Organizing Your Agile Marketing Backlog

In my last post about your Marketing Backlog, I talked about how it’s not just a parking lot for work – it’s an “information radiator” that exposes other people to the great work your marketing team is tackling.  So hopefully you’ve got it displayed in a prominent location, making easy for both your marketing team and the stakeholders who depend on your team to see it.

However, your marketing backlog isn’t carved in stone.  And unlike the old 12-month marketing plan you had to jump through hoops to produce (and was promptly erased from everyone’s collective memory), you absolutely want people to notice when you make changes to your backlog.  You’ll add to it, reorganize it, and annotate it as new work comes in, as you incorporate feedback from your marketing metrics, and as business priorities change.    Which means you’d better think about how to keep it organized, and not just for your team, but for all your stakeholders as well.

For those who have gone through formal Scrum training, the only examples of backlogs you probably saw were big monolithic spaces on a whiteboard.  And your trainer made an equally big deal out of keeping everything “in priority order” with the highest priority items at the top.  However, in practice, teams often use multiple “buckets” to organize their backlog – both software development teams and marketing teams alike.  And this is one area where I believe physical boards really outshine a lot of electronic tools – the ability to organize and annotate your backlog however you see fit.

Some Scrum purists bristle at the thought of multiple buckets as that implies multiple backlogs which is seen as a no-no.  However, simply referring to buckets as “themes” makes those concerns disappear as themes are a standard part of the Scrum nomenclature.  And in my experience, people have a much easier time using the term “bucket” with their backlog versus “theme” so that’s the term I’ll use.

How should you go about organizing your marketing backlog?  Start by asking yourself two questions:

  • What buckets would be handy for walking execs through our priorities?
  • What buckets would be handy for quickly organizing new work from different stakeholders?

In my opinion, it’s the answer to the first question that has the biggest impact.  If your execs have provided guidance that translates into clear marketing priorities, why not start by organizing your backlog by those priorities?

Example:  Your CEO announces priorities for growth in the coming year, and your company’s plan calls for $100M in new business and $50M in repeat business.  Likewise, your marketing organization is expected to work with sales to achieve both those numbers.  Here’s a first-cut at how you could organize your marketing backlog to clearly reflect those priorities.

2014-02 backlog

I always get a few “ah-ha!” responses when I show this approach to people taking my Agile Marketing class.  Unlike the backlog for a software development team, the marketing activities in your backlog can often be tied directly to measurable business goals like revenue.  At least, they can be – too many people have big gaps in their marketing metrics, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In this example, with your backlog organized like this, imagine your CEO comes by and wants a quick update on what your team is up to.  You can point to your backlog on the wall and show what your team is doing specifically for the priorities the CEO set.  Not only that, but you can show how well your team is doing – notice the metrics at the top of each bucket?  That’s another cool thing that totally makes sense to add to your marketing backlog – metrics!  Got a marketing dashboard?  Why make people go someplace else to see your metrics?  Remember – your marketing backlog is a billboard for your team, and if you want people to see your work AND your metrics, put them both on your big, beautiful billboard.

Imagine how you would handle new requests from stakeholders in various product divisions or sales teams in this example.  It’s easy to quickly set the priority of new work when you can clearly show them where your and your company’s priorities are and how well you’re doing towards them.  “Want a new campaign for Product X renewals?  As you can see, we’re already ahead of plan on repeat business, but we’re behind on new customer revenue, so a campaign for renewals is going to be a lower priority.”  Doesn’t that sound like a wonderfully well-informed, short and sane discussion?

In the same Agile Marketing classes where I get the “ah-ha!” responses, I ask participants to sketch how they would organize their backlog.  And when you don’t have clear alignment between your company’s overall priorities and your marketing priorities then your backlog is going to look like a bunch of stakeholder buckets or just one big bucket.  While that approach can work, it clearly has some drawbacks.  In particular, it makes prioritizing new work difficult as stakeholders will frequently give you conflicting priorities and you wind up prioritizing by whoever screams the loudest.

Even if your execs don’t provide direction that clearly translates into measurable marketing priorities, nobody is going to stop you from establishing your own marketing metrics and using them to prioritize your backlog.  Again, metrics will be a discussion for another time.

Speaking of metrics, in the next installment, I’ll dive into some deeper examples of how to organize your marketing backlog and annotate it with useful metrics.  In the meantime, how do you organize your backlog today?  What metrics do you display today and what metrics would you like to display if you could?

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