The Growth Of Growth Hacking

Mack Burnett looks at how 'growth hacking' has grown in prominence


It was quite a while back when I was sitting in a Starbucks near Union Square in New York City, waiting to catch up with an old industry colleague who I hadn’t seen in years. I was typing away on my iPhone, sipping on my Chai Tea Latte, when my colleague finally arrived.

What I thought would be your run of the mill ‘catch up’ meeting turned into a ‘Have you heard of Growth Hacking?’ conversation. Although I was aware of the Growth Hacking community, my first thought was that I had missed a very large elephant in the room. Admittedly, I had not yet immersed myself in Growth Hacking as a studious pursuit. That’s one of the largest on-going challenges of working in our industry - keeping up. I had an obligation to my clients and students to get a well-rounded perspective of the industry. I felt obligated to explore the rise of an entirely new segment of our industry.

My colleague was no longer positioning himself as a marketer, but solely as a ‘Growth Hacker’. What does this mean? How much traction does this have that he’s moved away from being a recognized digital marketer. This alone had me ready to pull out my phone and start researching at the table.

After we had caught up, I went back to my office and immediately hit the web to research, analyze and dissect this thing called ‘Growth Hacking’. That led me down a path to an even greater lack of clarity.

One blog called Growth Hacking an outright fraud. It went on to say that Growth Hacking is just marketing by another name. Another website disagreed and proclaimed that anyone worth their salt should be hacking and not just marketing. Growth Hackers say they pick up where marketers have left off. All of this peaked my interest further.

After a long year of blogs, swipes and tweets, I did a deep dive into what Growth Hacking actually is, how it’s perceived, and where it seems to be going.

Wikipedia defines Growth Hacking as ‘a marketing technique developed by technology start-ups that uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure.’ If this embodies what Growth Hacking is, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that it’s still ‘just marketing’?

The actual term ‘Growth Hacking’ is attributed to Sean Ellis who says, ‘a Growth Hacker's true north is growth’. This then begs the question, who doesn't want to grow? If the sole focus is growth, does this mean that a company at a latter stage is stagnant or blinded by a focus on revenue or profits?

I had to think about many of the clients, brands and agencies I have worked with. Many do focus solely on driving revenue or brand awareness. Revenue should always be a factor, but not necessarily the driving force. Some strategies and tactics are meant to drive value and not necessarily revenue. Only focusing on revenue is like focusing on where the next gas station is instead of where the car is going.

My first thought was that ‘Growth Hacking’ was a rebrand of an old profession. A simple matter of progressive nomenclature. Professions tend to do that over the years; planners have evolved in to ‘project managers’ and creative thinkers have gracefully adopted the title of ‘Strategist’.

However, after spending considerable time immersed in the Growth Hacking community, I can say that it’s more than repackaging. It’s a new school of thought. Growth Hacking is where digital marketing meets a lean start-up’s entrepreneurial drive to grow for the purpose of growth. Does a Growth Hacker drive revenue? Sure, they can. Yet revenue may not be what the start up needs at that moment for growth. A Growth Hacker would rather develop an online brand evangelist than make a quick sale. They would rather figure out how to create a viral registration campaign than just optimize the conversion rate of an ad. They would rather stretch the dollar of an ad buy, than go back and ask for more budget.

Growth Hacking is a convergence of innovative marketing, data, engineering and automation with a twist of high school ingenuity. Leveraging data insights to uncover new ways to grow. Growth Hackers say they’ve moved past the marketer by focusing on keeping customers after acquisition and referrals. Keep in mind there is also an element of big business versus the start-up here.

A true Growth Hacker starts with the premise that they have fewer resources, little or no customer base, small budgets or even no budget and minimal social media presence. Nothing that a traditional company might already have established, but still they are charged with elevating a company to new heights with creativity and a bag of Growth Hacking tricks. It’s amazing to think of the companies that have accomplished amazing growth; Facebook, Dropbox, AirBnb to name a few. All of these companies have applied Growth Hacking techniques to grow their user bases into billion dollar companies, even in crowded markets - that’s true Growth Hacking.

Growth Hacking is much more than just a cool moniker to adopt for LinkedIn. It’s a new way of thinking and processing data, and it almost seems like finding out how to grow smarter, just for the fun of it. That’s what a ‘hacker’ is. So can we at this point discount this new wave of thought in our industry? I think new waves of thought are what have always driven technology.

I’ve realized I’ve become more of a hacker than marketer, but I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘marketer’s marketer’. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s what Growth Hacking will turn out to be; the ethical extreme of digital marketers who are obsessed with results, revenue and growth.

So ‘old school’ digital marketers beware. There might be a Growth Hacker working in the mailroom whose got a strategy that they developed on their smartphone with a notepad and a calculator while having a latte.


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