Why do some companies thrive at conversion optimization, while others languish?
I’d argue that the biggest factor is not technology, testing tactics or creative brilliance. It’s the agility of your marketing team. The more agile you are, the better your conversion optimization will be. So if you really want to boost your online marketing performance—in a game-changing way—consider adopting agile methodologies in your management.
How agile methodologies began
Once upon a time, software was built using a rigid process known as the waterfall model. Developers would first gather requirements, then design everything, then code, then test, and finally release the program. Each stage was separate from the others—for instance, you couldn’t start design until all requirements were locked down.
The problem was that by the final release, requirements had usually changed. Without any way to adjust midstream, you often ended up with ill-fitting software—and it took a long time to get there.
As you might imagine, such an approach would be a disaster in the Internet age, where things change fast.
So in the mid-90′s, people started re-engineering the software process to make it better, faster, and more responsive to course corrections. This led to new methodologies that collectively became known as agile software development, emphasizing principles such as:
- Bringing everyone together—all stakeholders participate throughout the project lifecycle
- An iterative approach—a series of small projects instead of one massive, indivisible project
- Short cycle times—these smaller projects are generally completed within 1-4 weeks
- Showing instead of telling—quick drawings and prototypes to illustrate and refine ideas
- Objective measurement—establish good metrics and evaluate new ideas against them
- Frequent, open communication—quick, daily meetings to check progress, fix roadblocks
- Minimal bureaucracy—pointless busywork is ruthlessly eliminated (no “TPS reports”)
It’s all about speed and responsiveness, without sacrificing coordination or quality. Everyone is in touch with the state of the project and its evolving requirements on a daily basis. Changes are incorporated swiftly. And the finish line is always in sight.
Sounds good, but what does that have to do with marketing?
Agile: it’s not just for engineering anymore
In many ways, marketing used to be a lot like software development. Yearly plans of a few major initiatives would lumber forward with rigid hand-offs between the different stakeholders—researchers, strategists, creatives, media buyers, etc. The end-to-end process was time consuming and difficult to alter midstream.
But as you know, that world has been disrupted too—especially with search and social media.
Yet many marketing organizations are still held back with remnants of legacy processes. It’s like early attempts that engineers made to tweak the waterfall model, without fundamentally rethinking the overall flow and its underlying assumptions. Marketing is ripe for an “agile manifesto” of its own.
See, the essence of agile development is not software. It’s any collaborative labor of intellectual capital, where competing demands outnumber resources, priorities are fluid, interdependencies abound, stakeholders cross internal and external boundaries, and clockspeed matters.
That’s modern marketing in a nutshell.
Not surprisingly, a number of marketers have started to adopt agile methodologies—with inspiring results. Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, was one of the first, and described his experiences in a blog post titled Agile Marketing. Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, VP of marketing at Webtrends, extolled their use of agile marketing in an interview with John Cass. Frank Days, Director of New and Social Media at Novell, wrote up a seven step approach to agile marketing that he has found successful (he also has an earlier post called Sex and the Agile Marketer). And marketing automation company Marketbright has an excellent overview of the Agile Marketing Method that they used internally and now recommend to customers.
Yes, these are all software companies, but the practices they advocate aren’t limited to that industry. It just makes sense that organizations with agile engineering teams would be the first to crossover the concept into marketing.
Conversion optimization is all about agility
Everyone knows that the mantra of conversion optimization is “test, test, test.”
But the difference between mediocre testing and extraordinary testing is a function of five capabilities:
- How rapidly can you launch a specific test, concept-to-completion?
- How many separate, independent tests can you run simultaneously?
- How much freedom do you have in what you choose to test?
- How well can you coordinate upstream and downstream factors?
- How quickly can you adjust your marketing from what you learn?
It’s not hard to map those back to the principles of agile development that we listed earlier.
An agile marketing team can tackle a series of conversion optimization tests in a 2-4 week sprint. They can run daily 15-minute stand-up meetings with all relevant stakeholders upstream and downstream to assure “message match” alignment and eliminate any roadblocks. At the conclusion of the experiments, they know exactly what they’ve measured and how to leverage it in production. Then they’re immediately on to brainstorm their next iteration.
Meanwhile, a non-agile marketing team might take that long just to place a tracking beacon on their web site.
Who do you think is going to have better success?
How to become agile
I wish there were books or conferences I could point you toward for step-by-step implementation of agile marketing. However, while lots of people are talking about marketing management needing to be more agile and adaptive, there isn’t a definitive Agile Marketing book. Yet.
But a great place to start is with Ken Schwaber’s Agile Project Management with Scrum book. You’ll have to translate some of the ideas from software to marketing, but given how technology-centric marketing has become, it shouldn’t be hard to see the parallels.
Like anything agile, the key is to be iterative: get started with an initial project, learn, make improvements, and move on to the next one. I’d humbly suggest that conversion optimization projects in the outer web are an excellent proving ground to develop your agile chops.
And for you pioneers who are already doing this, can we nudge you to present at an upcoming search conference such as SMX?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.