Agile and Minimum Viable Product Marketing? How to Speed Up While Reducing Risk

I proudly admit that I’m a serial “emerging business” product leader and go-to-marketer. I’ve spent most of my career in startup businesses both inside large companies (as an intrapreneur) and at actual startups. I’ve had notable successes and failures at getting business plans funded, products defined and developed, taking products to the global arena, and ultimately running sizable businesses. As I reflect on current marketing and GTM approaches in a world where agility is paramount, I wonder why standard marketing practices have not evolved to match product development. In other words, why hasn’t marketing gone agile?

In the last couple of years, many progressive CMO’s and marketers have started to think about or attempt to adopt agile marketing. But agile marketing is not yet mainstream in the same way that agile methodologies have taken hold of product development and IT.

Hmmm. No marketer would argue that the technology buying landscape hasn’t changed…drastically. Thanks to innovations in cloud, XaaS, and new consumption models, customers now have much more choice in vendors, commitment-free ways to trial and consume, faster ways to adopt or abandon products, and new breeds of technology buyers have emerged outside of IT. Marketers now deal with a more diverse group of buyers who demand better, more contextual ways to engage with brands and who are expecting products to quickly demonstrate actual business value. Customers also have more freedom to switch to the next vendor or solution when results don’t materialize fast enough or as expected. A great product with poor or little sales and marketing, now more than ever, trumps a mediocre product with great sales and marketing. But while good sales and marketing can’t mask a bad product, sales and marketing still play a critical role to get products into the market, adopted across departments, and mainstreamed into customers’ budgets.

With all this change though, one would think that product marketing would evolve more quickly to react to the change. It’s somewhat silly to have products released in small sprints with monolithic marketing practices that follow. But this survey of CMO’s and lead marketers below suggests that the value of agile marketing isn’t really being questioned and if successfully adopted, can yield real results that meet business needs. The challenge lies in how to adopt agile marketing.

To follow agile product development, is there a way to reduce the marketing batch sizes to take the product to market? Should we move towards minimum viable product marketing? Some common challenges need to be overcome in how we think about the job of a marketer, the processes we follow, and the tools we use.

1. Marketers need to change the way we think: I spent many years in product management before agile came along and was a part of the journey from waterfall to agile methodologies. That transformation required product managers to stop locking down features and functionality requirements in 6–24 month product release cycles, and to decrease our release sizes down into 4–8 week sprints. This meant that we needed to define smaller, incremental product requirements rather than whole products or solutions. But the point in doing this was to quickly get customer validation while our product was still work-in-progress. We stopped defining and started hypothesizing what customers wanted, and only through iterative customer validation with each sprint did we co-define whole products with customers. Essentially, product managers went from being chief deciders to chief hypothesizers and analyzers. What we did define were minimum viable products (MVPs) before we’d commission more development resources to build out the whole product. We stopped over-engineering products because that would’ve been wasteful. In the early days of a new product, the MVP was sometimes little more than slideware. It sounds straightforward, but in marketing, it’s difficult to show up in the market with unfinished or raw messaging, positioning, and collateral. It’s hard to imagine how you can co-create messaging with your customer. Instead, we spend lots of money on messaging brain power, creative, AR, and PR to get the perfectly polished word out as broadly as we can, often with inadequate validation to justify why we spent so much money on early stage marketing. It’s also very difficult to test different routes to market whether you’re spinning up inside sales, training your primary sales force, recruiting partners, or developing your sales ecosystem. All of these efforts are monumental tasks in of themselves that require lots of people, funding, and time. Orchestrating all those efforts together is even trickier. As modern marketers, we need to shift our thinking to an iterative build-measure-learn mentality and reduce the batch size of our marketing efforts to executable chunks and to fail fast and cheap. To start, we must narrowly focus on specific customer segments, but…

2. GTM strategies lack disciplined focus: Many years ago, I had the pleasure of spending months with Geoff Moore (of whom I’m a big fan) on a project to construct a focused GTM approach for taking new products to new markets. According to Geoff’s focused GTM (bowling alley) strategy for crossing the chasm, you prioritize one customer segment at a time to proactively pursue with sales and marketing investment, defined by a very specific combination of use case/vertical/geography. You also decide which customer segments you take a reactive approach to (don’t actively pursue, but won’t say no to), and which segments where you are inactive (say no to for risk of distraction). But many businesses have trouble being disciplined enough to say no to the wrong customers and to stay laser focused on capturing the right revenue. Any startup business in its early days (either new company or new business within a large established company) finds it hard to not chase every opportunity available. As a result, we spend more time on horizontal, generic marketing for too many buyer personas than on vertical/use case-specific marketing for specific buyers. We essentially spread marketing too thin, can’t fully build out routes to market, nor do full funnel marketing for a specific customer segment. But when a focused GTM strategy is executed on with discipline, it can payoff big time. For a product line that I oversaw, we did exactly that and got ourselves from zero to #1 in worldwide market share within 4 years.

3. The process and platforms are lacking: Solving for the above would be for naught if you don’t have effective ways to work. It starts with the handoff from product development to marketing. Agile development employs practices such as devops and continuous delivery (CD) to gain speed. Devops and CD enables the efficient hand-off between writing SW, testing it, and deploying it into production. But there is another hand-off that doesn’t get talked about: the hand-off between product development and marketing. One of the inherent challenges in agile is that you get estimates and predictions, but not commitments. So if your marketing plan is dependent on a critical user story that is slipping the schedule, what do you tell salespeople and partners whom you’ve prepared to sell? What about that PR campaign you already locked and loaded? How can you plan marketing around a moving target? I don’t have a silver bullet answer to this quandary, but getting closer to product development by participating in their scrums (not every day, but spot check 1–2 times a week) and knowing what’s in the backlog will help you see in advance where there might be schedule risks. And the good news is that because sprints are small in nature, when planning launches and your GTM readiness, you want to focus on a culmination of sprints and make that your focus rather than what’s possible in any individual sprint.

In addition to process change, the agile movement has given rise to a slew of tools used in support of devops and continuous delivery that have become household names (think Github or Jira). These tools help you collaborate on code development, share code, manage projects, and track bugs and issues — all in real-time! How efficient! What marketers lack is a similar set of tools to aid in the sharing, managing, and tracking of marketing plans and deliverables. We live in the world of email, spreadsheets, powerpoint, and Feels a bit pedestrian and manual doesn’t it? In the language of agile, marketing can be a primary “constraint” that proceeds agile product development. We become the bottleneck. When communications and smooth handoffs are key to speed, you’d think we could come up with better ways to work. Here, the tip I can share is to move to a real-time, collaborative platform where you can share documents, chat-live, quickly set up a call with all project stakeholders, and have an ongoing repository of communications for all to see. This has helped tremendously for certain projects. (The product we use is Cisco Spark if you’re curious). The key is to be open to experimenting new tools (there are lots) to speed up the way you collaborate and reduce the dead time between hand-offs.

There’s obviously much more to the agile marketing transformation than what I’ve written about here. We didn’t get into tools for measuring and learning, but I look forward to hearing about your own experiences.

Originally published at