Lurking beneath every goal are dangerous assumptions. The longer those assumptions remain unexamined, the greater the risk.– Jake Knapp, Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just 5 days
Imagine this scenario. You’re a marketer, and you’ve just launched a marketing campaign that you spent weeks or months building. You checked all your boxes:
- You assigned roles and responsibilities.
- You kept stakeholders informed along the way.
- You activated all the right channels to reach your target segment.
But something is wrong. Hardly any prospects are opening your emails. Almost none are engaging with your ads. The only feedback you are getting is that certain elements on your landing page are broken and, worse, don’t load properly across devices and browsers.
Your boss calls you into their office and asks: “What happened?”
The wrong answers would be:
- “I just assumed prospects would open my emails.”
- “I assumed the team QA’ed the landing page.”
Instead, the right answer is: “I’m going to find out where my assumptions led me wrong.”
In this post, I’ll walk you through a rigorous project management process to help you optimize your campaign strategy. Taking lessons from agile project management (specifically: sprints), I’ll show you how to build more effective, less assumptive, marketing campaigns.
Adapting sprints for marketing
Brands like 23andme and Slack have adopted the Google Venture design sprint because it works. For businesses aligned with the whole “lean startup” movement, the sprint offers a formula to quickly build, launch, and test products before committing too much time and effort to something that might not resonate in the market.
It can be easily applied to marketing because it’s built around making data-driven, research-backed decisions, which are critical to creating winning campaigns.
And even though Jake Knapp explicitly advises not to adapt the Sprint—I’ve done it anyway. Over the years, I’ve made small tweaks to suit the specific goals and needs of a marketing team and marketing campaigns.
Here’s what my sprint looks like:
Sprints traditionally happen during a five-day timeframe, when product teams set aside everything else they’re working on.
In my world, I don’t do that. Sometimes, our team will spend one week on a marketing sprint; other times it might take six. That’s the nature of shipping marketing campaigns—the sprint is a framework, not a mandate, for guiding our work.
Marketing sprint phases and goals:
Although I’ve adapted the framework and timeframe, the goals during each phase of the sprint remain true to the process:
- Map. Set your targets and objectives for what you want to accomplish based on feedback and research.
- Sketch. Ideate and pitch ideas for achieving your marketing goal.
- Decide. Vote and decide on your campaign content, channels, and tactics based on ideas pitched in Phase 2.
- Prototype. Build just enough of the campaign to get it ready for testing.
- Test. Get feedback on every aspect of the campaign so you can go back, make changes, and launch.
Now let’s look at what’s done in each phase to achieve those goals.
Phase 1: Map
The Map phase is all about research, collecting data, and understanding the problem to set clear, measurable, marketing targets.
The first thing you need to know is your objective. Is this a lead-gen campaign or a campaign to push a new affiliate program? Is it a nurture track to convert leads into paying customers or a brand play to increase awareness?
Once you understand the goal, you can move on to the research—how you’ll achieve it and the specific targets and metrics that indicate “success.”
There are so many ways you can collect data and do research. (In fact, CXL Agency has their own rigorous research process.) As a guide, I’d recommend a mix of primary and secondary research to inform how you set your targets, such as:
- Customer and industry interviews;
- Reading blog posts, best practices, tips and tricks articles, etc.;
- Heatmapping and polls;
- Eyetracking and biometric analysis;
- Digging into analytics and your customer insights tools;
- Usability tests;
- Heuristic analysis;
- A/B testing;
- The list goes on…
For example, for a recent campaign to launch new pricing at CXL Institute, we conducted a series of industry interviews with pricing experts, ran an average revenue per user (ARPU) projection analysis for new plans, and went through a suite of usability tests on pricing mockup designs and copy.
One piece of feedback from usability tests was that users were confused by the “Pay once” option in our pricing. Users didn’t understand if it was an annual payment or if they would keep the product for life.
The feedback triggered us to add a small disclaimer to our pricing block that made it clear that they would keep the course forever:
Phase 2: Sketch
Once you’ve collected all your research and set your targets, you’re ready to jump into the Sketch phase. This is where you put all your creative marketing ideas to work.
The first portion of this phase analyzes the research and comes prepped to an “ideation” pitch meeting with a fully baked campaign plan. Channels, content, messaging—it should all be there (or at least a skeleton of it).
A fully baked campaign prevents the meeting from turning into a mishmash of half-baked ideas that sound cool but might not make sense for the project. Often, asking for a full campaign plan leads team members to think of more complex, interesting ways of solving the problem.
It also helps marketers think more about connecting the dots across channels and assets since they’ve had to plan for it upfront. Here’s an example of what a campaign ideation pitch looks like, from a campaign I ran in my previous role at Unbounce:
Each person explains their campaign to the team, and each person votes on individual ideas, concepts, or tactics from each campaign.
I usually give people three votes and one “super vote” (worth two votes). After voting, you’re ready to move into Phase 3.
Phase 3: Decide
In this phase, you collect all the top-voted ideas, organize them, and come up with your campaign plan.
Here’s where a decision-making framework like DACI comes in handy. In the DACI framework, you assign specific roles:
- Driver. The person(s) responsible for leading the project and corralling all stakeholders.
- Approver. The person who ultimately makes the decision.
- Contributor. The person(s) with subject-matter expertise.
- Informed. The person(s) who’ll be kept in the loop on how decisions are made.
In this phase, the DACI framework is especially handy because you need one person—the Approver—to decide how all the voted ideas come together into a plan.
The Approver then comes back to the team and presents the plan to move forward, assigns roles to the Drivers, and pushes the campaign into the next phase.
Phase 4: Prototype
If you remember one thing about the Prototype phase, it should be this: Build just enough. Knapp outlines a four-step list of what he calls the “Prototype Mindset” in his book, and it goes as follows:
- You can prototype anything.
- Prototypes are disposable.
- Build just enough to learn, but not more.
- The prototype must appear real.
As a (self-aware) perfectionist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the Prototype phase and wanted to just spend a little extra time polishing a landing page, ad, or email. Resist the urge.
The whole point of this phase is to build only what you need to get an authentic answer from a potential user in the next phase: Test.
Your aim is to move through the Prototype phase quickly so that you can actually learn (and improve) based on real feedback. Plus, the more time you waste making something perfect, the more frustrating it’s going to be
if when you have to change it later.
Phase 5: Test
Congrats! You’ve made it to the final phase—where the real magic happens. During the test phase, you get user feedback on the prototypes you’ve built.
First, conduct a series of interviews (ideally with your customers). According to Knapp, conducting at least five interviews during a sprint is enough to get real insight. Any less and you might be operating on false information.
Ask all interviewees the same questions. You’re looking to discover:
- Are they interacting with the prototype the way you intend? For example, if you want them to hover over a tool-tip on your landing page to discover more info, are they doing that?
- Is their reaction positive or negative? For example, is your messaging resonating with them? If you added a joke to your email copy, did they get it? Did they laugh?
- Are they motivated to complete the action? For example, are they finding and clicking the call to action? Is the offer something they seem enticed by?
After you conduct interviews, transform feedback into “How might we” statements. Originally an idea defined by Proctor and Gamble in the 1970s, the basis of “How might we” is to rephrase every piece of feedback (positive, negative, neutral) into a question that incites action.
For example, say you’re testing an email in a nurture campaign to convert leads into customers. A piece of feedback you might receive is: “Get to the point faster, I skim emails.”
Your role is to transform that feedback into a question: “How might we accommodate people who skim emails?”
The benefit of this technique is that it doesn’t immediately present a solution, empowering you and your team to come up with the best answer. For example, you could solve for skim readers in a few ways:
- Reduce the amount of copy in the email.
- Use bolding and bulleting to break it up and call attention to the main points.
- Reorder copy so the main call to action and thesis is at the top.
Once you’ve transformed your feedback into action items, you need to prioritize. Often, you’ll get a ton of feedback, and you need to decide which feedback to put into action. Sometimes, you might not have enough time to do it all, and that’s okay.
Prioritizing feedback should be based on:
- How important it is to the campaign’s success. If something’s broken, you need to fix it.
- How often that piece of feedback came up. If everyone said they didn’t understand the headline, you probably need to rewrite it.
From there, you’re armed and ready with a tested campaign that you can remix, fix, and—most importantly—launch!
Sprints are an effective and helpful project management process that you can apply to any and every marketing campaign. They ensure your work is data-driven and research-backed.
Ideally, sprints aren’t a one-and-done experience, either. A sprint lets you observe a campaign in the wild and, if it’s not hitting your targets, make tweaks and changes until it does.
If you want to learn more project management tools, techniques, and processes, check out my course at CXL Institute on project management for marketers. I cover the sprint process further, PLUS I walk you through how to iterate from annual to quarterly, monthly, and weekly planning so that your marketing team is set up for success.