You’ve heard of The Lean Startup, but what about lean marketing? Going “lean” isn’t just for product developers anymore—marketing teams can get in on the action, too.
Increasingly, marketing leaders are finding value in the lean principles applied by fast-paced startups. But what is the lean methodology? More importantly, how can you use lean principles to optimise your marketing budget, campaigns, and ROI?
What is Lean Marketing?
Adopting lean marketing is about making smart, data-driven decisions to maximise ROI and drive results.
In simpler terms: it’s a framework for getting better marketing results with less budget.
In order to pull lean marketing off, you need access to analytics and forecasting tools that help you plan for, and realise the best-case scenario at every step of the marketing cycle.
For example: if you’re allocating your budget across multiple marketing experiments, you need to know which one is most worthy of your resources. The faster and more accurately you can identify your best channels and campaigns, the more quickly you can prevent wasteful spending on failed experiments.
Agile vs. Lean Marketing: What’s the Difference?
If you’re already familiar with agile marketing, you’ll notice that it shares many of the same processes as lean. Both agile and lean marketing are concepts borrowed from rapid product development and iteration.
Although these two frameworks often go hand-in-hand, there are several important distinctions.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that agile marketing incorporates customer feedback as part of the iteration loop. In marketing, this means bringing a concept to fruition as fast as possible and then adjusting and tweaking as necessary based on reception.
Lean, on the other hand, focuses on streamlining the creation process and making changes on the fly. The goal is to minimise excess, reduce waste, and lower costs. Above all, lean marketing prioritises efficiency throughout the marketing cycle.
That said, both agile and lean marketing represent valuable alternatives to conventional marketing practices.
Where the traditional marketing process involves lengthy campaigns that are planned and executed before results are assessed, agile and lean marketing requires actively reviewing and adjusting the strategy as you go.
The Benefit of Going Lean
The main purpose of using a lean marketing framework is to save you money and get results faster. By identifying and optimising your best campaigns, you can divert resources towards the most valuable channels.
Lean organizations use workflows and automations to get things done faster—and free-up your team’s time to work on high-impact tactics.
The end result? Much better ROI. You’re getting the same (if not, better) results from a smaller marketing spend.
A Brief History of the “Lean” Marketing Philosophy
Lean marketing is based on the lean startup methodology used in product development.
However, the origins of “lean” business practices date back farther than you might think. While many credit Eric Ries with defining lean philosophy and principles in The Lean Startup, the concept actually has roots in car manufacturing.
Every hero has an origin story. For lean marketing advocates, this story begins somewhere in early twentieth-century Japan. In the early 1900s, a Japanese car manufacturer designed a production model around the goal of delivering value by the most efficient means possible. Today, this model is known as the Toyota Production System (TPS) or “The Toyota Way.”
The TPS approach proved extremely effective, enabling Toyota to maintain consistency in the manufacturing process and optimise resource allocation. American automakers took note and began to adopt their own version of this process, which would become known as “lean manufacturing” in the United States.
When software production took off in the late twentieth century, lean ideals made their way into product development as well. In 2011, entrepreneur and author Eric Ries popularised lean methodology as a strategy for startups.
Now, startups use lean tactics like Minimum Viable Products (MVP), which work by launching the minimum viable iteration of a new product. You collect feedback and work from there—as opposed to building the entire thing before getting feedback. You know, upfront, whether a product is worth investing in.
Lean Marketing Principles: What Marketers Can Learn from The Lean Startup
So, what can marketers learn from the lean principles applied in the startup world?
In The Lean Startup, Ries outlines five core principles that guide the lean startup strategy.
Originally geared towards helping small businesses and teams succeed in the high-pressure conditions of launching a startup, these principles encourage marketers to adapt to market changes and react to audience engagement in real-time.
1. Entrepreneurs are Everywhere
This principle highlights the fact that startups are human institutions.
Marketers might interpret this as “innovators are everywhere.” That is, great ideas can come from anyone, especially if they have the necessary data to back them up. It’s why multiple teams are looped into the lean marketing framework.
As Ries writes in the book:
“The concept of entrepreneurship includes anyone who works within my definition of a startup: a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.
That means entrepreneurs are everywhere and the Lean Startup approach can work in any size company, even a very large enterprise, in any sector or industry.”
2. Entrepreneurship is Management
This is meant to inspire startups to focus on operations as much as product development, especially since startups exist in a “context of extreme uncertainty.” Well, so do marketers.
For creatives, strategists, and marketing leads, this principle simply reminds us of the value of the process behind every great campaign: the customer research, forecasting, budgeting, planning… and everything in between.
3. Validated Learning
The third principle of lean marketing emphasises the importance of building sustainable business practices. It’s about finding a middle ground between effective and sustainable marketing plans which requires continuous iteration and experimentation.
Startups need to find and refine product-market fit on the go. Just as founders aren’t handed a sustainable business model, you’re unlikely to start out with an optimal marketing strategy; rather, lean marketers have to build one with time and experience.
It’s a living, changing, iterative process—so you need to make smart decisions that you test, validate, and back up with actual data.
4. Innovation Accounting
For validated learning to work in practice, you need to measure outcomes. Marketers need to move away from the temptation of vanity metrics to uncover the KPIs that really drive results, such as:
- Sales and revenue data
- Leads generated
- Conversion rate
Oftentimes, that means paring down the number of metrics you’re tracking to focus on a few key data points.
Remember: lean marketing is lean thinking. Part of the methodology is getting feedback on what works (and what doesn’t) using concrete evidence, so you can plan your next sprint accordingly.
5. Build → Measure → Learn
Perhaps the most significant tenet of lean philosophy in relation to marketing is the “Build > Measure > Learn” loop. This cyclical process prioritises quick, continuous testing, learning, and tweaking.
In the software world, the full loop includes these six phases:
Ideas → Build → Product → Measure → Data → Learn
The lean marketing loop follows a similar structure:
Ideas → Execute → Campaign → Measure → Data → Learn
The goal of approaching marketing from this perspective is to push faster cycles of creating, executing, and iterating on ideas.
Beaconstac’s Akshay Deogiri explains:
“The fundamental lean principle of build > measure > learn > re-iterate fits well into marketing teams as our processes are recurring, and our goals are long term, broken down into multiple sprints contributing to the long-term goal.
Due to the dynamic nature of the results obtained from our marketing efforts, the process of measuring data, analyzing outcomes, and improving processes in the short term will eventually contribute exponentially to the long-term goal.
Overall marketing goals can be broken down according to the stages of the marketing funnel, and based on existing data, marketing sprints can be devised to improve metrics, whilst tracking the effectiveness of the parameters in each marketing campaign.
The results can be analyzed, shortcomings can be identified, and improved upon.”
How Do You Run a Lean Marketing Campaign?
Now we know what the methodology looks like, let’s take a look at how you can use lean marketing initiatives in your business.
1. Brainstorm and Prioritise Marketing Campaigns
When following the lean marketing framework, the first step is to plan future campaigns.
Kick things off with a group brainstorm. Use TrueNorth to generate a long list of marketing ideas that you’d like to implement.
Next, look through your list of ideas and rank them based on a prioritization framework such as:
Ambreen Sharif explains how Workplay Digital does lean marketing by prioritizing tests and iterating ideas based on results:
“For each identified opportunity, we develop ideas on how to improve the experience, how to test those ideas, and what KPIs to measure. We prioritize the most high-value ideas, based on potential business impact, and execute in short sprints so we can quickly test, and iterate based on the data and KPIs.
By constantly learning and adapting, we ensure that we’re focused on the highest yielding activities that are tried and tested.”
Prioritizing your ideas embodies the whole concept of a lean marketing strategy. You’re trying to identify campaigns that’ll get you the biggest bang for your buck—stopping you from wasting time on low-impact tactics that don’t move the needle.
2. Plan the Campaign from Start to Finish
Once you have the ideas you want to start with, plan how you’ll get the wheels turning.
Choose one of these formats usually seen in agile marketing campaigns:
- Kanban: A visual board with columns like “not started,” “in progress,” and “done”—similar to a Trello board
- Scrum: Short (usually two-week long) cycles where everyone works together on the same project.
- Milestone Oriented Marketing (MOM): Break bigger campaigns—like SEO—down into two-week milestones. Have your team dedicate that time to the new campaign only.
Regardless of which you choose, a key part of lean marketing is daily stand-up meetings.
Gather your entire lean marketing team for 15 minutes every day. Chat about what they’re working on, what’s holding them back, and estimated timelines for deliverables. These feedback loops make sure the project is finished within the ideal time frame.
Marcus Clarke of Searchant.co summarizes:
“Change is inevitable. Lean marketing makes room for our consistent changes towards improvement. Because its focus relies on working on one task a single time, our productivity is faster and more structured than when we multitask.
And we find it useful for it allows us to conduct daily gatherings where we discuss what we think pushes our limits to a continuous workflow.
With this, we stay track of our priorities and deliver more customer-based services. And well, we evade wasting time by experimenting with what works for us. As we say, it pays to fail then learn afterward.”
3. Report on Results
As every good marketer knows, your campaign is only as good as its results. Even the coolest ideas aren’t worth your resources if they don’t produce ROI in one form or another.
As we saw in the marketing cycle loop above, data is an integral aspect of lean marketing.
If you can’t track and quantify whatever you’re working on, how can you justify spending your time and resources on it?
To evaluate how efficient (and lean) your marketing cycle is, pay attention to these four metrics:
- Process Efficiency: The ratio between idle and productive time spent on any in-progress task. This tells you how efficiently your team is using their time and resources. Are they focused on completing a task or campaign that has already been started—or are campaigns running without active review? Typically, the more divided your attention, the less efficient your process becomes.
- Cycle Time: The average time it takes to complete and execute a task or campaign.
- Work in Progress (WIP): The number of projects or campaigns your team is working on at a given time. A split focus can hinder productivity and may result in a longer cycle time.
- Throughput: This is a measure of your output in a given time frame. By dividing the number of ongoing tasks (WIP) by the average time it takes to implement a change, update, or new campaign (cycle time), throughput tells you how quickly your team can iterate.
With the Right Tools, Lean Marketing Helps You Maximise ROI
The flexibility and iterative nature of lean practices can help you get more bang for your marketing buck by optimising your use of resources and maximising ROI.
With a platform like TrueNorth, you can simulate and forecast the entire marketing process—from ideation to results—to determine the optimal course of action. At the end of every cycle (which might be weekly or bi-weekly), you can review the results and make any necessary changes to your strategy.
This lean, iterative process ensures you stay on track with your forecasts and simulation.
By enabling you to adapt to emerging market changes without missing a beat or throwing off your long-term plan, a lean approach to agile marketing empowers you to test, learn, fail, and improve faster as a team.
Want to execute lean marketing campaigns that maximise ROI? TrueNorth is designed to help you do just that—and we’re currently accepting applicants for early beta access.