekend, on a Monday we do the ‘start of sprint’ meeting, which is a 1 hour meeting in which we discuss the different tasks at hand. Who the responsible will be for a specific task, and what the expected outcome is.
This meeting is very important. It's not only there to clarify specific tasks in the sprint, it is also there to get the buy-in from the team that these tasks are to be completed. Accepting the start of sprint is a commitment from your team to do anything in their power to complete the different tasks by the end of the sprint. Things will probably happen during the sprint, which will force you as the marketing manager to postpone a specific task. But in general it sets the tone. It putts all the faces in the same direction and have you work as a team towards common goals. In general, it helps to deliver your commitments in time, which will result in management appreciation and improve the top line revenues significantly.
The daily stand up is the engine of your sprint process. Every day you organize a very short meeting of 15' in which you share, what did you do yesterday, what are you planning to do today and are you blocked with a specific task.
Caitlin (content-writer): Yesterday I finished the write-up of our mini guide on marketing sprints. I got great input from Ruben, which was necessary to get the content right. Today I would like to finalize the mini guide, but I need some input from Manon (Graphical Designer) so it will look more attractive.
Manon (graphical designer): Yesterday I've worked on the new homepage in Figma. I was able to draw three new illustrations. Today I want to create one more illustration and I will help Caitlin with finalizing the mini guide
Vive (digital marketeer): Yesterday I made an analysis on our LinkedIn paid traffic sources. I'm happy to announce that we received 80% clicks of companies we could potentially work with in the future. Today, I will define the target audience to prepare the campaign to run our mini guide on marketing sprints as it looks like it will soon get finalized.
As you might notice from the example above, sharing every morning in 15' what the members of the team are about to do, results in alignment and allows the team to work on a common goal (in this example launching a mini guide).
I typically have the daily stand up at 10 am. It makes people come-in or call-in on time.
Pro tip: do you have an inbound qualifier in your team? They often find it difficult to share what they have been doing, because they might have been interacting with up to 50 different people that day. We recommend the inbound qualifier to share with who they have had a great conversation and what triggered that conversation. This is very valuable feedback for your marketing team, because it will give them insights on what content worked and what didn't. Or maybe they spoke about a specific topic we didn't cover yet in our communication strategy.
Earlier we discussed the basic lanes setup, but how do you make use of this properly? We mentioned that at the start of sprint all tickets should be in the 'To Do' lane. These are the tasks your team need to do by the end of the sprint. When someone decides to start work on the ticket, she or he drags the ticket from To Do in Progress.
This allows you and the team to follow who is working on what. Furthermore, a good tool allows you to work collaborative. So you'll notice that people will write soon comments like:
@manon (graphical designer), can you provide me with a custom graph based on this excel file
When the team or an executive feels blocked, she or he can move the ticket to the blocked stage. At that time the marketing manager knows there is an issue, and will try to interact with the executive as fast as possible.
As the project progress and an executive feels a task is done she or he will put the task in the 'In Review' lane. If the marketing manager accepts the outcome of the task she or he will put it in the 'Done' stage. If the task is not there yet, the marketing manager will provide feedback and put it back in the in progress stage.
After the end of the sprint, everything is put into the 'Done Archive' stage, so you can start with a clean board and you have a good overview of the progress a team makes for the next sprint.
The 'Discarded' stage is there if it appears that the idea was not good after all, and the team decided to not continue work on a specific topic.
Typically I like to have the board open during the stand up. Like that everyone has a good overview where they're at, what is done, what is blocked and what needs more attention.
One of the biggest risks for sprints are that they get hijacked by other teams. And you'll have to accept that sometimes it will not always work as it was originally scoped. Especially when you just start with it, teams are used to marketing being very responsive to their requests. But its basically that responsiveness towards other teams that puts marketing in the 'cost center position' as they fail to focus on what they should be focusing on which is generating leads to improve the top line.
An example every marketing team is familiar with is the following. One morning a sales person pops-in and asks 'Hey, I need to give this presentation tonight, can you fix my slides'. And logically, especially if its for a big account, the marketing team drops what they're doing and they start fixing the slides. The result is typically a mediocre deck. There was no time making the deck perfect, because what is the meaning of a default PowerPoint template anyway if you can draw text area's as much as you want. So the only way to get the deck ready in time is by doing some quick fixes. Now I don't want to say that you shouldn't be helping your great sales colleague with her or his issue. But at this time you should push back a little (which is not that easy as sales executives are often very pushy by nature).
In the push back you can explain to the executive that its good for now, but that you can give them a far better presentation if they get it on the sprint. And that if they make their request two weeks in advance (and how often does someone not know what will happen (or what is about to happen) in two weeks?), time can be allocated to plan the fine-tuning of the presentation at a whole different level than this last minute request. You can even free up some time of your content writer to improve the overall story.
Especially in the beginning this is sometimes hard for other teams to respect. But when they do, they'll soon discover that the team can deliver towards their expectations by the end of that sprint, you'll see them align to this method of working within weeks.
Often forgotten but ever so important, is the end of sprint demo. This one hour session is there for your marketing team to shine. They show the tangible results (a published blog post, the first Facebook campaign results,...) to the rest of the team and... to the whole company! In smaller companies you invite everyone over to come and experience the end-of-sprint. When you become too big, I tend to do a massive google hangouts session that everyone can join. When it's someone's turn to present she or he does a desktop share on the hangout. This allows for everyone in the company to join the end-of-sprint demo, but still continue to work as they often just listen and tune-in to the screen share when there is a topic that interests them.
The end of sprint demo is so important for your team and organization because it is a clear motivator for your team to deliver. Everyone wants to take that opportunity to shine. Knowing C-level execs might have a look as well they soon realize the importance of the session.
After the end of sprint demo I typically do a very short sprint retrospect. In IT scrum, this is often a longer session, but I like to keep it short and crisp. There are two questions. How much do you rate the sprint? And why did you give it that rating? For instance.
Imogen (content writer): I do rate this sprint a 7/10. I'm happy where we're at but I had to spend a lot of time writing a PR which was not part of the original scope and as such I had to postpone to write a second blog post.
This information is so valuable for the marketing manager as it will give her or him on a bi-weekly basis insights on the happiness level of the executive without making too big of a fuzz around it.
In this blog post we described the different lanes on a sprint board. I typically include three more lanes.
The one task I find hard to run in a sprint approach is events. Specifically because you're often so depended on external suppliers and management decisions that it is not possible to move the tickets to the done lane. So typically, I keep the tickets in the 'In Progress' lane until the day of the event.
And that brings us to an important final lesson. Running marketing sprints is a framework, a methodology. Although the goal is to get everything in the 'Done' stage by the end of the sprint, it is still more important to deliver quality over getting the tickets there. It is the responsibility of the marketing manager to review the quality and make clear to the executives that it's still better to keep a ticket in the 'In Progress' lane than delivering poor quality but getting the ticket done. But overall you will learn, once you start using the sprints, the output of your team will increase dramatically.