In a recent twitter thread, Andrew Chen outlined some issues with growth hacking.
At the heart of this, Chen explained that the “tips and tricks school of growth hacking” leads to unsustainable advantages . Often when marketers are searching for the latest and greatest growth hack, they’re looking for a get-rich-quick silver bullet that can instantly move the growth needle northwards, but as Chen states, changing the colour of a button or shortening your sign up form isn’t really going to cut it in the long run.
Isolated tactics will always be isolated tactics so long as they’re not part of a wider, systematic, customer-driven marketing strategy.
On top of this, marketers can easily fall into the trap of tactical tunnel vision where you try to squeeze out whatever value you can from a decaying channel. This is what Chen refers to as the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs where, over time, all marketing channels decline in effectiveness. Taking this approach puts marketers in the challenging situation where you might be able to generate some results for some amount of time, but over the long-run it will be difficult to generate sustainable and durable growth.
In short, tips and tricks will only get you so far.
When growth hacking became the new marketing
Back when growth hacking came along, all of a sudden you weren’t a marketer if your job title wasn’t Growth Hacker. Things like brand strategy, customer research, and positioning fell out of fashion and instead it was all about CTR optimization, split-testing CTAs, and marketer-coder hybrids. While this more technical and experimental approach brought a host of benefits to the field of marketing, which is a discipline that’s rooted at the intersection of art, science, and social psychology, we over-rotated and all of a sudden everyone became obsessed with the latest flavour of the month.
This meant a more tactical and short-term approach to marketing where companies like Airbnb were glorified for their Craigslist integration, which, as Rand Fishkin mentioned on The Growth Hub Podcast, was a violation of their terms & conditions.
But regardless as to whether you think that was ethically questionable or just fair game, Chen notes this hack was more of a stepping-stone and it’s no longer providing much value to Airbnb.
But compare this to Dropbox and their referral growth loop, which is still going strong, you start to see a line forming in the sand between a short-term hack and a long-term strategy.
Indeed, many examples of growth hacking done well are based on a referral acquisition model (think Evernote, Uber, and Hotjar), but do referrals alone constitute a growth hack? If an old school Partner in one of Manhattan’s top law firms generates a client referral program, could we label them a growth hacker too?
When growth hacking became a go-to-market strategy
So what’s the big reason Dropbox’s so called growth hack is still powering growth whereas Airbnb’s Criagslist hack is a relic of the past?
Quite simply, the Dropbox product itself is inherently viral and has the power to act as its own acquisition channel.
It’s a product that requires other users in order to gain the maximum value it has to offer (i.e. collaboration, productivity, and storage). Dropbox’s growth model combines a tactic with a unique product value proposition, and Chen states that the only people who can cause that to decay are pretty much your direct competitors.
If you look at similar success stories, patterns begin to emerge.
Slack is a product that requires other users in order to extract its maximum value — you’re not going to join and chat to yourself.
And Calendly — you’re not going to invite yourself to a meeting.
Then there’s Typeform — you’re not going to make a survey for yourself.
And whilst the Typeform growth team ran various successful experiments, they focused their efforts on proprietary growth, such as the addition of the ‘powered by Typeform’ button, which is less subject to the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.
But looking at these companies it becomes more apparent that their growth was less about hacks and more about sustainability. They focused on developing inherently viral growth loops that enabled the product to act as its own acquisition channel.
Chen wasn’t sure what to call this, but it’s often referred to as product-led growth.
And it’s not a growth hack. It’s a go-to-market strategy.
“Product led growth is a go-to-market strategy that relies on product features & usage as the primary drivers of customer acquisition, retention and expansion.” — OpenView
This means growth hacking needs to shift from short-term tricks that can be easily copied or quickly decay, toward more sustainable long-term strategies that align systematic tactics with a product’s value proposition. We as marketers need to start looking at growth as a fundamental foundation of a product’s go-to-market strategy and not just as an experimental layer that is thrown on top later on.
And whilst growth teams will continue to play a vital role to help companies scale post product-market fit, this is what Chen is encouraging marketers to think about when it comes to growth, and as he outlined in a recent article, this is one focus area for his future investments.
The future of growth hacking is strategy
So what does that mean for us as marketers? As Andy Johns wrote in his excellent article A Post Mortem on Growth Hacking, “the craze that once drove every startup (even enterprise!) to look for a Growth Hacker is on a steep decline.”
But even if you run Facebook ads or tinker with CTA button colours and call yourself a Growth Hacker, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. You just need to remember that growth hacking isn’t about job titles or tactics, it’s about developing a long-term go-to-market strategy that unlocks durable and scalable proprietary growth.
Find that and you’re well on your way to hacking — and cracking — growth.
And who knows, maybe Andrew Chen will even invest in your company.