How can smaller companies compete against bigger businesses? Agile marketing is a methodology that helps companies work more efficiently and effectively to produce better outcomes.
Today’s guest is Andrea Fryrear from AgileSherpas, an agile marketing consultancy. Andrea talks about how companies can leverage limited resources the right way by having a plan and path to follow and drive outsized outcomes.
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AMP 234: How Smaller Companies Can Use Agile Marketing to Compete Against Bigger Players With Andrea Fryrear From Agile Sherpas
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- What is agile marketing? Focus on ideal customers to get value to them faster
- Key Benefits: Customer centricity and niche down for market share
- Starting Point: Get back to basics to identify and prioritize high-value work
- Dynamic Visibility: Take time to figure out and manage what’s important or not
- Disciplined Process: Set work-in-progress limits to avoid shiny object syndrome
- Generate Results: Get more done by doing less to accomplish goals
- Baseline: Implement agile to measure process improvements, marketing metrics
- Potential Problems: Lack of understanding, misconceptions of agility + marketing
Ben: Hey, Andrea. How’s it going this afternoon?
Andrea: Going so well. I am in a very agile state of mind. I’m ready to go.
Ben: That’s awesome to hear. An agile state of mind is a good state of mind to be in. We’re going to be talking about not only agile marketing but specifically, how smaller companies or maybe newer companies can use agile marketing or can apply agile marketing to their practice in order to help them better compete against more entrenched or perhaps larger competitors. Before we get too far along though, for listeners who might not be quite fully up to speed with what we’re talking about just yet, what is agile marketing, and what are its key benefits?
Andrea: It’s a really important place to start because especially if we’re talking about newer, smaller, scrappier teams, there’s a tendency to conflate the idea of agility, speed, or just productivity. These are definitely pieces of it, but real agile is more about focused and rapid delivery of value so that you can put something in front of an audience, learn from their reaction to it, and then build on it if it worked or chuck it out if it was unsuccessful, and doing that in a much more rapid, quick-turn way than we would be able to do if we followed a more traditional waterfall process where we do lots of planning and data-gathering, we design everything for a couple of months, we put it together for a couple more months, and then finally, six months later, something’s finally in market.
Obviously, that’s just not the cadence that works anymore. Really, that’s where small, scrappy teams can really benefit from agile ways of working, but they have to do it in a methodical and rigorous way, not just run around and throw a bunch of stuff at the wall.
Ben: Right. That’s a very common misconception as to what agile is. It’s not just about doing lots of stuff very quickly. You could do lots of very poor-quality work really fast and it’s not going to get you anywhere.
Andrea: Right. You can think about it like, if your little hamster runs faster on their hamster wheel, they’re still not going anywhere. It’s quite impressive that they can move quickly, but if it’s not getting you anywhere, then that speed is just wasted energy.
Ben: Who might be some larger companies that you’re aware of that you can name off the top of your head that are known for using agile marketing or maybe agile methodologies in general in other areas of their business that our audience might be familiar with? Who’s working this way?
Andrea: I think some of the best-known ones are organizations that have been agile from birth. Spotify is a great example. They’ve built that platform from a development perspective using agile methodologies.
That’s quite a common thing for a tech company to do, but their marketing proceeds in much the same way because the entire organization has that built into their DNA. It’s easy for marketers to internalize that and to experiment.
They’ve done these rebrands even which are these huge monolithic, problematic kinds of marketing initiatives that people will usually hold up to say well, most marketing can be agile, but then you’ve got some of these things that just won’t fit. It will. It can. If you take it in that iterative value-delivery mindset, then literally everything we do can be agile.
I think Spotify is an excellent example of not only how that can permeate everything that we do but also the really amazing outcomes you can get because they’ve steadily grown market share from day one.
Ben: That’s an excellent example of a small company that grew very quickly that is definitely on the cutting edge so to speak. For smaller companies, or maybe newer companies I should say or should clarify—because you could be a young company and not technically be that small perhaps—for new players in the field, what are some specific benefits for them in applying agile when they’re going up against an entrenched competitor? If you have a competitor that, from the outside, looks immovable, how can you navigate around them with agile?
Andrea: I would say two things here. One is that customer-centricity is going to be a key. Agile does all of its optimization, its speed, and its waste reduction to deliver value to a customer faster. Keeping your focus on who your ideal customers are and how you’re going to use agile to get value to them faster is usually a really good way to begin chipping away at this seemingly monolithic behemoth that’s in your way.
You can niche down pretty far. Let’s find a little pocket of consumers with a very specific problem, need, or desire that we’re uniquely situated to fill. Let’s create some collateral campaigns, programs that are designed specifically for these guys. If we’re agile, we should be able to get something out there to them quickly and get their reactions. We iterate. We take hold of that little piece of market share. Then, we do that again and again at a niche level.
Those things build up over time and it’s reliant on your ability to do things quickly. Most of the time, if you’re coming into a market with some big established players—I can speak for a lot of folks like that, you struggle to get beyond your red tape, your bureaucracy. They’ve got a lot of stage-gates that work has to get through when you get to a certain size.
You don’t have that. You may not have a giant budget, but you also don’t have those things. You can actually turn some of that to your advantage by using agile frameworks to get in and take little bits here and there.
Ben: Yeah, certainly. Let’s say, I’m a marketer on a team at one of these hypothetical up-and-coming companies that were using, as an example, the center of this conversation, how would I even begin getting started with agile? Maybe you had some sort of way of working before. You’re following some kind of framework or maybe it’s a total mess and everything’s ad hoc. Whatever the case may be, I’m sure you’ve seen it all. What’s the first thing you do? There’s got to be a starting point somewhere.
Andrea: It can feel overwhelming when you like to be more disciplined about your delivery but it feels like everything is just everywhere. We get back to basics here. What do we need in order to effectively identify the high-value work and prioritize the high-value work? We need to know everything that’s out there. Everything we are doing compared with everything we could be doing.
My first step regardless of who you are, what size team you are, what kind of work you do is you need a backlog. You need a prioritized to-do list of work that everyone agrees with, here’s the ultimate objective we’re trying to achieve as a marketing team. Maybe it’s growing our addressable audience. Maybe it’s sales-qualified leads.
Whatever our big thing is, we are focused on achieving that metric. We prioritize our work according to what is most likely to deliver that value. Then, we’ve got it all out in the open. Now, we can start to say, all right, this week, we’re going to focus on that set of work—or maybe it’s a two-week sprint or something. We’re going to say in two weeks, we will have this project in the market collecting this data and telling us this information. We’ll work our way down the list.
Of course, it’s dynamic. Something’s going to work amazingly and you’re going to be like, oh, it was hugely successful. Quick, do more work like that. Or, wow, that was a dud. Take everything out of the backlog related to that audience because it didn’t work the way we wanted it to.
It’s dynamic but you’ve got to take the time to get visibility. You got to manage work visually, be able to see it somewhere, and only then can you start to say this is not important, take it out. This is super important, add more.
Ben: One of the biggest barriers to implementing agile marketing is the very same red tape that agile marketing teams ultimately want to minimize or eliminate from their work. The best way to make the case for agile though is with results. That’s really the best way to help stakeholders who might be skeptical because it sets their minds at ease about this whole agile marketing thing and really shows them that this is the right way to go.
If you can get enough buy-in from them to try it for even just for a short while just to test the numbers, the productivity, and the way that your team feels about their work, it should really speak for themselves. Once you get that far, everything else becomes much, much easier.
Now, back to Andrea.
Once a team has started implementing the basics of agile, they’ve gotten their feet wet, and they’re starting to develop some comfort level with implementing agile into their team, how would you recommend they approach taking things to the next level? Say, you have a backlog, maybe you’re having standups, daily scrums, or whichever different terminology different teams might choose to use, what’s next? How do you kick things up a notch, as I think Guy Fieri might say?
Andrea: That’s right. I think at that point, teams start getting ready for more discipline around the process. Once you get the muscles building up, then you can start to lift heavier agile weights so to speak.
One of my favorites is to start using WIP or work-in-progress limits. These are basically restricting very strictly the number of things you can be doing at any given moment in time. This can be like Andrea’s only doing two things. Ben’s only doing two things. Sylvia over here on our team is only doing two things. Each of us has our own personal limit so that we don’t get spread too thin. We don’t run chasing shiny objects and whatnot.
That is hard. It’s a very challenging thing to get right. We might also say—if we have our little team of three that we just invented there—that we choose to only work on four things across all three of us. Most of the time, we’re focused on one thing.
Maybe you and I are teamed up on a certain fifth item, but once we hit that threshold, we cannot start anything new until one of those items gets moved into the down column of our hypothetical kanban board there. We’re restricting ourselves. What this does is it creates the discipline to stop starting a whole bunch of stuff and actually start finishing things.
Super challenging, but it’s one of these counterintuitive things about agility that once you experience it a couple of times, it starts to feel like this magic trick where you’re doing less and somehow more is getting done. It seems like it can’t possibly be true, but it works every time.
Ben: It definitely does give you the sensation of feeling like you are bending time and space because it’s not like you’re adding hours to the clock, but you’re adding a lot of productivity to your hours.
Andrea: Yeah. There have been so many studies just like American Psychological Association, all kinds of groups have studied how our brains work. It’s a hardwired thing about how we as humans function. This is why texting and driving is such a terrible idea. We cannot do both things. We do not do two things at the same time. Our brains cannot do it.
Multitasking used to be like, I’m a great multitasker. I must be super important and productive. But we don’t do that. Our brains move in a linear fashion through things and the more things we force them to ping-pong back and forth through, the more time it takes for your brain to be like, okay, what was I doing? Right now, I’m answering this email. Oh, wait, no. I have to go and jump in this meeting. There’s too much context-switching, is the word. It’s overwhelming to our brains and we don’t have any time to actually dig in and do anything.
Ben: Certainly. It is really interesting how the conversation is shifted away from multitasking. After that was such a big thing that really left people feeling like a failure because they couldn’t achieve the possible.
Andrea: I run my own business and I have two small children at home. I’ve written two books in the last three years. I have a WIP limit of two. I cannot have any more than two things active at any given moment.
I’ll have 5-7 things that I accomplish on any given day. I’m not saying you have to pick one thing per day to do, but I’ve held this WIP limit for the past four or five years. It’s spectacular what it does. I don’t say all those things to brag or anything but to say it’s doable.
I know we all have five different stakeholders whose projects are all the most important and I get it. But if you can hold that line, as you said, it becomes that I can bend time and space. People will be like, how are you doing it? You get so much done. You’re like, just do less and people will look at you like you’re crazy. That’s okay.
Ben: They’ll look at you like you’re crazy until they actually try it because I feel like the results speak for themselves pretty well. Those last points you were making there actually lead really well into my next question. For a marketing team—and particularly to stay within the scope of this conversation, we’re talking about a small marketing team, a newer or smaller company—what kinds of results can they expect to see once they successfully implement agile into how they operate? What sorts of outcomes can they expect to drive that are going to get them closer to that goal of showing the bigger players in their space that they can hang with them?
Andrea: We do a State of Agile Marketing Report every single year and we ask people what benefits they see. They were consistent across team size or organizational type. Some of the things are stereotypically associated with agile ways of working like productivity and speed to market. Getting a campaign into the market quickly, but then there are also things like alignment with business objectives.
In a small company or a newer company, marketing has a really exciting role that they can play where they can show their contribution to the bottom line. As the company gets larger, space grows between what marketing does and revenue. It’s harder to make that direct connection but earlier on, it was easier to say the point to a big customer, the point to a jump in online sales, or whatever it might be and say we did that. You can draw that line.
Anybody who’s listening who’s thinking about starting out implementing agile even if it’s in the smaller ways that we were talking about as options for getting started, I will say baseline your pre-agile life. We generate this many marketing-qualified leads per campaign, this much web traffic, or this many email subscribers. Whatever your metrics are, take a snapshot now, go run agile for 4-6 weeks, and then see where you’re at.
You should be able to see both process-level improvements like we do more, we accomplish more stuff in the same amount of time, and marketing metric improvement, those numbers. The marketing KPIs are demonstratively better. Both halves of the equation should be working. Then, as that compounds, we do more work and the work we do is better. Now, it’s that exponential growth curve where you start to see an amazing impact.
Ben: For sure. Once you start to see your numbers go up and your outcomes improve, the case for agile itself starts to build upon itself in a way that’s pretty difficult to argue with.
Andrea: Yeah. It makes it a lot easier to push back when somebody says, I need you to do this thing right now. You’re like, well, you know this agile thing that’s been doing so great for us? It dictates that I need to tell you not right now. We’re going to have to put that in the backlog. It’ll be prioritized, but I can’t break my WIP limit just for your super urgent-seeming request. If you’ve got a track record behind you, then it’s much easier to expect people to respect that push back.
Ben: Yeah. Are there any common problems that prevent marketers from being successful with agile? If so, what might some of those more common issues be? How can they be avoided? That’s probably a big question but you can pick out maybe one or a few things. That would be great.
Andrea: I think that the overarching problem, which again we hear in our survey that we do every year, is just the lack of total understanding. There are still a lot of misconceptions about what agility in marketing really means. That can show up in some really painful ways.
Some of the ones I think are the most pernicious still are a sense of picking and choosing where you get to be agile. Agile is meant to apply holistically across all the work that a team does. Even the super simple examples that we were talking through at the start of the interview, about the backlog.
There’s a tendency to feel like, well, I’m going to put some of my work into the backlog because I understand it. It makes sense to me to break it up in that way. But I also have all this other work that will be hard and complicated. I don’t want to put it in there because then I have to justify it. I’m just going to keep it over here on the side of my desk.
What happens is you overcommit to the work and the backlog because you didn’t see all of this dark work that you chose not to visualize and then you don’t get it done. You can’t hold your WIP limit. You’re trying to split your focus. You’re losing all these benefits. That’s one thing that teams of all shapes and sizes struggle with. It just defaults to everything, especially in the early days. Everything goes. Everything in the backlog. Once you get the habits built up, then you might start to say, okay, well, we don’t have to have everything. We can start to pull some things out but early on, you just do it all.
The other one is the project problem. It’s coming from the same place where we say, let’s try agile just on this one project. Everybody goes and is agile 30% of the time. We’ll put all that project work in a backlog. We’ll have standups where we only talk about that project, but keep doing everything else. It’s the same thing where now, we’re trying to isolate agility into this weird arbitrary part-time world.
If we think back to where agile came from, it’s from software development. You don’t hear software developers talking about, well, let’s develop this feature with agile but none of the other features. It isn’t made to work that way. It dilutes its effectiveness. You’re going to end up feeling like, well, this agile thing just doesn’t work the way everybody promised me that it would. You have to apply it in the right way for it to have the effect that you want.
Ben: Absolutely. If any of our listeners were interested in working with you to try to make sure that they get off on the right foot and can be successful with agile, where would be the best place for them to find you?
Andrea: You can find us at agilesherpas.com. We have a bunch of resources there that are totally free and open. You can find guides, checklists, templates, and things to help build your first backlog. We’ve got some board templates that we’ve built. They are free to use in Trello if you need a starting point. We also have a self-directed online course. We have certification classes. If there’s a problem with education, we are doing our best to help solve it. There are lots of different ways to engage there.
Ben: Great stuff. Thanks again, Andrea, for coming to the show. I really think our listeners are going to get a lot out of this conversation.
Andrea: I’m happy to be here. I will geek out on agile any time.
May 12, 2021