By Jerry W. Thomas
The roots of agile marketing and agile marketing research trace back to the agile software development—a movement that started during the 1990s. The movement came about in an attempt to speed up software development and make it more responsive to the needs of end users.
The core principles of agile software development include minimizing upfront planning, producing prototype software quickly, obtaining user feedback and suggestions, making the highest priority improvements in software, releasing updates quickly, and repeating the process.
These basic ideas appear to offer some advantages over the traditional waterfall methods of software development—a more linear development process with greater upfront planning. The counter argument, is that great software requires careful and detailed upfront planning to avoid dead ends, blockages, capability limitations, and expensive rewrites of ill-planned spaghetti code.
It’s commonly assumed that agile software development led to improved software and improved production of software—more lines of acceptable code. As with many claims, however, the stated successes of agile software development are difficult to document and prove.
The evidence, what little there is, suggests that agile software development worked in some organizations and applications (apps), but failed in others. There were no long-term controlled experiments across many different types of software development environments to prove agile software development is better than other software development systems. No scientific evidence exists to support the claims of agile software development’s proponents.
Lack of proof, however, is not a barrier to the spread of managerial ideas and marketing fads. Agile software development has spilled over into the marketing domain and mutated into agile marketing and agile marketing research. The influence of the agile fad can be heard in the drumbeats for shorter cycle times, quick and good enough, and fail fast. These drumbeats resound throughout the echo chambers of marketing books, conferences, blogs, newsletters, consultants, and gurus.
Fail Fast Mantra
The agile marketing fashion fad is rapidly spreading through corporate America with its admonitions to “try lots of stuff and fail fast.” The fail fast mantra is repeated everywhere one turns. The unquestioned premise is that trying lots of stuff and failing fast somehow lead to success. This is a believable premise in a marketing world that has fully embraced the narrative that blazing speed is essential to survival in the fast-moving digital age.
Several years ago a researcher from Yahoo gave a presentation at a major marketing research conference. He proudly asserted that most of the company’s research projects were turned around in just a few days and that no research project was ever allowed to take more than two weeks. He was applauded as a leading-edge thinker in marketing research for these bold, new approaches.
However, I wonder where Yahoo would be today if it had conducted thoughtful, well planned, comprehensive marketing research studies to help guide its marketing planning and its business decisions. Did Yahoo have to suffer slow, tortuous decay because of poor business and marketing decisions? Did the overnight surveys and instant results help Yahoo avoid self-destruction? Did Yahoo’s online comparison tests reveal the ultimate truth?
If Yahoo had taken six months—or heck, a year—to conduct extensive research to analyze and diagnose its problems and chart an evidence-based strategy for the future, where might it be now?
Apple uses marketing research to guide its decisions and product development. I remember many years ago calling on Apple when it was a small startup in Silicon Valley under the leadership of Steve Jobs. Even then, Apple had a large and sophisticated marketing research function compared to virtually every other high-tech company in CA. Apple knows how to use marketing research to improve its strategic decisions.
Microsoft is another example of a technology company that uses marketing research to guide its business decisions and software development. The company has rarely been seen as a leader in engineering or technical virtuosity, but it has always been a leader in the use of carefully planned, intelligent marketing research. It is Microsoft’s marketing research investments that have helped it achieve competitive advantage and dominate its primary markets for more than three decades.
The company doesn’t talk much about its marketing research advantages, but of course why would they want to share this knowledge with all of their smartest guys in the room competitors?
Now, back to the agile marketing and fail fast story. A few weeks back a client told me that he no longer saw a need for marketing research to help guide new product development, because his company had adopted agile marketing and fail fast as modus operandi.
He went on to say he was introducing a new product every month to see what would succeed in the marketplace. Despite my counterarguments, he persisted in his faith in agile marketing and fail fast. So, what’s wrong with the agile marketing/fail fast strategy, you might ask.
First, most new products fail—as high as 90 percent by some estimates. So, if my client introduced a new product every month, he would be lucky to find one successful new product per year.
But, wait a minute. That average success rate of ten percent is based partially on products that went through at least some research and testing before market introduction. If we randomly pick new products, the success rate might only be five percent, if we are lucky.
If the client introduces 12 new products a year, that probably means his company cannot afford to support each one with media advertising, extensive promotions, or concentrated efforts from his sales organization. That means that all 12 of the new products will surely fail in the marketplace from lack of support.
“Fail fast” can quickly lead to “fail consistently.”
What if we took those 12 new product ideas, developed them into concepts, and tested the ideas among the target audience? We might find we had two concepts strong enough to justify market introduction. Then, we would place the two new products—corresponding to the two winning concepts—in the homes of target market consumers for in-home usage testing, which might reveal that only one of the new products was ready to go to market.
Now, what if we took this winning concept—and the best product—to market and supported it with heavy media advertising, strong trial-inducing promotions, and concentrated support from the sales organization for a period of one year. The chances of that product achieving success would be many times greater than the chances of success offered by agile marketing and fail fast.
It might be said, however, that the digital world is different. It’s easy and cheap to try new advertisements, new promotional ideas, and even new product ideas, to see if those new ideas work. True, it is easy and cheap to test new ideas in a digital environment, but perhaps not as cheap or as fast as it seems.
Did the new product fail because it was a bad idea, or did it fail because no one saw it? Trial and error is a slow, painful way to develop new knowledge. A-B testing is widely used but of limited value. The pairs of words, images and ideas that could be A-B tested approach infinity. A-B testing, also known as split testing or bucket testing, is a method of comparing two versions of a webpage or application against each other to determine which one performs better. You could use A-B testing for the next 50 years and not cover all the possible options. Also, the ease and speed of making changes in a digital world tend to create tactical chaos, rather than lead to a steadfast, consistent strategy. While agile marketing sounds good, a deeper look could reveals empty promises.
Marketing fads like agile marketing spread fast, supercharged by new articles, new books, new conferences, and new consultants and gurus. Marketing fads and buzzwords are fun and exciting, but marketing success rests upon the boring fundamentals of solid marketing research, careful marketing planning, and tenacious and consistent execution of the marketing plan.
Marketing is all about long-term consistency, concentration, focusing of effort and energy, and about putting all of your money behind the new product most likely to succeed. Agile marketing likely leads to failure, fast though it be. SWM
A professional researcher for 45 years, Jerry W. Thomas is president/CEO of Dallas/Fort Worth-based Decision Analyst Inc., decisionanalyst.com. Thomas welcomes comments and suggestions. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at or 1-817-640-6166.
Sep2018, Software Magazine