Find Your Hack for Marketing Growth

So far, one could argue that the digital revolution has worsened the craft of marketing. I’m not talking about the revolution against email spam or mobile pop-up ads. Rather, I mean that the art and science of marketing has been degraded by the idea that today’s brand mangers need to “have a presence” on multiple digital platforms in order to succeed. Instead of polishing and perfecting their strategy and execution on a handful of focused media, we feel pressure to reflexively tweet, post, snap, gram, pin and otherwise check the growing number of boxes on our to-do lists.

I hear this when marketers say “I need more content” — but they can’t really answer how it fits with their strategy. I see it when software companies get meetings with brands by promising to make it easier to get daily social posts approved by multiple stakeholders — but they don’t know the ROI of the work (or the ROI of the software, for that matter). We’ve got to get off the executional treadmill and re-think what we do as marketers at a time when the usual approaches are not leading to breakthrough growth.

One area of marketing is seeing a new approach. Ironically, it’s in the basements and co-working spaces of startups. But they don’t call themselves “marketers”. That word has been rejected by the startup world because it comes with the baggage of giant budgets, pricey agencies, and traditional campaigns.

When you have a tiny budget, zero brand awareness, and a ticking death clock (i.e. when your investment capital runs out or credit card hits a limit), you have to look at your job differently. Thus, startups have embraced the title “growth hacking” to represent the strategies and tactics it takes to attract and retain customers.

The Growth Hacking Ethos

But it is much more than a trendy title — growth hacking is an attitude and new way of looking at the job. The idea of “hacking” comes from the software development world, and was first introduced as a business philosophy in Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to prospective investors when Facebook filed its IPO.

Sean Ellis, is credited with first applying this idea to the startup marketing department but I like the way Brian Solis summarized what being a (marketing) growth hacker is all about:

Growth Hacking is the art and science of creating awareness, traction, adoption, and advocacy using unorthodox and surprising means. It’s quite literally a hack for traditional processes to accelerate business.

His definition starts out with all of the things traditional marketing is supposed to do — i.e. create awareness, traction, adoption and advocacy. But the key comes next: “Using unorthodox and surprising means…a hack for traditional processes.” In other words, the growth hacker’s job is to break the rules. Sounds challenging, huh? Well, the only way to generate accelerated business results in this world is to think differently.

Billion-Dollar Startups That Started with One Hack

You might be surprised to learn that some of the biggest startup success stories got off the ground and out of the basement only when they landed on a single “growth hack” that unlocked massive demand:

  • Zappos saw that the shoe business was slow to go online because people felt the need to try on shoes, and hated returning items. Zappos hacked this market by offering free, unquestioned returns.
  • Airbnb had an interesting idea of creating a new marketplace for finding rooms to rent, but it struggled to take off until it figured out how to automatically cross-post clients’ listings on Craigslist.
  • Dropbox had no luck attracting users with the usual tactics of search and banner ads. The breakthrough came when the company offered additional free storage for people who referred others to the sign up.

Looking back, these growth hacks seem obvious — but at the time the companies were laughed at and had dozens of competitors. They won because they focused on nailing just idea that would unlock the awareness, trial and repeat that any product or service needs to get off the ground.

Big Brands Can Make it Happen

If you think this is just something startups can do because they are small, nimble and desperate, you are mistaken. Your business can get here, even with little or no product differentiation! Take these examples:

  • Dove and Always changed the game in slow-growth, commodity categories by creating social change. Dove embraced the idea of “real beauty” and created a national discussion that continues nearly a decade after its campaign first launched. More recently, Always helped society rethink what it means to act “like a girl.”
  • Domino’s Pizza has given us fun and exciting new ways to order pizza, from mobile apps to tweets to emojis. Sales continue to rise without the usual gimmicky product launches.
  • Hyundai grew sales and share during the depths of the 2008 recession by promising to buy back automobiles from people who lost their jobs. The Hyundai Assurance program ended up costing little and built one of the most trusted brands in the world.

Insights, Inspiration and Perspiration

These stories and many others have a few common elements. First, they start with unique insights about how customers think and act, often researching much broader than a particular product or category. Always spent years learning about how teen girls come of age and wished to provide higher level benefits. It was a far cry from just testing more blue liquid on absorbent materials. Hyundai saw that people were postponing car purchases because they were worried about losing their jobs.

Once you identify the insights that might unlock accelerated demand, your team needs to think big and generate inspirational ideas. The Always team asked themselves how they could change the harmful social norms that they observed in teen girls. While your agency partners should be part of the process, brand marketers must bring their own creative thinking rather than just outsourcing this important work. You might not know that the Red Bull marketing team itself comes up with most of the killer events that it launches each year. They run creative brainstormings with their agencies.

Finally, remember that ideas are easy — but it’s the hard work of execution, learning and continuous improvement that leads to ultimate success. Zappos tested the economics of free shoe returns by partnering with a local shoe store for inventory. Domino’s journey started in 2008 with a faked-up pizza tracker on its website. But the company saw immediate sparks of interest and kept feeding the fire.

The growth hacking path starts with a desire to truly accelerate business. If your shareholders are happy with single digit improvements, then relax and keep spending time figuring out how to check the boxes more efficiently. But chances are that your company is looking for real growth, and the competition isn’t standing still. So ditch your marketing title and traditional tactics and join us on the growth hacking path. It’s also a much cooler title on your business card.

Bob Gilbreath is co-founder and ceo of Ahalogy, an official Pinterest Marketing Developer Partner, and author of The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with your Customers by Marketing with Meaning. Follow him on Twitter.

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