What Is Agile (Marketing) Customer Experience?
Sleek Marketing For Boston Start-ups

CMG Partners & Agile Marketing

The drumbeat in the world of enterprise marketing continues, CMO’s are asking themselves how they can solve the challenges caused by digital disruption and the splitting of the customer buyer journey into many new channels. 

Three years ago CMG Partners, a North Carolina-based, marketing strategy consultancy was conducting their annual survey of CMO’s called The CMO’s Agenda, when several marketers described their frustration with finding solutions to enable their organization to respond to the changes of the digital world. After exploring the topic, and instituting an agile marketing practice (and practicing agile marketing in the firm’s own marketing) CMG Partners is helping change the face of marketing today.

I sat down with Barre Hardy, CMG Partner’s Associate Partner in the Agile Marketing Practice, and Mary Edwards, Creative Business Writer for the firm to talk about agile marketing and digital transformation.

Background to Agile Marketing

Would you give me a little background on how your team came to agile?

Barre: The agile marketing practice came out of The CMO’s Agenda, a market pulse based on interviews with leading CMO’s on marketing trends and other issues hitting the CMO. A couple of years ago we were conducting the study (on the art and science of marketing) and many CMO’s complained that they were constantly being reactive, not proactive because of digital. They needed a new method for quick decision-making. They were struggling to keep up because the high-speed pace of things.

Agile Marketing, Agile for Marketing, CMG Partners

Having some knowledge of agile at the time, we thought there was an opportunity to do more research on agile for the next report. This was confirmed when we interviewed Celia Stokes, the former CMO at K12, who had just transitioned to agile.

We then focused the next version of our CMO’s Agenda on agility and marketing. We interviewed over forty lead marketers and tried to find as many practitioners as we could. We also interviewed those not using agile on how they achieved agility in marketing in other ways. That was the start of agile at CMG Partners. We strongly believe that agile transforms performance in marketing, so we not only offer it to clients but we use it ourselves internally.

We’ve been getting into Agile since 2012 when we conducted the research for the study. We’ve been practicing and consulting in this area for a couple years. The CMO’s Agenda paper came out last April and we’ve been committed to Agile since then.

We started working with clients on how they should organizationally change in order to adopt agile for marketing. We help them get trained and work the methods into existing processes. We help them understand the operational aspects through training and coaching of the marketing teams to apply agile to current initiatives and goals.

John: How are you using agile in your marketing operations?

Mary: The firm is organized so everyone works on both client accounts and internal teams. We have four internal teams, and three out of four are using agile in their processes. We’ve been doing that for about seven months running 2-week sprints. We have between 6 and 8 people on each Agile team, we have scrum masters and product owners. At the end of each sprint, we coordinate to present our Reviews to the Partners of the firm.

We have settled on 2-week sprints. We found that three-week sprints allowed a little too much slack (we found the same results with clients). For our marketing team we follow strict Discovery procedures:  buying journey, personas, user stories. We use Trello to manage the backlog since we’re distributed around the country. I really love the approach – I feel like I’m an Agile Geek at this point!

Agile for Innovation Management

John: Are you using agile for ideation, or just purely operational tasks?

Mary: We are a content-driven organization, and we wanted to be a more active and louder voice in the wider Agile community. Today we post on LinkedIn, other social networks, and in some media. When we get feedback, we will iterate. With Agile, we do more testing with emails, agile helps us keep track and adjust. And the fail-fast lesson has come true too – some things haven’t worked at all, just fell flat, so we figured; let’s not spend any more time or money until we re-think it. We are finding a lot of the promises of Agile do come true – fail fast, work smarter, test more.

Barre: There are really two major objectives of each sprint: one is to accomplish tasks, and second is to learn. Part of what we do with clients is to institutionalize that concept of learning. It’s our goal to teach them how to learn from results and get better.

John: Do you think marketers learning how to use agile for learning is most difficult aspect of agile?

Barre: There are really three things that are difficult. One of them is accepting mistakes for the purpose of learning.

Another is that folks participating on agile teams are used to having a laundry list and just crossing the items off the list without much thinking behind what they are doing, why and for whom. They aren’t always asking, “What is a given activity expected to do for business, for sales, for our customers?” We make sure to have them think about those aspects. We help them make sure that their rationalization is realistic, and not arbitrary.

The third aspect that we’ve found challenging is the leadership. We can’t emphasize enough how critical it is that leadership is onboard from the start. You have to be sure that there is buy-in to support the effort. After all, we are talking about a transformational change in the hierarchy, decision-making and prioritization. Teams need to feel supported by their bosses.

John: Are you doing any customer journey mapping?

Mary: Yes. We start with the personas. We use some of our data and knowledge of our customers, along with basic experience of the firm. We identify each persona specifically for our agile marketing practice. Then we used the same data and mapped out the journey for these personas. Because Agile for marketing is new, our journeys are heavily weighted out toward the awareness phase.

Barre: Unfortunately, we sometimes find that our clients don’t know as much about their customer as we would like. We go through a discovery process when working with clients and ask them to collect a bunch of data, bring in what they know about the buying journey, etc.

I find that clients can fill in about 50% with things they know or believe to be true. However, it’s often not data-driven. The other 50% are things they don’t know or don’t have an educated view.

We recommend the clients actually add this research activity to their first sprint as a user story. Then they can actually understand where the breakdowns are in their customer journey – these often are the source of great new ideas, things to test, and ways to deliver value for the marketing backlog.

Often in marketing, the tasks that get done are from customers or colleagues who are shouting the loudest. With agile, we try to really take the customer view and use that to prioritize, and drive discipline from the marketing perspective.

Marketing Maturity Models

John: Do you use maturity models?

Barre: There is a spectrum of agile adoption - the more disciplined you get, the greater benefits you see. There are some organizations that need work on their mindset first before the methodology can be effective. For other organization, the mindset exists, and it’s more about putting the methodology in place and making both stronger and better over time.

John: Has agile been helpful in making changes to your marketing efforts given the changes in channels and devices?

Mary:  What was really surprising to me personally was how much better we work together as a team. We are clear and focused on our shared priorities—everyone is clear on what the tasks are. In my 20-year-plus career I haven’t experienced the same sense of collaboration. And this wasn’t my top expectation for agile, I thought we’d get more done, but wasn’t expecting it to create such a sense of team.

And there’s a real celebration when we finish a sprint. Our client teams also have a real sense of pride in their accomplishments. So this is not really tangible, but it pays off in motivation and that’s a really great benefit.

Barre: The accountability piece is a big benefit. At the very onset of the agile process the visibility and team approach set up a situation where no one wants to let the team down. They don’t want to get into a Review without putting their best foot forward and the whole level of accountability is elevated. It pleases people. They push themselves to have more accountability versus someone holding them accountable.

John: There's a term called digital transformation, how do you think companies can use agile to transform their marketing operations, and improve their customer experience?

Barre:  Adopting agile completely overhauls your marketing operations. The challenge is that marketing doesn’t own the full customer experience. For many companies it’s still silo’d across customer service and sales and others. I’d love to see someone have a pilot project pulling together agile teams across all customer groups with everyone focusing on creating a better customer experience for the most important customer segments.  Until you bring all of the pieces together, you are only solving pieces of the customer experience equation.

For the things you can control, digital marketing gives you access to feedback and to quick responses to challenges as they arrive. With this real-time feedback, you have the ability to test different things, and by leveraging the agile process, you can iterate and learn. Digital gives you data to learn the customer experiences and responses. In today’s world, customers have no patience, if they are complaining—giving you feedback on your marketing—you have to be responsive. Agile lets you build this into your process today.

Mary: WE try to carry the customer experience as far through the process as we can. We have images associated with each of the personas we use for the firm. We take those images of “Visionary Violet” and “Turnaround Tom” and put them on every strategy doc, presentation and input document so they stay in front of our eyes – quite literally. Some agile teams also do that today, but it’s often not carried all the way through the customer experience. Imagine if customer experience had the same personas as marketing and sales and across the whole organization?

We have found that Agile has really contributed to making the customer more alive and real. We keep this persona close to all of our work and try our best to fulfill their needs as we guide them through their customer journey from awareness to satisfaction.

Quick Takeaways

Thanks to Mary & Barre for a great interview, here are a final few quick takeaways for me.

  • Agile can be flexible in its deployment, but for newcomers to the practice it may be best to start with focusing on developing the basic mechanics of a customer experience project. Develop your customer persona, map out the buyer journey.
  • It’s possible to develop a template for the industry, where newcomers have a backlog of tasks to start mapping out their customer personas and buyer journey. This needs to be developed for the industry so that we answer the recurring question of “Where do we start?”
  • Agile is a methodology for digital transformation strategy, it just requires that you direct the practice in that direction. Plus, it’s strongly recommended that you involve different silos within agile teams.   
  • Develop an agile customer experience for your company.