Lean Marketing: How to Run Your Marketing Team Like a Startup

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Ellie Mirman
Ellie Mirman



Picture this: You're working on a great new ebook that's going to generate lots of new leads for your sales team. And then your CEO emails you to update the news coverage part of the website. Right as you're wrapping that up, your VP of Sales walks over to talk about the team going to a trade show next week.To start scaling your startup, download this free Startup Marketing Blueprint  today.

An hour later, your biggest competitor announces a big product launch, and your team is bombarding you with questions about how to respond. At the end of the day, you haven't written one new word of your great new ebook that will never see the light of day. And to make matters worse, your competition is getting farther and farther ahead of you and you can't tell why you're not moving nearly as fast.

Sound familiar? Too many marketers are stuck in a reactive -- or, worse yet -- waterfall process of planning, writing, designing, approving, and launching that seems to take twice as long as it should.

The Lean Startup Applied to Marketing

Enter The Lean Startup movement. Now, the Lean Startup movement isn't actually a marketing industry movement. Rather, it's a methodology pioneered by entrepreneur and author Eric Ries as it relates to product development at startups. The Lean Startup methodology is all about iterative shortened product releases and scientific experimentation.

So how does all this even relate to marketing? Originally, it didn't. Eric's book, meetups, and methodology are all meant for product development teams. It has inspired multiple successful startups, including Dropbox and Intuit, and HubSpot's own product development team has even embraced the methodology as well. However, our adoption at HubSpot didn't stop there -- our marketing team watched this methodology in action on our product development team and recognized the impact it could have on our team and our marketing results. What if we could move just as quickly, get just as many results, and stay just as focused? So we started to apply this same methodology to our marketing team to move faster and smarter.

It was this application of the Lean Startup methodology to so many different parts of HubSpot's business that caught Eric Ries' attention and enabled us to nab him for our advisory board. That's right, today we announced that Eric Ries has officially joined HubSpot's Advisory Board.

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Why Is Lean Marketing So Powerful?

1) You Move Fast

The Lean Startup methodology is built around short, iterative product release cycles (AKA sprints). Or, in marketing, you might call them project cycles or simply marketing cycles. At HubSpot, we've tried both 2-week and 1-month cycles (shorter is typically better). Short iterative cycles allow you to adapt quickly to changing marketing conditions. Say, for example, your competitor launches a new product; you can quickly change your projects for next month to come back with a strong campaign.

Case Study: How to Use Pinterest for Business

Back in the winter of 2012, Pinterest was blowing up. This social network had been around for years, but for some reason, no one was really paying attention to it until then. Because of the rapid increase in popularity, marketers across the world were trying to figure out how (and if) this social network could actually be leveraged in their business' marketing strategy. HubSpot's lean marketing team got together and realized that this was a hot topic we needed to jump on. In a matter of 4 days, our How to Use Pinterest for Business ebook was launched. The campaign included the ebook itself, a few blog articles, and a few email sends, and in the first month alone, the ebook generated 40,000 downloads. To date (less than a year later), it has amassed over 125,000 downloads.

Case Study: Gangnam Style Goes Inbound

As the Pinterest ebook case study shows, being lean means you can change course quickly and jump on trends as they're happening. Being early to capitalize on a hot trend pays off exponentially, as our Gangnam Style parody video shows. Just about a month ago, the Gangnam Style craze -- a Korean song and music video that took off -- was really picking up steam, and parody videos were starting to pop up on YouTube. HubSpot jumped on the opportunity right at the start, publishing our own inbound-themed version. In the first day, it had already attracted over 18,000 views. By the end of the first week, it had become the most-watched HubSpot video ever (surpassing our former hit music video, "You Oughta Know Inbound Marketing," with 111,000 views accumulated over 3 years' time). As I draft this article, the video currently has over 122,000 views. Jumping on this trend was not only fun, but it really paid off in terms of visibility for HubSpot.

2) You Stay Focused

I'm sure your CEO has amazing marketing ideas. Your VP of Sales too. Oh, and anyone in your company who has never done marketing ever. It's really easy, as marketers, to get pulled in lots of different directions and take on all those ideas and suggestions. But lean marketing helps you stay focused. At the beginning of each sprint, you choose the projects -- the only projects -- that you'll work on during that given sprint. Everything else remains in a prioritized backlog. Get a good marketing request from your CEO mid-sprint? Great -- add it to the backlog.

3) You Prioritize

Prioritization is a key part of making sure you're focusing on the right projects. In the Lean Startup methodology, every project has a clear and distinct goal, success metric, evaluation of effort required (measuring the relative size of project), and a forced priority -- all of which are transparent to the whole company. Is the CEO asking why you're not working on his pet project? Well, because you're working on projects A, B, and C. Which is more important, Mr. CEO? Force yourself and your CEO to make a choice.

4) You Tackle Projects With Foresight

The structure of the Lean Startup methodology forces you to face blockers head-on and plan ahead as much as possible. A daily "standup" (a regular meeting where you literally stand for the whole meeting in order to keep it short) allows each team member to discuss what they're working on and if there are any blockers. A daily "burndown" (a chart that shows the amount of work left to be completed in the sprint, compared to the current goal) shows how the team is progressing toward completing all their projects. Together, these allow you to tackle issues and stay on track to accomplish all the goals you committed to.

8 Principles of Lean Marketing (AKA How to Run Your Marketing Team Like a Startup)

1) Organize Around the Sprint

Many of the terms used to describe the Lean methodology come from the world of sports -- to relate to the quickness and team-oriented focus of this methodology. "Scrum" (a rugby term that describes how the team huddles together to move a ball across the field) is used to describe the small, focused team that goes through iterative "sprints" (in sports, a short, quick run). To organize a sprint, pick the top projects from your backlog, and specifically focus on projects that can be completed in the timeframe of a single sprint. That doesn't mean you have to sacrifice big projects -- you just need to break them down into bite-sized pieces. That keeps you incrementally moving forward toward accomplishing the ultimate goal.

2) Structure Your Scrum Teams

The scrum team consists of a product owner (PO) and its team members. The PO is responsible for maintaining the backlog and making sure each project (also called a "user story") has all the necessary pieces (goal, tasks, etc.) and meets the interests of the stakeholders (customers, sales team, CEO, etc.). In a marketing team, this could be the marketing manager, or it might simply be someone you choose as a team lead. The team itself is self-managing and self-organizing to make sure it is accomplishing its goals. Every project should be able to be accomplished by just the people on the team with little to no involvement required from others, because any outside dependencies may seriously block progress.

3) Keep a Backlog

As we mentioned earlier, a backlog helps you keep your projects in a single place with priority in mind. It makes sprint planning easier and gives you a place to send others to submit their ideas for projects you should work on. This doesn't have to be anything fancy -- at HubSpot, we use a combination of our internal wiki and Google Docs to keep track of our backlogs.

4) Create User Stories

A user story (as it's called on the product development side) describes an individual project that you'll be working on in a given sprint. It's called a user story because it's phrased from the perspective of the user (or, stakeholder). For a marketing team, that user could be prospects, or it could be the sales team. For example, "As a HubSpot salesperson, I need a way to prioritize my leads so that I can connect with those who are most likely to buy." This outlines who the project is meant to help (a salesperson), what the goal of the project is (to prioritize leads), and why it's important (so they can connect with the best leads). The user story should also define success criteria/metrics (e.g. a new lead scoring system rolled out to the whole sales team) that must be met in order to consider the project complete.

5) Plan a Sprint

Planning a sprint involves looking at the top priority projects in your backlog, approximating the effort required for each, and calculating how much you can fit into the upcoming sprint. In traditional lean startups, this is known as "planning poker," which is the process of discussing each project and having each team member pick a card that represents the approximate effort. Planning poker cards have numbers from 0 to 100 only in the Fibonacci sequence. The reasoning that's stuck with me as a marketer is that these non-linear options remove any minute arguments about if project ABC is worth 6 points or 7. Instead, you more easily round down to 5 or round up to 8. These points, too, are only for measuring the relative size of different projects (e.g. an "8" project for me is different from an "8" project for a different team). Then, over time, you learn that each sprint you can take on 20, 30, or 50 points.

6) Commit Publicly

The transparency of the scrum process is key to keeping people accountable. At the start of a sprint, each team must commit publicly to other teams or even the whole company what projects they will accomplish during that sprint. Then, at the end of the sprint, the team comes back to show the product of their work and report on what they accomplished and what they did not. That public commitment keeps teams accountable and honest to accomplish what they say they will. At HubSpot, the end-of-sprint meeting for the product development team involves doing demos of all the newly completed software features, and it's the meeting with the most engaged audience and the most oohs and ahhs. It's certainly nice to give your marketing team the same recognition.

7) Commit to a Daily Standup

Throughout the sprint, it's important to meet daily for a lightweight progress checkin. In this daily standup meeting, each team member shares what they did yesterday, what they're working on today, and what blockers (if any) they have. When the HubSpot marketing team first adopted the scrum process, this was the piece that truly made each team member feel accountable for accomplishing something every single day. This daily standup also helps team members collaborate on projects and share lessons learned and ideas with one another.

8) Set Up Daily Reports

The sprint burndown chart is a daily progress chart for each sprint that shows how many tasks are left to complete. Tracked against a daily goal (e.g. half-way through the month, we should have half of our tasks complete), this allows the team to see if they're on pace to complete all of their projects by the end of the sprint. Here's an example of a real burndown chart from HubSpot's marketing team:

burndown chart

Lean, Agile Marketers Win

While not originally envisioned for marketing teams, the Lean Startup methodology is an incredibly powerful means to making marketers more agile and effective. Agile marketers win because they can publish more content, jump on trends, make quick, data-driven decisions, and constantly learn how to improve their marketing.

Excited to learn more about the Lean Startup? Check out Eric Ries' bestselling book, The Lean Startup, or his blog, StartupLessonsLearned.com.

How have you adopted the Lean Startup methodology to your work?

Image Credit: the Halfwitboy

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