If you’re in traditional marketing at a big corporation, with a solid CV featuring some of the world’s top FMCG marketing megabrands on your list of employers, then you’re probably looking askance at those who call themselves growth marketing professionals – or, more commonly, growth hackers.
They’re the mavericks of the marketing industry, after all; the ones who have minimal interest in five-year strategic marketing plans, the 5Ps of marketing, and endless marketing meetings to plan other meetings. They also don’t spend time thinking about big-budget TV commercials, expensive billboards, or high-profile PR consultancies with swanky offices and the world’s most expensive influencers on speed-dial.
What is growth hacking?
Are growth hackers really growth marketers?
How growth hacking took the market by storm
Growth marketing mini-case studies
The anatomy of a growth hacker
Getting started on your growth hacking journey
Growth hacking is the single-minded pursuit of business growth – it aggressively seeks the most effective way to scale and grow an organization as quickly as possible. It is all about targeting, identifying, and speedily converting large numbers of customers or users at the lowest possible cost per acquisition.
Typically, it will be used by small businesses in their formative stages that lack the time, money, and human resources to engage in slower, traditional, step-by-step marketing processes. These are pugnacious startups with a great idea that needs scale in order to take hold before an opponent beats them to it.
Unlike conventional marketing, growth hacking is about short-term tangible results rather than processes, methodologies, and long-term brand-building. Indeed, its exponents are often not marketers at all.
As the ‘hacker’ name suggests, the aim is to find clever, original, and inventive solutions to achieving rapid growth. It could be as simple as embedding a widget, or as daring as re-directing an entire strategy almost overnight.
Not necessarily. A growth team can be made up of growth marketing experts, developers, engineers, product managers, designers, or salespeople who each focus on a particular aspect of innovating the product while simultaneously building on and engaging the user base.
They’re likely working in an agile startup where budgets are small and the focus is on rapid growth, conversion rate, customer journey, and customer acquisition. Their mantra is speed, innovation, constant testing, and a willingness to ruthlessly discard an idea that isn’t delivering immediate results. They want a great product and as many customers or users as possible – and they want them now!
Is growth marketing a substitute for digital marketing? The Digital Marketing Institute says it’s not.
In fact, far from being separate entities, growth hacking and digital marketing are intrinsically linked. The shared mentality behind both is an emphasis on experimentation, creativity, and measurement in order to accomplish goals.
Neil Patel, a bestselling business author, seems to doubt that “marketing” and “growth hacker” should even be used in the same sentence. “A growth hacker is not a replacement for a marketer. A growth hacker is not better than a marketer. A growth hacker is just different than a marketer,” he writes. “Every decision that a growth hacker makes is informed by growth. Every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative is attempted in the hopes of growing. Growth is the sun that a growth hacker revolves around. Of course, traditional marketers care about growth too, but not to the same extent.”
While traditional marketing taught at universities and colleges has tended to avoid teaching growth hacking or suggesting that its growth hacker exponents have a viable career path, growth marketing has been achieving spectacular results for more than a decade. Some of the scrappy bootstrap businesses that have benefited from growth marketing and gone on to great – and rapid – success include:
We’ll present mini-case studies of some of these growth marketing businesses later, so as to get real-world examples of what growth hacks can achieve. Now that we have a basic idea of what growth hacking is and how it fits into the world of marketing – or not – let’s probe growth hacking’s origins and examine day-to-day hacking in more detail.
The growth hacking process was formalized in 2010 when it was coined in a blog post by Sean Ellis, founder and CEO of GrowthHackers, an online community of hackers, and of Qualaroo, an automated user research tool.
At the time, Ellis voiced his frustration at being unable to find an employee who wasn’t a conventional marketer, but "a person whose true north is growth”. As a consultant, he was helping to create startups but, when he moved onto the next project, was unable to find someone he could leave in place to innovatively pursue the growth marketing required for the new venture. Ellis received hundreds of CVs from classically trained professionals, but none of them seemed to be right for a role selling software products that required a very different approach to what was being done at the likes of Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, Unilever or Procter & Gamble.
Other well-known experts soon embraced the term and the growth marketing concept. Growth hacking was no longer a one-man blog rant by Sean Ellis, but a non-traditional promotional strategy. The growth marketer had arrived.
Andrew Chen – who led growth teams at Uber and these days focuses on consumer products, marketplaces, and bottoms-up SaaS at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz – titled one of his many blog posts ‘Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing’ and went on to explain his view of this new growth marketing beast in some detail.
“Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of ‘How do I get customers for my product?’ and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph,” he observed. “On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.”
Chen used the same blog to detail how Airbnb, the short-term holiday rental platform, achieved explosive growth in its early phase by integrating with Craigslist and using it as a growth marketing channel. More detail about this growth hacking success story in our mini-case studies later in this blog.
Author Ryan Holiday, a well-known growth marketer for many successful brands, then published his 2013 book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising. It became the go-to manual for any company or entrepreneur looking to build and grow, and Ryan Holiday described growth hackers as “the secret weapons behind the launches of some of the biggest or hottest companies on the planet”, adding: “it's a pretty stunning wakeup call for people who consider themselves ‘traditional’ marketers”.
The Ryan Holiday name pushed the concept of growth hacks to new levels on social media and in the print media. "Forget everything you thought you knew about marketing and read this book. And then make everyone you work with read it too," enthused Jason Harris, co-founder and CEO of Mekanism, a creative agency based in San Francisco.
All of this attention – and, some would argue, hype – brought hacking and the expertise of the growth marketer to the attention of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and branding experts around the world. But nothing gives a new concept credibility and traction like runs on the board.
Many of the world’s most popular brands have achieved incredible results with growth marketing. Here are some easy-to-understand growth hacking examples.
First on the growth hacking success scene was Hotmail. By adding, “Get your free email at Hotmail” to the bottom of all of the emails sent by users right after it's initial launch in 1996, the service secured 3,000 new users in one day and within six months they had 1-million users. Eighteen months after its launch, Hotmail had 8.5-million users and was purchased by Microsoft.
Twitter added 60,000 users in one day by obsessively looking for ways to grow and optimize every possible touchpoint. For example, the platform’s growth marketers realized that the odds of a new user returning to the platform increased dramatically if they followed at least 10 people immediately upon signing up. So, it included suggestions of some of the top people to follow as part of the signup process. The result? User retention rates went up significantly.
Twitter’s success is also proof that hacking doesn’t have to be complicated; it just has to be smart. Case and point, one of the company’s highest-performing hacks was as elementary as simplifying its homepage. The once complex page was streamlined to focus on getting visitors to either sign up or log in. With that simple change, the social media platform’s conversion rates increased dramatically.
Facebook, the world’s best-known social network, gained 200-million users in 12 months. How? Through a combination of growth-hacking tactics. Among them:
When Airbnb was founded in 2008, it initially floundered as it sought the kind of scale that would make the network viable for would-be accommodation providers. The breakthrough came when the fledgling brand integrated with Craigslist, the classified advertisements website that has millions of visitors and operates in around 70 countries and more than 500 cities. Suddenly Airbnb had scale and an enormous opportunity for customer acquisition.
Andrew Chen, who calls the strategy “remarkable” and “one of the most impressive ad-hoc integrations I’ve seen”, pointed out that the growth team picked a platform with huge user numbers and where relatively few automated tools existed, and then created a great way to share accommodation listing to relevant audiences. “Certainly a traditional marketer would not have come up with this, or known it was even possible – instead it’d take a marketing-minded engineer to dissect the product and build an integration this smooth,” he wrote on his on his website.
Space precludes us from listing all of the brands in the online and social media environment that have benefitted from growth hacker marketing. Some of the other great growth examples you may wish to research yourself – perhaps on the HubSpot website which has a good library of resources – include Dropbox, AppSumo, Instagram/Burbn and Udemy. Dropbox, in particular, achieved significant growth with its breakthrough customer referral program.
Now that you understand more about hacking and the potential benefits, perhaps you’re keen to become a growth marketing guru yourself? People working in growth hacker marketing require a unique mix of characteristics. They are creative but pragmatic. They’re analytical but extremely fast-paced.
As one Forbes business magazine article put it, “Growth hackers are principled hackers who study how people use a product and continually test and optimize every digital touchpoint in order to get prospective customers to take action.”
Here’s a breakdown of four of the top traits of successful hackers:
So are you convinced yet? Do you think growth hacking might be beneficial for your company and you’d like to be the person to lead the growth team? Great! Here are some basics for getting going.
As you get started with hacking, you need to know that there is really no one ‘thing’ or any single proven strategy that will achieve success for everyone. Occasionally, as with the metamorphosis of Instagram, there may be a ‘silver bullet’. But it’s hardly the norm.
It means that you’ve got to find the right recipe for your company – and continuously tweak it over time. Here are a few tips and tricks to try as you get started:
Whatever path you take, remember that growth hacking is a process, not a set of tools. Finding the right formula for your brand takes time and there’s no magical, instant, solution. Success rarely looks like a perfect curve; in reality, it looks more like a heartbeat.
What are your thoughts on hacking? Is it something you are mindful of, or is it perhaps too unconventional for your organization? Is it only for start-ups, or applicable to a business of any size that needs quick growth? Why not share your thoughts, tips, and top growth hacks by tweeting us @Meltwater.