My first growth hacking experience

I entered into free-to-play (F2P) gaming after the big platform transitions from Web to Facebook to Mobile took place. By the time I had started working on new mobile titles, the competition in F2P gaming is so intense that many at-scale gaming companies have already streamlined and optimized their own strategy of user acquisition mainly through advertising (pay-per-click, TV, etc.), viral in-app features as well as game franchise branding. The concept of growth hacking that I’ve always been interested in manifests in 4 main points: 1) selecting casual game themes that reach wide audience; 2) producing a product that can obtain important featuring on mobile platforms (Apple and Google); 3) heavily data-driven pay-per-click (sometimes TV) advertising strategy; and last but not least 4) using existing famous franchise names (i.e. Hobbit, Kim Kardashian, Marvel).

After reading about the Growth Hacking concept that Sean Ellis first coined and checking other useful resources such as Quick Sprout by Neil Patel, I wondered if I can learn more about how non-gaming companies growth hack. So I started reading about how Tinder went through the greek scene and Airbnb used Craigslist to get their names out initially. Halfway through my reading, I realized that I might have had my first growth hacking experience already back in high school.

So what happened during my high school years? Many. One of which was a memorable failure in life that I’ve experienced. I set a goal in 10th grade to successfully run for the Student Union; I ran and I failed to gain a seat. In 11th grade, I ran again taking the learnings of 10th grade and finally got elected.

What does this have to do with growth hacking, you ask? Great question. Here’s a quick explanation:

  • I had a clear potential user base: ~2100 high school students
  • I had only 1 clear growth goal: get as many voters (users) to vote for me as possible (think acquiring users to install your app)
  • I had the freedom to employ multiple tactics and channels: posters, paper fans, etc.
  • I had somewhat of a “data-driven approach”: I roughly counted # of impressions I’m making even though I cannot fully test the efficacy of each channel or the viral-ness of my strategy

Since I only have 1 goal of getting students to vote for me, the problem-solving process is simple. I need to know who are the voters, what makes them vote for me, and how to effectively reach the voters.

First, let’s check out the info I put together about the users (students) below:

(Image credits: Deviant Art, Square Space, Politifake)

As you see above, most of the students didn’t really care about the product (i.e. the service Student Union members provide) when it comes to voting. The visibility and image of the candidates are the real factors affecting decision-making. Looking at this user segmentation, it is no surprise that my 10th grade campaign failed miserably. Why? First, I am a nerd who’s not cool or popular by any common high school standard at all. Using my own image and an old school campaign slogan on posters really did not appeal to the majority of the voter population. Second, I employed hallway posters as my only marketing channel. This has proven to be not efficient enough.

So how did I turn myself around in 11th grade? I changed my strategy in the following ways:

  1. Re-model the campaign image/platform I’m presenting — less about my personal image, more about the brand I’m setting up around the “Fan” (my last name) — targeting the “fun & creativity” users need and also at least pretending to be “popular”
  2. Add additional marketing channels beyond just hallway posters (the paper fans with candy, the school entrance student surveys, the targeting of cafeteria as the central place of viral message spreading)
  3. Using roughly estimated data to optimize campaign (counting impressions made by different times of the day and by different locations in school)

More specifically about the secret sauce? Here it is:

I designed my whole campaign around this “Fan”. My name is Elva FAN. My campaign slogan was “Be a FAN, vote for FAN.” I made ~500 paper fans and made sure many of the voters have benefited using this “Fan” in the hot and humid late spring classrooms. Many people may not remember me, but they remember the girl named “Fan”.

I distributed my brand image through hallway posters. Then, I distributed the nicely made paper fans in the cafeteria to create a viral effect (think “product trials”). Even though a good number of the fans only reached 1 potential voter and ended up in the trash can, many of the fans were passed from user to user in the cafeteria, the hallways and the classrooms. Without the ability to mass email or use Facebook (there was no Facebook back then), I often held my fans and campaign slogans in the most populous areas in the school during the busy recess and lunch times to personally appeal to the voters.

In terms of being “somewhat data-driven”, I could not test the likelihood of my getting a vote. So I monitored student traffic in the school and optimized the location of posters and timing of paper fan distribution for maximum effect. I realized the first lunch group that occupies cafeteria for the first half of lunch time is the most likely to take the fans to classrooms and pass them onto other students. I also learned that loosely attaching my leftover Halloween candies on the fans increased the chance of my users holding on the fans longer and passing them to other users (i.e. not the trash can).

Once I optimized the campaign and ran out of fans to give out (budget constraint), I started casually surveying kids right after school at the school entrance on whether they’ve seen the fan. I found that about 2–3 out of 10 students have seen or heard of the “Fan”. Using this estimate, I’ve reached about 400–600 potential voters in a week and a half. The campaign costed around $20 plus old Halloween candies. The ROI of my campaign is about $0.03 to $0.05 per impression. Not bad!

I also successfully gained a seat in the election in my 11th grade. I wasn’t the most popular candidate with the most votes, but I got about 100–200 votes. So in the end, my cost per “install” is only $0.1 — $0.2. Not bad at all! After joining the Student Union, I ran the school volunteers organization and had an awesome time working with a lot of awesome people who contributed their time to school events. I also was involved in the planning of all sorts of signature school events such as the Halloween Tunnel Tours during my year in office. All thanks to my voters and my “fans”.

Looking back on this experience, I realized how I am entrepreneurial, daring and confident even as a teenager. Though I must admit, I’m much less confident and daring compared to my old self. The more I learn in the “real world”, the more there is to learn. But, at some point, we all need to realize that it is our action that matters, not our fear of how others may perceive us. I hope the high school experience I’m sharing now will help you all gather strength to share your learning journey.

Originally published at