Why Marketing Teams Should Run Retrospectives


For marketers all over the world, the start of the month means the same thing: it’s time to see how we did last month.

A cartoon featuring Pinky and Brain showcasing the need for retrospectives in marketing.

That’s certainly been the case for the teams I’ve been on, and I’m usually deeply tied to this process. 

As a team lead and often our main number cruncher, every month, I would pull together key indicators from Google Analytics, our e-Commerce store, and other sources into a dashboard showing how we were performing at each stage of the funnel. I wrote up my findings, and posted it on our team wiki and in Slack.

Like any dedicated marketer, I’d call out where numbers had moved up or down, recommend plans to adjust to what we were seeing and ask my team to take a closer look at anything that seemed unusual or exciting.

And so it went, month after month. I looked at the big picture every month, and I handed my team trends to respond to. It's a workflow that’s common in marketing teams the world over.

But I realized over time that this way of understanding how we were performing has some pretty major flaws:

  1. It relied on one person – the person analyzing the data, i.e. me – to see the big picture and understand all the ground-level detail to evaluate trends 
  2. It only considered quantitative data, meaning if you can’t see it in numbers, you miss it
  3. It focused on lagging indicators, because the impact in your data is likely the last thing that happens, after a whole lot of strategy, writing, designing, promoting, and more. That means you can’t change course till you’re already pretty invested.

The solution I’ve found – and the one that my current team uses – is borrowed from the world of Agile software development: conducting retrospectives every two weeks to reflect on our work and decide what to change.

Unlike a monthly report, retrospectives put the power in the hands of the team to regularly update how they work. Retrospectives allow marketing teams to learn faster, be more creative, build momentum in their work, and create better connections among teammates.

All of that means you save time, because when you’re learning faster and building momentum, you can get to the results you want in far less time.

Let’s dig into how retrospectives can change the way you work, and help you build a better marketing team.  

Wait...What is a Retrospective Meeting? 

First things first: let’s define what we’re talking about.

A retrospective is a type of structured debrief or review meeting that happens on a regular cadence, often every two weeks.

During a retrospective, the team gathers, reflects on their work together, finds patterns in their reflections, and then discusses what actions to take.

These meetings don’t have a pre-planned agenda; instead, the team builds the agenda through a structured process:

  1. Reflect: Team members individually and anonymously write down thoughts on how the last two weeks of work went, often on sticky notes or notecards. Typically, they’re responding to a set of prompts like "what went well?" and "what didn’t go well?," but there are many templates available to guide your discussion. 
  2. Group: When everyone is finished writing, the team groups similar reflections together to discover trends. Chances are some of your teammates also think the same things on the project went well and the other one could have been improved!
  3. Vote: When you’re happy with the groups, every team member votes on what they think is most important to address. This gives you an agenda, created by the team and with discussion items ranked according to importance!
  4. Discuss: The team discusses the items they voted on, and decides what they can do next to improve a process or replicate a success they’ve had.

A graphic representation of the process of running a retrospective including: reflect, group, vote, and discuss as steps.

Retrospectives are distinct from other types of review meetings like post-mortems or lessons learned meetings because they happen continuously, allow everyone to participate as equals, and make room for both quantitative and qualitative  feedback. 

The first bit of the special sauce is that it happens every two weeks. Instead of waiting for a whole month to pass or a project to finish, retrospectives let your team reflect and adjust along the way.

The next key bit is that everyone is providing the same type of feedback. There’s no single person looking at the data while the others digest their findings. There’s no person whose only role is to ask the questions and frame the conversation while others just reply. The whole team participates as equals.

Finally, the last key distinction is that there’s room for all kinds of feedback - quantitative and qualitative, personal opinions about a campaign, anxieties about a process, all of it is welcome in a retrospective . Often, someone’s gut feeling about a campaign or landing page is an early indicator. If you don’t address it, you’ll likely see the impact in the data. If you run a retrospective, you can hear the person’s concerns and address them before something launches.

Retrospectives Improve the Whole Process

Marketing teams succeed or fail based on two factors:

  1. How well you can understand the problem (data analysis); and
  2. How cleverly you can solve it.

Retrospectives help you understand your problems and unlock solutions to them.

Retrospectives speed up the pace of learning

Unlike monthly reports or traditional reviews, retrospectives happen every week or every other week. Each time you meet, there’s another opportunity to reflect on what you’ve achieved and improve.

Because they happen throughout a project, retrospectives give you the opportunity to pause, reconsider and possibly change course, rather than ploughing ahead with something that might not be working, or waiting till much later to see how it’s going.

Retrospectives help you identify when you need to kill an idea or iterate on it. And they give you a chance to do that faster than traditional marketing teams.

An infographic comparing the old school way of processing work without doing retros and the assocciated chaos versus a systematic approach featuring frequent retrospectives.

But they also provide some much-needed structure to your learnings. We’ve all done ad hoc analysis that gets buried or lost before you have time to take action on it. With retrospectives, you’re reflecting as a team on your current work, so the learnings are directly applicable in the moment. 

And those learnings can include a mix of quantitative things and qualitative things.

In small-scale marketing efforts or when you’re in the early stages with a new tactic, you likely won’t have hard data to tell you if it worked yet. Two weeks into a new content strategy, do you have firm numbers? No. But you have soft numbers, and qualitative data.

That’s enough to tell you if you should go deeper, abandon ship or change course.

Example: On our team, a recent retrospective revealed we were feeling frustrated with link-building efforts. No one was getting good responses to initial outreach. Without that retrospective, we would’ve reached the end of the month to find we’d gained no new links.

From that retrospective, we decided to try other outreach methods, like the guest post you’re currently reading. 

Decentralized feedback leads to more creative, adaptive solutions 

Another flaw of traditional feedback processes is the top-down model where a leader looks at the data and finds the story it’s telling first, then the team fills in the details.

It’s all too easy for someone who works with a particular channel day-to-day to know something important and have that knowledge slip through the cracks.

But it can also breed something on the other end we all say we dread: silos.

If someone on your team sees the problem and then hands the task of solving it to one other team-mate or another specific team, only that person or team’s creativity gets tapped to find a solution.

With a greater diversity of viewpoints – designers, writers, ad spend optimizers, etc. –  looking at a challenge from their own perspective, much more interesting and creative solutions and ideas can emerge.

Example: Our Growth team includes both marketers and sales people. In one retro, the sales folks mentioned they were struggling to explain the value of our enterprise plan to clients. They spoke about different messaging in emails, sharing PDFs with clients, and more.

Then the marketers piped in: We can create a landing page to explain what’s unique about our enterprise offering, and you’ll have that to share in sales conversations.

The sales team wouldn’t have considered making a landing page because it’s not in their particular toolkit, but since the conversation happened with marketers at the table, we could come up with a unique solution for them.

Regular reflection creates a brisk pace of work, giving you a sense of accomplishment 

Traditional reviews often take place on a monthly cadence, or worse, a quarterly one, slowing down a marketing team’s cadence and, honestly, bringing down the mood.

That kind of review cadence just doesn’t suit how marketing work works.

Marketing is typically a mix of very short (write a tweet!) and very long (re-do the website) projects.

Short projects give you a hit of accomplishment, but often don’t move the big needles you want to move. Whereas long projects tend to move the needle, but they’re, well, long, which means the joy and sense of accomplishment doesn’t come very often.

A bi-weekly practice of reflecting on your work gets you in the habit of seeing how far you’ve come and appreciating it. Every other week, you get to think about all those things you did. For our team, we’re often surprised by how much has actually happened since we last came together.

Retrospectives also give you a chance to define new actions, such as new projects or efforts to get excited about. Rather than waiting for a month or quarter to pass, you get into a groove of rethinking and iterating at a faster pace.

If you only think about goals on a quarterly basis, your learning and iteration cycle is dramatically slower. A marketer with weekly goals has 12x more at-bats than someone who is only lifting their head up and evaluating quarterly. 
Jaleh Rezaei on First Round Review

Similarly, if you only reflect on your work every month, you only have 12 opportunities to learn in a year.

If you do it every week, you have 52 opportunities. 

More contact among team members creates stronger connections

For most marketing teams, your meeting cadence looks something like:

  • Weekly team meeting
  • Weekly one-on-one with manager
  • Monthly or quarterly results or review

In all of those meetings, the manager typically leads the discussion, shaping how the conversation will go and creating connections between team members – or letting them falter.

In many teams all relationships lead up to the boss.

It’s guaranteed that everyone is connected up to the manager, but it’s not guaranteed that they’re connected laterally to one another.

A visual comparison of the connections between marketers in a simple and in a complex environment.

Without complex relationships, team members are often on their own to solve problems or find interesting solutions. The team becomes just the sum of its parts, not more. 

But regular retrospective meetings can break this pattern. When placed on an even ground and given structure to interact with each other towards a better team, team members start to see connections between their work, as well as the gaps.

For example, a writer sees how their work affects design when a designer reflects that a certain landing page has been hard to create. A paid media manager gets inspired hearing how a content manager feels proud of a recent blog post and pitches a plan to target a new audience.

Retrospectives can build shared understanding across the team and motivate team members to connect their work.

So… When Are You Running Your First Retrospective?  

Borrowed from the world of Agile software development, retrospectives are a highly effective way to get your marketing team working faster.

They speed up the pace of learning, lead to more creative solutions, create a brisk cadence for your work and deepen relationships among teammates.

On my current team, retrospectives are the cornerstone of our Agile marketing practice.

We run them, like clockwork, every two weeks. 

That isn’t to say we’ve done away with the traditional review.

Instead, we’ve put an agile spin on them: we do an async sprint review every month, where every person who ran a strategy or project reports on how it did, all via chat and async videos.

Come to think of it, we developed that method during a retrospective. 

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