Since their creation and popularization over the last decade by Jake Knapp and the Google Ventures team, design sprints have become the go-to, ridiculously effective way for countless teams to solve big product problems in a short space of time. It’s not difficult to see why.
Sprints are an organized way to build and test a prototype in just five days. Everyone from Blue Bottle Coffee to Spotify, not to mention a range of smaller direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands and tech startups, have used the design sprint process to improve user journeys, increase product stickiness, and even figure out what to sell next. For example, last year Coca-Cola ran a design sprint together with an agency partner to figure out how to launch a DTC experience in Austria.
But there’s actually another use here, and it’s been something of an open secret in the sprint community: design sprints can be just as effective at solving big marketing problems as they can be for solving product or design issues.
“Design sprints can be just as effective at solving big marketing problems as they can be for solving product or design issues.”
At Littledata, we were running design sprints even before launching our first Shopify app in 2017. In those early days, we might have been guilty of focusing only on big product problems and opportunities (in our defense, we were still searching for the perfect product-market fit!).
But over the past five years, we’ve experimented with a variety of marketing design sprints as well. We’ve focused on a range of marketing goals, from general questions about explaining what Littledata is, to more specific questions around how to increase engagement with specific buyer personas.
Those sprints have resulted in some of our most effective marketing campaigns and collateral, including the first iteration of our Why Littledata? web page. Today, it’s still one of the most important touch points across our funnel—and pretty much every aspect of our Littledata Plus plans—which helped us move upmarket quickly and efficiently.
I’m obviously a big believer in the power of design sprints to fuel innovation. To show you why I think a design sprint could likely be right for your marketing team, too, here are my tips on how to decide if it’s the right time to try one and how to successfully aim a design sprint at a target market.
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Should your marketing team run a design sprint?
Sprints are all about stopping brainstorming and starting to make decisions with focused, individual input from every team member.
“Sprints are all about stopping brainstorming and starting to make decisions with focused, individual input from every team member.”
To be direct, the only time not to run a design sprint for a marketing team is if you are not yet ready to make big decisions.
If you’re still in the pre-launch phase, or you and your co-founders think that there are larger product issues at hand, then it might be better to run a product design sprint with your entire company—broken into separate sprint teams if needed—focused on creating a feature prototype and getting feedback on a rough minimum viable product (MVP).
In most cases where marketing is important to your growth, though, it’s not a question of yes or no, but when? When is the best time to focus and take action? When is the best time to test your understanding of buyer intentions?
Vidya Peters, the Chief Marketing Officer at Marqeta, made this clear at the SaaStr 2021 conference. In line with recent research suggesting that many successful SaaS companies actually have a higher ratio of sales and marketing to research and development than most people think, she noted:
“Technology and ‘how’ is no substitute for good marketing—you still need to invest in an outstanding ‘what.’”
Nobody knows this better than app marketers, who are faced with an increasingly saturated information landscape. So, how do you rise above the noise?
You might also like: How to Market an App: 11 Expert Tips.
Choosing a problem to work on
Before the sprint starts, you need to choose a big problem, an opportunity, an important challenge. You can approach choosing a focus problem for your sprint in many different ways. My advice? Don’t chase dolphins, chase sea monsters. The bigger, more challenging, and daunting, the better.
The best tool to align your team and stakeholders to take on this challenge is a sprint brief. We start a draft of a sprint brief before we dive into pre-sprint research, then finalize it a few days before the sprint, based on what we discover with that research. You should start working on a sprint brief about a month before the first day of your design sprint.
It’s also best not to choose a new problem or idea to start. Usually, if an idea or problem has been coming up for your team again and again, going dormant for a quarter and then resurfacing even stronger, it’s time to conquer it in a design sprint. Dolphins are cute, but sea monsters will take you to the next level.
Start with buyer personas
To run a successful marketing sprint, your pre-sprint research will come down to two things:
- Who are your buyer personas?
- Where do they find value?
Whether they’re the focus of your sprint or just part of your background research, it’s essential to start with reviewing your buyer personas. Ask yourself:
- What type of companies or customers are getting the most out of your technology?
- How have your end users changed over time?
- Are there customers who should know about your product but don’t?
The design sprint process combines design thinking with buyer targeting. The process is especially powerful—and especially challenging—for companies working in an app ecosystem like the Shopify App Store, as many Shopify apps maintain a wide array of integrations.
When looking at our buyer personas, we start with our technology partners. Shopify is the main partner, of course, but we also have integrations with other app partners such as Recharge and Smartrr for merchants selling by subscription. On top of those partner relations, we know that we need to keep product marketing and top-of-funnel touch points relevant to a wide range of end users, from solo founders to developers and ecommerce managers.
We always dive into buyer persona research before a marketing sprint. We also do as much pre-sprint research as possible on areas for optimization in our current processes. Then, after looking at where those opportunities overlap with market opportunities, we make a list of specific research questions to tackle both before and during the sprint.
We’ve found it’s important to look at where our customers find value—or are searching for solutions—even if it’s only peripherally related to our current products and features.
Ask the right questions
HMW questions (How Might We…?) are a cornerstone of sprint thinking, as part of the sketching process during the sprint. They’re also a great way to focus your marketing team’s energy on a bigger question without being too vague.
For example, instead of asking general questions about lead acquisition and nurturing, you might start asking questions such as, “How might we explain our deep learning tech to smaller business owners?” or “How might we capture more leads who are interested in data but don’t know where to start?”
Every company is unique, but there’s always a sea monster lurking somewhere down there! It’s your job to use the sprint format to find it.
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Creating an effective sprint schedule for an app marketing team
Modifying a design sprint to work for an app marketing team isn’t rocket science. The standard design sprint process has already been used effectively by a number of agencies and forward-thinking marketing departments.
The two best free resources for sprint planning are:
There are just a few things to keep in mind—and a couple of suggested modifications—to make sure you stay on track and get the most out of your time together. Especially because marketing touches on so many different issues, techniques, and processes.
Here’s the schedule we use and what each day should look like for your team.
Monday: The legend
Traditionally the first day of a design sprint is focused on mapping out the problem. You literally map out an end-to-end experience and then decide where on that map you’ll be focusing the sprint’s energy in the coming days.
For marketing teams, Monday is especially important because it gives you a chance to combine big-picture thinking with an understanding of how your customer personas make decisions: how do they find you, and what kind of research do they do along the way? So I do recommend making one big map but, for marketing teams, that map should have a legend and a compass.
The legend should explain your buyer personas and whether they have individual paths on the map or different touchpoints on the same path. The compass should represent your main marketing goals for the year and force you to decide on a “North Star” metric.
If you’ve taken our advice above to dive into buyer personas and value-positioning during your pre-sprint research, it should be easy to get down to business!
The second day of a design sprint is all about sketching. It’s a powerful process of divergence and convergence, so definitely stick to the schedule.
For marketing teams, the most important thing to remember on day two is the importance of not reinventing the wheel (in other words, good artists steal). It’s not just about competitors.
During the Lightning Demos in the morning, when you research and present solutions from your startup and others, don’t be afraid to look at what other companies are doing, whether they’re in your industry or in an entirely different one.
Good marketing uses familiar stories and symbols. Day two of the sprint is a good time to review what’s trending for those right now in terms of both design and messaging.
“Good marketing uses familiar stories and symbols. Day two of the sprint is a good time to review what’s trending for those right now in terms of both design and messaging.”
Wednesday: That one decision you’ve been putting off for months
On the third day of the sprint, you’ll decide which solution to actually build and test, whether that’s a new homepage or a multi-touch campaign.
Maybe you’ve heard the advice to always write that one email you’ve been dreading before any other ones. It’s good advice, but hard to do. The same philosophy can be applied to the third day of the sprint, which often feels like the most overwhelming day.
I recommend spending more time on the most difficult decisions on day three. Remember the sea monster metaphor: go for big marketing challenges. Don’t be afraid to dive deep and question basic assumptions.
“Don’t be afraid to dive deep and question basic assumptions.”
Thursday: Build something real
My advice for day four is simple: build something real. Not a prototype, per se, and not a mockup. Many in the sprint community will object to this, as it’s more typical to build something that is clearly a “rough draft” for user testing the following day, often using tools like Figma or InVision.
We’ve tried several different methods here, and building something real, even if it just lives on your staging site for a bit, often makes the biggest difference.
Friday: User testing
The final day of a design sprint is all about user testing. For marketing, it can seem difficult to get useful feedback, especially if your testers have marketing experience themselves and get distracted by marginal details, like your house style for landing page headers.
I recommend sticking to the traditional user testing rules and making sure that your testers narrate their experience while you record their screen. This lets you balance words with actions, and also sets you up to see where those tests converge. There might be a hidden gem or phrase you didn’t even notice when you built your solution the day before.
Lastly, you’ll want to actually implement whatever is decided in the week following the sprint. Marketing teams are extremely agile these days, and a huge benefit of running a marketing design sprint is that you can actually put your (tested) ideas into practice almost immediately.
“A huge benefit of running a marketing design sprint is that you can actually put your (tested) ideas into practice almost immediately.”
Beyond the design sprint: Testing your solutions over time
Like so many aspects of data-driven marketing, launching a new marketing campaign or initiative “should” take a couple of weeks, but in practice typically takes a couple of months.
Doing it right—say, for example, coordinating new product marketing, then optimizing a campaign and starting to see the best results—takes a quarter or two.
A good rule of thumb is that whatever you discover on a marketing sprint should be put into action in the following two weeks, then optimized over the next quarter. If all goes well, you should see pretty good results by the end of that quarter, then excellent results by the end of the next. If not, it’s probably time for another marketing design sprint.
My final recommendation is to take time in the week following your design sprint to think about where else your discoveries might apply. There’s often not enough time for this during the sprint. Though great ideas come up in the first couple of days, the process is designed to help you hone in on specific solutions rather than think too broadly.
But that doesn’t mean that “crazy” ideas with potential should be buried or ignored—whether that be a new way of cross-pollinating between your website and the Shopify App Store or even starting to experiment with a new type of technology partnership to bring your product marketing to a new audience. Keep notes during the sprint and pull them up during your normal strategy meetings. The results might surprise you.
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