Inbound Marketing is Like Air Traffic Control

When I was hired by Sage Lion Media at the beginning of the new year, I was tasked with implementing agile/scrum methodologies. Prior to joining Sage Lion Media, I worked at a few reputable digital marketing agencies located in Los Angeles, Denver & Chicago.

And before entering the world of inbound marketing I had the privilege of working at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Control Tower.

Not surprisingly, there are some significant similarities between air traffic control (ATC) and the agile methodology. Being an agile inbound marketing agency allows us to work more fluidly. Focusing each month on what will bring the most value for our clients. For ATC, the priority is to ensure the safest, quickest and most efficient route possible when departing and arriving at an airport. In both cases, following an agile process keeps communication clear and activities moving along as smoothly as possible.

Many of our clients ask why we decided to become an agile inbound marketing agency. Our answer is simple: We want to build valuable relationships. And work as a team in the most efficient and results-oriented way possible. So why is the topic of ATC showing up on an outdoor marketing agency blog?

Because at Sage Lion Media our agile processes hold unique comparisons to air traffic control operations. Since adopting the agile methodology, we have seen improvement in speed, predictability, transparency, and adaptability to change. These are the core principles of air traffic control’s approach to airport safety and efficiency.

Los Angeles International Airport Tower
Los Angeles International Airport Tower

The Air Traffic Control Process

ATC is broken into three main activities that involve a “call” and “response”. Air traffic controllers and pilots use the military phonetic alphabet to carry this out:

1. Clearance Delivery (CD) is the stage of the departure process delivers important route and weather advisory information for a pilot’s journey. ATC relays the information to the pilot as written on their travel itinerary. The pilot then relays the command back to the ATC. Think of when an airplane “pushes back” from the gate. CD is responsible for this action. Without a proper “call and response”, ATC will not clear the plane to push back from their gate.

2. Ground Control (GC) is the process of controlling an airplane from the gate to the runway. Depending on the size and volume of an airport, there can be 60 to 80 active flights on the taxiways at any given time. And a team of three, sometimes four, are managing them all. While GC is communicating one-by-one with each plane, the ATC must remember every command given. This ensures all pilots are aware of what’s happening around them. Airplanes do not have rearview or side-panel mirrors, so having an experienced controller ensures the safety of a flight.

3. Local Control (LC) warrants the safest departure and arrival of an airplane. LC works very closely with GC due to the high volume of activities that are occurring on the runway and taxiway. When a flight is departing, GC passes the plane to LC for take-off. When a flight is arriving, LC passes off to GC. LC also ensures airport safety based on flight activity occurring above or around the airport, up to 3-5 miles.

Inbound marketing is like air traffic control

Why ATC is Similar to Agile

With the assistance of JIRA, a project management software for agile processes, our inbound marketing team is set up similarly to air traffic control.

When flights are arriving or departing from an airport, it is the local controller’s job to maintain a clear runway at all times. This entails that only one plane departs or arrives on one runway at a time. Likewise, JIRA uses “swimlanes” to outline team members’ tasks.

1. Planning is like Clearance Delivery.

In this phase, each inbound manager preps the deliverables needed for a card. They ensure that all information is included to launch the card into the Ready aisle similar to the Clearance Delivery step. The “call and response” dialogue is what takes place between our inbound managers and each client. This process ensures everyone is on the same page before work begins. Just like CD, without all the information needed to meet client expectations, work will not be begin until a clear line of sight is established.

2. Ready and In-progress are like Ground Control.

These steps are similar to the process of controlling an airplane from the gate to the runway. Depending on the team’s capacity, there could be 10 to 100 active cards being worked on at the same time. While inbound managers are communicating one-on-one with an implementer, the manager also handles the full scope of activities for the agency like ATC does for the entire airport.

3. Internal Review and Acceptance are like local control.

Local control is like the gatekeeper for ATC. When a flight is departing, GC passes the plane to LC for take-off. When your flight arrives, LC passes off to GC. This ensures the airplane is controlled every step of the way.

The steps of internal review and acceptance process works in a similar way. When a deliverable is completed, it moves into the ‘Internal Review’, and then ‘Acceptance’. This is where our quality control process kicks in. As Local Control “warrants the safest departure and arrival of an airport,” an agency should have the same mentality when completing work. Ensuring deliverable’s are passed over in the best condition possible.

4. “Done” is like Takeoff.

Since ATC is to get airplanes moving safely, efficiently and onto their destinations. After all of the steps are passed, an airplane is cleared for take-off. Similarly, once a deliverable has passed through each swim-lane of the agile process, it meets the definition of “done” and is cleared for client approval or implementation.

San Francisco International Airport Terminal

Other Interesting Similarities

Penalized Planes are like Flagged Issues.

ATC must maintain the on-going safety regulations of other aircraft on the airfield. If a pilot performs an incorrect maneuver after receiving clear instructions from ATC, the pilot may be directed to a holding area, like a penalty box, for an unknown amount of time.

Similarly, in JIRA if a deliverable cannot be moved along because of an impediment the individual card is flagged. This shows it’s no longer part of the regular workflow. This enables the team to focus on work that can be continued or completed until the flagged issue is ready to be worked on.

Cards Hold Pertinent Information. Clearance delivery has an information card for every airplane. This includes essentials like the aircraft type, size, number of passengers, and flight route. It helps ATC prioritize, analyze and make real-time decisions about a flight. And allows them to know the specifics of each plane without having to search for it. Similarly, each card in JIRA is outlined with specific details for each task or project. Including information about the client, time allotted and reference documents, links to external resources and interview notes. This enables the writer, designer or implementer to quickly get started on tasks without having to search for details.

Safety is like Strategy. The safety of an aircraft is the essence of all aviation. Similarly, the strategy behind an inbound marketing deliverable is the entire purpose for achieving a certain set of goals. Without either, it could spell trouble for all parties involved.

Agile marketing and air traffic control are very alike. But it’s not completely surprising. Both require careful planning, strategy, management and execution for happy customers.

Are you ready to learn how agile inbound marketing can help deliver stronger results for your business?

Request a Consultation with Sage Lion Media today!