Much of the discomfort marketers feel toward growth hackers comes from misunderstandings. They think growth hackers are out to replace them, or they think that growth hacking is simply another term for what they are already doing... Wrong.
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“Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing”
That is the title of one of Andrew Chen’s most popular blog posts. He’s the head of growth at Uber and one of the most influential people in the field.
I can imagine that if your job title is “VP of Marketing” this headline probably made you grind your teeth.
Just relax for a bit and keep reading.
Growth hacking is a popular term, and growth hacking agencies are popping up like mushrooms after a rainy spell.
With this perceived intrusion into the domain of marketing, it’s unsurprising that many marketers are up in arms about it. Here is what some of them are saying:
“[It’s] just a new term for what true marketers have been doing for years only now there are new channels and tools to use.”
“A lot clever headline grabbing statements to build hype.”
“It's actually just a buzzword because companies have been doing these practices for years.”
But is this critical view accurate? Is growth hacking just another term for modern marketing? Is it just a buzzword?
Or is there something else behind this negative appraisal?
Growth Hacking has been around since 2010 when the lead marketer at Dropbox, Sean Ellis, coined the term. He realized what he was doing was more than traditional marketing and thus needed a new name.
A common way of describing growth hacking is as a cross between creative marketing, data science and software engineering. So it’s certainly related to marketing—there is some overlap—but it’s still quite distinct.
(You can read more about the differences between marketing and growth hacking here.)
So if it’s really a different discipline, why do so many marketers have their knickers in a twist? (apparently that’s a saying in Australia).
We have a few theories.
Growth hacking lore is full of sensational examples about how startups skyrocketed their growth using clever, unconventional and often highly technical techniques.
One of the chief among these is Airbnb who reverse engineered an API that allowed them to automatically cross post all their listings on Craigslist—who already had a huge user base.
This resulted in massive traction and exponential growth for Airbnb. It’s part of the reason they are so big now. Today this type of growth hack is called “leveraging other people’s platforms.”
Hotmail is another big example. Abandoning billboard and radio advertisements, they came up with the clever idea of turning every single email into a free promotion by simply adding “PS: I Love You. Get Your Free Email at Hotmail” to the footer.
This simple hack instantaneously created a viral loop that launched Hotmail on an explosive growth trajectory with almost no marketing expenditure.
Traditional marketers are used to launching ad campaigns with a bang and a press conference. They want to be on primetime TV and all the best billboard spaces. They pay loads of money for crafting great ads that earn them lots of exposure.
And so when they then see small startups soaring past them, becoming some of the most valuable companies in the world, armed with nothing but a programming engineer and a miniscule marketing budget, it can result in some pulsating forehead veins.
On top of this, self-identified growth hackers in the blogosphere have a tendency to come up with really annoying headlines. They make wild promises which read more like scams than solid advice.
Indeed, sometimes the stuff you read about growth hacking is too good to be true.
But here’s the thing.
Real growth hacking is not magic... But neither is it a collection of get-rich-quick schemes or empty promises. Tweet That!
Rather, it’s a product-focused marketing approach that requires persistence, creativity, controlled experimentation, extreme focus on data, and willingness to take risks.
Famous examples like Airbnb are exceptional. They are the “unicorns” of growth hacking. Behind every one of these sensational stories are typically a dozen failed attempts you don’t hear about.
Much like scientific breakthroughs, growth hacks like the ones above are the result of a systematic, data-driven process of continual ideation, prioritization, measurement, testing and optimization.
This is something many people don’t understand. They just see the annoying headlines and think, “yeah, right.”
The truth is, growth hacking can be extremely successful, as many companies (like Dropbox, Instagram, Uber and PayPal) have all shown. It’s a breakthrough new field.
But it’s also widely misunderstood—and even resented.
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Lots of people are calling growth hacking “Marketing 2.0.” They say that growth hackers have made marketing obsolete. That in the digital age, growth hacking is all you need to grow a business.
While growth hacking does have the potential to bring your business to the next level, it is not exactly a substitute for having a solid marketing strategy—especially if you’re a big company.
Growth hackers bring in new types of expertise, things like programming automation and the ability to use rich data analytics tools for optimizing online channels. But many of them don’t have a background in marketing.
We have found that the most successful growth hacking implementations have taken shape when we worked closely together with a client’s existing marketing team.
Growth hackers are not out to sabotage the field of marketing.
However, it is worth saying that the rise of growth hackers, and the fact that there was room for their emergence, should serve as a wakeup call for the field of marketing.
Times are changing. The abundance of data has forever altered the way businesses reach customers and design products. New skills need to be learned, and new tools need to be adopted as technology advances.
Skills like programming and data analytics are becoming increasingly essential for marketers. Many have learned these skills, but many have not. In any case, they are typically not taught in university marketing classes.
If you are a marketer, learning how to use tools like Google Analytics, heatmap generators like Hotjar, and A/B testing tools like Optimizely should be high on your agenda.
Companies that learn how to make marketing decisions based on valid data, rather than on assumptions, will be the ones that continue to grow and thrive.
If their marketers are not equipped to deal with this data, companies will likely turn to growth hacking agencies.
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Modern technology, advanced tools and the latest techniques have made almost everything a company does to grow measurable.
The performance of every ad campaign can now be monitored in real time. Customer journeys through the sales funnel can be traced and improved. Friction and obstacles can be identified and removed. Design and copy can be tested and optimized.
But this all requires data analytics expertise that many marketers still do not possess.
Marketers love big, expensive campaigns that aim for broad awareness. But these are difficult to trace. Many would be hard pressed to place exact figures on results.
According to HBR, as many as 80% of traditional marketers are not even sure of their campaign ROI.
Because they lack the necessary measurement tools, they design campaigns based on “best guesses” regarding where their customers can be reached, what they want, and how they will respond.
While most marketers are undoubtedly good at what they do, if their work is based on assumptions, it will never be exactly clear whether they are spending their efforts (and budgets) in a way that will produce maximum impact and translate into business growth.
Only rich data can provide that kind of clarity.
When a growth hacker comes in and makes every detail measurable and every cent traceable, suddenly every move a marketer makes can be scrutinized—which may not be such a welcome development.
The fear is that a growth hacker might expose inefficiencies in the marketing status quo, and reveal where big spending has not delivered results.
If marketers don’t adapt and learn how to harness data, they will try to avoid it instead—and try to make growth hackers the bad guys.
More and more marketers are already making full use of data analytics and automation tools. They are frustrated because growth hacking just seems to be a new term for what they are already doing.
They have learned to think more scientifically and base their decisions on validated data. They have learned how to optimize their channels for conversions. They know how to set up landing pages and A/B tests… They just don’t call themselves growth hackers.
There remains a big difference, however, between growth hackers and marketers who use many of the same tools that growth hackers do. The two roles are related and there are varying degrees of overlap, but they are distinct functions.
In once sense a growth hacker has a much narrower focus than a marketer, and yet in another sense, the scope of their work is more broad.
Let me explain.
Unlike a marketer, who also has to think about branding, reputation management, consistency in communication and much more; growth hackers are 100% focused on doing whatever it takes to grow a company fast and sustainably.
With laser like precision, they work towards their growth targets, ignoring everything else. They follow a systematic routine of ideation, prioritization, testing, measurement and optimization.
They continually iterate, at a rapid pace. They try something, and if it doesn’t work they quickly pivot and try something else.
On the other hand, they may be involved in many more business areas than a marketer typically would.
In order to achieve growth, their work may need to span many different departments in an organization. They will undoubtedly be involved in marketing, sales, product management and customer experience at the least.
And they will have a bigger overview of what is happening in all of these areas so that they can continually work to optimize the entire sales funnel, ensuring that all the pieces are working together for maximum impact.
The fact that they live outside traditional organizational boundaries allows them more freedom, more creativity and more focus when it comes to growing a business.
Over the last decade or so, growth hacking has proven to be extremely successful.
Many budding startups have transformed into Fortune 500 companies using growth hacking techniques. And the growth realized by our clients here at RockBoost testifies to its continued relevance.
Much of the discomfort marketers feel toward growth hackers come from misunderstandings. They think growth hackers are out to replace them, or they think that growth hacking is simply another term for what they are already doing.
But growth hacking and marketing are not the same thing. Yes, many tech savvy marketers use many of the same tools growth hackers do. And yes, growth hacking involves marketing. But they remain distinct.
Having a solid marketing strategy in place is important. Add growth hacking into the mix, and you can take your business to the next level. When done properly, growth hacking will compliment your marketing strategy.
Rather than trying to discredit growth hacking, marketers should learn from the tools and techniques growth hackers use. They reflect the ways business and technology are evolving.
In the near future, it will be taken for granted that all marketers are fluent in the skills needed to harness data and optimize conversions.
Until that happens, growth hackers will continue lead the way forward.