Growth Hacking Explained

If you’ve spent any time hanging around the mean streets of LinkedIn in the past few years, you’ve probably seen the term ‘growth hacking’ thrown around.

You might have seen loud, brash posts by growth hacking evangelists, claiming it’s marketing 2.0, 3.0 or even 4.0. That it’s what every company needs to be doing if they want to gain traction, win customers and get into the VIP section at the club. 

Or you might have seen posts by ad agency/marketing department bigwigs calling it balony, jargon, a total con.

Get ready to have your mind blown – it’s neither of these things. Stick with us, and we’ll tell you what it’s all about.


What Is Growth Hacking?

To define growth hacking we may as well go straight to the source: Sean Ellis. Sean Ellis was the first marketer at Dropbox and ran growth at several successful startups. He’s earned a sparkling reputation as a big thinker, motivator and teacher in the growth marketing industry. 

Sean coined the term growth hacking back in 2010 to describe the approach to marketing he and his teams used in DropBox, Eventbrite and elsewhere. 

He said that a growth hacker is “a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Things have changed in the decade since then, though. Many digital marketers, channel experts or sales people could claim that their primary objective is growth. But we wouldn’t necessarily think of them as growth hackers. Today, the term needs a little more nuance. 

They key aspects of growth hacking are:

A relentlessly experimental mindset. Growth hacking meant constantly hunting out opportunities to run experiments across marketing and product development, with the aim of finding ways to grow and squeeze more value out of the customer base. It’s a more aggressive, fast paced approach to growing a company than traditional marketing. 

Looking beyond customer acquisition. A growth hacker does not have to be a marketer. Product developers, engineers and project managers could all be growth hackers. The important thing is that you look for ways to improve the growth prospects of the company everywhere you can – from the onboarding process (if a customer has a bad first impression, there will be no second impression, which will eventually halt scalable growth) to the digital ad creative. 

Thorough data analysis. Growth hackers should have an excellent understanding of analytics and data and how to interpret results. Now, this isn’t a skill set exclusive to growth hackers – in fact a lot of people who call themselves growth hackers aren’t actually very good at reading data. However, for effective growth hacking you need to be able to understand the results of your experiments, and it’s not always as simple as conversion rates or channel return on ad spend. And an experiment that does not produce the results you wanted or expected doesn’t necessarily mean it was a failure – as long as you gain learnings that you can use in future experiments.


Growth Hacking Examples

To help illustrate what growth hacking entails we’ve collected a few examples below:

Hotmail Before growth hacking was even a term, Hotmail was doing it. They added ‘PS I love you’ to emails sent on the platform with a link to the recipient to sign up for free email from Hotmail. This achieved viral/referral growth, without the referring user having to take any action. 

GmailAnother email provider. Gmail used behavioural psychology to create FOMO (fear of missing out) among potential users. Gmail was invite-only initially, and because it had some pretty groundbreaking features such as great email search people were desperate to get an invite. Clearly, this growth hack worked in conjunction with having a great product that people wanted to use. Google has tried this with other products (remember Google+?) and not had anywhere near as much success.

Groupon – Groupon has created FOMO and a sense of urgency among users to incentivise sharing. Users must get enough other people to take up a deal for them to be able to get the deal themselves. 

HubspotHubspot are masters of what we’d call engineering as marketing. They create free, useful tools for people that either drive email sign ups or referrals. For example, their website grader tool (which does some SEO analysis of an inputted URL) gathered a user’s email address in exchange for the results. Hubspot’s email signature-generator gathers email addresses, and by default includes a link to Hubspot in the signature it generates, which means users are referring their contacts to Hubspot every time they send an email. 


Growth Hacking Vs Digital Marketing

Growth hacking and digital marketing both include a lot of the same activities. The difference is one of hierarchy. 

Digital marketing describes the tactic of using digital channels (social media ads, digital display, SEO, affiliate marketing etc) to market a product. Digital marketing doesn’t just describe one skillset/job title. It’s a huge area, and you will find that many marketers specialise in one or two of the channels within digital marketing. In fact, it’s often better to find channel-specific experts to execute on a digital channel than to get one generalist ‘digital marketer’ to do everything. 

Growth hacking describes an approach to growing a company, which can include executing marketing initiatives on digital channels and platforms. Within a growth hacking team you may find digital marketing experts, and even channel experts (eg, Facebook Ad experts). These people are both digital marketers AND growth hackers. 


Growth Hacking Or Growth Marketing?

At Growth Division we prefer not to use the term growth hacking too much. Since Sean Ellis coined the term it’s been grabbed with both hands by some absolute charlatans in the marketing industry. For example, doing research for this article, I discovered one blog by a ‘growth hacker’ that claimed that growth hackers use data, whereas traditional marketers do not. That’s just…. complete nonsense.

In general, we prefer to use the term growth marketing. Growth marketing is the same mindset – setting hypotheses, rigorous experimentation, careful analysis and insight generation. It also includes the entire marketing funnel – from top of funnel growth, to onboarding and product development. 

If you want to find out about what strategies and tactics could work for you, get in touch for a free discovery call with us. 


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