The Best Growth Hack is a Good Product

This is part 4 of a 6 part series building a Growth mindset, for life and work. Whereas previous posts focussed on more of the “why” , these next posts will focus on the “how”

Engaging with a new service or product is a lot like meeting someone for the first time. How do you introduce yourself? What do you talk about? Will this person become a life or business partner? Or will you just meet in passing? Perhaps it’s due to our bias for defining moments, that first impressions help define how we experience people, places and products. Oftentimes it’s those first impressions that play a strong role in whether or not we talk again.

One of common themes of how successful networkers, such as politicians, approach a full room is that they have an idea of who they want to talk with, and they will put themselves to be in positions where they can act. Products and services are no different. User acquisition is the startup term for addressing a room full of people, with the intent of engaging with them and graciously accepting their money.

Hello, I’m…

Any product or service fills a need for a target market, and to achieve any kind of success, we have to understand what that target market is, — as well as the one we have. The first step of improving acquisition and having better conversations, is knowing the difference between the two. It’s rare that services emerge which perfectly address a segment, and it’s rare to meet someone who perfectly fulfills our expectations. Aside from understanding who our audience is, we also need to understand where they come from — is this the first time there’s ever been a shared interaction between us, so common ground and understanding has to be established? Or has the audience been cross-promoted from other services where they already have expectations? Do we know anything about the “quality” of the audience? And most importantly, do we have a shared understanding of what each of us is hoping to get out of this interaction?

In the world of products, getting the right message to the right people is the only way of achieving customer growth. Commonly that message comes from marketing, whether it be intentional, or unintentional. What this really boils down to is understanding a common language, message and medium that we can use to communicate with our intended audience. If our service is an exclusive concierge, then placing a billboard on the freeway is not going to be the most effective approach.

The other common challenge is understanding the quality of our audience. If we know something about how they found our product or service, then we can make some reasonable assumptions about their likelihood to engage. This is the exact principle behind one company bidding for the top advertising space on a search result for its competitor — or companies with a portfolio of games cross-promoting between offerings.

Interest, Understanding and Trust

Once an audience has become interested, and there’s an understanding of what they’re looking for, we must now capture their attention with a shared language. We must either make them aware of a problem they didn’t know they had, or we must sell them on the idea that our particular service is at least a worthwhile candidate for solving their problem. While hard or soft selling like this is certainly a well defined tactic, there are a wealth of other well-documented techniques that are helpful, such as those described in Influence, and How to Make Friends and Influence People, to name a few. In practical terms of how to actually establish that shared language and understand the customer’s true motivation, the Jobs to be Done framework is one effective research method that can be put into practice. Suffice to say we have been fostering understanding through shared language in conversations for as long as we have been communicating. We can extend that metaphor into the digital world as well.

Once we’ve piqued curiosity, we want our audience to feel safe. In conversations, this is where we go from having passing interest to becoming engaged and more vulnerable, entrusting us with their most valuable resources — time and effort. This is also where the adage of “the best growth hack is a good product” comes into play. Our product or service needs to do what we claim it does. We needs to keep our word to our audience, and show them that we haven’t deceived them.

One way to foster trust is by building a service that’s empathetic, and one that makes people who use it feel good. Good behavioural design has a lot to teach us about this, in particular offering unobtrusive recommendations of fulfilling an intention, helping the customer set and execute a plan, and accomplishing something that shows the benefits of the product or service.

The Difference Between “talking at” and “talking with”

Of course all of this is extremely challenging in both the offline and online worlds if we don’t have feedback from our audience, and if we’re not accountable for our actions. Luckily as social creatures in the offline world we can pick up cues, such as body language, facial expression, conversational chemistry and haggling. In the online world though, we don’t have those capabilities, so we’ve got to use other approaches, mostly involving data and inference.

The classic method of gathering feedback is by prompting customers with NPS surveys, which can be effective, but feedback can suffer from recency bias. An alternative and more robust way to gather feedback is implicitly, by watching a customer’s actions to see how closely they align with our understanding of the critical path, and how that changes in light of the changes we make. For example, if we know that a particular customer workflow is indicative of later success, but observable behaviour shows that people often don’t complete or get lost in the midst of that workflow, then we know that the experience is a barrier to adoption. Similarly, we can measure the effectiveness of any relevant product or marketing changes by comparing observed behaviour versus expected behaviour over time.

There are of course many, many ways to approach product growth, and the metaphor of customer acquisition as a form of conversation is certainly not the only way. There is enough similarity between the offline world and the online one though, that by applying something that’s innately human we can begin to see things in a new light and draw new insights. What’s more, by countering the things that are lost in translation with measurement, that measurement becomes an asset in itself. No longer are conversations fleeting interactions between a few participants — they become artifacts that can be compared across time and audiences. Not only can we use those artifacts to discover more about how our customers’ behaviour changes over time, but we can also quantify how effective our product or marketing changes are, in enabling our customers to be more successful.

Have any feedback? Want to discuss more? Are you building something out and looking for advice on how to get more traction? Hit me up at