Guide to Using Scrum Methodology for Agile Marketing

rugby scrum and agile marketing

When they hear the phrase “agile marketing,” most people think of the Scrum methodology. Featuring sprints, daily standup meetings, and a public “to-do” list known as the Backlog, Scrum is one of the most popular frameworks for implementing departmental agility.

The goal of Scrum is to provide a framework that creates a culture of transparency, inspection, and adaptation while making it easier for team members to produce consistently great products.

Although undeniably useful, Scrum was originally created for software development. That means it’s vital for marketers to be aware of how they need to adapt the original Scrum methodology for their own purposes.

Basics of the Scrum Framework

Developed in the late 90’s by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, Scrum creates a system that lets people manage complex problems using whatever processes and techniques work best for them while still maintaining productivity and consistency.

Teams using Scrum can implement whatever other processes work for their specific needs, but they must use the following Scrum Events to structure their work:

  1. Sprint Planning
  2. Daily Scrum
  3. Sprint Review
  4. Sprint Retrospective

This part of the Scrum framework translates easily (and in my opinion beautifully) to a marketing department. The second half of Scrum — the people who occupy the framework — doesn’t adapt nearly as well.

By keeping the components of Scrum that work well (events) and making adjustments to those that aren’t portable to marketing (team members), we can arrive at a Scrum framework that will allow marketers to creativity and effectively use Scrum for agile marketing.

Scrum Events for Marketing

The Scrum framework consists of only four formal events: Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective.

The Scrum Guide is very specific on how these events need to be structured to be the most effective. Although the Guide is designed for software development, there’s typically no need to make significant changes for using these events for marketing teams.

Key points about events from the Scrum Guide:

  • Scrum events exist to create regularity and minimize the need for non-Scrum meetings.
  • Every event is time-boxed, meaning it has a specified maximum length.
  • You can’t change the length of a Sprint once it starts, but other events can end whenever their objective is achieved.
  • Each event presents a formal opportunity to inspect and adapt. Events should enable transparency and inspection.
  • Not including an event will risk losing transparency and missing opportunities to improve the Scrum process.

Next we’ll take a look at each Scrum event and how it works (or doesn’t) for marketers.

Sprints = Projects with Specific Goals and Deadlines

They sound like something fancy, but for marketers Sprints are really just finite periods of work that is done to achieve a particular objective or finish a particular project.

Sprints can’t be any longer than a month, and the ideal length for a marketing Sprint is typically two weeks. Smaller teams conducting smaller experiments may be able to handle one week Sprints.

One of the great things about working in continuous Sprints is that you get a “win” every few weeks. You see a project roll out, start seeing improvements, and get to pat yourselves on the back a little bit.

In the case of a big fat failure, you’re only out a few weeks’ worth of work, so the risk levels remain low for Sprint-driven marketing as well.

Setting Up the Sprint with a Planning Meeting

The name is pretty self-explanatory in this case: you plan the work for your sprint during the sprint planning meeting. Ideally the entire marketing team will create the plan based on the prioritized list of next tasks created by the Marketing Manager, Marketing VP, or other leader.

Sometimes this kind of democratic planning doesn’t work in reality, and that is typically not a problem for marketing teams, particularly if team members can select tasks within the pre-selected project(s).

The Sprint Planning Meeting will cover two basic topics:

  1. What can we done this Sprint
  2. How can we get it done?

How Sprint Goals Differ For Marketers

Software development teams can identify improvements, features, products, or other deliverables fairly easily, but marketers can have trouble determining what the big “goal” is for the sprint.

Sometimes you’ll identify a large-scale goal, such as overhauling your email messaging, that you can tackle in a sprint.

More often, however, you’ll be working on multiple fronts in a single sprint. That’s just the nature of marketing.

A good tracking system (Trello, or a good old fashioned white board) will make sure that your various projects get the attention they deserve, even if they’re not all in service of a larger Sprint Goal.

According to the Scrum Guide, a Sprint Goal “can be any other coherence that causes the Development Team to work together rather than on separate initiatives.” Using that definition, marketers are definitely still using Sprint Goals. We are just working together while working on slightly different things (email, social media, content marketing, ppc, etc.).

The Marketing Definition of Done in Scrum

One thing that is of particular importance for marketers is to decide on a strict definition of “done” for each sprint item.

Development teams can have a fairly standard definition for all of their Sprints because they will always be producing software. Marketers, on the other hand, may be producing ads, emails, tweets, ebooks, or more in a sprint, each of which is “done” in different ways.

Decide what constitutes each of your Sprint Goals being finished, and make sure to stick with that. Keep in mind that something being “done” doesn’t mean you can’t ever work on it again.

Agile marketing is all about continuous improvement; you’ll almost certainly be working on that email campaign again.

Staying on Track During the Sprint with Daily Scrum

Every day during a sprint team members get together to discuss progress and impediments. This 15-minute mini-meeting is called the Daily Scrum or Daily Standup.

Each team member outlines:

  • What they did yesterday to contribute to the team achieving the Sprint Goal
  • What they plan to do today to contribute to the Goal
  • Any impediments for themselves or the team that would prevent them from achieving the Goal

Strictly speaking, no one who is not on the marketing team or directly contributing to the Sprint Goal(s) should attend the Daily Scrum.

The few minutes after the Scrum is an ideal time for smaller groups of marketing team members to meet briefly for detailed discussions about their parts of the sprint objectives.

Review While Planning: The Sprint Review

A sprint review is a collaborative review of what the team achieved during the sprint and how it impacts future projects that exist in the Backlog (the big long list of things that need to be done).

The outcome of the sprint review should be a revised backlog that reflects probably tasks/projects/objectives for future sprints.

To get here, a Sprint Review should include the following elements:

  • Explanation of what items for the sprint were done, and which ones were not.
  • Marketing team discusses what went well during the sprint, any problems they encountered, and how they solved those problems.
  • Team demonstrates the work it has classified as “done” and answers any questions about its implementation
  • A manager or other leader discusses the remaining Backlog items, including their likely dates of completion if needed
  • Group discussion of next steps, which will heavily influence the next Sprint Planning Meeting
  • Review of any changes in the marketplace that could impact future Sprint Goals.
  • Review of constraints for future sprints, including budget, timeline, marketplace etc.

Self-Examination with the Sprint Retrospective

The final piece of Scrum is a retrospective, a meeting in which the Scrum team inspects itself and its processes for opportunities to improve.

The retrospective should happen after the Sprint Review but before the next Sprint Planning meeting, and should include only marketing team members.

During this event team members discuss:

  • How people, relationships, processes, and tools worked in the last Sprint
  • Identify and order major items that went well and those that need improvement
  • Create a plan for achieving those improvements in future Sprints

Shifting the definition of “done” can be done during the retrospective, and it should be generally approached as a “formal opportunity to focus on inspection and adaptation.”

Making Changes to Scrum Teams for Marketing

So far we’ve stayed pretty true to Scrum for software principles. But when it comes to Scrum team members we need to make more significant adjustments to make it work for marketing.

Software Scrum teams consist of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. The Scrum Guide is very specific about how these teams should function:

Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team. The team model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity.

Marketing teams, while potentially self-organizing, are much less likely to be self-directed than software teams.

They are probably already close to management in some way and don’t really need a Scrum Master or Product Owner to run interference and keep them from being derailed.

A development team needs a buffer between themselves and executives who may run up and shout, “Drop what you’re doing and make this new widget that I want!” Marketers, on the other hand, are routinely asked to drop what they’re doing to take advantage of an emerging opportunity or address an emerging threat.

Product Owner in Development vs. Marketing

For development teams, the Product Owner is in charge of the Product Backlog, meaning the enormous list of improvements/updates/changes to the software that need to happen at some point in the future.

S/he makes sure that the backlog is clear, that the team understands the items it contains, and that the items that are chosen from the list are of the appropriate priority. Nobody can change the Product Backlog except the Product Owner.

This is a good role to port over to marketing, but the rigidity of the Product Owner’s control over the backlog often relaxes for marketers.

As a general rule, there are a lot more kinds of things that belong in a marketing backlog, and multiple people are going to need direct input into its construction.

If your team is setup in such a way that you have a single Product Owner, that’s a great setup.

If you need 2-3 people who have direct access to the backlog, don’t assume that Scrum can’t work for you. Democratize the backlog if you need to, just make sure that the right people are choosing which items the team brings up from the Product Backlog to work on in a sprint.

Scrum Development Teams vs. Scrum Marketing Teams

Jeroen Molenaar of Xebia tells the story of helping ING implement Scrum in both their marketing and IT departments. He was surprised at how much different the marketers acted on their Scrum team, and realized that the tendency for different personality types to gravitate to these two departments means that their teams won’t work the same ways.1

Marketing teams tend to already be self-organizing, being made up of more extroverts than a typical development team.

Marketers often self-direct projects, and most marketers already create the prioritization of tasks within their days by necessity. This can make turning a marketing department into a Scrum team a fairly smooth transition.

Breaking Down Characteristics

Here are the characteristics of a Scrum Development team, and how they can be adapted to fit marketers:

comparing development and marketing scrum

  • Development teams are self-organizing. No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Team how to turn Backlog items into increments of releasable functionality.
    • Marketing teams are self-organizing. When a Backlog item is results-driven (e.g. get more Twitter followers), the Team should determine how to achieve the objective. When items are task-driven (e.g. create two new infographics), they should handle choosing the team members and creating specific steps to move the task to “done.”
  • Development Teams are cross-functional, with all of the skills as a team necessary to create a product increment.
    • No change needed here. Marketing teams should also be highly cross-functional, though there is a higher likelihood of specialization for particular team members.
  • Scrum recognizes no titles for Development Team members other than Developer, regardless of the work being performed by the person; there are no exceptions to this rule.
    • This is unlikely to work well on a marketing team. Marketers tend to bring specific skill sets (email, social, PPC, etc.) to the table, and probably won’t appreciate having their hard-won titles revoked.
  • Scrum recognizes no sub-teams in the Development Team, regardless of particular domains that need to be addressed like testing or business analysis; there are no exceptions to this rule.
    • Again, the multiple channels and media that marketers work with make this an unlikely scenario. It’s certainly not a deal breaker for Scrum, however.
  • Individual Development Team members may have specialized skills and areas of focus, but accountability belongs to the Development Team as a whole.
    • If you can’t port over any other characteristics of a Scrum Development Team, keep this one. You need this “all for one, one for all” attitude, particularly on new Scrum teams, to ensure that everybody is feeling equally responsible for the success of the entire sprint, not just their little piece of it.

A Word About Team Size

Scrum Development Teams are ideally 3-9 people. Anything larger, and you need to start breaking them up into other teams because there’s just too much coordination needed.

The Scrum Master and Product Owner don’t count toward these totals unless they’re also working on backlog items.

For marketing teams, you can go a little bigger because you’re almost certainly going to be working on more than a single user story in each sprint. That makes it somewhat easier to coordinate the work of more than 9 people, but don’t go any higher than 12.

Breaking the team up into multiple Scrum Teams shouldn’t be a problem, and may even help narrow each team’s focus and improve the quality of their work.

Why Marketing Teams Need a Scrum Master

If you’re new to the Scrum process, you’ll want to have a Scrum master on hand to guide you through the process.

This person is classified as a servant-leader for the Scrum Team, and s/he interfaces with the team, the Product Owner, and the rest of the organization to make sure that everybody is working within the Scrum framework.

The Scrum Master coaches and teaches the Team, Product Owner, and organization on Scrum and agility, ensuring that events take place and are run corrected and that the backlog gets managed appropriately.

You might think of them as quality control for the Scrum process.

If your development team has a certified Scrum Master, maybe you can borrow him/her and get a feel for how this role works. Marketers may find that their naturally extroverted approach to the backlog items and sprint prioritization makes a Scrum Master less crucial for that part of the equation, but when it comes to looking critically at the Scrum process itself, a Scrum Master is invaluable.

You need somebody who will honestly say, “Sprint planning meetings just aren’t working. We aren’t tackling the right projects at the right time,” and then be able to suggest ways to make changes for the better.

Until marketing team members get familiar enough with the Scrum process to take on this self-examination, try and use a dedicated Scrum Master.

Using Scrum for Agile Marketing

With a few minor adjustments, the Scrum framework applies well to agile marketing teams. As long as you’re mindful of your team’s unique makeup and overall personality, you should be able to succeed with Scrum.

As with most agile practices that have their roots in software development, it’s vital to take what works and leave the rest behind. Trying to port everything 100% will create frustration and impeded your success.

Scrum can work for agile marketers, as long as we’re judicious in the adoption process.

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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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