Agile marketing: What startups can teach marketers and vice versa

By: Ritika Dube, 18/03/2015


Down the rabbit hole…that’s what it felt like when I started my journey of engaging with start- ups. Coming from the background of marketing for big brands, I have had various reactions to the speed, activities and general vagaries that are part and parcel of startups. From “interesting” to “curious” and all the way down to “These guys are crazy!”While I won’t be the first person describing the journey as a jump off the cliff; I have to say there is method in the madness and there are definitely lessons in business and marketing. So I figured this is as good a time as any to take a pause and pen down what I have learned so far.

There is marketing and then there is agile marketing. It won’t be a stretch to say that agile marketing is marketing 2.0. There are a plethora on resources on the net that define the process and the steps involved. I want to concentrate on highlighting the key differences between the “traditional” approach and the agile approach.

1. It’s circular: The traditional marketing process, like the traditional business process works with a linear approach. The agile approach, like agile businesses works with “start somewhere and start quickly” approach and gets tighter and closer (to the end goal) with each round. This by no means is an admission of failure to plan, in today’s age, it’s fatal to over plan and be late to the party because the rules of the game are forever changing.

2. Nano strategies:But it’s not one big circle. It’s a number of small ones, each one focusing on different little strategies. Don’t get me wrong, everything still has to be “on strat”, but instead of unleashing the big strategy all at once with a linear flow of events backed by a stage-gate process, you commit to making the strategy work in everything you do, adapting and modifying with a series of experiments. It’s a bunch of learning cycles all working in tandem to deliver on the big ask.

3. Test and let the numbers talk:We live in a live environment. Products, real or virtual, have versions, upgrades and updates, so must your marketing plan. The boundary between test and launch is pretty hazy. Gmail was in beta for about 5 years…infact most people missed the actual launch because they were already on gmail. Launch is simply the time you exit beta mode, which means by the time the iterations stop,the campaign is done… and that’s a great time to exit and start another campaign iteration. Through all this, the learning lies in measuring and then tweaking. This is no wild goose chase based on opinions and judgements, I can’t make too fine a point of this, LET THE NUMBERS TALK!

4. Respond & Interact: Many brand get caught up in initiating dialogue after dialogue with consumers and when things don’t go according to plan, they react and defend. That too is a circle, but not a happy one! Any startup will tell you, things never go according to plan but the solution lies in actively listening and responding and often times proactively interacting. You know your brand and solution the best, but the consumer will probably fit you in their lives based on their own set of requirements. To make way for that adjustment, you have to give a little.

In addition to all the wonderful things that the startup culture has taught me, there are a few things that can and should be absorbed from traditional marketing too.

A. Optimize: Don’t forget to optimize both the marketing dollars and number of experiments. No point spreading your money and people’s bandwidth too thin. Experimentation is crucial but sub-optimal use of funds, codes in the wrong sort of learnings.  To make an exaggerated point, you cannot hope to be on TV in an effective way for the same amount of money as an SEM campaign. So an experiment which involves putting that money on TV and reading results is pointless. Similarly, each medium and platform has a threshold level of investment which will bring real value to the business, jumping the gun on this simple principle will only mean that whatever a sub-optimal investment is money wasted.

B. Don’t just Hack it, Brand It: Brands exist to help people make choices. Seeing a logo or brand name conjures up certain emotions and memories, if it does not, then the brand does not register no matter what the size and color of the font and if it does not register, there is no action. All your thinking and hard work is going to be summed up by your brand, in your brand. Pay attention of how you use it and what it means to people. There is no better time to start than now. Get cracking on the brand purpose, personality and tonality because it will sum up what you are creating. Keep tweaking, nipping and tucking along the way.

Agile marketing is another way of saying turbo charged marketing! I’ll leave with a final caveat, where are you spending a bulk of your time- behind activities or action? Beware you fall prey to the busy-ness monster.

Disclaimer: My learnings are in beta version and I hope to continue with it for many more years to come. You live, you learn! Version 2 coming soon…


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