Content is King...and is Agile
Andrea Fryrear evangelizes for Scrum and Agile in content marketing
by Melanie Haiken
Look for the intersection where Agile and content marketing meet, and there you’ll almost certainly find Andrea Fryrear.
Fryrear is all over the place these days, spreading her vision of how Scrum and Agile tools and tactics can transform the world of marketing communications. This year alone saw her presenting at Content Marketing World, SXSW, MarketingProfs B2B Marketing Forum, MarTech San Francisco, and Business Agility, among others.
“All the general benefits of Agile, like speed to market, increased productivity, decreased waste, and more effective collaboration make it a really powerful tool for marketing,” Fryrear says. “The main barrier to adoption is education, so I’m trying to do something about that.”
How the journey started
As founder and Chief Content Officer of Fox Content, a Boulder, Colorado-based Agile content marketing consultancy, Fryrear uses Agile marketing principles and tactics in content planning, strategy, and production.
And in her newest venture, AgileSherpas, Fryrear has created a niche all her own training and coaching marketing teams on Agile and its potential to transform the way they manage their work.
Of course, Fryrear’s field isn’t narrowed to content marketing; her expertise in the field is broad and her vision of Agile success links marketing with many other industries that have all benefited from Scrum and Agile practices.
“All the general benefits of Agile, like speed to market, increased productivity, decreased waste, and more effective collaboration make it a really powerful tool for marketing.” – Andrea Fryrear
In her book, Death of a Marketer, published in February, 2017, Fryrear delves deep into the history of marketing and the industry’s struggle to modernize itself in the digital age.
And she issues a call to action, offering compelling arguments for how Agile methods can transform the most chaotic processes into a streamlined pipeline of productivity.
How Agile applies to content marketing
Fryrear embraces the tactical value of Agile as a solution to help overworked and understaffed marketing teams identify the highest value projects and concentrate their efforts on these.
“Like tech teams, Agile marketing teams tackle each project in a finite period of focused, intensive work, or Sprint – though they may not use this term,” she says. And as in other fields, Agile marketing teams work iteratively, assessing and continuously improving results over time, sometimes jettisoning lower-value efforts.
This results in a key difference from traditional marketing; failed efforts are still considered successes thanks to the learnings they impart. “Being able to quickly identify the duds is really important,” says Fryrear. (Consider the title of one of her recent articles for CMI: "How to Stop Wasting Time on the Wrong Content."
Fryrear’s specialty, content marketing, is a field particularly ripe for an Agile transformation. That’s because content marketing, when done right, should produce a steady flow of articles, blog posts, and other forms of written and multimedia content. And as in software development, that content needs to be consistent in both quantity and quality. In fact, Fryrear notes, the word consistency is prominent in the official definition of content marketing, as issued by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI):
“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
At the same time, content marketing teams are stressed by the gap between the amount of content they want to put out, and the amount they are able to handle. Research from CMI found that while two thirds of content marketing teams reported they had plans to increase their content output year over year, almost half of them had fallen behind even at their current production rate. Calling it “common sense,” Fryrear argues that Agile offers the perfect solution to this dilemma, helping teams produce more content in less time.
“In content marketing, there is always more content to create than we have time to do,” she says. “I love Agile’s simplicity in giving you the ability to test what works and choose what to do and not to do.”
Fryrear’s specialty, content marketing, is a field particularly ripe for an Agile transformation.
The structured approach offered by Scrum, Scrumban, and other Agile methods also insulates teams from interruption, distraction, and redirection from outside the team. “During a sprint, once you agree to produce a set amount of content, you’re locked in,” she says. “No one can stand over your desk and ask you to edit an email newsletter or pull you off a project and insist that you produce a case study by the end of next week.”
Fryrear came to Agile marketing about four years ago in exactly the way you’d think a writer and content producer would – through research. “I was researching an article on marketing plans and trying to come up with a new template, and I kept seeing these outlines for multi-year marketing plans. And I thought, `There’s no way people could still be using these documents!’ I’d heard about Scrum and sprints and wondered if marketing teams were using these concepts, so I googled Agile marketing – and I’ve been a complete addict ever since.”
Fryrear immediately began incorporating Agile concepts herself in her work as the Content Marketing Manager for SurveyGizmo and MarketerGizmo, particularly when it came to managing work flow. “It really did sort of save my life early on. I was the only content creator in our department, and because they hadn’t had a writer on the team for a long time, they had built up this huge demand for blogging and copy writing,” Fryrear explains. In other words, everybody wanted everything right away and every project was equally urgent.
“Agile helped me manage that process by giving me permission to tell people no in a respectful way,” she says. “The visibility aspect of Agile comes in very handy; when someone interrupts your workflow to ask you for something new, you can say, `Look at these five things that are in my queue and tell me where you think yours falls. It really saved my sanity.”
To spread the word, she became Editor-in-Chief for TheAgileMarketer.net, writing and editing articles and networking the emerging Agile marketing community.
Agile Content Marketing: How it works
One of the key distinctions in producing marketing content according to Agile rather than traditional methods, Fryrear says, is the focus on breaking a campaign up into smaller deliverables that can be tested incrementally.
“Traditionally, we would put together a giant campaign and release it at the end and hope it works, which is a massively risky thing to do,” she says. “Instead, you figure out what’s the minimum viable version you can produce and get it out so you can learn if it’s going to be successful. That might be one blog post, or several social media posts and an email blast, and then you get some data on which components were useful.”
The result is a type of user testing similar to that which goes on in software development, Fryrear notes. “Releasing in chunks gives you opportunities for review and assessment and to fine-tune based on results. Just like code needs QA, we can benefit from that opportunity for quality control.”
Iterative analytics that work
As an example, Fryrear cites one of her first successful Agile projects at SurveyGizmo, in which her team developed a marketing survey tool using an iterative process. “We looked at our analytics and realized that people were landing on our site looking for survey examples, but we didn’t have any explicit content,” she says. It was clear they could increase traffic by providing survey templates, but how to know which ones people would find most useful?
They spent the first sprint planning the types of surveys they thought would be most popular, then devoted each subsequent sprint to producing an example, such as an employee satisfaction survey. “We would roll them out one by one and then track which were most successful in leading to conversions, and then produce more content around the ones that were popular,” she says. “It was a low-risk experiment that didn’t require a lot of investment, yet we managed to drive tens of thousands of brand new page views in a few months.”
At the same time, this experience and others like it showed Fryrear how Agile could be used to help “creatives” - as writers and designers are often referred to in marketing - get past the blocks that often cause delays in campaign launches.
“I certainly know from my own experience how easy it is for creative people to get stuck in their heads and not release anything because it’s not as perfect as it can be,” she says. “Knowing that in three sprints there will be a chance to reevaluate, that you’ll have a systematic way to return to something you’ve done and make changes, helps you feel more comfortable letting it go out into the world.”
Noting that studies of “content waste” show that 60 to 75 percent of business-to-business content goes unused, Fryrear points out that the iterative Agile process makes it more likely that marketing content will actually be on target and therefore used. “You’re less likely to put it aside and forget about it and let it languish and die in the lost corner of your website,” she laughs.
Noting that Agile adoption can be a bit intimidating for executives accustomed to setting marketing timelines up front, Fryrear says they typically come on board when they see the results. “The executive can still say `This is the objective I’d like to achieve,’ but the team has the ability to push back and say how that objective can be achieved. And nine times out of ten they know much better what they can get done with a good amount of quality in a reasonable amount of time.”
Agile marketing teams work iteratively, assessing and continuously improving results over time, sometimes jettisoning lower-value efforts.
Marketing departments are implementing Agile using a variety of methodologies, Fryrear says, with the deciding factor often being the size of the marketing team. “I think the Scrum sweet spot still applies to the group of 5 to 9 people; if you’re of that size, Scrum is an easy fit,” she says. For very small teams of four and under, Kanban may be the most useful tool, while larger teams often combine multiple approaches.
Making small work with large teams
Particularly challenging is the fact that many marketing departments are very large and divided up according to specific functions, making it difficult to create cross-functional teams, Fryrear says. “There isn’t a lot of precedent yet for super big marketing departments using Agile; the largest I’ve heard of is 600, and that one is just getting started, so this is something we’re still learning,” she says.
“With marketing teams that size, you likely have a content team and a social team and a demand gen team and they may or may not be communicating well.” This means, Fryrear says, that marketing departments need to get creative when it comes to rethinking processes in terms of cross-platform teams. “You can organize a lot of different ways, for instance, some teams do it by Persona, organizing around a fictional description of one type of customer, such as `Andrea the executive.’ Another approach would be to organize around the stages of buyer’s journey, from top of funnel to bottom, creating a cross-functioning team across each particular stage.”
As for the future, Fryrear believes it can only bring more exponential adoption and growth for Agile in marketing and content marketing, building on the successes of the past few years.
“Most people don’t even need to ask questions like `What is Agile marketing?’ or `Why is it good for you?’ anymore, they’re already ready to go on to the specifics of how to adopt Agile’” she says. “Forbes predicted 2017 as the year of Agile marketing, and even though people have been saying this for a while, it seems like they’ve finally got it right.”
The U.K.’s most surprising Agile tech cluster
The next wave of Agile tech leaders hits Cornwall for Agile on the Beach
by Rachel Picken
On a university campus in a remote corner of the U.K., some of the most influential figures in tech are gathered for one of the fastest growing Agile conferences in the world.
You may not have heard of it — yet — but this is Agile on the Beach, a two-day conference now in its sixth year. It has grown from just 80 delegates in 2011 to an award-winning event regularly attracting 400 attendees. A total of 48 speakers have traveled to be here, not just from across the U.K. but also from the U.S., Russia, Israel, the Netherlands, Germany, and Romania.
It’s held in Cornwall, the westernmost county of England — a place that previously has been synonymous with traditional British seaside holidays and tin mining. The BBC’s hit heritage drama Poldark is set here, proving popular with Cornish ex-pats and Anglophiles the world over.
But what the local business community will tell you is that Cornwall is a fast-growing tech hub.
The right place
Agile on the Beach is the area’s flagship conference event, drawing together world-class speakers and hard-hitting software development talent.
Keynote speaker Diana Larsen joined the conference from Portland, Oregon, where she runs FutureWorks Consulting, specializing in working with business leaders and their teams to create environments where both people and organizations flourish.
“I think technical people are drawn to live in beautiful places,” Larsen told the attendees during her presentation. “It’s absolutely gorgeous here. It reminds me of Portland, where I live. There’s a lot of energy here and a real eagerness to participate.”
The conference’s name is a bit of a red herring — most of the talks and presentations take place not on the beach but on the leafy campus of Falmouth University. It’s on the Thursday evening that delegates and speakers descend on Gyllyngvase Beach, against the backdrop of Pendennis Castle, for a proper Cornish party complete with beers and pasties.
Cornwall is an area that has experienced deep economic deprivation. For around 25 years, following the demise of the tin-mining industry, the county has benefited from funding from the European Union to improve infrastructure and develop the economy.
Yet it’s a region of entrepreneurship and creativity. A culture of self-employment and business start-up is encouraged, and the county is home to at least 22,000 businesses within an overall population of around 500,000 people.
The focus of the EU funding has been to encourage business acceleration and high-growth start-ups, to stabilize the area’s economy against the seasonality of the tourism industry. Part of this involved an Agile coaching project through the Grow Cornwall program, delivered by business acceleration company Oxford Innovation. The project introduced organizations to the broad concepts of Agile and how it can unlock productivity, creativity, innovation, and, ultimately, growth. Tech, media, and creative were obvious sectors to focus on.
And it seems to be working. According to the Tech Nation 2016 report, Cornwall was named the second fastest-growing tech cluster in the U.K. During 2017, there was 61% growth in jobs within the tech sector in mid Cornwall, compared to the national average of 17%. Digital GVA (gross value added) is worth £39 million, up 20% since last year.
The report also revealed that 91% of workers within Cornwall reported a good quality of life, and 79% reported being optimistic about growth in the tech sector.
Belinda Waldock, author of Being Agile in Business and a member of the organizing committee of Agile on the Beach, is also behind Software Cornwall, a social enterprise that aims to bridge the skills gap between young people seeking employment in the sector and the software companies hiring.
Agile on the Beach is the area’s flagship conference event, drawing together world-class speakers and hard-hitting software development talent.
“It’s driven by the passion of our industry and the power of our community,” Waldock said at the conference. “Cornwall’s heritage is steeped in engineering and innovation, from railways and mining to marine.
“Software engineering is the 21st-century version of that, in my eyes. It provides the jobs our communities need. And I love that Software Cornwall is making a difference. We’re fixing the pipeline between young people leaving school and what the tech industry needs to continue to grow.
“Some of the kids that join us feel isolated or may have learning disabilities. But they realize they have a talent and they find their tribe. They can blossom and be themselves.”
The right time
So why Agile on the Beach?
One of the driving forces behind the conference is tech business leader Toby Parkins. Back in 2011, Parkins was running a small web development company, Uknetweb, in the coastal village of St. Agnes. He had recently embraced Agile.
He was also in the process of setting up Headforwards, which has gone on to become a high-growth outsourced software development company that works with a number of household brands.
Parkins was looking for a way to bring high-quality professional development to his staff. A chance conversation with Mike Barritt, who at the time was a tech coach for Grow Cornwall, sparked an idea for a “get together.” This soon led to a full-scale conference, with just five months to organize it. Agile on the Beach was born.
Grow Cornwall has introduced organizations to the broad concepts of Agile and how it can unlock productivity, creativity, innovation, and growth.
“My company had been adopting Agile and was finding it was amazing. It enables businesses to become so effective,” Parkins said. “We had the idea [for the conference] in the March and got together with Mike to discuss it properly in April. We thought, ‘Let’s get some people who really know what they’re talking about.’ We set the date for that September.”
Now the event is strongly attended by a mix of Cornwall-based software teams and business professionals, plus national and international delegates.
Consultant and author Allan Kelly had supported Toby Parkins in introducing Agile at Uknetweb and was one of the founding organizers of Agile on the Beach.
“There is a strong engineering culture here,” Kelly explained. “What is interesting about Agile is that it is a problem detector — it helps you see what the problem is much quicker.
“You can have all the business agility you want, but if you haven’t got the quality of product and service, you can’t grow.”
One of the people who helped pull the conference together from its early days was event organizer Claire Eason-Bassett. She has seen the event grow from 80 delegates in 2011 to around 400 today.
“It was very much about meeting local need but living and breathing on a national and international scale,” Eason-Bassett explained. “Support from partners such as EU-funded programs Oxford Innovation and Unlocking Potential meant we could access high-profile speakers, which gets us recognized on an international stage.
“I really like how we capture people’s imagination. You hear it when people are buzzing during lunch, or chatting during the beach party. It’s very immediate feedback, and very Agile.”
“I believe the point of Agile is to be able to adopt it for your own purposes.” – Claire Eason-Basset
The conference and its content have inspired Eason-Bassett to adopt Agile in her business, Mackerel Sky Events, which has seen growth of about 30% that she attributes to adopting more flexible approaches to work.
Agile frameworks appeal to Eason-Bassett’s analytical brain — she came into event management from a degree in mathematics.
“We don’t strictly do Scrum in a software development way, but when it comes to problem solving — absolutely,” she said. “I believe the point of Agile is to be able to adopt it for your own purposes.”
A key success factor of the event is attracting high-profile, expert speakers. For the 2017 conference, one of the keynote speakers was James Grenning, a member of the group of 17 originators of the Agile Manifesto in 2001.
He claims that the wide adoption of the framework across sectors and specialities is not always to be celebrated; he is concerned about what he coins “Agile gone badly.”
“There are a lot of organizations and teams successfully using Agile, but there are also a lot of people going through the motions and calling it Agile,” Grenning told AgileVox. “Sometimes it’s turned into a micromanagement technique or a hurry-up technique.
“I publicly object to the word sprint. I think it implies fast but doesn’t represent sustainability or quality.”
Grenning added, “But the good thing about [Agile adoption] is it’s showing people there is another way to work. What I would like to see is more effective use of retrospectives and continuous improvement.”
Continuous improvement was a theme widely appreciated throughout this year’s conference. Every year speakers submit papers from a broad range of industries, but the most popular sessions bring a sense of fun and celebration of projects done well, as well as opportunities to learn from things going wrong.
Anna Obukhova, who attended the conference from Moscow, presented on the truly human side of Agile project management: What happens when team members reach exhaustion and burnout?
In her talk Fragile Agile, her key message was that Agile coaches should re-evaluate goals and priorities in the face of fatigue.
“Agilists are in a danger zone of burnout,” she noted in her presentation. “There’s mismatch of our expectations in terms of what the goal is and what we can realistically achieve in a day. Agile is a word, and it’s not a silver bullet.”
Someone who agrees is Craig Girvan, a ScrumMaster and co-director of Headforwards (with Toby Parkins). He moved back to Cornwall after having worked in-house with online retailer and grocery giant Tesco.com.
Under Girvan’s leadership, Headforwards now works with a number of international organizations and within the telecom industry, health insurance, energy, and retail. Clients include insurance company AXA, the Land Registry, Japanese telecom giant NTT, and retailer John Lewis.
“I used to be a real Scrum evangelist. I got really hung up on Scrum and on following it to the letter,” Girvan said. “But I found it wasn’t quite working for a client. So, I went back to the Agile Manifesto and realized it’s about what works with people, not the process. The Agile Manifesto doesn’t say Scrum; it says that people are more than the process. At Headforwards, we’ve adapted elements of Scrum and Kanban.”
Every year about half of the 90-strong team at Headforwards attend Agile on the Beach during the two-day event. It’s an affordable professional development opportunity right on their doorstep, which was the kernel of Parkins’ original vision for his staff. However, both Parkins and Girvan are keen to share the benefits of Agile with a wider community of businesses and organizations.
“We are deliberately trying to offer content that covers teams, business, and wider application of Agile,” said Parkins. “Non-techies can get a lot out of it. It’s spread into other communities in Cornwall.”
He believes a key draw for the conference is the Thursday evening beach party.
“Unfortunately, we do hear of some people who want to attend who get turned down by their employers, because they think it’s a bit of a jolly,” Parkins admitted. “But it’s great to be learning whilst having fun at the same time. Learning should be enjoyable.”
Parkins also believes that Agile on the Beach has had a broad impact on the tech sector in Cornwall.
“Agile on the Beach has raised everyone’s aspiration. We listen to some of the best speakers in the world, and we realize that we can deliver world-class software, all whilst having a good lifestyle.”
“You can have all the business agility you want, but if you haven’t got the quality of product and service, you can’t grow.” – Allan Kelly
AOTB, as it is affectionately known, has certainly put Agile on the map in this ambitious part of the U.K. Just weeks after the conference, the Poly — an arts center in Falmouth — kicked off a series of talks entitled “Cornwall and the Digital Revolution.” First on the bill was Being Agile in Business author Belinda Waldock, presenting her work to grow Software Cornwall and her plans to encourage broader adoption of Agile.
That aim resonates locally. Judith Hann, CEO of the Poly, noted, “As a county on the periphery of the British Isles, we have a strong history of developing solutions for our own and others’ problems.
“That creative thinking is built into the Cornish DNA, and it’s important that we nurture and encourage inventiveness through technology in all fields of life. Thinking creatively, harnessing the potential of new tech, and reinventing old tech is how we develop opportunities for the whole community to prosper.”