Learning from ‘Lean’: how startup thinking can bring you closer to your customers and boost your marketing

“Lean changes everything.” That’s according to Professor Steve Blank, of Stanford University. However strongly you agree (or disagree) with his view, Lean certainly forces us to rethink traditional approaches in all manner of disciplines, and marketing is no exception.

The Lean Startup movement has taken hold in a range of sectors in recent years, usurping the more traditional formula of:

business plan>>
set-up team>>
introduce product/service>>
sell (hard)>>
discover what the customer really wants/needs (… & re-think)

The new approach, pioneered by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries favours experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development. Essentially, the emphasis moves to customer interaction at the earliest possible point in the product cycle, versus development based on a series of internal brainstorms and assumptions to best guess what the customer thinks now, wants, will do, will buy, will think etc.

Agile beginnings

Of course the Lean philosophy isn’t new – much of the thinking is evident in project management techniques dating back to the ‘50s, ‘60s and more noticeably the ‘70s when a paper by Dr Winston Royce on the subject of software development pressed for a move away from sequential ‘assembly line’ phases. This approach, known as Agile development, is now widely accepted and successfully employed by software developers the world over  – again emphasising the value of early user/customer engagement and involvement, ongoing testing, small incremental releases, iterations and most importantly a stronger collaborative, cooperative approach between all stakeholders (to the point of sharing your live project snagging report with the customer, as seen at GOV.UK).

‘Always on’

What is new is the fact that access to the customer has never been so easy; giving businesses much greater scope to incorporate Lean into their marketing activity. Customer testing no longer relies on the labour-intensive task of countrywide focus groups and expensive surveys – today they are a few clicks away and ‘always on’. Volvo is one of many major brands to recently demonstrate this through its use of Twitter to gather feedback from new and existing customers, including reaction to potential campaign ideas prior to them airing on digital, TV and outdoor (#SwedeSpeak).

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As the Volvo example illustrates, the application of Lean thinking to marketing seems sensible, particularly when embarking on a new marketing or communications strategy. Spending more time talking with customers during the process of forming the communication will keep your activities focused allowing you to make swift and continuous improvements, eliminating the things that aren’t working! Sure, hypothesise ideas that will deliver the solution to the (communication) problem you are trying to solve, but don’t invest endless resource in the final delivery before testing those hypotheses with your audience first. Who knows, it may be the consumer that comes up with the campaign message or platform for you.

Why Lean is a ‘no brainer’ for marketers

Thankfully for our customers, applying Lean thinking to the process of brand content marketing is a ‘no brainer’. Content is both the enabler for the conversation to begin and, when created as part of a fluid publishing process, the fuel for that conversation to go on.

Get Lean! Want help making your marketing content and communications more effective? Get in touch with Speak Media’s client director, Paul Williams.

Further reading: Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything (Harvard Business Review)

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