The Best (and Worst) of Times: Why Digital Marketing Needs Agility ASAP

September 26, 2016 Andrea Fryrear

When Charles Dickens wrote the immortal line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I suspect he might have been living through a time of digital disruption much like the one marketers are experiencing now.

Ok, maybe it wasn’t the rapid evolution of the Victorian publishing industry that inspired those words, but Dickens was onto something nonetheless.

When something amazing and transformative happens, it can feel like both a blessing and curse.

For marketers, navigating our profession in the twenty-first century can feel that way.

We have more opportunities than ever to make a huge impact on our audiences and our businesses. Our budgets are growing rapidly as we become real players in larger organizational strategy. And we have marketing technology stacks that are full of exciting new toys.

But these same conditions that are creating exciting possibilities are also driving us a little bit nuts.

We have too many balls in the air, our days consist of one four-alarm fire drill after another, and we spend our leisure time responding to tweets and answering email.

The good news is that this best/worst dichotomy has happened before, and the industry that went through it came out stronger, more effective, and more fun to work in. Software development experienced serious digital pains early this century, and what marketers are going through now is eerily similar.

What worked for them -- agility -- can work for us too.

For those eager to get more of the best of times, and little bit less of the worst, I encourage you to go ahead and make the jump to agile marketing. The conditions of modern marketing are more than compatible with it, so much so that soon it will be a mandatory transition.

Embracing the Heyday of Digital Marketing

A 2014 joint panel presented by Adobe and The Guardian explored the how the explosion of digital technology is changing marketing, and it identified three key areas that are being affected by digitization:

  1. Speed: Real-time, responsive marketing is expected to be the norm.
  2. Relevance: This covers not only relevance to current context, but also relevance to an individual’s preferences.
  3. Reach: Technology’s ubiquitous presence in our daily lives gives even a small marketing message the potential to have an enormous reach.

The ability of best-in-class marketers to deliver messages at breakneck speed is well documented, with examples like Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” tweet driving us all to increase our real-time relevance.

But audiences also expect us to produce marketing that is relevant to their particular needs and interests (without coming off as creepy). The targeting and personalization opportunities created by our shiny new software can help us meet these rising expectations, but we need to continue to trust our own instincts when it comes to crossing the line between relevant and repulsive.

Finally, there are increasing expectations among internal stakeholders that marketers will be able to harness digital’s reach to get our brands in front of more and more people at lower and lower costs.

Tanya Cordrey, Guardian News and Media’s chief digital officer, told the panel: “Where marketing hasn’t changed is the creativity and the passion from brands that have really helped build loyalty and emotion. Those things you still need, but almost all [other] aspects of marketing have changed very dramatically.”

7 Parallels Between Software and Marketing

Statements like that can feel very daunting when you first read them.

Everything has changed (and will continue to change practically everyday)?! How are we supposed to deal with that?!?

No need to panic. There are historical precedents in software that can help us out. Scott Brinker does a great job of outlining these parallels in his recent book, Hacking Marketing. Both software and marketing, he argues:

  1. Were once governed by long planning cycles.
  2. Have become more democratized. Marketing is “no longer solely the domain of people who have marketing in their official job title.”
  3. Need to deal with a dramatically accelerated cadence. These days, ironclad long-term plans are far more of a hindrance than a help.
  4. Are “unwieldly to manage as a monolithic endeavor. There are too many moving parts across too many fragmented channels.”
  5. Have shifted from revolving around a few large announcements or releases each year to running continuous campaigns.
  6. Are moving much closer to real customers.
  7. Have “combined with the adaptability of a digital canvas to encourage greater experimentation” as a result of being more customer centric.

Software development teams embraced agile methodologies, primarily Scrum, to manage these monumental shifts in their industries.

Marketers, likewise, can mitigate some of the risk associated with this era of digital disruption by moving to an agile approach (either Scrum or another methodology altogether). This goes for both how we structure our teams as well as how we strive for professional success as individuals.

What This Means For Marketers

We always refer to our good friend Don Draper as the pinnacle of gut-driven marketing. He wasn’t poring over stats, he was pouring a drink to figure out how to get results for his clients.

But modern marketers need to maintain this Don-like intuition while combining it with an analytical prowess it’s hard to imagine Mr. Draper employing.

The good news is that, for the most part, we needn’t be experts in every new piece of marketing technology that hits the market. Instead, Adobe’s John Watton calls for a focus on curiosity:

“A vital quality for marketers in the fast-changing digital environment is curiosity, rather than any specific technical knowledge.”

I would personally encourage you to extend this curiosity beyond tactics, and into process.

Those marketers who champion agile change on their teams can position themselves as innovators on a much larger scale.

Nearly one third of marketing teams report that it’s the lack of an internal expert or advocate that’s holding them back from agile adoption; consider the opportunities that will open up for marketers who can become those experts and advocates.

What This Means for Marketing Leaders

To be clear, marketing leadership doesn’t get off the digitization hook. You’re expected to master the emerging technology just like your team.

CMO.com outlines the shifting role of the Chief Marketing Officer very succinctly. They no longer simply manage outgoing communication from a company; in the digital age they’re in charge of the entire customer experience.

These new responsibilities demand, “mastery over several channels of customer interactions and touch points - almost entirely tech-enabled.”

You’re also not off the agile marketing hook either.

It’s hard to put this much better than Scott Brinker:

"Running a digital profession by the rules of nondigital management imposes artificial limits on what we can do and leads to organizational dissonance."

Time for a Choice

Yes, sometimes being a marketer can feel like being trapped in a Victorian workhouse, but being part of an increasingly digital profession holds almost unlimited possibilities.

For those who can see (and react to) these changes by adopting the agile mindset that helped transform software development, the advantages are correspondingly limitless.

So, the choice is yours: will the digitization of marketing bring your best times, or your worst?

 

 

About the Author

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea is the Chief Content Officer for Fox Content, where she uses agile content marketing principles to power content strategy and implementation for her clients. She's also the Editor in Chief of The Agile Marketer, a community of marketers on the front lines of the agile marketing transformation. She geeks out on all things agile and content on LinkedIn and @andreafryrear on Twitter.

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