Marketing, Meet Your Ultimate Metric

Marketing is broken, and we as marketers have our own tactics to blame. In the rush to produce ever more marketing content in response to the cries from sales and executives for “More! Now!”, we have fractured our workflow with an ever-increasing set of tools that give us more metrics while obfuscating our goals and purpose.

We’ve lost our way as marketers and traded in our value for volume.

This article focuses the next seven minutes of your reading time with practical ways of how you can revitalize and restructure your marketing teams to not only get more work done, but do better work in less time.

If you’re like me, you’ve likely spent years laboring under the delusional idea that if you could only do more or reduce waste or work faster that, somehow, you’d finally feel good about producing compelling marketing work.

How’s that working for you? Yeah, I came up with the same answer.

Try as I might with new software, new tools, and new systems, I struggled to manage the tension between last-minute, interrupt-driven work and the planned work my team had committed to.

I needed more than better time management; I needed a system that would allow marketing to prove its value and not get bogged down in last-minute drama.

When I learned about the principles of Agile for software development (and later for Marketing Communications, a.k.a MarCom), I saw light at the end of the tunnel. For what I found is that every marketer can benefit from the clarity that comes from re-thinking how we approach, prioritize, organize, and deliver better outcomes for our organizations.

In 2016, I submitted the following results of using Agile marketing to Kapost and had our team selected as one of the Top 50 B2B Marketers of the year.

Notably, even though we doubled the number of emails sent per month, we used the iterative test-and-observe approach inherent in Agile to increase our click-through rate by 62% in just over six months.

Additionally, our A/B testing through targeted projects shifted our focus to creating more granular landing pages specific to micro-personas, which led to a 342% increase in landing page views. But what really mattered was the 565% increase in pre-sales form completions from the same time the previous year.

Again, these changes happened because of the continuous improvement, high visibility, and measured results tracked and analyzed during our weekly Agile retrospectives with the marketing team.

In each section below, I layout the framework that I discovered existed within Agile marketing, along with practical ways to organize your team for the massively improved workflow of producing better quality marketing in less time.

My real-world lessons from using various flavors of Agile since 2009 have both informed my viewpoints and demonstrated the value of making the strategic shift from marketing-as-usual to unusually effective marketing.

agile marketing success story

Marketing's Leading Indicators: Inputs

As a marketer, you’ve got at least two kinds of work waiting to be done: the requests that come from outside of your team and the ideas that your team thinks are good ideas. Agile marketing provides the framework to organize, prioritize, and execute on those simultaneously.

Before content is created, emails are sent, and ads are placed, Agile marketers work with stakeholders on capturing expectations and defining the scope of each project. Though every marketer uses an editorial calendar to track their deliverables and deadlines, the leading indicator of inputs goes a step before even this critical tool.

Inputs are the strategic work before the tactical work. They’re where the projects are documented, scoped, and discussed before any work is started.

In the examples below, the point is not to convince you of the merits of Agile marketing per se, but to get you to think differently about how you approach the broken strategies of digital marketing.

A Quick Agile Marketing Primer

To help explain how inputs are measured, I'll quickly explain why I believe Agile marketing is key to this process.

Agile is a belief that collaborative teams working in short durations together can deliver more often and change more rapidly to meet market demands. Agile originated in the world of software, but it applies to virtually all kinds of knowledge work, including marketing.

Several years ago, I discovered Agile and turned my back on marketing-as-usual, which relies on things like an editorial calendar, project management of ongoing work, and the fire-fighting of urgent work requests.

I left the old way of impossible deadlines, limited planning, and last-minute drama when I was introduced to Agile marketing.

Agile marketing learned from the unrivaled success of our friends in the software development world, where projects have left the Waterfall method (planning everything in advance even though you know it will be wrong and much will change) behind in favor of the agility to deliver more often with greater efficacy and efficiency.

left old marketing behind

Software development used to be fully mapped out, documented and planned for a final finished release before work began. This method required all of the pre-planning and documentation for everything the software would need to do in one, very large and complex project plan, complete with Gantt charts to estimate work over months and even years.

For example, Windows 95 wasn’t updated considerably until Windows 98, and then Windows 2000, and so on. It used to take years to develop new software.

Compare that to today, where Amazon updates their software (their website) about every seven minutes using hundreds of Agile software development teams.

Like their software counterparts, marketers must plan some level of their work, but they must be able to pivot as new, urgent/unplanned work arises or changes are made due to external pressures, such as social media timeliness, a change in publication dates, or a shift in the stakeholder's needs.

Measuring Inputs

Not all projects take the same amount of time, resources, and effort. Likewise, not all project requests hold the same value.

Marketers intuitively know that a social media post about an upcoming webinar is a simple task and takes far less time, resources, and manpower to execute than creating the content for the webinar.

Work requests are the inputs for marketing. Agile marketers keep a constantly updated holding pen for any new requests in what’s called the Backlog in Agile-speak.

To reflect the reality that not all projects and tasks are equally important or complex, it is helpful to place a value on the estimated effort for both kinds of work using a simple weighting system so that it’s easy to identify which backlog inputs are massively time-intensive and which ones are can be done relatively quickly.

One popular method uses t-shirt sizes as a way identifying the relative similarities and differences between projects and tasks (called Stories). In this example, the social media post might be an XS (Extra Small), while creating webinar content might be an XL (Extra Large).

By assigning these weights to the possible work before it gets started, the marketing team can more easily estimate both the quantity of work they can commit to prior to starting a sprint (a one-week or two-week time frame devoted to specific work) as well as the prioritization of the work for team members.

Here’s how this looks on a typical Agile board. It’s important to note that Agile uses visualization of the work as Epics (big-picture project placeholders) and Stories ('chunked up' work into bite-size pieces) so that the team has a quick-glance reference of the work.

As a bonus, other departments and stakeholders gain a new level of respect and understanding of the sheer volume of work that must be prioritized by marketing.

agile marketing board example
An example of a project board used in Agile Marketing. *This is a simplified mockup for illustrative purposes only.

Capturing the backlog of inputs, shown here as Epics, helps provide marketing staff with a visual compendium of projects that have yet to be started. The Backlog represents the sheer volume of possible work that must be prioritized and doled out over time.

Measuring inputs means tallying the total number of Epics (measured as a simple numerical value) and/or the number of Epics per stakeholder. It also means being able to have an objective way to discuss planned work prior to committing the necessary people, time, and resources for those last-minute, supposedly “urgent” requests.

At the end of the Sprint, the team has a way to see how well (or how poorly) they estimated the work so that they can learn and improve planning for future sprints. The key principle here is teamwork. As a team gets better at estimating work, helping each other, and holding each other accountable, the quality and velocity of deliverables increases.

By measuring inputs, marketers have a powerful set of metrics for leading indicators and an objective set of data points to evaluate their ability to estimate and deliver the right work. Because it’s easy to capture the total number of Epics in the backlog, as well as capture the rate at which new backlog items are added each week, the marketing team can easily report on the rate of inputs compared to the rate of outputs (covered later on, below). As you can imagine, it becomes much more objective when it comes to adding contractors and staff to the marketing team when the ratio of inputs to outputs is understood.

The results are always telling because Agile makes it impossible for ineffective team members to hide, but the data is helpful because it’s all done with a spirit of continuous improvement.

Throughput: Getting the Right Stuff Done

Being busy isn't the measure of success, so we must intentionally choose to take time and assess our marketing team's workflow through the lens of throughput.

Marketers are busy people who often struggle with the paradox that while we’re working hard, we’re not always working smart. The deluge of last-minute requests for content, tracking campaign metrics, and creating new resources is the marketer’s reality, but it is also why we sometimes feel that we are not able to consistently give our best effort.

In the midst of ever more work to do, today's marketer is usually doing well just to keep up, much less evaluate the workflow mid-stream. And that is why focusing on Throughput is so vital.

Throughput can be defined two ways:

  1. How much work the team got done compared to what they estimated they could do at the beginning of the Sprint
  2. Or, the cycle time required to move from one task to the next

Throughput in Scrum vs. Kanban

How good is your team at getting the right work done? This has historically been a tricky question to answer, because it depends on a number of factors that may change from week to week.

Agile marketing has a two prominent schools of thought when it comes to organizing and completing work: Scrum and Kanban. In a nutshell, Scrum is focused on organizing work into limited spans of time (called Sprints) and measuring the difference between estimated and completed work over time.

The other framework, called Kanban, captures the flow of work in order to show the progress of tasks at each stage of the project over time. Both are rooted in the foundations of Agile, so it’s really a preference which way marketers choose to go.

There's no magic number to attain when measuring Throughput.

It's either about how much work the team got done compared to what they estimated they could do at the beginning of the Sprint (using Scrum) or about the cycle time required to move from one task to the next (using Kanban).

In either school of thought, the idea is to evaluate the workflow and help the marketing team improve over time.

Measuring Throughput allows work that is prioritized and completed to be measured over time so that it becomes easier to visualize the kind of work getting done, not just the efficiency of getting completed. When workflow is filtered through this kind of lens, it is easy to spot how teams are prioritizing work in the Backlog and delivering against deadlines and expectations.

For example, if a marketing team simply cranks out more emails but doesn’t see any improvement in open rates, click-through rates, and form completions, the velocity of more emails isn’t an effective metric in and of itself.

Productive things grow. Sure. But cancer grows, too, so “growth/volume” isn't the metric for value. Healthy, viable growth of marketing deliverables is a byproduct of producing the right things, at the right time, through the right channels, for the right audience.

Agile marketing makes much of throughput, and for good reason: if a team improves in not only doing more work but in delivering better work, KPIs are easier to track against progress and not merely completion. No marketing team is successful by producing more busy work, and this is where Throughput

Knowing how work is (or isn’t) progressing every single day is a huge advantage -- and timesaver -- for marketing teams that currently feel harassed by last-minute requests amidst complaints of slow deliverables of pre-planned work.

Agile marketing does what no other marketing system can by providing a set of metrics to gauge work Throughput in relation to an identified goal. In my own experience, and in visiting with hundreds of other marketers, this intermediate metric of Throughput isn't even considered.

Throughputs simply reveal truth. These intermediate metrics allow marketers to make better decisions and push back against unreasonable requests based on an objective, measured workflow.

Marketing Deliverables and Metrics: Outputs

Every marketer knows about measuring Outputs, because we're keenly focused on marketing deliverables.

However, measuring the wrong kinds of outputs lead to false assumptions about the value of the marketing team’s efforts.

Examples abound in the marketing world of campaigns that failed miserably in spite of high email open rates, good click-through rates, solid landing page views, and plenty of social media engagement when all of those actions lead to poor conversion rates for Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs).

More of the wrong thing isn't effective, so only measuring volume is an incomplete (and potentially misleading) metric.

For example, so-called “vanity metrics” focus on the idea that people paying attention or clicking are valuable in and of themselves instead of, for example, measuring the result of better leads for sales.

In the same way, if the volume of deliverables (more stuff created) is assumed to be more important than the actual viability of the deliverable, then a higher output is a false indicator of valuable work.

More outputs do not equal marketing success, so it's important to clearly define not only the number of Outputs but the estimated value of each Output, as not all deliverables are equal in value.

Too often, the “metrics” of marketing are limited to Inputs (planned work) and Outputs (how much, how often something did or did not happen), and the marketing reports look pretty much the same week after week:

  • Number of emails sent
  • Average open rate
  • Click through rate
  • Landing page conversion rate
  • Impressions/clicks/shares on social media

Blah. So what?

Real Metrics

Marketing is inundated with metrics, so when we think of measuring Outputs, the point is to put a value to the quality of the Output, not the quantity of Outputs.

More Outputs do not equal marketing success.

In Scrum or Scrumban (a hybrid model of Scrum and Kanban), the team chooses a relative effort value when prioritizing and planning work. This is reflected as a story size before the work has begun. The marketing team decides this as a group and then works their plan for the Sprint, eventually measuring what they got done versus what they originally estimated.

When the focus shifts from getting more done (more Outputs) to better quality results (better Outputs), the marketing team learns to put more effort into defining the scope of each project and in measuring the results well after the original deliverable is completed.

Teams learn quickly how to more efficiently deliver smaller portions of a project that can be done faster so that the project doesn’t wait until it’s perfect before it’s delivered. This idea was explored brilliantly by master marketer Seth Godin in his e-book “Ship It”, where he pushes for getting done what can be done and shipping it out.

In Agile, the idea is to create Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) that can be shipped incrementally and improved into a robust and effective whole over time. So it is with marketing, where we push for minimally viable deliverables so that we need not wait for perfection before iterating on deliverables.

Outputs are not merely valued on volume but are valued on producing quality work and creating minimally viable deliverables more often. This allows the marketing team to deliver more frequently, experiment more often, change faster, and test/measure their outputs over time...all in the spirit and aligned workflow of continuous improvement.

Outcomes are the Metrics for Value

It's not enough to publish more content, create better landing pages, target audiences with better segmentation, or even get a higher conversion rate on forms. Those are deliverables and they are absolutely needed; they're just not the point of why we do what we do in and of themselves.

Outcomes are the things that marketing has deemed valuable for getting results that move the business forward.

When a marketing deliverable and/or campaign is deemed 'successful', it should mean that the work done by marketing resulted in better MQLs and, ultimately, better Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs).

The ultimate marketing metric, then, is tied back to a business outcome and not a marketing deliverable.

Marketing exists to enable the organization to meet business objectives. Period.

Along the way, there should be experimentation, prospect engagement, customer engagement, improved workflow, better project management, and improved value of deliverables. Those things should happen, but they are subservient to meeting a business objective and not simply a marketing metric.

To measure an Outcome means that marketing has aligned their teams and work to meet business objectives.

For example, if a business has an objective of creating a customer loyalty program to the frequency and volume of purchases by consumers, then marketing has to define Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to ensure that the work completed and deliverables produced actually lead to a thriving customer loyalty program.

This is an Outcome, not an Output.

Using the customer loyalty program example, the deliverables might be things like creating emails campaigns to existing clients, sending mailers to prospects in the database, and social media advertising to future prospects.

These marketing metrics of open rates, click-thru rates, conversion rates, advertising performance, etc. are aligned to the KPIs of the business objective of creating an effective customer loyalty program. So the KPIs might look like this:

  • Re-engagement campaign leading to license or contract renewals
  • Percentage of new MQL prospects entering the sales pipeline
  • Number of new prospects from advertisements becoming a MQL
  • Number of new MQLs posting to our social media accounts or forums
  • Number of existing clients rating us a 9 or 10 in a Net Promoter Score

Our KPIs should reflect Outcomes, not merely the Outputs.

The day of marketers being judged on the delivery of outputs with the vanity metrics of old are long gone. It's like the old days of Google Ads when “impressions” were a big deal until someone figured out that lots of impressions with zero sales was minimally useful.

As marketers, we must measure KPIs that matter, and the only ones that matter are those directly related to an organization's mission.

Every marketer can benefit from Agile marketing because every marketer can benefit from the clarity that comes from re-thinking how we approach, prioritize, organize, and deliver better outcomes for our organizations.

If marketing feels broken and your workflow feels fractured or if you feel that your marketing has inadvertently traded in our value for volume, it’s not too late for you and your team! Agile marketing can help revitalize, restructure, and reinvigorate your team.

Agile marketing isn’t a gimmick or hack; it’s a belief and framework for getting more of the right work done with better results to move your organization forward.

Change is hard. But like anything that’s worth doing, the effort put into embracing Agile marketing will yield far greater results -- and a better team culture, too! For those unwilling to change, well, their time is limited anyway.

The future of marketing is Agile. Will you be there?


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