Better Content in Half the Time: Applying Scrum Principles to Content Marketing
Let’s begin with a question: if someone told you they were, “moderately successful” or “minimally successful” at something, would you recommend that they do more of that thing in the near future?
Yet, according to recent research from The Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 70% of B2B marketers plan to produce more content in 2017, despite the fact that 75% of them deemed their overall content marketing approach moderately or minimally successful.
Even more troubling, when asked what contributed to their stagnancy or decline in success, these marketers cited a lack of time and content-creation challenges as their primary hurdles.
Despite struggling with their current workload, content creators will be expected to up their output in the next year.
We can’t stubbornly stick with the same old ways of creating content and expect to somehow magically increase our output. It’s clear that content marketing can’t carry on as it is. Fortunately, we don’t have to.
There are multiple alternative approaches that have been tested and proven to offer increased efficiency with a smaller time investment. One such approach is Scrum, a work management system that promises “twice the work in half the time.”
That might sound too good to be true, but Scrum is, in fact, an excellent tool for content marketing teams. When implemented properly, it lets fewer content creators produce more content, in far less time.
Of course, “more content” alone isn’t the goal of Scrum (or Agile marketing, for that matter). In addition to improving flow and efficiency, Agile marketers use these processes to create relevant content by maintaining a connection to our audience. We also employ the firm boundaries that Scrum creates to stay focused on our work, which results in higher quality content that outperforms sheer volume every time.
Here’s how it works.
Content Team Protection Through Scrum
Scrum is only one Agile methodology, and I don’t want to suggest it’s the only way to run an Agile content team, but it does provide protection for content creators through its focus on time-boxed iterations (a.k.a. Sprints).
Each Sprint consists of the same five components:
- The Backlog: Essentially a prioritized to-do list. It must be regularly maintained and the order of priority agreed on by stakeholders and content creators.
- Sprint Planning/Kickoff: The team chooses what work to do in the next Sprint and, if needed, breaks the projects in the backlog into smaller tasks. Generally the longest meeting of the Sprint.
- Daily Standup: The team meets for 15 minutes to discuss what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and if anything is holding them back (blockers to be resolved).
- Sprint Review: A bragging session at the conclusion of a Sprint where the team demonstrates all their completed work to stakeholders and any other interested parties.
- Retrospective: A discussion of the Scrum process, the team, and what improvements can be made for the next iteration. Only content creators attend this meeting.
Basically, once a team commits to completing a certain amount of work during the Sprint, they’ve locked into that work and that work alone. Any issues that arise before the end of that time should be postponed until the next sprint.
Of course, that’s an ideal Scrum implementation that most marketers won’t ever enjoy.
In our world, there are press releases and website updates and social media fires that require our attention, Scrum or no Scrum.
But even on the most interruption-prone team, you can use Sprints to push back on faux emergencies. It’s much more effective to say, “We’ll put that in our backlog and get to it when we start the next sprint next week” instead of, “There’s no way we can get to that right now. Just send me an email and we’ll see when we can fit it in.”
These ceremonies, while crucial, aren’t the only components of Agile content creation. Scrum teams still need to maintain a focus on their audience, they just do so with Agile tools.
Agility Produces Better Content
Agile marketing is such a great fit for content because its primary tenets put the focus on the audience. There are seven core values outlined in The Agile Marketing Manifesto, but the two that are most applicable for us here are:
- Customer-focused collaboration over silos & hierarchy
- Process of customer discovery over static prediction
Agile marketers, in other words, will always choose collaboration that is centered on the customer rather than working within existing silos and hierarchies. We will spend our time on discovering what our customers really want instead of clinging to static predictions about what they might prefer.
It’s also important to note that the first principle of agile marketing states:
These are very pretty words, but what do they mean for content teams who need to get results?
In my experience, they mean that you need to create three pillars to support your agile approach to creating audience-centric content: personas, user stories, and story maps.
Minimum Viable Personas
Personas are a key component of an effective content strategy, but they can sometimes take weeks (or months) to research and create. That kind of massive up-front investment simply doesn’t jive with an Agile team.
Instead, we can embrace the concept of a minimum viable persona: one that gives us just enough information about an audience segment to create our first piece of content.
Then we approach each subsequent content release with two goals. We obviously want our work to achieve our business objectives, but we’re also going to learn something about our audience based on how they respond (or don’t) to our content.
As time goes on and we get more data, we build out a more detailed version of our persona and simultaneously refine our content strategy.
(Hat tip to John Lane over at Centerline for introducing me to this concept.)
User Stories for Content Creation
Once we’ve established who our audience is, we need to start creating content for them.
This may sound simple, but let’s not forget that half of B2B marketers who struggled with their content last year cited “content creation challenges” as the source of their woes.
Overburdened content creators staring down the barrel of a deadline often turn to “Wikipedia-style” content when they don’t know what else to do.
You know what I mean — articles with titles like “What is Concept X?” and “A History of Industry Term A.”
I’m not judging this type of content — we’ve all written at least one piece like this — but in an increasingly crowded digital world, this type of content just won’t break through the noise.
Fortunately, Agile user stories offer a solution.
On their surface, they seem simple:
They have three key components, all of which must be included if you want them to function properly:
The last component — the “so I can” piece — is what will keep you from backsliding into Wikipedia content. This is the takeaway, the way that your audience is different or better after consuming your content.
For more on this tactic, check out a complete walkthrough of using Agile user stories for content creation here.
Story Maps for Content Strategy
The final pillar of Agile content creation is known as a User Story Map in Agile software development circles.
Basically, we illustrate the buyer’s journey for each of our personas, and map user stories to the persona and stage they’re targeting. It looks a little like this:
You can start by putting your existing content onto this map; it’s a great way to quickly identify gaps in your existing library. If you have a multi-media or multi-channel approach, you can even give each medium or channel its own color.
Once you see where your current resources fall, you can start creating new user stories to fill any holes that emerge. And voila, you have a long-term content strategy that’s centered on your audience and their needs while also designed to guide them on a path to purchase.
(This is just one of many uses for User Story Maps; if you’re interested in learning more you can check out my half-day workshop at the Intelligent Content Conference in March.)
Great Content in Less Time
Now that we’ve covered how to create more audience-centric content, it’s time to tackle that second part of Scrum’s promise: less time.
Basically, Scrum teams are faster for two key reasons:
- They focus on releasing many small pieces of content instead of one big, high-risk piece.
- They’re insulated from most external interruptions that would otherwise derail their productivity.
Not only do smaller pieces take us less time to create, they allow us to get a lot of content in front of our audience and see what actually works. The difference between these rapid iterations and a huge content project that demands lots of up-front planning looks something like this:
(Image source: Forbes)
Once we’ve learned what actually works, we can do more with it by turning it into a larger piece. We know it will work, and we can produce even this large piece faster than normal because we’ve already done a lot of our back end planning.
For teams interesting in starting with a large piece of pillar content and building smaller supporting items around it, iterations can help there too.
While you’re working on an ebook or another pillar, release sections or excerpts via social media as you finish them. Check each one’s performance, amplifying with paid placement if you need faster results, and make slight adjustments based on what you learn.
With this foundation of social engagement data, you can incrementally improve your pillar content even before it’s released, decreasing risk and increasing the chance of success.
What Will Scrum Do For You?
Scrum’s creator, Jeff Sutherland, reports 300 and 400 percent increases in productivity on software teams that he transitions to an Agile approach.
Just imagine what you could do with three or four times the content you’re currently producing.
Making the switch to an Agile approach to content takes some effort and commitment, but the payoff is swift and massive.
Have you transitioned to Agile content marketing? Share your story in the comments!
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