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Marketing in times of uncertainty: agile and experimental or structured and rational?

This is a common problem for modern marketers who want to be fast and innovative while, at the same time, set clear goals and plans.

Juliana Tobon / April 02, 2020

A typical dilemma for modern marketers is to optimize their time-to-market to remain competitive while being able to simultaneously plan resources and set clear goals and expectations.

Uncertainty is particularly challenging for marketing managers as most activities happen in a constantly changing environment. In addition to market and technological uncertainties, they also deal with limited resources.

These circumstances call for an agile approach, in which companies experiment and learn by doing. The challenge with this approach is that the gains from agility start decreasing after a certain point. From that point on, it might make more sense to put in place carefully designed structures and processes.

A combination of the two approaches might sound like an optimal solution, but where do we draw the line between more agile and experimental and more structured and strategic?

Here are some points to consider.

Adapted from: Mero, Tarkiainen & Tobon (2019). Effectual and causal reasoning in the adoption of marketing automation. Industrial Marketing Management

Be agile when maturity is low and uncertainty high

Are you planning to adopt a new technology, expand the functionality of an existing one or start a marketing activity that you have not done before?

These cases often require you to acquire new knowledge and change your way of doing things. In this kind of situation, uncertainty is high. Here, an agile mode is recommended, as it allows you to focus on gaining new knowledge rapidly. As uncertainty makes it difficult to estimate the returns of an activity, focus on the affordable losses, seek an incremental approach, and make the most of the available resources to turn the uncertainties or threats into opportunities.

For example, companies that are implementing advanced data-driven marketing use cases are at this stage, currently. Combining behavioural, transactional, demographic and firmographic data is complex. The uncertainty surrounding the results of campaigns using customer data is high. . Therefore, the best approach is to be agile and focus on testing the different hypotheses to find what works.

Increase structure when your knowledge and experience increase

As you and your team become more comfortable with the technology and get things done, you should start bringing more structure into your activities. Reaching a certain comfort level indicates that it is the proper moment to switch from agile and experimental to a more strategic, well-planned, and goal-oriented method.

A more strategic method enables you to better plan your resources and scale up existing activities. This is a good time, for example, to expand marketing activities to a new market or a novel customer segment, increase the utilization of marketing technologies or optimize existing activities or campaigns.

For instance, companies that adopted Marketing Automation some years ago are now reaching this more stable point. The understanding around the technology has been built, the first use cases are live and some of the crucial processes are in place (such as the lead management process). This is usually when companies can plan the allocation of resources and their roadmap for marketing automation activities in a better way.

Be ready to experiment again

Are the customer needs evolving in a way that requires your company to start developing new activities, advancing the complexity of existing ones, or even adopting new technologies? When the gains from optimizing the things done in the past are about to reach a stagnation point, innovating becomes crucial.

This results in a need to change back to effectuation.  This can take different forms, depending on the company. Usually, in marketing, it translates into developing new channels of customer engagement and/or implementing more advanced use cases or campaigns such as predictive marketing. Typically, these require the adoption of a new technology or the integration of an existing one. And all of these increase the number of customer data points.

Modern marketing is complex with several things happening at the same time. New technologies, trends and behaviours emerge all the time and some of these occur more quickly than others. Recognizing which activities should be structed and which ones should be approached in an agile and experimental manner will allow you to get the best of both approaches and more effectively use your resources.


Juliana Tobon
TietoEVRY alumni


Juliana Tobon

TietoEVRY alumni

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