Agile Marketing: The HubSpot Way

This week’s guest blogger is a very talented marketer that I had the privilege of speaking with at the last ProductCamp Austin on the Art of Being Relevant in 2011.  Kirsten Knipp,  Director of Product Evangelism, Marketing at Hubspot, also gave a talk on marketing the agile way that I thought was fantastic (and I was not the only one – she won Best Presenter! ).  Big thanks to Kirsten for agreeing to share more on the topic.  Here is her guest post:

Waterfall.

Scrum.

Agile.

What do those terms have to do with marketing?

Not much, yet.  Marketing teams typically manage to annual goals with some quarterly targets based on big projects and initiatives that are spec’d out in ‘squishy’ terms.  That’s one of the reasons it is really hard to be a marketer.  How do you prove the value of marketing effort?  How can you adapt to changing market conditions when you’ve got a 6-month campaign that’s been pre-paid?  How can you respond to the needs of your sales team without failing to deliver on other priorities?

Enter Scrum.  I was skeptical when I first joined my current company, HubSpot, and learned that we were going to start working in ‘monthly sprints’ per scrum or agile methodologies.

The concept of scrum as part of agile development has mostly been applied in software development – where there was a strong desire to move away from the waterfall method, which was mired in long cycles of definition and coding before any product was released, often resulting in stale or late-to-market products.  Instead of building a behemoth, full-featured offer, agile relies on the completion of small chunks of ‘shippable code’ that can be ideated, built, tested and shipped in the time span of a single sprint – usually 15-30 days.

Agile doesn’t have to be limited to software development, or marketing for that matter.  You can apply this same concept to any work – the premise is based on a few key concepts and roles, simplified and adapted here based on how we employ them at HubSpot:

  • Sprint – a defined period of time in which a team commits to complete certain work
  • Task / User Story – a tightly defined chunk of work with specific outcomes
  • Story Points – the estimated level of effort a chunk of work will take (way more detail could be spent here – perhaps a future post will detail how we use story points at HubSpot)
  • Standup – a daily meeting, held standing, where members of the team share what they worked on yesterday, their plans for today and any ‘blocking’ items hindering their work progress
  • Sprint Commitment  – a public meeting where teams commit to their stories for the coming sprint
  • Sprint Review – a public meeting where teams review accomplishments and incompletions from their past sprints

Marketing at HubSpot employs a monthly sprint in which each of two teams drafts stories for the month, estimates points and collaborates to prioritize and ultimately commit to a set of stories for the coming month.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have a 2011 plan.  We do.  But, we’ve found that working on smaller monthly goals be it the number of leads or a specific content item, is much more manageable than chasing after a 12-month goal.

In fact, when I recently shared HubSpot’s agile marketing practice at Product Camp Austin – slides embedded here, I broke down the benefits as I see them:

1)     Transparency – so many companies see marketing as a black box of voodoo.  It’s not.  There are certain activities that lead to success and measuring them helps you figure out what they are.  At HubSpot, we share what we are working on with the company – in the process getting both feedback and buy-in –ultimately increasing transparency and gaining credibility for our work.

2)     Prioritization – it’s very hard to say no or ask ‘what slips’ if someone asks you for something and you don’t know how much effort it is or how to map it against current priorities.  The beauty of transparency and agile is that we have a monthly list of what we are working on.  Yes, we can take on a small favor here or there – but if someone asks for a big shift – it’s a very open conversation to say, I will need to NOT do this particular story instead.  Prioritization becomes a very rational and productive conversation instead of a tug of war.

3)     Predictability – Because teams assign points to their work and the daily meeting reviews status and progress, including blockers, there are rarely big surprises.  If someone on my team has an issue, we typically know inside 24-48 hours – and as a team, we can decide if another member can chip in or if we need to influence another team to help remove the blocker.  No matter what, I have yet to reach the end of the month and find that ‘stuff didn’t get done’.  There is an element of personal ownership and team accountability that scrum and daily standup create which could never be replicated by a boss telling a team what to do – a huge benefit in today’s flatter and faster organizations.

All these things add up to smart, fast and flexible marketing – a must in today’s world of social media and inbound marketing.  Transparency breeds more data driven decisions and input from the rest of the organization.  A monthly (or in some orgs bi-weekly) cadence means you are completing chunks of deliverable work, even small ones, with a turnover that provides feedback and results quickly.  Tasking out activities and talking through them within a team enables quicker problem resolution and allows for re-prioritization if there is an emergency or new market opportunity.

One could wax philosophical about agile in marketing – but this is a blog not a book.  At HubSpot, we don’t employ agile to the letter – we’ve adapted it in ways that work for our team.  Others might work for you.

In the end, I am a convert.  I don’t want to work on a 6 month plan.  I am enjoying agile – even though there may be a bit more ‘planning overhead’, there is also a lot more satisfaction in a job well done every month with results to show and the ability to tell my sales team – you know what, we can’t do that this week – but, we start a new sprint in about two weeks – I think we can prioritize that and get it done, without missing a beat.

How do you manage marketing efforts today?  A daily checklist?  A 6 month plan?  How could your organization employ agile?


Image Credit:  Flickr

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  • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

    Kirsten,nnAwesome! Thanks so much for sharing how you do agile marketing at Hubspot with us!nnAny advice on how to best transition a team to an agile marketing? I love how the approach helps drive personal ownership and team accountability but want to make sure that we handle the transition from bi-yearly planning correctly. nnThanks!nnJosh

    • http://twitter.com/kirstenpetra Kirsten Knipp

      Josh – always a pleasure and glad to be able to share material on the topic!nnRE: Transitioning – that is a whole series worth of posts, but I think the key things to think about are:n1) how is your organization measured and can you break up the bigger metrics into smaller chunks that allow you to show progress?n2) is your team able to meet either physically or virtually every day – that is a key element in the processn3) do you want to try it out on just ‘one project’ first before you apply it to the whole process and team? could potentially work as an experimentnnHappy to come back and share transition stories in future – since we didn’t always do it this way at HubSpot either:)nCheers,nKirsten

      • http://www.arandomjog.com/ Joshua Duncan

        Thanks Kirsten – will take you up on that future offer! I am sure there are quite a few product marketers like me that are already planning to go down this road so any advice on how to get their would be much appreciated! nn

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  • MattH

    Kirsten,nnThis is crazy cool! I could ask a million questions, just from looking at the slide deck, but going to try to control myself…nn- Are you using any project management tools besides the wiki?n- How big is your Scrum team and do they all participate in the daily stand-up?n- What is the “Science Fair?” :)