Creating a Narrative Through Agile Marketing

Posted on by Bill Pena

Perhaps the toughest operational shift in adopting agile marketing—the iterative, fast-moving approach adapted from modern-day product development—is the discipline of breaking down large, monolithic projects into sprint-ready components. Being able to respond to a rapidly shifting marketplace and a 24 hour news cycle is crucial, but for marketers trained in developing year-long roadmaps and three to six month project plans, going from design to delivery in weeks can seem impossible.

storytellingBut if you think about the work of marketing operations as a narrative — a play in three acts, a novel in thirty-six chapters, a sonnet in five stanzas — you begin to understand how the storytelling function  and tactical marketing operations are really one in the same. Agile Scrum software language is full of writerly allusions, with epics and stories as the building blocks of work. Here’s how the analogy can provide another perspective in unifying marketing strategy with marketing operations.

Sprints as Serial Chapters

Most stories have well-defined forms. Most plays, for example, have three acts; the first act contains the introduction, the second contains the conflict, and the third contains the climax and resolution. A yearly marketing plan usually hits similar narrative beats; the four seasons dictate many sales cycles, and many industries see their climax around Christmas.

What if those texts could be released in pieces, delivering value to readers incrementally, and learning from the audience reaction along the way? That’s exactly what serial novels did for many years. Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, Wolfe, many of history’s greatest writers released their seminal works as serials, and adapted the work as they went along. They may have had an outline of the work—the main characters, the setting, the theme, perhaps—but they released early and often, and used feedback from actual readers to inform their direction.

Similarly, agile marketers may sketch out the arc of the brand, setting out some high-level objectives for the coming year, but sprint by sprint they flesh out the details and deliver value incrementally, using market feedback to adapt their campaigns and approach. They don’t throw away the idea that the full effect of a campaign takes months to pay off,  just like the full effect of a novel takes many chapters to pay off, but they can both be shaping and reacting to the market along the way.

For example, we recently worked on a large loyalty program for a major auto manufacturer,  using Agile techniques to deliver value early and react to changing demands. This program required integration with various parties at the client and other third-party vendors, new websites, triggered emails, reports, and so on. The “build” phase was easily a six to nine month project. But instead of spending three months on specifications, four months on development, two months on testing, etc., we broke this project down into four-week sprints. Each sprint, we would deliver something to the client that was potentially releasable, and we would meet with them to update a rolling, three-sprint roadmap. This way, we could show value early and often, and get feedback we could use to improve our program.

Thinking in this manner also forced the discovery that we could get consumers into the program sooner than expected, and phase the rollout nationally in a way that better ensured the program’s success. The result was an engaged and happy client, and a program that’s gaining momentum in the marketplace even as its final pieces are still in development.

Epics and Stories

Agile Scrum talks about functional requirements in terms of “user stories,” and for good reason: the focus of Scrum is the user or customer, and the value delivered from their perspective. If your roadmap is a novel, and each sprint a chapter, then the characters are users with needs.

A user story is written in a first-person narrative form, from the user’s point of view:

  • As a customer I need to register for email updates so I can receive offers
  • As a sales rep I need to view customer purchase history so I can suggest complementary products
  • As a CMO I need to view goal conversion data on SEM campaigns so I can determine which campaigns to renew

These stories are then collected into “epics,” similar to a project milestone, which can be delivered in one or more sprints.

An epic called “Email Welcome Series” could involve the following stories:

  • As a customer I need to register for email updates so I can receive offers
  • As a customer I need to receive a welcome email upon registration
  • As a customer I need to receive a second touch email 7 days after registration
  • As a customer I need to receive a third touch email 30 days after registration
  • As an analyst I need to have access to engagement data across all welcome series touches so I can report on overall welcome series engagement
  • As an analyst I need to report on overall welcome series engagement so the program may be refined

When broken down this way, you can see how the needs of the two main users, the customer and the analyst, could be delivered in multiple sprints, or “chapters,” with the theme of the first chapter being customer engagement, and the theme of the second chapter being engagement analysis. Both chapters are part of a bigger program of lead generation that’s spread throughout the year.

Narrate Your Marketing Roadmap

The next time you’re trying to lay out a marketing roadmap, think about the overall narrative of your programs, and how that narrative could be broken up into epics and user stories, and executed as serialized chapters. This technique will help take monolithic project plans and turn them into manageable units that can be executed, reprioritized, and refined in response to real market feedback, which in return will ensure your roadmap has a happy ending.

Bill Peña is vice president, technology services, at 89 Degrees.


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