agile marketing plan elephant and hummingbird
Elephant and hummingbird by Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Modern marketers work in world of constant change:

  • Customers expect the brands they’re passionate about to respond rapidly to their needs.
  • New competitors come into (and drop out of) the market on a regular basis.
  • Global trends impact local business plans.
  • Things we haven’t even thought of right now will crop up and completely disrupt our current marketing paradigm.

So if your marketing department has to stop to create an in depth, year-long marketing plan, you’ll most likely be wasting hours, days, and maybe even weeks to come up with a document that could be rendered useless by the events of a single hour.

Instead, you could devote a single day to drafting its speedier cousin, the agile marketing plan.

Marketing Plan Evolution: From Elephant to Hummingbird

Historically, marketing plans have been massive, elephantine documents, sometimes running to dozens and dozens of pages and taking hundreds of hours to complete. The marketing department has to research, write, and edit the document, and then interested parties from other departments have to sign off.

Both halves of this equation can take weeks, if not longer, because the final document will form the guiding principles (and budget) of Marketing (capital “M”) for a year or more.

Consider how many opportunities may have flown past while such a behemoth plan was under construction.

But whatever the drawbacks of traditional marketing plans, the fact remains that marketers need something to guide their efforts. Marketing plans are an easily recognizable document for upper management to review, and they generally remain the go-to option in most organizations.

Enter the hummingbird, also known as an agile marketing plan.

Compared to the plodding, methodical marketing plans that span a year’s worth of efforts, agile marketing plans really are like hummingbirds. They are lean, pared down, super speedy iterations that can empower marketing departments to create strategies that will actively respond to changing market forces, emerging markets, and evolving customer needs.

That may sound good, but how do the two plans really compare?

Traditional vs. Agile Marketing Plans

In the past marketing plans have been designed to guide the efforts of a marketing department over at least a few quarters, if not longer. They involve big goals, big bets, and big investments of both time and money, none of which is likely to make their creators open to changing them easily.

General wisdom recommends drafting a new plan yearly and including some ideas for the very long term (3-5 years).

A traditional marketing plan is a static document, and it’s usually written as if the marketing department will be static too.

Agile marketing plans, on the other hand, are designed to be adaptive.

The length of time each one covers varies from organization to organization, but typically they should be re-evaluated every 6-8 weeks.

On agile software development teams this timebox is often called a “Release,” and the planning process known as “Release Planning.” A software release would be just that: a piece of software (or a new feature or upgrade) that could be released to customers.

For marketers, it’s more like a Campaign, and what we would do in the planning process might be better described as Campaign Planning.

In agile marketing, the focus is on creating a living model that interacts with customers and the market to bring back actionable, measurable data in the short term. Its success or failure can be evaluated in a few weeks, not after a year. Software releases can include several iterations, sometimes known as sprints, and so can marketing campaigns.

If new competitors arise, the next release/campaign can include strategies to address them. If new software is released that could streamline current strategies, it can be tested right away as part of a holistic approach instead of trying to wedge it into an already full marketing plan.

Here’s a general comparison of the two types of marketing plans:

Traditional Marketing Plan

Agile Marketing Plan

Very long term document; usually 1 per year

Short term document; often multiple iterations per quarter

Big goals, big bets, big investments; people may feel attached to goals/methods

Many small experiments; test, determine success/failure, move on

Not flexible; static document for static market

Designed to be changed, updated as conditions change

Requires high level sign off at the beginning, then minimal executive involvement

Consistent team involved in every sprint and campaign

Time- and effort-intensive planning up front to create goals and action items

Create new hypotheses, goals, actions for each sprint

May not encourage innovation; stick to the plan!

Permission to fail within a sprint, allows for testing new options and ideas

Typical Marketing Plan Template

There isn’t a single marketing plan template that all marketers use, but as a whole they include most of the following elements:

  • Executive Summary: A high-level overview of the entire document. Usually as far as most readers will get.
  • Customer Analysis: Who are the target customers? What do they love/need/hate? Demographic data, and sometimes market segmentation, are often presented here.
  • Unique Selling Proposition and/or Product Strategy: Details on why this company/product/service is the best in its space, and why customers should choose it.
  • Target Market Analysis: May include details on current and projected market share, as well as competitors.
  • Marketing Strategies: Usually the meat of the document, and often broken down into lots of subcategories, like:
    • Product Strategies
    • Marketing Materials
    • Conversion Strategy
    • Promotions Strategy
    • Online Marketing Strategy
    • Advertising and Promotions Strategy
    • Distribution Strategy
    • Pricing Strategy

Overwhelmed yet? Me too.

  • Forecasts or Projections: Here’s where things tend to get sticky. The document tries to predict how the market will look in the future, and how the above strategies will be able to impact it. So it may include things like current conversion rates on the company website vs. where the marketing department hopes they will be in six months after a certain number of strategies are in place. Or it might predict how the customer retention rate will change after a new email campaign is completed.

Agile Marketing Model, Not Plan

Like traditional plans there isn’t a set format or template, but a Campaign plan for an agile team might include the following items.

  • Offer: Includes the solution being offered and unique value proposition for the product/company/service that this Campaign is focusing on.
  • Go-To Market: What channels or partners will be used for distribution and customer interaction?
  • Customer: Like traditional marketing plans, this section includes information about the customer, often in the form of personas and/or customer segments.
  • Money & Measurements: Here’s where the primary difference from the traditional marketing plan template comes in. Agile marketing plans are all about testable hypotheses, and in order for something to be testable it has to be measurable. Each plan incorporates small goals or targets that can be tracked and measured in the allotted time frame, with either success or failure determined by the selected metric(s). The team can then build on either success or failure when crafting future iterations.

What is Success? Predictions vs. Measurements

One thing we should focus on from the above comparison is the final piece of each plan’s template: forecasts or projections in the traditional plan, versus money and measurement in the agile version.

In my opinion, the focus on constant data flow is where the real value of an agile marketing plan lies.

An agile marketing plan has several small, testable hypotheses driving it, each of which has metrics at its core. You can begin crafting these hypotheses by asking some of the following questions, but they are just a starting point (taken from “Getting Started with Agile Marketing” by Jim Ewel).

  • Where did you spend your marketing dollars over the last twelve months? If you were to start over constructing a marketing budget, how would you allocate the dollars? Which spends are leading to the greatest returns?
  • Are there additional customer segments that you could target?
  • Are there other potential revenue streams available to you?
  • Which channels/partners are most effective? Would allocating expenditures differently among different channels have an impact?
  • Which customer touch points are working well? Which aren’t? Where should we put more focus?

The success or failure of these theories is measured by key metrics, which you’ll select based on your own bottom line goals.

Dave McClure’s “Startup Metrics for Pirates” (so named for the acronym AARRR) offers some potential ideas for measurement:

  • Acquisition: users come to the site from various channels
  • Activation: users enjoy first visit: “happy” user experience
  • Retention: users come back, visit site multiple times
  • Referral: users like product enough to refer others
  • Revenue: users conduct some monetization behavior

The last “R” is the one that really drives a business, but there are metrics throughout the funnel that can and should be tracked. Just make sure they are hard pieces of data and not soft metrics like “mind share.”

Measuring Success of Agile and Traditional Marketing Plans

An agile marketing campaign outlines the goals to achieve and the metrics that will be objectively tracked, evaluated, and acted upon. A traditional marketing plan, however, offers forecasts or projections.

Here in Colorado, forecasts for the next twelve hours are notoriously mistrusted. So if you tried to convince someone to invest their entire marketing budget for the year based on a forecast for three, six or nine months from now, it probably wouldn’t go over well.

Granted, weather forecasts and marketing forecasts are significantly different animals, but they aren’t both called “forecasts” for nothing. There is an inherent level of uncertainty in each one, an instability that traditional marketing plans just aren’t equipped to deal with.

The best, most well-informed, marketers in the world are not psychics. They can have their fingers on the pulse of their customers, and may seem to anticipate their needs with each email campaign, webinar, or white paper.

But even those outstanding folks couldn’t anticipate some of the most significant changes of the past 10 years, much less respond to them in a meaningful way, if they were shackled by a huge marketing plan that was designed to meet forecasted goals set up to operate in a world without change.

When the next big (or small, or medium) marketing obstacle shows up, would you rather be struggling to turn an elephant, or bobbing and weaving on a hummingbird?

This post originally appeared on It is reprinted with permission.

Read more: 3 Major Differences between Agile and Traditional Marketing