To Growth Hack, or Not Growth Hack

Apparently, That’s the New Question

If you've been paying attention to the marketing blogosphere lately, you know there is heated battle in the making. The two sides are entrenched in philosophical conviction, and determined to possess the One Marketing Term to Rule Them All.

In one camp, a new wave of web wizards, combining the art of marketing with the science of product engineering. This alchemy, referred to as “growth hacking”, promises to drive exponential growth for all who master it. However, not all are convinced. Their detractors claim that growth hacking is nothing more than hype, and that the same results can be achieved through traditional methods, like “direct marketing,” “inbound marketing,” or just plain marketing.

What is Growth Hacking?

Growth Hacking is a methodology of increasing user acquisition through clever marketing (yes, it is marketing), intuitive product development, and in-depth analytics. The goal is to achieve measurable growth, with the lowest acquisition cost, and to optimize results over time. It takes into account a startup’s product/market fit, buyer personas and behaviors, relevant channels, and a dozen other variables that are unique to that individual organization, and their individual goals.

Obviously, to do all of this well requires a number of important and unique skill-sets; and while the ability to learn & adapt may be the ultimate hallmark of successful entrepreneurs, the responsibility of startup growth is hardly an outcome that should be left to a single individual. As Mark Suster pointed out, growth hacking needs to be part of a company culture, bringing all team members together in the process of defining, testing, and measuring growth strategies.

Dan Martell’s description of growth hacking as “more of a mind-set than a toolkit” still resonates as one the more defining statements on the topic. It takes growth hacking beyond simple methodology, and into a more broad philosophy. In that light, the three core characteristic of a growth hacker, according to Aaron Ginn — Data, Creativity, and Curiousity — become important qualities for any organization; especially a resource-strapped startup starving for traction. Effectively incorporating these principles into your business can have just as much of a significant impact on design/ux, customer service, etc. as it can on sales and marketing.

Is Growth Hacking Special?

Yes. As many have already pointed out, the effectiveness of any marketing channel will decline over time, so the ability to identify, and implement new approaches efficiently is extremely valuable (see Andrew Chen’s post, The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs). We are not talking gradual declines over decades, or even years, we’re talking months — maybe even weeks (billboard advertising has had a pretty good run, though — Wikipedia). Growth hacking well means constantly monitoring the data for trends, and adapting strategies to stay ahead of the game. It’s like managing the startup’s hedge fund, except you can't just buy or sell investments when you want to (or when the trends suggest you should), you have to tweak your product, and your communications so that they can buy or sell the investments for you. Time is still money.

Yet, innovation-through-iteration is nothing new. You could argue that this regimented approach to identifying opportunities, and iterating to scale is what has spawned the entire startup age. This era of a million-and-one startups follows the success of companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Dropbox. Companies that growth hacked their way to ubiquity, and rode the hockey stick curve to billion-dollar valuations. This brings us to the essential point in the debate: “Growth hacking” was originally used by people who had done it.

This was, and still is, a relatively small group of people, and anyone paying attention has a pretty good idea who they are (here’s a good place to start if you don’t). Even the most generous estimates wouldn’t put the real list of accomplished growth hackers beyond a couple dozen individuals, maybe a couple hundred. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately (depending on which camp you are in), the term has grown so rapidly in popularity and in use, that is has become a quick and easy personal brand strategy, just like “social media expert” did. It’s like calling yourself a ‘growth hacker’ automatically entitles you to a Nobel Prize, and a free Tesla. Suddenly, everyone is a growth hacker.

This would be a good place for a rant about posers, and wannabes, but c’mon — growth hacking is kinda awesome. Sean Ellis created a term that has tech credibility, and an air of cool, so who am I to rag on the all the people who jumped on the bandwagon. All of us, er—all of you were only doing what felt right, and you can’t be too hard on yourself for that. Instead, I submit to you, what IMHO, are the two definitions on growth hacking, and the standard for when and how the term should be used:

As An Activity or Approach (verb): Easy. Team members can describe their collective efforts as growth hacking, as in “We’ve noticed a decline in signups over the past two weeks, so we are working on some growth hacks to improve conversions.”
An individual (pronoun): WAY harder. You should be able to demonstrate a consistent track record of implementing, managing, or at least contributing to quantifiable strategies that produced significant results.

That second one is no picnic. First, it assumes that you are or have been part of a growth stage company with good traction. Second, you should be able to account for all the steps taken to achieve growth (not just the good ones), and at least some of the hypotheses that lead to each iteration. With these two qualifiers in place, “growth hacker” can become more of a certified professional in their field, like heart surgeons, or a triple-black-belts in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

Does This Debate Matter?

In a word - no. Whether growth hacking is a complete reinvention of marketing best practices, or merely a repackaging of tried & true methods, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the new value placed on discovery and measurement as core parts of a startups marketing activities.

One practical benefit of the term is that it gives leaders a more clear picture of the skills and behaviors they need to incorporate into their team makeup. At the time of this post, there were 9052 job listings that included “Marketing” in San Francisco, CA on, and only one that even mentioned growth hacking. For the companies that might actually be looking for a growth hacker, they are likely to be disappointed by a large majority of the candidates they review. It just makes more sense to hire for a “growth hacker”, just as specifically as we would a “data scientist”, a “full stack engineer”, or any of the other new titles that have been widely accepted into the lexicon of tech companies. To that end, “Hire a Growth Hacker” came in at #5 on HubSpot‘s list of top 15 insights that marketers should know for the future.

Now What?

As it has in the past, the future of marketing will continue to demand that organizations incorporate new technologies, and better insights in order to produce the same results. What might be considered an “ideal” path to customers, partners, and investors today will surely be different tomorrow, so whether you call yourself a growth hacker, a “Super Growth Ninja,” “Growth Scientist,” or an “Acquisition Engineer,” it won’t matter unless you’re getting real results.

Growth hacking is the latest milepost on the continuum of marketing approaches. It is not the first, nor will not be the last. By the time the gavel has come down on the fate of “growth hacking”, we’ll already be swooning over the next big thing. How about “ninja marketing?”

Let me know what you think. Tweet me at @davidbuilds

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