In the last couple of years, there has been an incredible buzz around Growth Hacking as it spread around the world’s startup scenes like wildfire. As with anything that’s trending, Growth Hacking has been subject to many different interpretations.
Born in part out of the blackhat practices of affiliate marketing, Growth Hacking has matured a lot in recent years, with thought-leaders and influencers laying a lot of theoretical -even academic- groundwork for defining Growth Hacking as a discipline.
We have now reached a point where in many circles, Growth Hacking has essentially become an alternative to (or an extension of) traditional and digital marketing. As the discipline continues to mature and spread, we are beginning to see some backlash.
I’ve been seeing more and more people arguing that Growth Hacking is unsustainable, shortsighted, unscalable and unethical amidst a whole spectrum of other criticisms. While those arguments are often understandable, I’ve noticed increasingly that Growth Hacking’s biggest critics have a completely different understanding than I do of what Growth Hacking is.
The more I look into it, the more I realise that this misunderstanding isn’t just between Growth Hackers and their critics, but often amongst Growth Hackers themselves. This isn’t helped by the fact that words like Growth Hacker, Growth Marketer and Growth Engineer are being used interchangeably. In my experience, I’ve seen two different types of ‘Growth Hackers’:
- Glorified Digital Marketers who use tech, tools and blackhat techniques to achieve better (or faster) results. These people sometimes have an interesting set of skills, but many of their tactics are unscalable. They work when you’re really early stage and need to get a bit of initial bootstrapped traction, but as your company begins to grow and scale, their tactics often raise concerns for sustainability, ethics, legal compliance and brand identity.
- Real Growth specialists who rely on data and their multidisciplinary skillset to improve growth at every stage of the customer journey. Whether they are strategists or executors, they think about the bigger picture and focus on what scales. They have an entrepreneurial mindset and place a lot of emphasis on team and process.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that there is an emerging difference between what I would call ‘Growth Hacking’ and just ‘Growth’. As the Head of Growth of a fast scaling company, I view myself as belonging to the latter.
So what is it that really differentiates the two types of Growth Hackers above? Below are 5 major differences that I think are particularly important.
Think About the Long Term and Focus on What Scales
The ‘hacking’ in Growth Hacking is similar to that in ‘Life Hacking’. It’s about creatively finding effective shortcuts that allow you to produce the same results with less time and effort. This all revolves around creativity, tech and experimentation.
There is a lot of value in this. I really do believe in using tools, tech, experimentation and automation to save time and resources.
The problem, however, is that I see a lot of ‘Growth Hackers’ focusing on unscalable tactics or short term gains, often at the expense of ethical, legal, branding, or other long term considerations.
Having worked with a number of companies, I also often see the issue of marketers experimenting without scaling; they test something, validate their assumptions, give themselves a pat on the back and then move on to the next experiment without scaling.
This last issue is largely due to the extreme ‘shortcut mentality’ that is prevalent amongst many Growth Hackers. Scraping email lists, hacking Quora upvotes and publicity stunts are all nice to try, but they simply do not scale. If you want to grow your business into a Growth powerhouse, you cannot find short cuts for things like Data Science, SEO, Inbound Strategy, UX and CRO.
Don’t Underestimate Ethical and Legal Compliance
When it was just me, freelancing, I didn’t pay any attention to ethical or legal concerns. I just hacked my way to growth by all and any means available.
Once you’re working on scaling a business, that rapidly changes. Even if the chances of legal consequences are pretty low, the long-term issues with unethical marketing practices can end up haunting a company. Just take a look at Uber.
The future of marketing lies in creating value. As search and social algorithms become more sophisticated and the amount of marketing volume increases, the importance of creating value for potential leads cannot be underestimated.
In the next few years, companies that fail to create value in their marketing will increasingly be punished by potential users.
Branding & Influence
I always thought of branding as something that was a nuisance to execution. I can’t count the amount of times I wanted to test something and was slowed down by branding guidelines.
However, over the past years I have seen how important it is to have a strong brand identity and even somewhat of an influencer status in your industry. Companies like HubSpot and Hotjar benefit a lot from their thought-leadership.
At Recruitee, for example, the average customer has between 80 and 150 touch points with marketing, sales and the product before deciding to purchase a subscription. This is a totally different ballgame, not only from the perspective of scaling, but also with regards the importance of branding and content.
The days of targeting generalised ads that lead to immediate conversions are numbered. Facebook’s latest algorithm change is just one example of this trend. This is especially the case for B2B companies seeking to grow rapidly.
In many ways. Growth is all about creating value, nurturing potential users and exerting as much brand influence as possible to make every single touchpoint as valuable and effective as possible.
The Product Has to Come First
The short term tactics employed by many Growth Hackers are great if you don’t have product-market fit and just want some initial traction. However, if you do not have an MVP or product-market fit, there is little point in investing in Growth. Those resources and time would be best put towards building a great product that has real potential to scale.
At Recruitee, the product plays a central role in everything that we do. After all, the only way to truly have a full-funnel approach is to work closely with product-centric aspects of Growth such as onboarding, UX and the development of new features.
It’s All About the Process
Stories about AirBnB and Dropbox might very well be inspirational, but every company, product, industry and market is different. By the time these stories become widespread, so many companies have jumped on the bandwagon that the potential of the idea is a lot less powerful than it initially was.
Another thing is that companies like AirBnB and Dropbox didn’t grow to what they are today because of one great idea. They had very skilled multidisciplinary teams following an effective process.
The idea of the one Growth Hack that grew a business exponentially is a total myth. You need a lot of ideas, a strategy and a vision for Growth to sustainably scale a business. The way to achieve that is to have a great process and team to effectively figure out what works and to scale it.
In short, Growth is the future of Marketing and if you want to take it seriously, the 5 considerations above are definitely worth thinking about.