Twitter, Tumblr, TV and tradeshows, YouTube, Yelp, and YellowPages, print and Pinterest, Facebook and radio. This isn’t a list of keywords; this is what a marketer’s to-do list looks like.

Of all the problems that plague the modern marketer, a lack of options isn’t one of them. Marketing today is characterized by bloating bred by a superfluity of choice. Somewhere between choosing to tweet or attend a trade show, the laser sharp focus required for marketing success tends to get lost.

This is where lean marketing comes in handy.

Lean marketing borrows the principles of rapid prototyping and iteration from the Lean Startup Movement to create a marketing machinery for the 21st century: fast, flexible and ruthlessly efficient. It is a marketing philosophy apt for startups as it is for big businesses.

The Principles Behind ‘Lean’

The Lean Startup movement was pioneered by entrepreneur and author Eric Reis in his book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. The book was phenomenally successful upon launch. It reached no. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and was listed as one of the “Best Business Books of 2011” by Amazon. Financial Times said that it “changes how we think about innovation and entrepreneurship”, while Harvard Business Review declared that it “changes everything”.

At the heart of the Lean methodology is the concept of a “Minimally Viable Product” (MVP). Instead of spending millions of dollars in R&D, a company releases a barebones version of its product to test consumer demand. If the response is favorable, the product is put into rapid development mode with constant feedback from early adopters.

MVP emphasizes speed instead of stealth, rapid prototyping instead of perfection. New features are deployed as they are developed and faults are fixed as feedback rolls in. “Pivoting” – taking the product in an entirely new direction (a la and Instagram) – is encouraged. There is a focus on actionable metrics and continuous, detailed testing to maximize efficiency. All this results in drastically reduced ‘time-to-market’, lower costs, and a product that meets the demands of consumers, not those of the creators.

How You Can Benefit From Lean Marketing

The traditional marketing process – drawing plans, seeking permissions, designing marketing material, getting approval, launching campaign – is too slow and cumbersome for a rapidly changing consumer reality. Making a ‘grand entrance’ – a full page ad in the NYT, a SuperBowl spot – is not only unmindful of dynamic nature of today’s market, but can also backfire horribly.

Consider a scenario: as part of a new marketing campaign for a large beverage manufacturer, you’ve been collecting customer images to feature in a huge, interactive collage on your website. You pump in hundreds of thousands of dollars into building the right platform to showcase these images and spend months getting things to perfection.

Two days before D-Day, an intern brings a new website to your attention: Pinterest. Pinterest does exactly what your platform does, and does it better. It is also wildly popular and has millions of existing users. Suddenly, your self-created platform seems a little superfluous; you could just as well get customers to tag themselves on an existing Pinterest page and attract a lot more traffic.

This is the kind of pitfall lean marketing strives to avoid. Instead of risky, expensive moonshots, you aim for more realistic goals on tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. It allows marketers to jump aboard emerging trends and utilize data to turn the campaign in a different direction.

There are more than a few ways you can benefit from lean marketing:

Feedback at Every Stage

Traditional planning follows a linear model: planning, execution, and eventually, measurement. Planning is inadvertently the longest stage in the process where you essentially work on outdated (i.e. not live) data, research and assumptions. You receive very little feedback until the end of the campaign when you sit down to analyze the results. The chances of things going wrong at any stage, as you can imagine, are very high (Tropicana’s infamous package design fiasco, for instance, could have been avoided with early customer feedback)

Lean marketing is more circular than linear. Each stage is mediated by an intermediary feedback stage. A lean marketing campaign starts with an idea. The idea is broken down into a smaller, testable bit and released into the market. Based on the feedback from this bit, the original idea is altered and released accordingly, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

Consider an example: your CEO comes up with an idea to write a 120 page eBook detailing HR practices and employee stories at your firm. Instead of spending 40+ hours to write this book, you adopt a lean marketing approach and release a couple of stories via 1,000 word blog posts. You then collect data from these blog posts – engagement level, number of shares, page views, average time spent on page, social media comments, etc – in real time. If the blog posts are successful, you can then continue with the actual eBook.

This is a radical departure from the big-bang approach of traditional marketing. It emphasizes execution, not planning, and relies on live data to make meaningful choices.


A traditional marketing cycle can be several months long. Once you commit to a campaign, it can be difficult and expensive to pull back. This was okay in a pre-digital age where people received the news via their morning papers and communicated through snail mail. New trends took months to take hold; what was popular two months ago would still be popular today.

This isn’t so in our present hyper-connected world. New trends can emerge out of nowhere. In July 2012, “Gangnam Style” was just another K-pop song. By September, it had hit 200 million views on YouTube. Within six months, it had over a billion.

Being able to piggyback on viral trends is a key feature of any lean marketing campaign. Because there is no commitment to an expensive, ‘grand’ plan, changes can be made as and when new trends take hold. This flexibility is crucial if you want to go viral.


A particular challenge all marketers face is clamping down on ‘idea bloat’. Everyone in your organization, from the operations guys to the finance whizkids, will have some ideas on your current marketing campaign. Some of these will be good; most will be trash. In either case, they will end up distracting you from what is really important: the current campaign.

Lean marketing breaks down each campaign into its most essential components. You don’t aim for huge campaigns with dozens of (contradictory) ideas. This means you can focus on single ideas and keep everything else on the backburner. It’s the difference between building a brick wall and an entire house.

Applying Lean Principles to Marketing

Lean marketing has plenty of benefits, as we have just seen. But how do you really apply lean principles to marketing?

Let’s take a look at some answers below:

  1. Create a “Minimally Viable Marketing Plan” (MVMP)  Forget about “making a splash”. Build a barebones marketing plan that builds upon a single, highly focused idea. This could be anything: distribute an eBook, create a viral video, or get 1,000 Twitter followers. The MVMP itself should tie into a broader marketing objective. The thrust here should be to get the campaign out the door as quickly as possible.
  2. Test Your Assumptions Any marketing plan is just that: a plan. Before you commit to a large undertaking (even an eBook can be a large undertaking for an overworked marketing department), test your plan with a small audience. If you want to create an eBook, try to release a few blog posts first. If you want to launch a line of books and actionable white papers, launch a small eBook first instead, and so on. The data you collect from this “bite sized pre-launch” will tell you what works in the market, and what doesn’t.
  3. Modify the MVMP In lean methodology, data equals direction. Modify your original plan according to the data you captured in the testing phase. Don’t be afraid to scrap the campaign altogether if the data isn’t favorable – this is, after all, one of the perks of lean marketing. The eventual MVMP should now bear a look that resembles what customers actually want, not what your originally assumed.
  4. Collect Actionable Data and Deploy Continuously Much like lean product design, lean marketing emphasizes continuous deployment and iterations based on collected actionable data. Every piece of marketing material you release into the market must be analyzed thoroughly – number of shares, page views generated, engagement level, etc. This data should then inform future campaigns. Your aim should be to continuously deploy bite sized, data-influenced campaigns that come together to achieve a broader marketing objective.

This feedback/data-iteration loop is the basis of the entire lean methodology.

Lean marketing requires you to change all your sacred perceptions about marketing. It demands a completely new approach to creating, testing and distributing campaigns. The focus on hard data and iteration makes it a fast, affordable, and effective way to market your products, no matter if you are a seven person startup, or a seven billion dollar business.