Adapting the Product Owner Role for Agile Marketing

Translating agile concepts from development to marketing can be challenging at the best of times, but when it comes to concepts that even agile development struggles with the process has the potential to become even more problematic.

Fortunately, when it comes to the role of Product Owner, the correlations aren’t nearly as difficult to identify (despite the lingering confusion about this role in some agile teams).

agile marketing product owner

Regardless of whether they work on a marketing or development team, Product Owners act as a liaison among three key groups: the team, the customer, and the executives.

Having a stake in all three of these camps means that a successful Product Owner needs a wide variety of skills. Development teams often have trouble finding qualified product owners, but in a marketing department we’re more likely to have a potential candidate already in place.

By reviewing the key responsibilities of a Product Owner on an agile marketing team, we’ll identify characteristics and employees most likely to do well in the role. Having a strong PO will go a long way toward starting an agile marketing team on the road to success, so don’t settle for just anybody in this role.

Traditional Marketing Skills for the Product Owner

Your Product Owner keeps an eye on what’s going on outside the building, then translate it into the big picture strategy that your agile marketing team needs to operate.

Because of this outside-in arrangement, in this case it’s probably more important for your PO to have a background in “traditional” marketing than expertise in agile methodologies. You can teach them how to operate as an agile team member relatively quickly, but experience in things like market forecasting and competitive analysis take much longer to acquire.

In a perfect world, your agile Product Owner will have the following marketing skills:

  • Strong understanding of your market, including current and potential audience segments.
  • Awareness of trends, opportunities, and emerging threats to be dealt with.
  • Creative approach to reaching new markets.
  • Insight into the competitive landscape and how best to tackle it.
  • Ability to monitor and communicate ROI of all marketing efforts to executives.
  • Excellent communication with the agile team members, other departments, and higher-ups.
  • Willingness to advocate for customer needs.

Product Ownership and the Big Picture

You probably notice a pattern in the above list: the POs are basically “Big Picture” people.

They climb up to the top of the hill, then come back down and tell the rest of us not only what they saw, but what we should do about it.

It’s their job to communicate strategy and long-term goals to the agile marketing team so that they can in turn execute projects that drive towards the goals.

At the same time, Product Owners also have to make sure executives (or whoever is above and outside the agile marketing team) is clear on the team’s objectives. POs will spend a lot of time in meetings making sure that everybody understands what everybody else is doing and why.

They also have to be extremely available to the agile team to answer any questions that come up during the sprint, to accept work as it reaches “done” status, etc. We’ll go into the more agile-specific skills that a PO needs in the next section.

Agile Marketing Skills That a Product Owner Needs

Product Owners tend to have heavy involvement during the beginning and end of a sprint, and hopefully not as much once things get underway. Essentially they establish priorities, confirm the team’s choices of projects to tackle, and then wait to review work and accept or reject it based on the preset definition of done that the group has agreed on.

Some additional agile skills that your Product Owner should have (or learn):

  • Expertise in medium-term planning (known as release planning in agile development – more on this below).
  • Ability to maintain the backlog so that the team can always confidently pick the next most important thing(s) to work on.
  • Confidence writing (or helping the team write) user stories for tasks and projects.
  • Willingness to help the team estimate how long each project will take during sprint planning.
  • Availability during the sprint to review user stories and accept the work as done or request additional work on the story.
  • Trust in the team that allows the PO to avoid micromanaging projects or team members.
  • Ability to monitor the team’s progress toward larger objectives and make adjustments between sprints based on larger strategic objectives.

Campaign Planning and Agile Marketing

The phrase “release planning” isn’t very accurate for a marketing team; it applies to releasing software to the public for their use. But for marketing it basically means planning out a few sprints into the future so that you’re driving toward a strategic goal instead of just running around like a marketer with their head cut off.

For agile marketers, let’s call it “campaign planning” instead of “release planning.”

So, a good Product Owner can craft a campaign plan that stretches over several sprints. They then create a backlog of projects that make up that campaign (in order of priority).

The agile marketing team selects tasks from that list to do each sprint. Over time they complete them all, resulting in a successful marketing campaign.

Logistical Tasks: User Stories and Estimation

For an in depth look at user stories for agile marketing, check out this guide. Basically they are a one-sentence explanation of who a project is for and why that project is important.

Agile marketing Project Owners need to understand user stories and how they fit into the marketing team so that they can write them for projects in the backlog.

The same thing goes for time estimation. The PO should be comfortable contributing to discussions about how long each project will take the team to complete so that they can accurately budget their time each sprint.

This is particularly important for the PO to hear and understand, because it will be their job to explain to executives how much is being done each sprint and why. Oftentimes this will require overlapping knowledge of agile methodologies and marketing tactics, so an experienced marketing may be your best option.

Availability and Communication

On an agile marketing team using the Scrum methodology, only the Product Owner can accept stories (projects) as done. This person reviews the work, make sure it meets all the criteria that the team agreed on before the start of the sprint, and that it’s also up to the requisite level of quality.

If it is, the PO accepts the task(s) as done and the team members are free to move on to their next tasks. If not, more work will need to be done.

It’s crucial for the Product Owner to be consistently available to the team, because if no one can get their work reviewed they will be stuck waiting for feedback and output will suffer.

The PO also answers any questions that come up as work proceeds; once again, if they’re unavailable work can come to halt.

Adjusting Course as Needed

Between the sprint review/retrospective and the next sprint kickoff, the Product Owner should be taking a look at all the big picture pieces that we talked about earlier to make sure the team is still driving toward its goals (and that those goals are still the right ones to pursue).

If not, it’s time for a course adjustment. This shouldn’t be a problem for an agile team that’s prepared to accommodate changes, but it requires someone who’s in touch with the larger market forces that can impact a team’s larger objectives.

POs shouldn’t be afraid to change course when it’s appropriate, as long as they have the data to back it up. Agile marketing relies on objective data over gut reactions, and that goes for Product Owners as well as team members.

Good Candidates for Your First Agile Marketing PO

An existing Marketing Manager, or possibly even Marketing Director, can be a smooth fit for your first agile Product Owner. These folks most likely have a strong, high level understanding of your market and competition, which means they’re probably already used to setting long term goals and motivating the team to reach them.

Some traditional marketing executives and managers might have trouble getting on board with agile marketing techniques, particularly the hands-off, no micro-managing part, but this can be taught.

You can spend a few days in a Product Owner certification, put the ideas into practice for a few sprints, and be just about up to speed. Market understanding, however, can take years to master.

Who fills the role of Product Owner on your agile marketing team? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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