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An image of a hand holding a seed that has sprouted. This image is the header for our blog about growth hacking for marketers.

Growth Hacking for Marketers

Mike Simpson

Jan 7, 2021

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.

Table of Contents

What is growth hacking?

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.

Are growth hackers really growth marketers?

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.

Why a growth hacker is ‘just different’

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:

  • Airbnb;
  • Instagram (when it was still called Burbn);
  • Facebook;
  • Groupon;
  • Udemy;
  • Dropbox;
  • Hotmail.

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.

Image of a smartphone in someone's hand where a real plant is growing out of it into the real world. This image displays how growth hacking took over the world.

How growth hacking took the market by storm

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.

Blog rant to a viable business strategy

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.

Pink neon icon on a black background displaying a lightbulb in a box

Growth marketing mini-case studies

Many of the world’s most popular brands have achieved incredible results with growth marketing. Here are some easy-to-understand growth hacking examples.

1. Hotmail said ‘I love you’ to users

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.

2. Twitter suggested people to follow

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.

3. Facebook gained 200-million users in a year

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:

  • Embeddable badges and widgets
    By providing users with embeddable Facebook badges or profile widgets to post on their websites and blogs. These widgets leveraged Facebook’s existing user base to deliver billions of impressions per month for Facebook, leading to hundreds of millions of click-throughs and, ultimately, millions of new users were happy to be part of the sign-up.
  • Getting access to more email addresses
    Facebook bought up service providers in third-world countries. While this not an option available to many companies today, it’s an interesting strategy. At the time, social media experts were dumbfounded. But Facebook had a growth hacking plan to purchase these companies to gain access to their technology, which would help procure more email addresses and, ultimately, more users.

4. Airbnb integrated with classified ads website

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.

The anatomy of a growth hacker

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.”

Infographic explaining what growth hacking is with circles connecting marketing, programming and data analysis.

Here’s a breakdown of four of the top traits of successful hackers:

  1. They’re creative problem solvers
    Hackers are constantly thinking of new ways to solve problems. They ask themselves questions and actively seek out creative answers. They are curious by nature, which leads them to continuously refine their funnel, grow their content marketing, and search for new channels, media, platforms, and methods to distribute content.
  2. They’re very nimble and quick
    To be a successful exponent, you must think and act very quickly. There’s no time for a lot of strategic planning, action mapping, or documentation. Yes, these are all-important elements of any strategy, but hackers must use them as an umbrella. They must be aware of the bigger picture of the goals and objectives of the overall marketing plan, but live and act in the here and now; making quick decisions in the moment that will capitalize on growth opportunities.
  3. They’re optimistic and competitive
    There’s no room for pessimism here. Successful hackers are eternal optimists, always believing that the next big win is right around the corner. Their competitive nature drives them to continuously seek out new opportunities to outperform the competition. They are ambitious, confident, and believe that their big, hairy, audacious goals for growth are possible.
  4. They’re extremely tech-savvy
    It’s not enough to exhibit all of the traits mentioned above. True exponents are all of these things and they’re tech-savvy, too. They are on top of new technologies, services, products, and communities and are among the first to try them out. They have a solid understanding of funnels, SEO, social media, mobile content consumption, content marketing, conversion rate optimization, and general digital marketing. They’re always eager to try something new and see what it can do for the growth of their brands. If you’re a non-technical would-be growth marketer, start changing that mindset now!

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.

Getting started on your growth hacking journey

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:

  • Tap into the experts.
    People like Ryan Holiday, Andrew Chen, and Patrick Vlaskovits have already been down the path you’re now treading. Use their experience.
  • Begin with simple, measurable goals that you can easily track and report
    – such as clicks, traffic, and form submissions.
  • Use what you’ve already got.
    Look at your existing content marketing plan and identify new places to share it, as well as ways you can add opportunities to convert users within the content.
  • Pirate Funnel.
    Many startups use venture capitalist Dave McClure’s ‘pirate funnel’ as a recipe for growth and great growth hacks. The key points of his funnel are acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue (AARRR). Others include raising awareness as a key part of growth hacker marketing. Either way, the point is to get traffic and visitors, turn visitors into users, and retain those users as happy customers.
  • Maximize opportunities to test.
    If you have tools available to conduct A/B testing on your site pages, with your emails, with social posts, etc. - do it! Test constantly and review the results to see how you can continuously improve.
  • Remember what testing is about.
    Remember that ‘testing’ isn’t just about testing your promotional strategy and the effectiveness of your funnel – it also refers to the continuous improvement and refinement of the product. This is where your engineers, developers, and other non-growth marketers in your growth team come to the fore. In some instances, the product is the strategy.
  • Go for quick wins.
    Aim to produce a few quick wins and then take the results to other team members and leadership to gain buy-in. With their support, take steps toward bigger growth hacking tactics that will move the brand forward in a dramatic fashion.

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.