Is Growth Hacking only for Startups? Not so fast….

One of the benefits of the annual SXSW panel self-promotion this time of year is that sometimes you hear about something unusual or cool. This year’s eye-catcher was a panel on IBM creating a growth-hacking team. This obviously caught the eye of the community over at GrowthHackers.com, and led to this twitter exchange that I noticed:

https://twitter.com/SeanEllis/status/499930758208061440
https://twitter.com/djgeoffe/status/499934026959192066

So not only is Big Blue getting in on the game, but it appears there are people like Geoff are helping to get Redmond’s finest on board as well. I reached out to Geoff to ask what he has seen and experienced pushing this transition forward, and he was gracious enough to respond. My only edits are for clarity and any parts of the responses in bold are my own added emphasis:

Let’s start with what I originally saw on twitter: You mentioned that you had started a Growth Hacking team at Ogilvy and now are doing the same at Microsoft, how did those initial conversations come about and what was the impetus to attempt to bring the Growth Hacking mentality to a larger organization?

Well, let’s take a step back for a minute. In 2006, when I was working at a New York startup after leaving my influencer agency that I started was the first time I began experimenting with analytics and social sharing to help grow a business. Many marketers at the time were carrying out traditional objectives to grow the business. Simple word-of-mouth and face-to-face customer meetings. Many were not rooted in any metrics or tracking. They were all hedging their bets in the hope they would grow their products. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the VP of Marketing because she didn’t understand this new world. From there in 2007 I went to a small digital agency where I got to growth hack a number of digital products for large companies who were still speculative about doing anything to grow their business using social platforms. It was called Electric Artists but is now titled Bond Strategy and Influence. I got to help launch and grow some unique projects for American Express, The Economist, Netflix and History Channel all rooted in quick customer acquisition. A lot through Facebook canvas PHP applications. The History Channel project was unique. It was at the time Foursquare was taking off so we tapped their API so when you checked-in to a historical location, the Statue of Liberty for example, a notification would come up with a factoid from History Channel and to download their program viewing app. It was a great way to fuel app growth off the back of another service.
Later Ogilvy hired me to work on IBM. It was a big move away from consumers and focused on a niche audience. But I’m a big fan of Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” book and realized social metrics work so much better as a hyper-targeted microscope than a loudspeaker. Especially with all the tools available. So we put together a scrappy but agile design thinking team on how to grow the midmarket business (one usually ignored by most customers who think of IBM) with really low budgets.
That led to discussions around content, using Google Hangout technology to tap into the Google+ ecosystem (as well as YouTube), blogging, video debates where one registers using Facebook/Twitter login (to collect data), etc. That led to better leads than what IBM uses for its lead forms and I think has gotten the company to think differently. They thought more about the customer experience rather than what’s best for them from a data gathering standpoint. A lot of growth hacking is not just about growth, but growth with the right customers in a way that they feel they are adopting a useful product where they get proper updates, notifications and service. That creates the viral loop we always talk about in the Growth Hacking community.
Then Microsoft called. I had been living in New York City for 17 years and welcomed something new plus I never lived anywhere but on the East Coast. I think a lot of us in this community are curious and move around a bit. But that’s the nature of Growth Hacking. If you’re not curious you’re not really going to enjoy this livelihood. Plus, once you grow something, you’re looking for the next adventure. It’s like farming in that some are good at growing and others are good at sustaining. If you’re the former, being into growth hacking comes easy. If you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with that but you’re probably better in a more defined organization. That’s the difference between a Growth Hacker and a traditional marketer. Disruptive growth vs. sustaining growth. I work on the Bing Ads product running the social media team. The difference is social isn’t about broadcasting. It never has been. To those who think it’s just about amplifying on platforms they’re missing the whole underbelly of the iceberg. Social entails metrics, APIs, analytics, predictive data, sentiment, actions, what content “sticks,” what leads people to your landing page for registration and how you should design experiences that have emotional resonance and are social-by-design in nature. There are plenty of content strategists and creators. However, companies that think social media is simply about content and publishing are at a huge disadvantage.
We have a scrappy team. One of the things we implemented is social listening which I’ve been doing since 2009 with various companies. What were people saying about the product? Who are they? What is their influence to our business sector? What content do they like to share? What content do they produce? How could engineering incorporate that or pivot rapidly? What is a way to differentiate based on their asks and what’s going on in the PPC ecosystem? Nothing that you wouldn’t know about doing from reading “The Lean Startup.” But this is a big division with lots of layers. Growth hacking works best when it’s in a social business or startup environment. So we turned to Yammer quickly to move faster. That’s why you use these tools. Email is slow. Lync and Yammer are faster. Heck, if it were up to me, I’d get Yammer to create a real time messaging service ala Facebook messenger or Slack. Communication ultimately is going to all be in the form of SMS in the next 2 to 3 years throughout business. I think the difference in a startup is you’re all in the same office communicating in real time. We have teams all over the world but I think technology can advance that communication and feedback. So we moved into actually developing low cost ideas on how to grow the product.
My main impetus now is to do what IBM had done years ago. Create a digital lab made up of the new hybrid marketer and only with GH. Populate it with marketers who understand UX, metrics and code and engineers who understand marketing. I think if this was centralized, Microsoft would move even faster. But it’s in the infant stage. My main goal now is to show what we’re doing or can do with this one product and then try to spread that to the whole company. It’s not easy and it requires a lot of education. The best motto for a growth hacker is simple: Learn, unlearn, relearn. If you can do this you will be successful as we move into a period of accelerative thrust when it comes to communications and data tracking.
This was also not a mandate from the C-Suite. Microsoft didn’t hire me and say, “be the resident growth hacker.” I am just going to do it. Because that’s what you do in this new world. You move fast and ask for forgiveness later. Especially if you’re not spending much or any money to drive amazing results. Yes, Satya Nadella (Microsoft’s CEO) has used the term quite a bit but in a 90,000+ org I think you just go and do it, show results and then it spreads and immerses itself in the culture. Other orgs ask, “how did you do that or can you teach me?” Coming from an agency background marketing is not just about doing but about learning and teaching because the technology is changing all the time as is human behavior as a result of immersing ourselves in new experiences. Growth hacking is all about flipping the table. Too many marketers in traditional organizations wait around for direction and what is given to them by the hierarchy. That’s not growth hacking. You go after the most impactful area on the business based on the data and a creative way to spread the message. I’m all about breaking rules and moving fast. Maybe that’s not the identity of the company but that’s the nature of business in the era of the DIY tech economy.

What was your experience with growth hacking prior to those attempts?

Several in the past 7 years. Most were around the entertainment, tech or consumer product goods space. I worked on launching Spotify in America from the PR side. That was fun. Especially when explaining why we weren’t going to go the traditional route. Launching American Express Open Forum on social media. When we integrated commenting on the platform so that you could then share that to third party platforms with APIs the community took off. You had this ability to tap into other areas of the social web that didn’t exist in web 1.0. Tons of early apps from various companies from USA Network, WWE, History, A&E, The Economist, Food Network, Coca-Cola. I think we’ll actually see more growth hacking now in traditional organizations like a P&G, Kraft or Coca-Cola. Growth hacking involves not just a lot of data but creativity. A good Growth Hacker asks two questions:
1. What is the data telling me about the audience I want to target?
2. How do I create the most interesting UX and creative experience to get them to sample the product so they buy in and then do the hard lifting of sharing that with others?
Media is the new creative. I think the first thing I ever Growth Hacked was in 2002 when we got a can of Red Bull into the hands of Britney Spears before the paparazzi followed her around LA. They took photos, those photos got published and boom, sales went up 200% the next month. We realized we needed to get the product in front of people who were influenced by celebrities or other niche stars. That’s one reason Red Bull pivoted in 2005 toward extreme athletes. It fits the identity of the product and that audience sells the product via word of mouth.
There are still not a lot of best practices when it comes to running social campaigns because each is unique. However you can learn from each one and figure how to apply some of those learnings to your business. I think the big area now to tap into is crowdfunding. Not to build your business but to use it as a marketing vehicle. This is happening a lot in Silicon Valley and I think we’ll see it more. It’s a way to draw market to your product by involving others in development of that product and then rewarding the best idea by integrating it into the product. 100% open source development marketing. Plus the APIs help you understand how your product is going to be used. You can’t do that in traditional surveying!

What was the biggest initial roadblock to building these teams inside a larger organiztion? Was it internal to the processes the company already has in place or was it more bringing people in with Growth Hacking experience that didn’t want to work at a bigger company?

I think most with a Growth Hacking background steer clear of big corporations. They fear the gridlock, hierarchy and potential politics. You get that in small orgs too but when you’re working on a new product, the goal is to get it out so you can start monetizing. You only have so much time before the funding well runs dry. I think growth hacking works best if the barriers are removed. If someone says, “we’re going to put all good ideas into action,” you’re in a good place. If you have to make a case for something with large PowerPoint decks and showing how something will monetize in two years I would be the first to say run for the hills.
What traditional orgs need to understand is that you make a case by experimenting, pivoting or persevering. Your plan is a template but one that is changing all the time. It’s like you’re using a GPS that might give you different directions while you’re on your way to a destination. That’s why the most agile corporations will do best to adopt it. Those that are too rigid, well they have other issues. I always feel low cost ideas are worth trying. What do you have to lose? If it doesn’t’ work, you pivot. If it does, you lay down the gas pedal and persevere. I think now it’s about teaching people how to do this. Understanding APIs and insightful social data and tracking it closely along with designing a unique product that markets itself is the only way to be successful today. Marketers and engineers have to be open to new ideas. If you can’t pivot in your own career trajectory because you’re used to doing things one way then Growth Hacking is never going to work in that organization. My hope is we keep showing some unique results and the org just says go with it.
It’s like being the athlete on a team that has a hot streak. No one in their right mind says to bench them. When you show results, the coach keeps you in and the game plan is to pass the ball more to you. That’s how Growth Hacking is going to be adopted in a larger company. Get a few rabid folks internally to use it, show the results and spread the message. It’s how any movement spreads. I will probably have to go back and re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” but I do think Growth Hacking is on that point in the marketing ecosystem where if a Fortune 100 company like Microsoft is wanting to adopt the practice, it’s going to tip to many other larger orgs not in tech soon.

Do you see Growth Hacking as the future of, or answer to, modern marketing - or is it a complementary piece to what the traditional marketing team within a bigger company is doing?

Great question. I see it now like I saw digital marketing in the early 2000s. Digital marketing was simply a complement to traditional. Now it is the focus of marketing. Why? Because we live in a digital world. To me there is no such thing as “digital marketing” anymore because digital has taken over and become mainstream. Social media marketing in the mid-2000s went through the same pattern. It was simply a complement. Now it’s the centerpiece of almost any successful business. I think Growth Hacking is now what digital marketing and social media marketing were at one time. It’s still complementary to a larger orgs overarching marketing plan but in the next 3 years it will be the centerpiece. It will be the main fuel. It will be modus operandi. Why? Because of the differences between traditional and GH and the reliance on design of the product. I think this infographic states it best: http://www.direct-spark.com/traditional-marketing-vs-growth-hacking/
You’re not going to have “traditional marketing” live much longer in my opinion because even mainstream product companies that produce soda or soap are digital. They sell through digital experiences. So they too will be looking for more of a Growth Hacking acumen than an MBA. This isn’t to downgrade that higher level degree but MBAs don’t learn to code (unless they come from a technical background or learn it on their own time). I think if you want to be an effective marketer you should at minimum learn Ruby on Rails. It’s the simplest of languages and can at least get you to develop the front end of a website. It is also something that allows you to speak the same language as the lead developer and coding team and allows you to also work on the product.

Something I’ve said is a key to any developer-marketer relationship for years, speaking the same language goes a long long way.

Just taking what engineering does and trying to market that is a waste of time in my opinion. Besides, as a Growth Hacker you are on the front lines and hear feedback from customers via data on what they like and don’t so if you have some coding experience, you can at least code a Minimum Viable Product to show the developers what to build or how to improve the product. I see the Growth Hacker role really evolving to the point it is a hybrid role in the next 10 years.
I use this analogy from my wife’s line of work. She was in TV production for a decade and in TV production you used to do either production or editing. Now they only hire people who do both production and editing (they call them “preditors”). In 10 years we’ll only see Growth Hackers as the main marketers because there won’t be a need for traditional organizational marketers. Startup culture has already disrupted this way of thinking and like most ‘Californication’ movements, there’s no going back.

This obviously was far more generous than I could have hoped for as a response based on a completely cold tweet, but I agree that this is not a rogue thing that we won’t see again. This mentality is the front edge of marketing, and will be something we all learn and know.

Follow Geoff on Twitter: @djgeoffe (from Geoff “yes, I was a DJ from 1991 to 2005 spinning house music. That’s how I got into technology in the first place”) and feel free to join in the conversation over at GrowthHackers.com