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What is Marketing to do When Product Goes Agile?

January 02, 2014 | By Jeff Lash

There’s a scene playing out in lots of offices right now. Product management and product development have declared they are “going agile.” Marketing’s reaction is usually confusion (“What does this mean for us?"), though sometimes it can be intentional ignorance (“Won’t impact us, don’t worry about it”) or even active resistance (“It’s probably going to be bad for us, so let’s put a stop to it”).

The reaction depends particularly on how the organization has implemented or is planning on implementing agile and whether the rollout impacts marketing processes. (Note that we’re talking here about using agile product development approaches, not about “agile marketing,” a related concept that involves applying principles of agile to marketing activities themselves. We’ll cover that in a future blog post.) Agile is usually focused on product delivery, so marketing is more of an interested bystander than an active participant, often eliciting comments like:

  • “We’re supposed to be planning a product launch but the agile team says they wouldn’t even give us a rough idea of what might be available when.”

  • “The product manager said he didn’t need to do a roadmap. How am I supposed to plan marketing campaigns if I have no idea what’s going to be in the product?"

  • “Development will just push out a release to production without notifying us in advance. Even the customers learned about the new version of the product before we did."

    These complaints are legitimate – unfortunately, they’re caused not by agile, but by agile done poorly. If you’re in this situation, treat the underlying cause, not the symptoms. Implementing agile doesn’t mean that all other good product management practices go out the window. There still needs to be an overall innovation and product management process. Remember, as I stated in another blog post, Agile Is Not a Product Management Framework. Concepts that help align product management with product marketing – like personas, roadmaps and release planning – are still very relevant in agile and necessary for marketing to be effective.

    Assuming you do have a solid innovation and product management process in place, how should marketers react to the move to agile? First, realize that while some things change with agile, many things stay the same:

    • Marketing should still focus on understanding buyer needs and communicating how products and solutions can address customer problems  – not on the details of product functionality and technology.

    • The basic principles of product launch still apply. Product launches should still focus on communicating the relevance of a new product to a customer problem, and marketing needs to plan on which specific groups of customers, prospects and influencers should be targeted and the best tactics and content types to reach them.

      Next, realize that your planning horizons will change, requiring some details and decisions to be deferred until later on in your process. Here are a few tips:

      • Start your overall marketing planning by focusing on audiences and benefits. You should be doing this anyway. Fill in the details on features and functionality later. For example, many marketers worry that their hands are tied since they don’t know exactly what features will be included in a release coming six months from now, exactly what those features will look like and how they will function. However, product management and product marketing should still agree on what customer needs will be addressed in the upcoming release and what benefits it will be provide to different audiences. Marketers should focus planning on those elements until more details emerge. Using an overall framework that is flexible, such as our campaign framework, can help.

      • Ensure close interlock with product management. The old model of product management and engineering working on a product and throwing it over the wall to marketing never worked, though it is particularly bad when mixed with agile. At a minimum, product marketers need to be in close communication with product management through activities such as release planning and showcases.

      • Focus on marketing activities that allow for details to be confirmed closer to execution. Running an ad on a new version of your product in a trade magazine that requires your final proofs be submitted two months in advance may not be appropriate. Since release dates can shift and functionality and designs may change or remain unknown far in advance, build flexibility into your tactics and content to allow minor details — like a final, accurate screenshot – to be amended as close to execution as possible.

        Many of our clients use variations of agile to develop products. We help their product management teams apply agile appropriately to help their marketing teams understand and adapt to the switch. If you’re interested in learning more, contact us.

        Jeff Lash

        Jeff Lash is a VP, Group Director who leads the SiriusDecisions Product Management Research Service. He is a a recognized thought leader in product management with over 20 years of experience in product management as well as related areas including user experience, product development and product marketing. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflash.
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