Growth Hacking: All Hype and No Substance?

We’ve come to realize that there are a lots of myths and misunderstanding regarding what growth hacking is and is not. In this blog post we will try to address some of the myths and misconceptions going around. We’ll paint a clearer, more objective picture and let you decide whether you think growth hacking is as sensational as it sounds.

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In our continuing mission to stay ahead of the market, understand our customer needs and establish product market fit (PMF), we do lots of Google searches.

Incidentally, we have come across lots of … let’s say “misinformation” about growth hacking. Here are some of the titles of real articles we’ve seen:


"Don't Hire A Growth Hacker Until You Read This"

"6 Reasons You Shouldn't Hire a Growth Hacker"

"Stop Trying to Hire a Growth Hacker"

"Why Startups Should Tread Carefully When Hiring A Growth Hacker"


What’s with all the negative energy, people?

We’ve come to realize that there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings regarding what growth hacking is and is not. We’ve also noticed that a number of people in more traditional marketing roles (often the authors of these articles) seem somewhat uncomfortable with all the growth hacking “hype”.

No matter. In this blog post we will try to address some of the myths and misconceptions going around. We’ll paint a clearer, more objective picture and let you decide whether you think growth hacking is legitimate.

One of the biggest contentions we will address is whether growth hacking is really distinct from marketing. And we’ll speculate a bit on why so many marketers are uncomfortable with it.


Growth Hacking vs Marketing

Earlier, we wrote a comprehensive blog post specifically about the differences between growth hacking and traditional marketing. Some of the points we brought up are worth reiterating here.

Firstly, growth hacking is more of a mindset than just a blueprint job description.

Growth hackers are focused on one thing only: finding the most effective and efficient way to scale up a business and achieve sustainable growth--whatever that might take.

Sure, this usually involves marketing. Growth hacking is often called Growth Marketing, or even Marketing 2.0. But when growth is your prime directive, it usually requires much more than what you’ll find in a marketing textbook.

The growth hacker’s mindset is about pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Harnessing the latest technologies, they think big, take risks and constantly ask the question “what if?”

Relentlessly pursuing a goal, even when it takes them beyond their zone of comfort, is what makes growth hackers effective. Challenges are welcomed. Failures are embraced.

When something is “impossible” they find a way to make it possible. Sounds unreal? With their diverse set of skills, including creative marketing, data analysis and testing and computer programing, it’s pretty much true. They make things happen.


So what is the difference?

Unlike most marketers, growth hackers trace their roots back to programming engineers. The discipline lies at the intersection of 1) creative marketing, 2) data analytics & testing, and 3) software engineering. Their day job often involves rapid experimentation across marketing channels, with constant attention to product (re)development and an unending focus on building and engaging a company’s user base.

They approach problems more scientifically than marketers. Growth hackers start with setting up measurement systems and formulating hypotheses based on data. They use the build-measure-feedback principle, constantly iterating and optimizing until they have validated solutions.

Growth hacking tends to be more holistic than marketing. A growth hacker is involved in marketing, but also in product management, sales, software development and whatever other business area that may be relevant to achieving growth in a given situation.

One might say that growth hacking is a type of “lean” marketing that does not involve big media budgets. It’s highly targeted, data-driven and tech-heavy.

Growth hackers are mostly known for finding creative, unconventional tricks, shortcuts, or “hacks” to accelerate growth quickly. The truth is, however, that growth hacking is not magic. These “silver bullets” are few and far between. Lots of hard work goes into streamlining processes and optimizing systems--and this is more often than not what brings results.


Marketing Rebranded?

Some are saying that growth hacking is just a clever rebranding of marketing; that there is in fact nothing new about it except some new technical tricks. These guys just don’t get what we do.

Don’t we frequently give new names to things that combine old features with new functionality?

When smartphones first came out, we already had music players, digital cameras, cell phones and PDAs... They were just all separate devices. The innovation was combining all these things into one device, thus creating something radically different.

The truth is growth hacking is a disruptive innovation. Like the smartphone, growth hacking combines multiple disciplines into one. It takes marketing, data science and programming, and then throws in the latest advancements in technology to open up a new realm of possibilities.

We like our new title, and we’re sticking with it.


What’s With All the Hype?

Why are so many people talking about growth hacking? Why is there so much noise being generated?

The #1 reason is that it has proven to be tremendously successful.

Growth hacks were responsible for the skyrocket growth behind many huge ($1bn+ valuation) startups such as Dropbox, Airbnb, Twitter, PayPal, YouTube, Instagram and Uber. Check out a few examples that we have written about.

Of course people wanted to know how these companies grew so quickly. So when the people steering the growth machines in these companies started talking about their techniques, the term “Growth Hacking” was born.

It was Sean Ellis, the first marketer at Dropbox and founder of Qualaroo, who coined the term. He knew what he was doing was doing more than just marketing and that it required a new name.

Other prominent figures in the growth hacking scene are Andrew Chen who works at Uber’s growth department, and Neil Patel who founded KISSmetrics, QuickSprout and CrazyEgg.

These famous growth hackers are the first to emphasize that there is no magic formula, but that growth hacking is a mindset combined with clever techniques to achieve sustainable, accelerated growth.

Behind every sensational growth hacking success is lots of hard work, relentless experimentation and plenty of failures. [Tweet That!]

As with any innovation, there tends to be lots of hype, buzz and plenty of resistance. There are always oldsters and naysayers unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing around them.

But excitement spreads fast. Those who have achieved great success spread the word, and soon the digital landscape is filled with gold prospectors eager to make their fortunes.

Hey, there’s a good analogy!

growth hacking consulting, growth hackers rockboost, growth hacking course

Image Credits: Tankavaara Gold Prospector Museum

Gold prospectors put a lot of effort into their work, knowing that it would require patience, but that the reward was potentially high. They worked their systems and kept improving them with patience and hard work. They suffered setbacks and failures, but lots of small successes too. Most importantly, they kept hunting until they hit the jackpot.

Growth hacking is not so different.


So why are many marketers uncomfortable with the idea of growth hacking?

We’ve boiled it down to three reasons many marketers dislike growth hacking:

1. Utter Disbelief
2. A Fear of Numbers
3. The Dread of Becoming Obsolete and Losing Their Jobs


Utter Disbelief

One of the reasons why marketers are not excited about growth hacking is that it seems too good to be true. How do growth hackers achieve such phenomenal successes with so few resources? There must be something fishy going on.

To tell you the truth, we agree. It often is too good to be true. Sometimes it’s not true at all.

Sadly, the internet is swimming with clickbait titles like “How Growth Hacking Increased My Revenue 2000% in One Month” or “This One Simple Hack Will Quadruple Your Sales.”

Yeah, sure it will.

But that is all part of the hype. The trick is seeing past it.

Many marketers think it’s impossible to achieve massive growth on small budgets. Big success stories like Dropbox are outliers, black swans, exceptions. Traditional marketers are accustomed spending big on awareness and brand building. Spending so little on acquisition, requires a major paradigm shift.

And in their defense, it’s true that back when there were only a few channels and not many tools for measuring, spending big on awareness campaigns was pretty much the only way to go.

But it is 2016, and the landscape has changed a lot. Browsing and buying patterns can be tracked. A limitless amount of data is available (for those who look) about how users search for and purchase online.

And whatever is online can be measured, tested and optimized.

Growth hackers use this data to learn everything there is to know about their target audience. They understand customer’s desires, fears and their hesitations. They use this information to perform A/B tests and determine the most effective ways to stimulate customers to take action.

Combining rich data, creativity and a few innovative hacks--whether you believe it or not--can take you a long way with very little expenditure.


A Fear of Numbers

Arithmophobia (it’s not as serious as it sounds).

Marketers love big, fancy, expensive campaigns that are often difficult to track. According to a Harvard Business Review study, as many as 80% of traditional marketers were not sure of their campaign ROI.

Growth hackers use advanced measurement tools that can now reveal when big, expensive campaigns have not delivered. The fear is that growth hackers may reveal the inefficiencies in the marketing status quo.

Many (not all) marketers put lots of effort in creating marketing campaigns based on what they believe or assume will work. They might be beautiful, clever campaigns, masterfully executed. They might even go viral and generate tons of awareness.

But the question is: Did the campaign translate into business growth, or did it just cost a lot of money? More importantly, do you even have the tools to know if the investment was worth it?

Too many marketers simply put their fingers in the wind... and then keep them crossed as they wait to see if sales pick up.

Growth hackers don’t have the luxury of making assumptions. They test and measure everything they do. If some channel proves ineffective, they stop and try something else. They make adjustments, based on real data, until they find the most optimized, effective methods to drive a company’s growth.


The Dread of Becoming Obsolete and Losing Their Jobs.

“Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing” claims one of Andrew Chen’s most popular blog posts.

When Ryan Holiday first read those words, he thought to himself, “If a growth hacker really is the new VP of marketing, and if he really needs all that broad knowledge I don’t have... I might be out of job soon.”

Ryan was working as a marketer at that time, focusing primarily on traditional channels like billboards, front page ads and TV. The fear of (and interest in) growth hacking drove him to learn more about what sort of beast he was dealing with. He eventually became a growth hacker himself.

The truth is marketers do not have to lose their jobs. Social and technological change is inevitable. We mostly call it human progress.

Remember when we didn’t have internet? Or worse yet, computers? We all had to learn to use this technology. For most of us, it wasn’t that bad. And the benefits outweighed the costs.

Growth hacking is not out to sabotage the field of marketing.

If anything, its rise--and the fact that there was room for its rise--should be a wakeup call for marketers who have yet to embrace the reality of a fundamentally changed business landscape in which skills like programming and data analytics are increasingly essential.


So If You’re a Marketer

The truth is there is no substitute for having a solid marketing strategy, especially for a large company. But growth hacking has the potential to take things to the next level.

When done properly, growth hacking will compliment your marketing strategy.

If you’re a marketer, learning some growth hacking techniques can only help you. Many of the tools are easy to learn. Really, the mindset is the most important part. If you want to start learning, begin by reading through the 7 Pillars of Growth Hacking.

Whether you choose to update your job title is up to you ;)


Growth Hacking is Here to Stay.

If you can see past the hype, buzzwords and clickbait, you will realize by now that growth hacking is a growing discipline tailored towards the digital age. Its fresh mindset, holistic and technical approach, its focus on data, measurement and optimization, taken together, presents the greatest potential for companies to grow fast in a digital world.

Companies that use this data-driven approach will inevitably end up on top. Here at RockBoost, the successes of the companies we’ve worked for underline this.

Again, there are no one-size-fits-all magic solutions. We’ve learned that growth hacking takes lots of hard work, perseverance, and testing. But we’ve also learned through experience that by taking a systematic approach to implementation we can achieve outstanding results.

The reasons for resistance are clear. It comes with any sort of change. Eventually the skills and mindset of growth hackers will be commonplace among all marketing teams regardless of titles.

Until then the growth hackers will lead the way forward.

Chris Out Chris Out
follow me: @chrisout

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