Using agile project management for SEO & digital marketing
Columnist Marcus Miller shares how his company has adapted an agile framework, Scrum, to better manage his company's marketing and SEO projects for improved client results.
SEO and digital marketing are incredibly complicated, and the digital landscape is in constant evolution and flux. New platforms. New competitors. The new world of marketing has evolved, yet processes for managing and adapting to change have not always kept pace.
There is much to learn here from the worlds of manufacturing and software development. New project management strategies have evolved that have revolutionized these industries. We hear very little about these approaches in the world of marketing, even though they are well suited to the ever-changing landscape of SEO and digital marketing.
At the core of these approaches is a burning desire to inspect and adapt, to eliminate waste and to strive for constant improvement. This is coupled with an agile approach, which leads to improvements in speed, reductions in costs and improved results.
In this article, I discuss Scrum, the project management strategy we use at my company to manage client projects and improve our internal processes. I explain what Scrum is and detail how we’ve taken this framework (typically used for software development) and applied it to our SEO and digital marketing projects.
Scrum: Continuous improvement
Scrum is a lightweight approach to project management that helps small teams develop complex software systems. Scrum is typically used for software development, but it can work for anything from a house renovation project to managing a marketing campaign.
A Scrum team usually consists of several people who work together in short bursts of work, known as “sprints.” These sprints include time for review and reflection, with the driving goals to remove wasted time and effort while striving for constant improvement.
A Scrum team has only three distinct roles: Product Owner, Scrum Master and Team Member. These three roles work together to deliver the stated goals of the project.
Product Owner/Project Owner
The Product Owner has the overall vision and goals for the project. They drive the project by focusing efforts on the most important work. That is, the Product Owner prioritizes tasks that will deliver results. Typically, the Product Owner will take the customer’s requirements and then add them to the to-do list (known in Scrum as “the backlog”).
In a marketing capacity, we refer to the Product Owner as the Project Owner.
The Scrum Master (cool name) exists to keep things moving as fast as possible and to remove any barriers the Team Members have to doing the work. The team’s deliverable is always the project and objectives, yet the Scrum Master focuses on delivering a high-performing team.
The Scrum Master will help team members understand how Scrum works and how to apply agile thinking to the project. The Scrum Master should always be available to remove any obstacles a team may face.
The Scrum Master is not the boss (just in case that Scrum Master title got you excited and ready for a power trip!). The Scrum Master is the most knowledgeable and experienced team member, the person who helps the others work in the most effective way. The project Yoda!
The backbone of all agile teams is, of course, the Team Members. These teams should have total authority over how the work gets done. Of course, the Project Owner and Scrum Master can help and set priorities, but the team should own the actual implementation of the work.
For an agile team to succeed, that team must be made up of members who have all the skills required to do the work. In a digital marketing capacity, this usually means SEO, PPC, Social and Content, with some analytics and conversion rate optimization skills thrown in for good measure.
While a team will have specialties, they must work together to deliver the end result: the project objectives or goals. This will mean that, while most people will play to their strengths, there will be times when people chip in and help where possible to move everything along as quickly as possible.
The key takeaway here is that the focus should be on doing the job and not doing my job — and generating results rather than just doing work.
Project Owner & Scrum Master
At Bowler Hat (my company), the Project Owner and Scrum Master tend to be the same person. Typically, this person is also the digital marketing strategist. Often, that is me. Not to say this is the way you should or have to do it, but we have found this to work best for most projects.
The team uses a series of tools to make the process visible to all team members and to accelerate results.
The project backlog is a list of all jobs. Ideally, these will be attached to a clear deliverable or objective. We want to keep that connection with the client’s actual goals (more business), rather than focus on the minutiae of day-to-day SEO tasks.
The Project Owner should order tasks by priority. That is, stories at the top of the board are the highest priority. These high-priority tasks should be small enough that they can be picked up and worked on by team members. Tasks lower down the board may not yet be fully fleshed out and can be higher level — just remember that as they move up the list, they will need to be more clearly defined.
Project tasks should all have the following information:
- Business objective
- What needs to be done
- Work/time units
- Acceptance criteria
Work is broken up into short cycles often known as sprints. A sprint could be a day, a week or a month, but typically no longer. For an agency where there is a focus on multiple clients, the sprint is likely pretty short. For example, one sprint of five days may be conducted each month for that client.
Project tasks are moved from the project backlog into the sprint backlog by the Project Owner. The Team Members can then determine how to best tackle the jobs in the current sprint.
Burn charts are a visual tool that show the relationship between time and scope. Where a project has five people for a five-day sprint, it may have 200 hours of work (or units). The burndown chart shows how as time progresses, work is completed. This can be a strong motivational tool and something for the Project Owner and Scrum Master to glance at and provide input.
Burn charts work well for bigger projects where there’s work to be done over a sustained period of time, but they can help a team see progress. At the end of each day, work units have to be shown against the burndown chart for completed tasks. This can’t use hours as such, but rather estimated hours based on completion of tasks.
The burndown chart then gives visual feedback if the team is on track and helps give them a nudge if they are not. This helps teams pull together when not on track and drives team happiness when things are going well.
Visual task board
An important aspect of agile project management is visualizing the work that needs to be done. This allows all team members to easily see and review the work that needs doing or is in progress. Tasks for the current work cycle (sprint) are moved from the project backlog to the task board for team members to work on.
The most simple boards have three columns:
- To do
Tasks are simply moved across the board as they are in progress (generally using sticky notes). Team members can see what everyone is doing, communicate and help each other. And project owners can quickly and easily see the progress a team is making.
The sprint cycle
Work is tackled in short bursts known as sprints. Sprints can vary in length, and this is where using this for a marketing agency with many clients differs the most from using this for software development teams (or even for marketing teams with one unified objective).
Ultimately, your sprint or cycle is a fixed period of time where you take care of small chunks of the overall project. This could be one person doing a day a month or a team working on something solidly for a month. The important takeaway here is that we are looking to inspect and adapt our working practice and learn from that.
Sprints typically consist of:
- Sprint planning — what will be done
- Daily meeting (or scrum) — no more than 15 minutes
- Sprint review — demonstrate results
- Retrospective — identify a couple of strategic changes that can improve results
Let’s look at these individually to see how they contribute to the overall process.
Where a project has a backlog of prioritized tasks, this should be pretty simple. The Project Owner makes sure tasks are ready to be worked on, and the team members pick them up. The Scrum Master can then support the team with any questions or problems.
You have two questions to answer here:
- What will we do this sprint?
- How will we do it?
Scale is important here — if this is a one-day sprint, then spend 10 minutes planning. If this is a week’s work, then spend a few hours on your sprint planning.
Daily meeting (or Scrum)
The daily meeting, or Scrum, is an integral part of the process. The idea is that this should be brief (15 minutes maximum), and often these meetings are held standing to ensure brevity.
The main objective here is for each team member to detail what they have done, what they are doing today, and any problems or hold-ups they encountered. Problems are not solved in this meeting, but rather a team member may state an issue and another team member may pledge to help them solve that issue.
This drives the flow of communication and knowledge sharing, and it ensures hold-ups are quickly removed.
Inspect and adapt — inspect in the meeting, adapt after the meeting.
In an agency setting with multiple clients, this often means we are looking at problems with processes and always striving to optimize and improve the processes that underlie the various marketing activities.
This is where achievements are detailed and connected to objectives. In an agency as we use it, this often forms the basis of our client reporting: what we have done, how it helps us achieve our objectives and what we will do next in the next work cycle.
The retrospective is a meeting held at the end of each sprint cycle. At Bowler Hat, this is something we do at the end of each month. Here, we are really looking to inspect and adapt our own processes for SEO, PPC, social and content marketing.
- What was learned during this month?
- What problems did we have this month?
- How can we improve?
This is not intended to generate a long laundry list of tasks. Rather, the idea is to identify one or two small strategic improvements to the process. This often takes the form of one or two issues for each tactical approach.
Inspect and adapt. Continuous improvement. These are key to doing better work for our clients and getting better results. These are also key to staying afloat and on top of new opportunities in the rapidly evolving digital marketing landscape.
How this all works together
The magic here is when all of these small components work together. The daily Scrum helps teams continuously inspect, adapt and share knowledge. This removes hold-ups and creates happier teams. The retrospective helps to underline where strategic improvements can be made for the coming month.
Putting this into practice for client projects
At Bowler Hat, we have a hugely varied customer base. We have companies that use us for a single tactical channel like local SEO, and we have customers that trust us to take care of SEO, PPC, social and content marketing. This means a client may have a single team member taking care of their work or a larger team with several team members.
Applying classic agile approaches here is a little tough and has needed some tweaks to the basic model. We use agile thinking here to review and improve our approach to agile marketing: inspect and adapt, make strategic changes. There is always room for improvement, so we strive for it.
The following is an overview of how we tend to put this into practice for our own clients:
To know what to do, we need to determine the project backlog. This is typically the job of the strategist and will often involve audits. As an example for an SEO project, we would typically perform a detailed SEO audit and create a list of tasks. We will also look at creating a basic digital marketing plan, which will also detail various action points.
The Project Owner will then prioritize these tasks into the project backlog.
For a client’s work in any given sprint cycle, we will pick the highest-priority tasks from the project backlog and add them to the sprint plan for this coming period.
We have a two-sided approach here:
We create digital boards for each project using Asana. (Historically, we used Trello — both are free.) We can then have comments and keep communication and information regarding the project on the digital board. All followers of that board are alerted whenever there is an update, and all information is kept in one centralized place away from email.
We also use actual boards with sticky notes for internal processes and larger projects. This would likely be recreated in Asana and notes added there, but the physical board makes the work and progress visible.
Ideally, I’d want to combine the two and use a projector to display boards visually but centralize all changes in one place — the best of both worlds.
Doing the work
Team members do the work. No matter how efficient we become, the work still has to be done.
Daily Scrum (15 minutes)
We have a daily Scrum where everyone details what they worked on yesterday, what they are working on today, and any problems, lessons, improvements and so on. When a team member airs an issue, another team member (or the Scrum Master) will arrange to help after the daily meeting. When a team member overcomes a problem, that knowledge is quickly shared. This keeps the flow of communication strong and creates happy, helpful teams.
Sprint review (reporting)
The sprint review forms the basis of our reporting. An individual or a group will review what has been done, what the results are, and what we need to do next. We may also look at what metrics/KPIs we expect to see movement on after this work has been completed.
We have a retrospective meeting at the end of each month. Typically, we are looking at work completed, successes, problems and what we can do to improve across all tactical channels and the sub-tasks within each channel. What worked in link building? What worked in local SEO? What worked in paid search? What worked in social ads?
In our retrospective, we review each client as a team and look at the information from the sprint review. We then review all of our internal processes for each marketing activity.
Here, we are trying to identify wasted time and opportunities for improvement in our processes and client work so we can improve the results we generate for our customers. At the very least, we don’t want to repeat mistakes or repeatedly go down rabbit holes where we are not seeing results.
Inspect and adapt
Learning to inspect and adapt is crucial. Whether an entire strategy is not performing or a specific approach for a given client is just not delivering the goods, this inspection allows for change. What works well for one client can fall flat on its face for another.
Creating an “inspect and adapt” culture improves the work you do for clients, helps spot problems or wasted time/effort more quickly and ensures you do the very best work possible at all times.
We are still adapting our approach. Asana for task boards. Projectors to make these digital boards centralized and visible to all. Merging Project Owner and Scrum Master roles. We constantly tinker and make changes. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. Inspect and adapt.
We operate in a marketing environment where change can be swift and the slow can be left behind. Inspecting the situation for all marketing activities ensures you are agile enough to spot opportunities and react to develop a strategic advantage.
The old 80/20 rule is key here. Twenty percent of the effort creates 80 percent of the value. This also means that 80 percent of time spent is often wasted or could certainly be more productive. By striving to identify weaker areas of our approach, along with those that are really delivering, we can better focus our time and deliver better results.
What worked this month? What did not work? What really delivered? Could any of the time be better spent? Individually, we often know the answers, as we are doing the work and seeing the results — but this inspection surfaces them so we can make that strategic improvement.
Continuous improvement is also key. Twelve months of small iterative changes to your internal processes results in far more improved results for your clients. Sharing of knowledge and resolutions ensures constant improvement for your team members. Team members knocking down problems that seemed previously insurmountable creates happy teams. Customers’ problems resolved by knowledgeable and hard working teams creates happy clients.
SEO is a black box. Digital marketing is really tough. So many moving parts. Inspect and adapt to eliminate waste, focus on what works, and strive for constant improvement.
This process is helping my agency do better work than ever before and to some extent hold on to our sanity in the crazy, multichannel, ever-changing, interconnected world of digital marketing.
Chances are that an agile approach can help improve your marketing projects, whether you are an agency or an in-house marketer. And of course, if you champion the approach, you get to call yourself the “Scrum Master” — which is always a big win.
I would love to hear from anyone using agile practices to improve their own marketing efforts. Hit me up on Twitter, LinkedIn or via the author contact form, and let’s see if we can’t inspect, adapt and improve our SEO and digital marketing efforts in 2017.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.