Growth hacking: Strategies and techniques from marketing’s 25 most influential leaders
Born in 2010, the term “growth hacker” was first defined by Sean Ellis as “a person whose true north is growth” … someone with a “burning desire to connect your target market with your must-have solution.”
Two years later, Ryan Holiday unpacked what was then a revolution:
“Once companies break out of the shackles of antiquated notions of what is or isn’t marketing, the whole field becomes cheaper, easier and much more scalable. Welcome to growth hacking. Or better, welcome to actual marketing, where whatever works is marketing.”
Today, growth hacking strategies have spread far beyond the startup community and into mainstream, enterprise business. And yet, a controversial question has emerged.
Is growth hacking hype … or is it helpful?
To find out, I connected with 25 of marketing’s most accomplished leaders, from growth hacking pioneers — like Sean Ellis, Ryan Holiday, and Hiten Shah — to recent entries — like Justin Wu, Rachel Pedersen, and Gretta van Riel.
Their answers reveal five strategies around which true growth hacking techniques come alive.
1. Growth hacking your product
You can’t “growth hack” your way out of a bad product. Instead, growth hacking begins with a product or service that adds value to a customer’s life. Iterative testing can help you unearth that value — and pivot when needed — but product-market fit is the foundation of unleashing growth hacking across your entire funnel.
Growth hacking is not hype, but it is often misunderstood. It’s about going beyond the standard marketing playbook to activate all levers of growth to help your product reach its full potential.
The prerequisite for growth hacking is a “must have” product or one that has achieved product-market fit. Growth hacking then helps teams find repeatable ways to drive sustainable growth, which requires understanding and exposing the “must have” value to a growing base of customers.
This is best achieved by testing across the entire customer journey from acquisition channels through activation, engagement and referral. Using the growth hacking process, cross-functional teams work together and test high-leverage opportunities. For example, at Dropbox we were able to instrument tracking and cross-functional testing relatively quickly — we were less than 10 people.
Growth hacking is an anachronism, which explains why companies doing the best growth, the Facebooks and Ubers of the world, don’t call it that. Early in a platform’s lifecycle — during the “frontier” stage — there are unexplored opportunities that can be exploited via one-off hacks.
But every platform matures, and that requires a systems approach to growth that touches product, marketing, engineering, design, and community rather than tricks that worked for one person, one time.
The foundation to creating growth within any company of any size is to deeply understand your market and your customers’ needs, and then be able to build something faster, more delightful, and more defensible than what your competition is doing. It also helps to have a macro model, broken down into micro experiments that you can run to get closer to your personalized golden ticket.
When people first think about the words growth hacking, they think about silver bullets or quick wins. There are many articles out there created by others talking about how they were able to generate zero to one million users overnight. Growth hacking isn’t about that at all.
Growth hacking is about running rapid growth experiments, using technology for efficiency, and then reacting based off the data. It is the true interaction between marketing, software, and metrics.
Add tracking and analytics to each step of your product itself. Social, advertising, email, content, etc. are just distribution avenues; they come and go. Once you have a tight ship running with your product or service, then you can begin running experiments across different marketing channels.
Growth hacking is mandatory. I work a lot in emerging markets like blockchain and cryptocurrency, and I see people instantly pivot to growth hacking when things start to get competitive.
As long as you integrate new-customer acquisition into your product itself — and not as some magical add-on to paid marketing — then growth hacking not only works but is also absolutely necessary.
The trap with growth hacking is to run hundreds of tools and disperse yourself into so many different methods and channels that nothing gets the attention it needs to truly succeed. Dominate one specific platform, instead of going after everything at once.
Industry terms tend to take on a life of their own, but it’s important to go back to the original idea for a true understanding. Sean Ellis’ insight — that startups tend to hire for irrelevant “marketing” skills, and should instead focus on finding someone to create “scalable, repeatable, and sustainable ways to grow the business” — is still spot on.
The part most people miss about growth hacking is that it should come after product-market fit. Today, I see way too many startup founders try and growth hack their way out of a crappy product. That never works.
The best thing you can do to grow your business is to first make sure you retain your users. Remember, growth without retention is a leaky bucket. Make sure your users keep coming back or all your hard work will be wasted. Build habits first, then invest in growth.
2. Growth hacking your process
Techniques and tactics are powerful, but growth hacking is far from a plug-and-play, one-size-fits-all endeavor. What matters is developing hypotheses from other success stories and implementing a holistic approach — tailored to your product and market — that prioritizes minimum effort with maximum yield.
One of the first things Peep Laja of CXL Institute told me was, “Tactics are for amateurs. Pros have systematic processes.” The key to growth hacking success is investing in the growth process instead of growth tactics. Tactics are sexy. Everyone wants a simple solution for hockey stick growth overnight.
While less sexy, process is undeniably the way to go. With a big list of random tactics, you’ll hit the mark once or twice, but you won’t know why. Processes are great because they prioritize learning and insights, which have long-term value.
Processes vary in execution based on an organization’s product and market, but the key features are always the same: research, hypothesize, prioritize, experiment, analyze … repeat.
The kind of marketing that startups have pioneered — going from zero to thousands then millions of users — is fundamentally different than how Procter & Gamble, GM, or the next Transformers movie is marketed.
Growth hacking is best done in a four-step cycle that begins with product-market fit and ends with product and conversion optimization.
To me the whole mindset is really captured in four questions:
How do we make this into something that people actually want?
How do we bring in our first users cheaply and effectively?
How do we encourage those users to share and spread the product?
What is the data showing us that can help us refine and scale our efforts?
Many companies think they want to hire a growth hacker, but don’t have the conditions necessary to make it possible. Before bringing in a growth person, organizations need to embrace three fundamental principles:
Be curious. Asking questions and being open to feedback (without feeling the need to defend yourself) can give you the insight needed to reach new audiences, remove distractions from your website, or rewrite confusing messaging.
Do things that don’t scale. Growth should be personal and authentic. Your organization should be constantly interviewing customers, user testing your website, and calling your target market to understand their needs.
Fail fast and keep moving. While it’s important to have a culture where failure is permitted, it’s not okay to have a culture where failure is seen as heroic. Instead, assess failures, keep a record of lessons learned, and quickly move on.
We’re at the point in the hype cycle where we’ve broken through confusion about terminology. Growth is no longer a list of “hacks” or “tactics” that may or may not work. Growth is now a system that can be studied and applied to successfully achieve core business goals.
The most important part of growth hacking is the idea that growth is a strategic imperative for any company and that the whole company should embrace it. Instead of having a single “growth hacker,” an emerging pattern is that companies are creating teams focused on growth.
The “growth practitioners” on these teams come from various disciplines and departments across the company including (but not limited to) product, marketing, data science, and engineering. They are ultimately responsible for growing a product or business by working across a company to achieve its loftiest goals.
Growth hacking misleads people because online it’s often equated with articles like “How Company X Got Y% Increase by Z Tactic.” What’s ignored is the process of getting to that tactic.
Conversion optimization is the easiest to fall for. Sure, they changed the background image from A to B, but how did they know to focus on that page? What was the process? What drove them to test a specific image versus something completely different? What other tests have they ran?
The process of mining for those insights, ideation, and prioritization is not as sexy to write about and most people don’t get exposed to it. The tactics are a by-product. Not the main course.
3. Growth hacking your culture
Whether you’re a startup or an enterprise, growth hacking demands a fundamental shift in business culture. The essential ingredients of this shift include cross-functional teams that demolish silos — namely those between development, engineering, design, marketing, and sales — and a “whole company” commitment to growth.
Actual growth hacking — i.e., the meeting of marketing and engineering — is still helpful because you can acquire new users, convert them, and get referrals rather nicely with smart in-app and tech solves. Everyone from Dropbox to Drip has grown with growth hacking.
The problem is that all marketing associated with tech, SaaS, and startups has become “growth hacking.” So it’s lost its way among those who just like using buzzwords to sound fancy.
Invite engineers to marketing meetings. And invite marketers, biz dev, success, and sales teams to product meetings. Better yet, take an engineer who likes marketing out for drinks.
To me, growth hacking is still very much marketing. The problem is a lot of internet marketers confuse grey and black hat tactics with growth hacking. Sure, you might get quick wins, but true growth hacking should be a long-term strategy for sustainable success.
Because this space moves so quickly, the key is to be curious and constantly learning. Once you stop, you risk falling behind.
This doesn’t mean trying everything under the sun. It means being strategic about the new things you’re testing and implementing for the long term if it works.
Every employee has to see themselves as responsible for “growth hacking,” not just the person labeled growth hacker and not only the marketing department. Some companies treat growth hacking like a separate, isolated department — an independent unit off somewhere doing its own thing. Instead, growth hacking should be an enabler for the whole company.
This approach starts with the type of people you hire.
What you want are people who are relentlessly curious and constantly test new things. Look for skill sets that enable your organization to build replicable processes and systems. Often, the best growth hacks come from those with computer science, math, and engineering mindsets rather than “marketers.”
The term growth hacking was created to masculinize a title in a feminized industry (marketing). It focuses a lot on the engineering and technical aspect of inbound marketing.
As a result, it can completely wash over the longer-term, relationship-building, and inbound-traffic-driving tactics of content, social, and community.
In a perfect world, you would combine and balance what is being called “growth hacking” into longer-term inbound strategies. I’d love to see companies pair up people who focus on the data and metrics-driven side of marketing that could give instant feedback to the team who focuses on the content and relationships. You need both!
Growth hacking and digital transformation are terms usually used with a wrong definition. I find it more helpful to ask, “What are the elements of a strategy that leads to growth? How can we scale that principle with technology?”
For most traditional organisations, existing strengths are located offline and the task is to transform them into a digital version. A lot of customer centricity is needed to find answers to the first question. The steps of how technology helps to unleash that potential and lead to growth comes second.
If you don’t know the principles that lead to growth, you don’t need technology to scale it. First comes the principle, then technology — not the other way around.
4. Growth hacking your customers
Organizations grow when they not only serve their customers, but transform them into raving fans. This is the second half of product-market fit and it means understanding — as The Innovator’s Solution puts it — the “jobs” your customers want to get done. It also means baking virality, the spread of your product or service, into your product or service at the technical and social levels.
Call it growth hacking, conversion optimization or digital transformation, the name or buzzword of the year doesn’t matter. It’s what stands behind that matters: marketers who go beyond the general best practices or the “one hack that increases conversions by 500%.”
Your goal has to be creating experiences that cater to customers’ needs. If the buzzword helps turn more marketers into customer-centric marketers, I say bring the buzzwords on.
Becoming customer-centric is the only way to grow your business. Only when you spend your time and resources on getting in your customers’ heads, understanding their pains, emotional drivers, and concerns will you truly know how to create high-converting customer journeys and drive lifetime customers.
The problem with growth hacking is that people define it either as mixing engineering and marketing or as finding scalable traction channels faster. The truth is growth hacking means creating the right relationships faster. That’s it.
Relationships are the foundation for sales and traction. Without strong relationships, prospects don’t buy and customers don’t return. To make it more complicated is to fundamentally miss the point of how businesses get built.
When people speak about growth hacking a channel, what they should mean is finding ways to efficiently provide value at scale to increase engagement and trust. If you’re a growth hacker, it means you’re constantly finding innovative ideas to build the right relationships faster. That definition deserves an entire new level of respect.
As an industry, marketing tends to jump from trend to trend. But the essentials are timeless: namely, personalize to your audience as much as possible. The mechanisms matter much less than your ability to deliver relevant messages and content.
Invest in three key areas. First, a centralized store of customer data. If the goal is to build campaigns that are personalized at scale, then data quality is a crucial leverage point. Second, get technical people on your marketing team — people who understand how to make these automated systems work at scale. Third, use analytics on the front-end and the back-end. Before you start a campaign, you should be using data to target your strategies. After your campaigns, you need to evaluate the ROI of every program and decide where to invest.
While growth hacking is an unnecessary piece of jargon, personalized marketing is here to stay.
Growth hacking is a constant cycle of talking to your customers, viewing their behavior in product, and running tests based off your learnings. We’ve taken a lot of principles from the growth hacking process and applied it to content marketing to drive growth.
The first step is to talk to your customers. Ask them, “What sites do you read in X industry? Who do you trust? What communities do you participate in? What are your day to day challenges in your role?” Step two is to create content that helps educate your customers on how to solve their challenges.
Step three is to test promoting your content in the places where your customers say they already frequent online. Step four is to measure the results and double down on the communities and content-driving quality traffic.
Instead of going wide to increase exposure and followers, the new definition of growth hacking should be to go deep with existing consumers. This means investing in loyalty. Loyal customers share, they tag friends and family, write reviews, forward emails, and more.
To growth hack loyalty, one of the best things companies can do is strip away the divides. For example, before AirBNB’s success, the founders took photos of the host locations themselves, getting to know their target market’s beliefs, pain points, and desires.
Other companies can model this by removing the pretense of position and intentionally getting involved in the communities and relationships their customers are invested in themselves — whether digital or physical.
5. Growth hacking your experiments
Tight cycles of feedback. A commitment to the scientific method. An allegiance to the data. These are just some of the features that make up our final set of growth hacking techniques. Running through them all is the mantra “Fail Fast,” not because failing is heroic, but because testing — early and often — yields the insights you need for long-term growth.
More and more people are calling themselves growth hackers without actually executing growth hacking strategies and tactics. True data-driven growth hackers are being lumped in with traditional marketers.
The underlying principle of growth hacking is quick, iterative testing of customer acquisition strategies and tactics, and doubling down on the tactics that are working. This requires setting up your analytics properly so you’re tracking causation, not correlation, and having enough data points (i.e., traffic) to make decisions.
Growth hacking doesn’t have to be short term wins, but it is about moving quickly and being okay with failure.
“Growth hacking” is only a buzzword for people who don’t really understand that it’s a scientific process. Real growth hacking means you’re focusing on high-impact, short-term objectives; you’re planning, running, and analyzing experiments; and you organize and prioritize ideas by what is the easiest to implement coupled with the highest yield.
Keep in mind you can’t sacrifice quality or long-term gains just to get short-term wins; that’s not growth hacking. A lot of “experts” will call anything growth hacking when their practices aren’t sustainable. For example, black-hat SEO tactics aren’t growth hacks, even if they result in short-term gains, because they can damage your business.
That’s the fundamental key: you have to grow with the goals of retention and customer centricity.
Buzzwords are buzzwords for a reason, the same way cliches are cliches for a reason — because they’re used again and again. Regardless, the process is undeniably valuable.
Whatever you want to call it, growth is the number one metric that is going to contribute to the success or failure of your company. Facebook’s growth mantra, “Move fast and break things,” is half right. That’s a phenomenal ethos, but you have to understand why things broke or why they worked.
Without the why you’re not building anything repeatable or sustainable. So experiment and iterate, but always track what you’re doing. I tell my team, “If you didn’t track it, you didn’t do it.”
The ultimate meaning of growth hacking is experimenting with different marketing channels and hyper-focusing on the channels that work: find what works and do more of it.
Growth hacking starts with two things: (1) a product worth spreading, and (2) intimate knowledge of your target customer. Not just demographics, but psychographics, too. What do they want? What media do they consume? Where do they spend their time? How do they describe their problems, hopes, fears, and goals?
Once you have those two things down, you can start experimenting. Experiment with strategies that have worked for your competitors or other successful companies that reach your target customer and see what works for you. Realize there is no failure in experimentation — only disproven theories.
Many people approach growth hacking the wrong way as though it’s all about one-off wins. While every company has to discover the processes and tactics that work for them, what’s crucial is that once you discover what works, double down on it and build it out as an ongoing strategy and process.
Let’s say you get a lot of traction from speaking at conferences, or from content marketing, or from Facebook. The very first question has to be: what are some experiments we can run within that area to accelerate and scale growth even faster?
Rather than tackling multiple channels and moving from individual win to individual win, it’s more important to figure out what is already working, and run numerous tests to make it work even more effectively.
Is growth hacking hype?
In its purest form, growth hacking is a holistic approach to scaling a product or service’s acquisition, use, and retention. It centers itself on rapid experimentation that merges product development, product data, and product marketing.
There are no magic bullets. Instead, moving beyond the hype means aligning your growth hacking techniques with five growth hacking strategies:
Writing a full generation before growth hacking was even coined, perhaps Peter F. Drucker put it best: “In innovation, as in any other endeavor, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when all is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work. If diligence, persistence, and commitment are lacking, talent, ingenuity, and knowledge are of no avail.”
Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.
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