How To Growth Hack a Book: MVP to Bestseller

Book publishing is about as old school as it gets.

The industry has a playbook that is obviously responsible for a lot of successful books, but often times the whole thing looks more like gambling and cargo cult science and less like a multi-billion dollar market strategy.

It goes something like this:

Editors have hunches and make big bets on proposals. In fact, publishers regularly give six-figure, even seven-figure advances based simply on 10–20 pages sketches of a book, with little to no market research or validation of an idea. As you can imagine, most books do not earn back that money.

Part of the reason is that it can take 12–18 months for a product to see the light of day, and even then, the marketing plan will be: Let’s hope this sells. Like the film industry, you don’t know in advance whether you’ve got a financial goldmine like Avatar or big budget bomb like Waterworld. It’s why William Goldman used to say: “Nobody knows anything.”

What if there was a better way?

The tools of the Internet and social media have made it possible to test, iterate, track and improve product development and marketing to the point where these enormous gambles are not only unnecessary, but insanely counterproductive.

The ideas developed by growth hackers in Silicon Valley show us a different way. Let me explain how I applied their thoughts to the publishing industry with the launch of my most recent book.

In 2012, I wrote an article for Fast Company called “Everything is Marketing: How Growth Hackers Redefine The Game.” It was just something I’d been thinking about and thought would be cool to publish. I had no idea that it would do well.

The article discusses how scrappy hybrid coder-marketers known as “growth hackers” have become the secret weapon behind many of the fastest growing brands in history from Facebook to Twitter to Dropbox. This phenomena began because startups have fewer resources and were forced to exploit the system to acquired their first users. In their approach, anything—no matter how unusual—that gets customers is marketing. Regardless of the industry, companies are following their lead and breaking out of the shackles of antiquated notions of what is or isn’t marketing.

The article generated a lot of interest and I soon received this email from my editor at Penguin: would I like to sell it as an e-single?

In other words, what became Growth Hacker Marketing didn’t start as a book. It started as a “minimum viable product.” The article was my MVP.

Now armed, with a very small book deal (less than what I would get for a single one hour speech) and a 3 month deadline, I went out and did some research interviewing some of the best and most influential growth hackers in the game — people like Andrew Chen, Aaron Ginn, Noah Kagan and Sean Ellis. Of course, I wanted to include their thoughts in the book, and I also wanted to develop a relationship with these thought leaders and actually make them a part of the process. The journey of going out to study growth hacking for my own personal understanding as a marketer became the narrative I cultivated for the book.

Feedback from the article and the interviews indicated that there are a lot more people in marketing and PR than in growth hacking — so in terms of a potential audience, I wanted to bring growth hacking to them, rather than compete in the then small pool of tech folks.

Programmers in Silicon Valley might know the growth story of Instagram pivoting from a location-based service, or be familiar with Dropbox’s genius referral reward program — but outside the tech space, people were more familiar with David Ogilvy than the growth stories that were shaking up the entire marketing industry.

These insights helped me establish product market fit. Sometimes mastering the basics and thinking outside your peer group sets you up for longer-term success.

As we neared publication, we faced some decisions that I felt were critical. How long should it be? How much should it cost? How should we market it? Ultimately, Growth Hacker Marketing was published on Amazon, BN.com and other eretailers at just over 10,000 words. We kept the price low at $2.99. Why? It needed to be low enough for people to take a chance. We titled it Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing & Advertising for maximum SEO and discovery.

To add extra value we built in build permission assets offering about $60 in additional bonuses to the reader — all they had to do was email growthhackermarketing@gmail.com. About 10% of everyone who read the book asked for the bonuses. Why? To build a list for possible later editions. In addition to my reading list email — built to 30,000 people over 6 years — this was a great asset in my launch.

We marketed the ebook with podcasts, slideshares, and guest posts on online news outlets like MarketWatch, Fast Company, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, and Shopify. My reddit AMA which I did on r/startups, despite being a year old still drives traffic, questions, emails and sales.

The ebook became a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Product Market Fit was not only established but the potential for growth and scale was proven. Only then did we decide to make it a full physical book with retail distribution and a major campaign behind it (set for one year after the initial launch).

Before we did this, we improved the book based on feedback, doubled the length, and updated the examples. I did some more interviews. I took the time to record the audiobook myself. I also brainstormed with my publisher on how activate existing fans to create bestseller.

Instead of spending the publisher’s marketing budget on something traditional, we decided to apply the lessons of the product itself. I put up a post on my website announcing that I would be using my publisher’s marketing budget as a prize for whoever had the best growth hacking idea.

The post brought in a few hundred responses and I chose a great up and comer named William Wickey to help with the launch.

After discussing a variety of different approaches, the concept William and I arrived at was to build a powerful pre-launch team of early adopters by offering a free advance copy of Growth Hacker Marketing to college students actively enrolled in Fall 2014 courses covering advertising, PR, new media, entrepreneurship, and computer science. This highly-engaged group of early adopters would facilitate a wave of Amazon reviews, pre-orders and word-of-mouth PR from our pre-launch audience.

Outward facing marketing and PR efforts need to be targeted at a small group of highly interested, loyal, and fanatical users. Remember, most of the times we’re trying to hit a few hundred or a thousand key people – not millions. Not a blowout grand opening, but a strategic opening or a stunt that catches the attention of our core audience. That was exactly the guiding principle of phase II of this launch.

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To get started on the giveaway, William created a simple, free landing page on my site GrowthHackerMarketing.net with viral elements baked in. For example after clicking ‘Submit’, the user was redirected to a preloaded tweet about the book. This resulted in several hundred tweets and retweets.

When we had questions about our campaign, we used community resources like GrowthHackers.com to fine tune elements of our launch strategy. Thankfully, growth hacking isn’t some proprietary technical process shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it has grown and developed in the course of very public conversations. There are no trade secrets to guard.

We initially drew attention to the promotion with a single tweet. Signups took off. The viral, sharable elements we built into the promotion kicked in and went to work. About 16% of our total signups from the entire promotion came from this one tweet. We also used YouTube pre-roll ads to drive traffic to my short book trailer by targeting talks and videos about growth hacking.

What came next was the tweaking. Whatever your current state is, it could be better. Our job was not to find a silver bullet but rather continually massage and improve our offering based on feedback from the customer, including their use patterns. We used Optimizely to test multiple variations of our landing page to boost conversion rate. We used an email drip campaign to retarget all our signups with reminders to review the book and share the offer.

Over the course of the campaign, we did things like identify professors already following @RyanHoliday. We tweeted individually crafted messages to a few of these professors and got a great response. Some professors passed the offer along to their students through their school listserv. Others followed up via email and requested physical copies for their whole class. Some universities like The New School in New York are now teaching Growth Hacker Marketing in more than one class.

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With all this, even after giving away nearly 1,000 copies, sales were higher this week than the week before and the week before.

It’s doing better than ever. Why? Product Market Fit. Smart marketing. And systems.

Growth Hacker Marketing has now sold tens of thousands of copies across platforms, been translated in 8 languages and has more than 330 reviews on Amazon. Revenue is well into the six figures. I’ve spoken all over the world, invested in companies who are actually applying these principles, and advised incubators.

And because marketing never ends, we’ll continue to refine these tactics until they get better. We’ll come up with new stuff too. Even this article, and the 5,000 word monster I wrote for the Observer, are forms of marketing. By talking about what I’m doing, I am proving the concepts of the book and bringing new people to it.

And to think it all started with a minimum viable product—an article. To think, we found success by ignoring all the conventional publishing wisdom.

To me growth hacking is about maximizing ROI – about expanding our energies and efforts where they will be most effective. The old model makes being wrong incredibly expensive. Once you break out of the shackles of antiquated notions of what is or isn’t marketing, the whole field becomes cheaper, easier, and much more, scalable. The game changes forever.

Growth hacking works. Even for something as old school as a book. The tools will vary from job to job — it’s the mindset that will be the killer advantage.

Don’t think marketing is someone else’s job. It’s yours.

So to everyone self-publishing out there and everyone working at or with the Big Five, why don’t you give this a try?

I wish you the best of luck. And if you have questions, just shoot me a note.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, and Growth Hacker Marketing. Ryan is currently an editor at large for the New York Observer and founder of Brass Check Marketing.