Staying on the Right Track with Agile Content Strategy

The course of the Indianapolis 500 doesn’t appear that complicated: it’s just an oval-shaped track. It looks the same on lap 3 as it does on lap 451. But the simple terrain is deceptive, because winning the Indy 500 is hard.

You won’t get far without a well-designed vehicle, but you also need an experienced driver behind the wheel who understands the complexities of a prolonged, intense competition.

And while the racetrack of the Indy 500 isn’t complex, that doesn’t mean that any car or any driver off the street could win it. Driving a car around in a circle for several hours doesn’t sound difficult, but winning the Indy 500 certainly does.

Creating and executing an effective content strategy is a lot like building a car from scratch, finding a good driver, and trying to win the Indianapolis 500. It’s not impossible, but it requires an adaptive, agile approach that embraces uncertainty as a competitive advantage.

The Importance of Steering

No one expects a race car driver to set a course at the start of a race and follow it unerringly to the finish line. She has to adjust to changing course conditions, navigate around other cars, and make pit stops at the appropriate time.

But many of us create a content strategy once and never touch it again.

We devote dozens of hours to crafting a beautiful document and put it on a pedestal. We’re trying to win the Indy 500 with our car on cruise control.

The reality of driving is that it requires constant minute adjustments, even if we’re just driving a car in straight line. Content strategy likewise demands our continuous attention; we need to find out what works, what doesn’t, and recalibrate our path accordingly.

We need to be agile.

Adaptive vs. Predictive Content Strategy: A 6x Advantage

Predictive content strategies work really well when we know everything about the environment in which we’ll be creating and releasing our content. If content production teams, distribution channels, and competitive landscape alike will remain static during the entire time our strategy is being applied, then a predictive approach is the way to go.

But in the real world, where most of us work, things change constantly.

Team members leave and are hired, channels rise and fall, and new voices join the conversation. Rather than put our head down and continue executing against a fixed content strategy, we need an adaptive approach that’s prepared to encounter new circumstances.

Not only that, we need a deliberately agile content strategy that embraces change as a source of competitive advantage.

Consider the math for a moment.

Many agile teams run on a two-week cycle, which allows them to pause for inspection and adaptation every 14 days. Compared with a team that only reevaluates their strategy once per quarter, an agile team is acting 543 percent faster.

If you can establish a system that allows you to adapt your content strategy every two weeks while a competitor sticks to a quarterly pace, you just gained a 6x advantage.*

Two Agile Approaches to Content Strategy

That sounds nice, but in the frenetic world of most content marketing teams, finding time to slow down and consider strategy every two weeks seems about as likely as becoming a world champion race car driver.

And it’s true. Simply putting “Review Content Strategy” as a recurring event every two weeks on the departmental calendar isn’t going to get you a 6x advantage over the competition.

To move from predictive towards truly adaptive, content strategy needs to be part of a larger commitment to agile practices. The most common ways of achieving this are by using Scrum or Kanban, the two most popular agile methodologies.

We won’t do a complete walk through here, but the basic parameters of each approach are as follows.

Scrum: For Tight-knit Teams on a Schedule

Scrum teams operate within Sprints, short periods of work that takes place within a discrete timebox (typically two weeks). Sprints center on the amount of work the team can complete in that amount of time, and they rely heavily on teamwork and communication.

Detailed planning meetings mark the start of each Sprint, and it’s here that the content strategy can come up for review and alteration. Agile teams rely on objective data over subjective opinions, so any changes need to be backed up qualitatively. “We don’t like writing ebooks” isn’t a good reason to take them out of your next Sprint. “Infographics produce three times more email subscribers than ebooks” is.

Each Sprint concludes with a Retrospective, a 1- to 2-hour meeting in which the team reviews their process and comes up with ways to improve it during the next Sprint. Content strategy can once again be a topic of discussion, particularly if the team’s workflow is out of sync with the strategy’s objectives.

For example, if the content strategy calls for heavy social media distribution across multiple channels, but the team is finding it hard to keep up with that workload, results may improve by focusing their efforts on a smaller number of channels and then expanding over time.

An agile team will make this discovery after two weeks and adjust accordingly.

A traditional, predictive team could have spent months spreading their attention too thinly over too many channels without any opportunity to fix the problem.

Kanban: Specialized Content Teams on their Own Cadence

Unlike Scrum, Kanban doesn’t include any set timeboxes. Work is released when it’s finished, and new work begins when the current task is complete. The flow of tasks is governed by Work in Progress (WIP) limits, which restrict the amount of work that can be in any given state at once.

For example, this simple board has a WIP limit of four on its Research/Prep column, meaning for the entire team only four pieces can be in this state. Something must be pulled into the Creating column before more work can be researched.

Like Scrum teams, marketing teams who use Kanban engage in regular retrospectives and planning sessions, but they aren’t tied to a Sprint cycle.

Retrospectives could happen every two weeks if that cadence works best for the team, or they could happen after the team releases ten new pieces of content. Planning might need to occur more frequently if content gets rapidly pushed out, or it might only happen once a month if the team can self-organize really well.

Once again, both meetings are an opportunity for the content strategy to be investigated and adaptive based on objective performance data.

Make Strategic Pitstops with Agile

Embracing an agile content strategy means you don’t need to run the whole race with the same tires and a single tank of gas. By building regular review and adaptation into your team’s flow, you gain the ability to pump the brakes, step on the gas, or make a pit stop at the right time.

Whether you choose Kanban or Scrum, use agile retrospectives to make sure your channels, content types, and team are firing on all cylinders.

(You can find more advice on choosing the right agile approach for your team in my ebook, Choosing from the Agile Buffet.)

* Thanks to Scott Brinker for introducing me to this formula in Hacking Marketing.

Author: Andrea Fryrear
Andrea is a speaker, author, and the chief content officer for Fox Content, an agile content consultancy. Her most recent book is Death of a Marketer, which tracks marketing’s history and advocates for a more agile future for the profession. She also writes for and edits The Agile Marketer, a community of cutting edge Agile marketers. Find her geeking out on all things agile and content @AndreaFryrear.