You’re familiar with the term “growth hacking”, right? You’ve likely read about how Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Hotmail, Dropbox, etc. growth hacked their way to mega success.
Those case studies resulted in a widespread shift in thinking. Many marketers became more concerned with 10x growth hacks they read about online than strategy and growth process.
Is growth hacking useless? Absolutely not. Is the way it’s commonly talked about useless? Undeniably.
The Evolution of Growth Hacking
2010 – Sean Ellis, who currently runs Qualaroo, coins the term “growth hacking” in his article, “Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup.” Back then, he defined a “growth hacker” as, “[…] a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth. Is positioning important? Only if a case can be made that it is important for driving sustainable growth (FWIW, a case can generally be made).”
April, 2012 – Andrew Chen, who currently does growth at Uber, writes Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing, which goes viral (2.4K shares) and finally takes the term “growth hacking” from obscure to mainstream. In the article, Andrew describes growth hackers as a cross between marketers and coders.
September, 2012 – Andrew Chen writes You don’t need a growth hacker, which encourages companies to really consider whether they have product-market fit before hiring a growth hacker. He puts the focus on product, not “growth hacks”. Unfortunately, this post only receives 182 shares.
September 2012 – Aaron Ginn, who currently does growth at Everlane, writes Defining A Growth Hacker: Three Common Characteristics to help define the term. He states that all growth hackers have three common traits:
- A love for data. “Growth hackers have a passion for tracking and moving a metric. Without metrics or data, a growth hacker can feel out of place and uncomfortably exposed. This strong bias towards data drives a growth hacker away from vanity metrics towards metrics that will make or break the business.”
- Creativity. “While driven by data and moving metrics, growth hackers are also creative problem solvers. A growth hacker has a vibrant mental dexterity to think of new ways to acquire and loop in users. Growth hackers do not stop at data but build into new and unknown frontiers to find growth.”
- Curiosity. “A growth hacker has a fascination at why visitors choose to be users and engage and why some products fall flat on their face. With today’s distracted users, growth hackers are habitually exploring to find new ways to push metrics up and to the right.”
It’s worth noting that these traits are not dissimilar to what we found to be the most common / desired traits of optimizers…
As Aaron points out below, at this point, the definition of and understanding of the term “growth hacking” is loose and vague…
October 2012 – Erin Turner and Gagan Biyani host the first Growth Hackers Conference in Menlo Park, California.
At this point, the difference between marketing and growth hacking is still incredibly unclear.
December 2012 – Ryan Holiday, author and former Director of Marketing at American Apparel, writes Everything Is Marketing: How Growth Hackers Redefined the Game. He blurs the line more by claiming that growth hacking is not a new strategy or tactic, it’s simply a shift in thinking.
December 2012 – Aaron Gin writes Defining A Growth Hacker: Debunking The 6 Most Common Myths About Growth Hacking, which distinctly separates growth hackers (product-focused) from marketers (inbound and outbound marketing).
May 2013 – Gagan Biyani, CEO of Sprig, writes Explained: The actual difference between growth hacking and marketing, which essentially equates growth hackers and marketers with limited time / resources.
Gagan first separates the two by suggesting that startups do growth hacking and bigger companies do marketing. Therein lies the three differences between growth hacking and marketing…
- Startups are organizations with extreme uncertainty.
- Startups are designed for astronomical growth.
- Startups don’t have access to the same resources or brand equity.
Now, people begin defining growth hacking as a process, a systematic approach, a “viral loop”, etc.
September 2013 – Ryan Holiday publishes Growth Hacker Marketing and urges people to build growth into the product itself so that it’s a self-sustaining, scalable growth machine.
June 2014 – Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown write Startup Growth Engines: Case Studies of How Today’s Most Successful Startups Unlock Extraordinary Growth, which defines growth strategies as growth engines.
How Is Growth Hacking Defined Today?
Today, all things startup marketing are typically lumped under the term “growth hacking”. Take a look at these “growth hacking” articles…
An Epic List of 100 Growth Hacks for Startups by Search Engine Journal
6 Growth Hack Techniques You Can Try Today by Entrepreneur
These aren’t growth hacks. They’re inbound and outbound marketing tactics. Somewhere along the line, those two things became synonymous.
On Sean’s GrowthHackers.com, categories include…
So, essentially everything from customer development and onboarding to persuasion and social marketing fall under the umbrella of growth hacking.
What Is the Overlap Between Growth Hacking and CRO?
At GrowthHackers.com, there’s an optimization tag. So, it’s not surprising that a commonly asked question for optimizers is: What is the overlap between growth hacking and conversion rate optimization?
But what do other growth marketers think? Would they agree that growth hacking is essentially traffic acquisition plus CRO?
Morgan Brown from Inman argues that while optimization and growth go hand-in-hand, it’s more about optimizing the product and customer experience than landing pages…
Sujan Patel, co-creator of Narrow.io, argues that much more than traffic acquisition and conversion rate optimization goes into growth hacking…
David Arnoux of Growth Tribe adds that speed is a key factor…
Morgan is right in saying that CRO is typically associated with optimizing landing pages and sites. However, smart optimizers know that the buck doesn’t stop there. Optimizing for retention, as he points out, is a high-value activity.
So, if CRO covers the visitor-to-customer conversion and retention, all that’s left (online, anyway) is indeed traffic acquisition, which is where inbound and outbound marketing tactics come into play. So, to summarize…
- Traffic Acquisition – Using inbound and outbound marketing tactics, send visitors to the site.
- Visitor-to-Customer Conversion – Using a CRO process, increase on-site conversions.
- Retention – Using a CRO process, reduce churn and encourage repeat buyers.
Throughout this entire process, growth strategies are present. They can be applied at every stage.
3 Growth Hacking Mistakes & Myths
While we’re discussing what growth hacking is not, consider these basic growth hacking mistakes and myths: growing before you’re ready, expecting the results you read about online, and focusing too much on awareness.
1. Growing Before You’re Ready
To Nichole Elizabeth DeMere, who currently does growth at Inturact, the most costly growth hacking myth is that you should be growth hacking…
Growth hacking is done best when it begins at the start of product development. Why? Because growth should be built into the product itself for maximum ROI. However, at the very least, you must have product-market fit and a clear understanding of what your customers want, need, fear, etc.
Just as Andrew Chen said way back in 2012, not everyone is ready for growth. Growth hackers aren’t magicians, they’re marketers. They can’t make a bad product’s revenue move up and to the right. Even if they can generate that type of awareness for a bad product, they can’t make those customers stay, which is a crucial part of the process.
Everyone wants growth, but not everyone needs it (right now).
2. An Inspiration, Not a Promise
Sujan cautioned against believing you’ll achieve the same results as someone else…
When you read an article about Uber’s growth or Airbnb’s growth, you’re reading an inspirational article. You’re not reading a how-to article. Similar to CRO case studies, growth case studies can’t be duplicated. There are just too many variables…
- Different audiences.
- Different contexts.
- Different products.
- Different user experiences.
- Different motivations.
- Different times.
All you can use what you read online for is ideation, which is the first step in the growth hacking process…
- Creative Ideation – Come up with your “big ideas”.
- Prioritize – Evaluate all of your ideas and prioritize them. How confident are you that they’ll work? How easy are they to implement? How big would the effect be?
- Test – Execute your ideas, testing them against a control to see if your hypothesis was correct.
Note how similar this process is to a conversion rate optimization process.
3. Nurturing, Not Just Awareness
Dan Martell, who is currently working on growing his personal newsletter, believes that the biggest growth hacking mistake people make is…
Here’s the reality: Growth hacking isn’t about getting visitors to a site. It’s about money. [Tweet It!]
Optimizers tend to have the same misconception. They believe the goal is increasing the conversion rate of their popup vs. generating more money.
It isn’t enough to get people to your site. As Dan says, most of them aren’t ready to make a purchase the second they land, anyway. The motivation just isn’t there. Instead of losing visitors as quickly as you acquire them, plug the leak by designing a lead nurturing path.
Here’s what that path should look like…
- Highlight the pain point or problem your product solves.
- Explain how your product solves the pain point or problem.
- Show how your product is making someone else’s life easier / solving the pain point for someone else.
- Explain your product thoroughly. What are the features? How does it work? Are there any relevant resources / can you provide reading material?
- Describe the next steps in detail. What action should they take? What will happen next? What will the onboarding process be like?
Growth Hacking Tactics vs. Process
Above, I referred to the three growth hacking steps as a “process”. That’s important to note because only amateurs rely on tactics. Professionals have a systematic process.
Ed Fry of Inbound.org had this to say about growth processes…
The term “growth hacking” much like the term “conversion rate optimization” is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it draws attention to the marketing potential hidden within products. On the other, people believe that a single tactic they read about on Forbes will skyrocket their site’s success overnight.
Growth teams should be focused on creating and refining a systematic, scalable, repeatable growth process. A string of tactics is a string of shots in the dark. Even if you do hit your mark by chance, you won’t be able to repeat the success.
Morgan agrees that there is no magic growth hacking secret…
Here’s a sample growth process from Ryan Gum…
Though, I would note that he’s missing product validation.
He also clearly demonstrates the difference between process and tactics…
When you follow the growth process, you’ll come up with growth hacks and tactics. But instead of throwing 12 of them against the wall and hoping one sticks, you’re executing in a strategic, systematic way that allows you to gather insights and learn from your efforts.
How to Create a Growth Hacking Process
So, what exactly goes into each step of the growth hacking process? The process can really be condenses into three steps: product development, exploration, and optimization.
Step 1: Product Development
- Refine your product with growth in mind. Build growth loops into the product itself.
- Validate your product-market fit. The best validation is always money in your bank.
- Conduct heuristic analysis and remove any friction you find.
- Using your heuristic insights, optimize your product so that customers get to the core value as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Exploration
- Start by identifying your key metrics. Stay as close to the money as possible.
- Participate in creative ideation. Get the whole team involved.
- Prioritize your ideas based on how confident you are in them, how easy they are to implement and how big of an effect you believe they’ll have.
- Test your ideas against the control to see if your hypotheses were correct.
Remember, the exploration step applies to every stage of the funnel…
- Traffic acquisition.
- Visitor-to-customer conversion.
Step 3: Optimization
- Analyze the results of your tests and ideas. Did they perform the way you expected? How did they impact your key metrics?
- Ask yourself why. Was the execution flawless? Was there a problem with the loop? Where did you fall short? Where did you excel? How can you do better next time?
- Optimize your ideas. How can what you learned through analysis improve your existing ideas? How can they improve future ideas? Can you automate your ideas at all? Does your idea have a strong growth loop?
Growth hacking has become both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it refocuses marketers on the importance of product development and product-market fit. On the other, it’s being used as what I can only compare to a “get rich quick scheme”.
There’s no 10x growth hack in an article somewhere just waiting for you to discover it. Growth hacking isn’t magic. [Tweet It!]
In fact, we haven’t even unanimously settled on a definition of growth hacking. It means different things to different people.
So, how can you avoid the growth hacking trap and still reap the benefits? It’s quite a simple process…
- Throw out the list of 10x growth hacks you’ve read about online.
- Create a systematic, repeatable growth process for you and your team.