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Is Growth Hacking Real?

The entire notion of 'hacking' is flawed and misunderstands growth

9Jan

Anyone who uses LinkedIn with any regularity will be aware of self-professed 'growth hackers'. They are almost invariably young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs that claim to possess a unique secret to unbelievable growth and resultant business success. Perhaps tellingly, the majority of these 'gurus' have no tangible business of their, instead acting as motivators and consultants for companies looking for a quick fix to early stagnation or a lack of growth acceleration. Alternative marketing, innovative audience acquisition, engagement hacking - you'll come across a fair few different names for what is being offered, but ultimately growth hacking is about putting your brand in front of as many people as possible and hoping that translates into revenue.

The problem with all this is that the idea of a company's success being judged solely by the speed and scale of its growth is deeply problematic. Equally difficult is the idea that you can effectively 'hack' this growth. Entrepreneurs have always been focussed on growth - a fundamental part of building a start-up - but the successful ones will obsess over market-driven results, over quality products that audiences will flock to, and over intelligent marketing. To insist that these challenges can be bypassed with a simple hack is disingenuous at best, and deeply cynical at worst.

The first, and ultimately harmless, type of growth hacker is one that will suggest fairly standard marketing techniques and claim they're reinventing the wheel. Entrepreneur.com's article '6 Growth Hack Techniques You Can Try Today', for example, features such revolutionary ideas as starting a blog, building a personal brand, guest posting, and harvesting email addresses. Anyone with even a basic grasp on marketing will know that these are fairly standard, sensible suggestions for anyone looking to build a digital audience, but to imply that they're in any way remarkable or novel would be insincere.

The second, and ultimately more cynical end of the spectrum, is those that claim to have a magic elixir for instant growth. They'll host seminars, crowd-fund books, and promise anyone that invests money into them will see immediate success. The problem is that there is little outside of mainstream marketing efforts (done well, of course) that can legitimately grow an audience, so many growth hackers will turn to problematic quick fixes. Nick Jaworski, chief strategist at Circle Social Inc., wrote in a Medium piece that he once met with a client that revealed his protected 'growth hacking strategy.' Ultimately, the technique involved buying a large numbers of followers on platforms like Instagram to 'make it look like he had a large following for investors.' With just a cursory look at his account, it was clear that none of the followers were genuine, and there was no actual engagement for him to show potential investors. Any purported audience growth in this case, as in so many, is not genuine.

Even if growth hackers could deliver on their promises and expand brand audiences in an instant, they probably aren't the most valuable audiences out there. This relates to the balancing act inherent in all business between, on the one hand, catering for and engaging your current audience, and on the other growing it to increase your reach and potential revenues. Growth hacking, as a notion, dives headfirst into the latter without giving the former enough consideration. Yes, growth is integral to survival, particularly in a business' embryonic stage, but equally important is product development and the development of relationships with existing customers/clients.

'Startups don’t need growth hackers – at first. They need products that are really working in the market,' says Andrew Chen, head of rider growth at Uber. 'This means users love it, that there’s lots of retention and engagement, even at small numbers. The reason for this is that ultimately working on scalable growth is an optimization problem. And it’s a combined product management and technical function, to boost an already positive growth curve into something even bigger.'

Ultimately, successful growth hackers are simply good marketers, and there is nothing wrong with seeking consultation over a lack of audience growth. Marketers that are on top of the current trends in customer behavior on digital will be able to point a struggling team in the right direction. The idea that growth can be 'hacked', though, is nonsense. Businesses should learn to see through anyone claiming to have a one-size-fits-all strategy for sudden and prolonged growth. Yes, they may be able to increase your apparent audience, but to build a healthy relationship with that audience takes time, and brands should focus on their product and their customer experience before they spend too much time worrying about their reach. It's far more effective to have a smaller pool of engaged customers than a sea of anonymous accounts - 'growth hacking' will only land you with the latter. 

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