Estimating is hard.  You know it, I know it.

I often hear when teaching Marketing Teams about Agile Marketing that they don’t estimate and I can’t blame them.  Your tools, your teams, and your deadlines are purely based on need and not on any real understanding of the team’s performance.

The question is asked, “Can we get this done by Friday?” and the framing applies the assumption it can and should be done by Friday.  Aren’t you amazed at how easy others think creating content must be?  So many of those who ask for content believe you should be able to crank it out in a matter of moments.  It is just marketing, right?

Wrong.  Our goal is to produce consistent content for an audience based on the content types they want and the quality standard we have committed to.  Another goal I often talk about is finding a sustainable pace that we can perform at week after week without burnout.

When a deadline is assumed before we have an unbiased estimate, we typically have an emotional response just like if our gym coach asked us if we can do ten pull-ups.  We are pressured into a commitment, but unlike trying hard for a few minutes to prove to ourselves and our classmates that we are strong, we are asked over and over to perform at this level.

Video Hosted on Brightcove Cloud

Differences In Our Days

Estimating as a team is harder.

On the Midwest Marketing Show, I always ask our guests the question, “What does a typical day look like for you?” The number one response I get is every day is different.  No matter if we are talking to someone fresh out of school or the Chief Marketing Officer of an organization, we are all reacting to the day rather than wrestling it into submission.

When we come to the table to estimate a Content Item, we all bring baggage to the table that causes inaccuracy and doubt.  This doubt could be rooted in us not knowing enough about our ability to perform or where we will have enough time to work on the item.

Since we are working together on the item, we need to break through these factors and find a way to estimate detached from the chaos and confusion.

Our goal in Content Marketing is to provide value to the audience.  If we are all running around doing whatever whenever, then how can we ever be expected to perform with the discipline needed to consistently deliver this value?

Here are three tips I suggest you try to get started on your way to focused estimating content for yourself or team based environments.

Tip #1 – We Need Practice

If you can’t tell me how long it will take you to complete a task like create a banner for a blog post, write 800 words on an industry topic, or review another team member’s copy, how can you expect to estimate what it will take to do all of them together?

When talking about Content Items and tasks, I like to use the analogy of Lego® building.  I am not talking about the Lego® Death Star set that has the exact piece required and a fifty-page manual.  When I was a kid, we bought a box of colorful pieces with pictures of all the things we could build.  There was the expectation of children using their imaginations to create other things that were not listed on the box.

But in everything I built there were a few hard laws of Lego building.

One of those laws was all pieces are the same quality.  You didn’t try to put two pieces together and find a prong was off center.  Everything was designed to work together and meet a minimum quality factor.  Our quality of content elements should be as consistent at the task level just as much as these blocks.  We should agree that images, audio, video, and copy have a standard of quality that our team is expected to complete every time.

Another law of Lego® building was the pieces work together.  You never had one piece that didn’t connect to another.  Every final project could be broken down into parts that could be used to build something else.  These parts had very exact measurements and were selected to fit our need.  Our content requires the same level of consistency to reach the audience.  The voice, the duration, the delivery frequency are all aspects of the content our audience will begin to expect from us.  These characteristics come from the smaller elements within the content rather than the end result.

When looking at the composition of a Content Item, we see it is made up of repeatable tasks that we complete every day.  When we start to document how long it will take us to do these smaller tasks, we can get a better understanding of our performance.  If we apply our quality and consistency laws to the content, we can ensure we are building the right elements for the larger Content Item.  When we are asked to estimate the more robust item, we can add up the estimates for the tasks and have confidence in what we have determined.

Then when someone applies a deadline, we can break the content item down into those parts to see how we can change the requirements to make it work instead of removing quality or consistency.

Tip #2 – We Need A Happy Place

When we estimate a Content Item, we do so with our chaotic world in mind, but if your schedule is like mine, that world changes all the time.

One week I will be sitting staring at my screen trying to come up with something to create.  Then the very next week I am so buried in my work, I have to call my wife and tell her I will be late.

You bring this understanding of your day to the table as well.  The issues arise in estimating when we realize we might not be the people who work on this item.   And if we are, we don’t know what the week we are going to run up against looks like.

To get around this, we need to estimate as if the work will be completed in a fictitious place of calm serenity.  I like to suggest these characteristics:

  • Ample food and drink
  • No cell phones
  • No social media
  • No email
  • Bathroom nearby
  • Headphones for everyone and no water coolers for conversation

This place is like a mini Content Developer paradise.

But you are probably wondering why we would estimate from here.  We come to this location so that when we start to plan our work, whether that is next week or six months from now, we can review our schedule and commit these blocks of time to the Sprint.

Within a day, we may have four hours we can commit to content development.  During this period, we will manage our time effectively.  We will turn off email and place our cell phones somewhere else.  We will remove our wearables (Sorry Garmin, I need to be inactive for a moment) to make sure the notifications don’t cause distraction.  And we will get a new set of headphones that help us block out the world.

Then when the whole team has calculated their committed time to the Sprint, we will apply a percentage called an Efficiency Factor to the time to bring some of the reality back of distractions, meetings, and bathroom breaks.  More to come later on this topic.

Tip #3 – We Need To Re-Estimate Often

Have you ever trained for a race?  Let’s say one of your friends convinced you to join them in a 5K and you remember what it was like to be able to run free when you were younger and you think, “I can do that again!”  You know you want to get a time near your friend who is aiming for a sub-30 minute race.  You lace up your shoes and go out for a quick couple mile run to get warmed up.  What happens next?

Chicago Marathon

After several hundred feet, you are exhausted.  If you are like I was you probably started walking during the first mile, and your total time of the two miles was near 30 minutes.

Is all hope lost for you?  Should you just give up?

No, you are just not good at running anymore.  You might need to shed some pounds and watch what you eat.  You need some practice and training.  You need some expertise on how to do better.

This is the exact same process when it comes to producing content.  If you pick up a new content type or you are always striving to up your game, you need practice, coaching, and monitoring of your progress.  Over time, you will get better and increase your productivity.  And what looked to be a five day estimate for a Content Item would start to look more like a three.

But we are not in this alone on our teams. Instead of running our own race, we are all running together.  When we estimate, we are only as strong as our weakest member.  It should be the goal of everyone who is performing at a high level to help those who are new to the team to get better so the team gets better.

With this mentality, re-estimating our Content Items is critical on a regular basis.  Our performance and capabilities are always changing and we need to make sure our Content Backlog is represented by what is known today at all times.

Here are some other factors that we should consider when looking at our estimates:

  • Have we added new members to our team? – New folks tend to slow down the team as a collective because of their performance and our need to coach them.
  • Have the requirements changed? – Do we know more about our audience?  Did someone else write the piece before us?  These are some of the questions you should ask your Content Owner when reviewing a card.
  • Are we better or worse with this type of content? – Did our performance go up because we have repeatedly performed at a higher level than we originally estimated?  Or, are we actually slower than we once thought?  Looking back at the estimates from previously completed work and the actual time it took to complete the item will show us our difference.
  • Did we adopt a new Content Type? If you are creating a new form of content that the team has never produced, you can be assured that you will get better and it is best to add some buffer to those items at first to allow for the patterns of production to form.  Once you find that sustainable pace with this item, review those original estimates and remove the padding.

With this said, don’t go looking for problems and try to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of your estimate.  Remember we use the word estimate because it is an educated guess, not a measurable fact.

You will know there is a problem when are sitting at the end of a sprint with two days remaining and every task moved to the Completed Column.  Or reversely, sitting at your desk on Saturday morning getting everything finished to complete the Sprint.

And finally, remember we are looking for patterns and one good or bad Sprint does not qualify as a repeated measurement.

My Day is Different Than Yours – #AgileMarketing Estimating Strategy from AJi

This article was originally posted on the AJi Corporate Blog.