What is growth hacking?

What is growth hacking

Growth hacking is a term that has recently come into vogue, and the term is causing some confusion. You can’t go to a startup event without meeting someone with the title “growth hacker,”  promising simple tricks to scale your startup. But what the heck does a “growth hacker” do?  

I hate buzzwords and tend to steer clear of trendy, flavor-of-the-week titles. It’s why I don’t call myself  “a relentless change agent who tirelessly acts as a catalyst for innovation and a conduit for disruption.” (Also, I’m not Kanye West.) However, I’ve recently joined the ranks of marketers who use the title growth hacker to describe the work they do. It makes sense. As a marketer, my goal is always growth, and for me, hacking is a way of looking at the world.

Hacking is a methodology

The word hacker causes a lot more confusion than the word growth. When people think of hackers, they often think of Hollywood’s depiction — someone typing on a keyboard in a dimly lit room with a Star Wars poster in the background. Others think of early tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak (Heck, I think of John Mcafee). But the reality is that hacking didn’t start off with computers.

When I say anything can be hacked, I’m not just saying nothing is secure. I mean anything can be hacked.  I hack Chipotle every time I ask for “a half scoop of steak and a half a scoop of chicken.” I’m manipulating a system that doesn’t have a “half scoop” measurement. The result is, that with no price increase, I get 1.7 times the meat on average. Try it sometime; hacking is fun.

Growth hacking isn’t a magic button

Now that we understand the mindset of hacking, let’s talk more about growth. The goal of any marketing should be long term sustainable growth, not just a short term gain. Growth hacking is about optimization as well as lead generation. Imagine your business is a bucket and your leads are water. You don’t want to pour water into a leaky bucket; it’s a waste of money. That’s why a true growth hacker would care about customer retention.

If you have a business that requires an appointment be booked weeks in advance, what is the value of automated communications with your customers to remind them of the appointment? I’m in the middle of finding out the answer to the above question with one of my clients. We have had very successful lead generation, but a 30 percent no show rate on appointments. My answer wasn’t just to spend more on marketing. Because 70 percent of customers show up to the office, the answer was to fix the bucket.

To me the job of a growth hacker is that of a marketing scientist. Use the data available, everything from industry trends to internal analytics, to find areas in a company’s marketing that will yield the greatest impact. With needs in mind, form an hypothesis of what the solution will look like, design a test, analyze the results and implement the most impactful changes.

Great growth hacking mixes psychology and technology

Remember how I hacked Chipotle? The hack uses the lack of a half spoon and the desire of the Chipotle employee to make me happy.  Most of the time growth hacking is leveraging both psychology and systems. I’ve lost track of the number of times a simple change to the images on a website has improved conversions. And a truly great email subject line is as important as any email automation software.

My friends at Camping with Dogs pulled off one of the coolest growth hacks of all time. They spent $50 and ended up on The Ellen Show, Today.com, BuzzFeed, Elite Daily, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Travel, Mashable, AOL, Conde Nast, the Telegraph, and over 100 other mentions.

An example of great growth hacking

How did they do it? the short version of the story is a compelling piece of content and amplifying it to the right audience. In this case, the amplification was a Facebook ad and the audience was journalists. Hacking doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel, it’s about finding the best solution. Blog posts aren’t new, nor are Facebook ads, but this was a solution that worked. 

Check out this post of nearly free growth hacks  and this post about how to get press.


The dark side of “growth hacking”

To me, growth hacking simply means good marketing, but just like with anything their are bad actors who work hard for short term gains. Things like buying backlinks, social likes and it’s rumored that a very large blog once upon a time bought old MySpace bling sites to embed their Google Analytics code and bolster the visitor numbers (it may even have been a publication that covered Camping with Dogs).

No matter how many people are doing it correctly, someone is going to do it wrong. Marketing has always attracted some bottom feeders, only now instead of calling themselves “social media gurus” or “SEO ninjas” they call themselves growth hackers.

Growth hacking isn’t like being a lawyer, there’s not a bar exam to prove the person you’re working with is qualified. But even if marketing was regulated like legal or financial services, you only have to Google “Bernard Madoff” to realize that you need to be a savvy consumer regardless of the title someone holds.

Growth hacking at it’s best

Growth hacking at its best is everything marketing should have always been. Marketing that focuses on data and testing to efficiently reach and retain customers. Look at the success Dropbox, inc., had offering customers more free space when they invited friends to use Dropbox or Airbnb’s success leveraging Craigslist.

It’s apparent that growth hacking is here to stay. Even if we call it something else. Personally, I hope the title growth hacker is here to stay.

Photo by uberof202