Kanban board with sticky notes

Introduction to Kanban for Marketing

Many business leaders at the SMB level still believe that marketing is a chaotic organizational function. A few years ago, they might have been right to some extent. However, times are changing and forward-thinking marketing agencies and departments have been working to escape this prejudice.

Among the most potent solutions that emerged was Kanban. It is a Lean Agile method for managing work that proved itself in tech and manufacturing. Now, marketers who apply it enjoy process structure and productivity that are hard to match by traditional marketing agencies and in-house departments.

At the core of Kanban lies the ability to visualize work, facilitate a clear process for maximizing productivity, and an undying strive to improve continuously. The primary tool for achieving all of this is a visualization tool called a Kanban board.

Continue reading to get acquainted with Kanban marketing, learn how it boosts the performance of agencies and in-house teams, and see how to build and make the most of a marketing Kanban board.

Kanban for Marketing

Kanban originated in manufacturing more than half a century ago. Initially, it was part of the Toyota Production System (TPS) that revolutionized the automotive industry in the late 1940s. 

Many years later, in 2013, Kanban was defined as a Lean Agile method for managing software development work by David J. Anderson in his book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business.

Shortly after that, forward-thinking marketers started experimenting with Kanban as well. As seen later in the article, Kanban marketing showed potential for becoming the next big thing in marketing process management.

The 4 Universal Principles of Kanban

Kanban for marketing is based on four underlying principles for implementing the method:

The 4 Universal principles of Kanban illustration
  1. Start with what you do now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in the organization

These principles allow us to implement Kanban for marketing without having to make big sweeping changes to our processes from the very start. Instead, they help marketers gradually evolve their process over time and achieve better results in the long run.

Each of the principles is important for applying the six core practices that make Kanban a perfect method for improving the performance of a marketing team. Let’s have a look.

The 6 Core Kanban Practices

When implementing pure Kanban marketing, there are six core practices that you can use:

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit work in progress
  3. Manage flow
  4. Make process policies explicit
  5. Implement feedback loops
  6. Improve collaboratively

The word pure is key here because most marketers prefer to apply hybrid approaches to Agile that combine practices from Scrum and Kanban, which are the two most popular Agile methodologies.

The 6 core Kanban practices illustrations

Let’s take a moment to inspect each practice.

Visualize the Workflow

We can’t improve what we can’t see. Guided by this thought, we easily spot the value of visualizing the marketing workflow with Kanban. The primary tool for the purpose is called a Kanban board.

Kanban board example

In its original form, the Kanban board was a blackboard divided by columns for each step of the team’s process. Now, we can enjoy a wide selection of digital project management solutions that provide us with the ability to build virtual Kanban boards and access them from any point of the globe connected to the internet.

We can add as many columns to the board as necessary for us to create a comprehensive visualization of the key process steps (e.g. To Do, In Progress, In Review, Waiting on 3rd Party, etc.)

Whenever new work appears we visualize it with a card on the Kanban board and include a unique avatar for the person responsible for completing it. Each card progresses across the workflow steps as we process it. With this visualization in place, we know all the time what the status of each task is and who is responsible for completing it.

Limit Work in Progress

The second core practice of Kanban gives us the opportunity to limit the amount of work we’ve got in progress at the same time. To some readers, this might sound counterintuitive. After all, we’ve been taught our whole life that multitasking is a valuable skill.

However, those who try limiting work in progress (WIP), and comply with the limits in place usually experience a huge productivity boost shortly afterward. The reason is simple – the fewer the things we juggle, the faster we get them through the door. 

This gives us the opportunity to start new work frequently and actually finish it faster because we are not switching contexts constantly and are focusing on producing the highest possible quality of our marketing deliverables in a shorter period of time.

Manage Flow

Managing the flow of work is a practice that replaces the traditional approach of managing the people who are doing the work and trying to keep them busy all the time. Instead of focusing on the team, we are channeling our energy toward managing the very process.

The goal is to establish a predictable and sustainable pace for delivering valuable marketing work and improving it over time.

Make Process Policies Explicit

When applying Kanban for marketing teams, we need to make the process policies visible and ensure that everyone involved understands them. Doing so successfully gives us the opportunity to boost self-organization within the agency or team and improve productivity even further.

Implement Feedback Loops

Any business leader should understand the importance of early feedback. It gives us the opportunity to examine our work early and often, and act in a timely manner to ensure that we deliver optimal results to the client.

Kanban’s fifth practice serves us well in this matter by promoting early feedback on all organizational levels during meetings like the daily standup.

Improve Collaboratively

As mentioned earlier, agencies and teams that apply Kanban marketing never stop looking for ways to improve their work. The final Kanban practice outlines the necessary means to fulfill that purpose by promoting continuous experimentation.

By cultivating a culture of continuous improvement, we can build and frequently test new hypotheses for improving our process and marketing deliverables. 

Benefits of Kanban Marketing

By examining the principles and practices of Kanban marketing, we can easily identify several noteworthy benefits. Obtaining them requires patience and persistence, but the agencies and in-house teams that succeed get:

Benefits of Kanban marketing infographic

Workflow Transparency

Since Kanban marketing puts so much focus on shedding light on the workflow, we get absolute transparency on the amount of work that goes into the process and easily monitor how it progresses toward completion.

In addition, every deliverable has an owner visible to anyone with access to the Kanban board. We also see the stages of the process that get clogged and have the ability to identify rising problems early on.

Increased Productivity

Since marketing agencies and teams that practice Kanban limit their work in progress, we are able to ensure a smooth flow of deliverables to the client. By working on fewer things at the same time, we are able to finish work more frequently.

In addition, since we are not juggling a large number of tasks, we reduce the chance of making mistakes caused by heavy context switching and deliver higher-quality marketing assets.

Greater Flexibility

As we are delivering work more frequently, we are able to start new work in the same manner. If priorities change along the way, we have the ability to adapt instantly and ensure that the team is working on the most important deliverables at the right time.

These are the greatest but not the only benefits of Kanban marketing. Others include the ability to prevent overburden, increased team focus, improved collaboration, and more.

Now comes the crucial part of the article, obtaining all benefits. Our primary tool for the purpose is the marketing Kanban board. Let’s see how it works.

Exploring the Marketing Kanban Board

Every Kanban principle and practice is reflected on the board in one way or another. We build the marketing Kanban board following the 4 principles listed earlier and apply all six practices with its help.

A team’s Kanban board can be as simple or as complex as the team operating it needs it to be. There are several components that comprise the board:

  • Columns – for visualizing the workflow steps
  • Cards – for visualizing all the work that passes through the team’s workflow
  • WIP limits – visualized on top of the Kanban columns to make the constraints transparent
  • Commitment point – for indicating the stage where we commit to process work (e.g. a column called “Ideas” is not a commitment point, because we are gathering options there, but a column named “To Do” is because we agree that everything that goes in it is ready to process)
  • Delivery point – for indicating the stage of the marketing process where work is considered complete and we can move on to the next task/project in line.
  • Swimlanes – for separating different activities, teams, and so on.

When building a marketing Kanban board, we start with what we do at the moment and visualize all the important process steps as columns. The most basic example we can apply consists of 3 stages:

  • To Do – a commitment point for listing all the work that needs to be processed
  • In progress – a workflow stage that visualizes everything that the team works on at the moment constrained by a WIP limit
  • Done – a delivery point

This is a good layout for getting started with Kanban marketing and grasping the foundations. However, experienced teams that are trying to make the most of this Lean Agile method for managing their work might find it too basic.

Having this in mind, we recommend adding a few additional columns for indicating other important process steps like reviewing work and waiting on a 3rd party. We’ve seen marketing boards consisting of more than 10 separate columns. However, they require a lot of maintenance to keep up to date, so we have to focus on what’s important, instead of aiming to create a level of transparency that might not even be needed.

It is vital to include the process policies on the board so they can be explicit to anyone. If we go by the book, we should add them under each column. On the other hand, some teams might find it easier to add another column before the commitment point or after the delivery one and list the policies there.

When the board is all set, we can begin populating it with the tasks at hand. Each card should have a clear definition of what makes it done, an owner, and contain key information for processing it. 

If we visualize several types of marketing work on the same board (e.g. social media, advertising, content creation, etc.) we can add swimlanes to the board for dividing the work and monitoring closely the amount and state of each type of work seamlessly.

When we begin processing a task/project, it’s best to focus on completing it as fast as possible without switching context and then move on to the next task with a high priority on the board, being protected by the WIP limit in place.

That leads to the final question that we want to answer in this article. How do we prioritize work on the marketing Kanban board? It’s incredibly simple. The higher the priority of a card, the higher we should place it in the “To Do” section of the board. We can also use colors (e.g red – high priority, yellow – mid priority, green – low priority) or other visual indicators to make prioritization easier.

Wrapping Up

With everything said so far, we can see why forward-thinking marketing agencies and in-house teams are putting their trust in Kanban. 

The method relies on evolutionary change to boost the performance of a marketing process in the long run and is not highly disruptive from the start. We are guided by four clear principles that are easy to memorize and six key practices for streamlining our work.

When applying Kanban for marketing, a team experiences several noteworthy benefits including but not limited to greater workflow transparency, improved productivity, and greater flexibility. They can be felt clearly by clients and stakeholders as well.

The primary tool for obtaining those benefits is the Kanban board. It is the base of operations for any marketing agency or in-house team applying the method and is easy to set up and evolve gradually over time.

Our team has been practicing Kanban for more than half a decade and we’ve successfully delivered hundreds of campaigns while enjoying the above-listed benefits.

If you are in need of marketing help and want to see the power of Kanban in action, why don’t you take a minute to check our services?


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