Make user stories the language of your Marketing team

The biggest debate in Agile Marketing, resolved.

The Davos of the Agile Marketing world is a meet-up called Sprint One, where some of the most progressive thinkers in our field discuss the state of Agile Marketing and continue to hammer out definitions that we might all agree on. Should we run sprints? Are cross-functional teams a requirement? How do we sell the idea to decision makers? These are big, complicated questions for which there is no consensus. But if Agile Marketing has a constitutional crisis, it might be the user story.

The most recent Sprint One, which we hosted at our San Francisco office, stumbled out of the gate when an overview of trends and developments erupted into an impassioned debate about whether user stories have a role in Agile Marketing. I probably could have seen this coming; it was a variant of the discussion we’ve been having as a team since we started exploring Agile. In fact, I’ll go ahead and predict that if you’re transitioning to an Agile Marketing department, no topic will generate more discussion than the user story so it’s time we talk about it.

In most Agile environments, the user story is the currency that drives all transactions across the development team. When written well, user stories are short, simple and powerfully communicate an important idea. When poorly written, they can confound, distort and disable a team’s good intentions. I want to talk about why we think user stories are valuable, how we use them and what we’ve learned about their role in the Marketing context.

This last point about context is critical, because if you intend to go Agile, one refrain you’ll almost certainly hear goes something like, “But Marketing is NOT Engineering or Product Development! What we do is totally different, so user stories don’t make sense for us.” I am always open to this conversation, but I have to say that after hundreds of versions of it, I’m still not convinced that there’s something so different happening in Marketing. In fact, if a gap ever existed between how Product Development works and how Marketing works, that gap is rapidly shrinking.

Dissecting a good user story

When a talented team of designers, engineers and product managers get together to bring a new feature idea to life, they’re typically obsessed with creating user value. The best new features or product ideas solve a problem for users, delight users or otherwise make a product more compelling to users. The best product design often arises from a deep empathy for user experiences. The user story, which channels those hopes, dreams, needs and aspirations, is a natural tool. Let’s look at the components of a good user story and then talk about whether these apply to marketers.

  1. Good user stories start with a definition of a target audience. Your product probably solves problems for several segments of users, and if you’re a sophisticated shop, you understand the broad strokes and nuances that distinguish these segments. You live and breathe their experiences; that’s how you continue to make their lives better and that’s how you create long-term customers.
  2. Good user stories plainly describe something users want. Because good teams have such empathy for their users, they are able to walk in their customers’ shoes and see what their customers see. They can express their customers’ desires. They know customers don’t often think about or care how they’re going to get what they want. That’s why they pay you. That’s why they use your app.
  3. Good user stories explain why people want those things. What’s the ultimate benefit to your user of a new feature or ability? What are they really after? Understanding this is fundamental to successful product design, because it’s only when we begin to really understand “the why” that we free ourselves and exercise our creative potential for solving a particular problem.

Does any of that apply to Marketing?

If product teams are trying to develop intense empathy with their customers to build solutions that best match their needs, what are marketers doing? Aren’t marketers often described as the “voice of the customer”? The name suggests they ought to be closest to the market, after all, and yet for some reason, relying on user stories to define their work can seem foreign. Why?

Eighteen months into our Agile transformation, I think there are three big reasons people question the role of the user story in Agile Marketing.

  • Marketers struggle to see “user value” in their work
  • Not all marketing teams understand their users well enough
  • Marketers don’t think of their work as a product

Real marketing creates user value

Some marketers are still caught in the pre-internet trap of believing that they are in the business of selling to users and convincing them to do something. Encouraging them to try new products, asking for email addresses, sending them articles and newsletters, instead of earning their trust in a crowded marketplace.

I don’t think there’s any successful marketing tactic that’s built on doing something users don’t want. There could be short-term gains, I suppose, but constantly bombarding users for information without providing demonstrated value in return is not going to lead to long-term, profitable relationships.

Marketers should realize there are more opportunities to deliver user value than they think, and there’s really no other option for long-term success. User stories provide a useful control for us; if we can’t describe the user value in what we’re doing, there’s a good chance we’re doing the wrong things.

But value is only discoverable if we know our users inside and out, and most of us know sometimes we can lose touch with our target segments. Sometimes when user story writing gets difficult, it’s because we’ve forgotten who we’re doing this work for — what motivates them, what they care about and what they want. What’s valuable to one audience may not be quite as valuable to another. The discipline keeps us honest. It’s what modern marketing is really all about.

Marketing-as-Product

For our teams, a major shift came once we realized that a lot of the time, marketers are just as much in the business of designing, creating and deploying user experiences as product teams. Most of the time, good marketing is about putting something in front of a target consumer in order to get them to think, feel, believe or act differently. The trigger to get someone to do any one of those things is an experience. Ads, websites, sales collateral — these are all experiences for the consumer. We spend money and time to put them into the world because we believe they will change someone’s perspective in a positive way.

Moreover, the way we put this work into the world increasingly looks just like most product teams. Our marketing is almost entirely built on code. We can iterate quickly whether it’s testing multiple creative approaches or A/B testing landing pages. Designers, engineers and product managers now make up the core of our marketing durable teams. Marketing is just a product created in a certain wing of the building.

Another major shift for our teams came once they realized that the user story may just be a slight tweak on another kind of “requirement” doc they’ve been using forever — the marketing brief. A good marketing brief is really a collection of user stories. It should talk in detail about the audience for the work product and it should describe the desired outcomes (though not the specific creative solutions). Some teams may find it easier to write user stories if they can track back mentally to the marketing brief.

And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time, with a detailed discussion on how marketers can write good user stories that will improve their end product.