The Myth of Growth Hacking

It’s not new, no matter what you think

Steve Jobs was arguably the best Marketer of all time. He was certainly the best technology Marketer of all time. Although he was not a hacker or programmer, and was primarily a “tweaker” he is revered by nearly everyone in our community, hacker and marketer alike.

And yet, Silicon Valley thinks that marketing sucks. Is unnecessary. Unimportant. Filled with charlatans and people who use red blink tags. Populated primarily by stupid women. Expensive. Untrackable.

Growth Hacking is then presented as the salvation. The opposite. The New. But it’s never presented as what it really is.

Growth Hacking is Direct Marketing.

Recent apologia for growth hacking conveniently define Mad Men style advertising to bash marketers, but withhold an important truth: direct marketing—growth hacking’s parent—has been part of Marketing for a long, long time.

A Quick History Lesson: Because We Apparently Need It

Marketing as a profession has been around as long as invention and entrepreneurship. With the invention of new media and methods of communication, marketing has evolved with the times. From newspaper ads and sidewalk signs to sophisticated search engine algorithm optimization, marketing has evolved and changed to manage those mediums to meet the needs of businesses.

Since the rise of the Mad Men era agency, marketing has always had two sides, like Janus in Greek mythology. Everyone knows about the brand side of marketing, because it’s beautiful, memorable, and sexy. But there has always been the direct marketing side too. You just don’t know about it, because it was always a second class citizen. In some cases, you aren’t old enough to remember it.

So here’s the definition of direct marketing, via Wikipedia:

Direct marketing is a channel-agnostic form of advertising that allows businesses and nonprofits organizations to communicate straight to the customer…

Direct Marketing Has Always Been About Data

Some of the earliest marketers who came to Silicon Valley were direct marketers. I personally worked for the man who was responsible for optimizing AOL’s infamous snail mailed CDs for revenue. Every choice was tested and measured: copy, color, size, call to action and so on. He is the one who taught me these techniques that I went on to leverage in my career in website optimization. It stands to reason that people like him came to technology first from the marketing world, because they could see the impact of automated testing and measurement. They knew that technology could get them better (and measurable) results. Many of them couldn’t code, but they could crunch numbers. And they knew human nature.

The brand marketers who controlled the majority of spend in the late 1990s looked down their noses at “direct marketing” and subsequently missed the boat.

The true definition of growth hacking

I propose the following: Much like “social media marketing” and “public relations” and “television advertising” were coined for their mediums, growth hacking is a subset of direct marketing and internet advertising that works with the product team, and uses computer science and engineering development, to reach customers directly. On the whole, internet advertising is a subset of direct marketing.

The godfather of modern marketing, Philip Kotler, created the framework for marketing called the 4P’s. So I started with that definition and built a chart to explain exactly where Growth Hacking should fit in the mindset of a Marketer.

Growth Hacking is part of internet advertising, which is itself part of direct marketing. There is an intersection with product development.

To Be Clear: Hire Growth Hackers!

There’s no question growth hacking is one of the most cost effective channels of marketing available to startups. Just don’t forget they’re a) part of a much bigger thought process and profession that has to happen regardless; and b) don’t hire a brand marketer when you need a growth hacker.

Marketing (with a Capital M): Strategic, Not Tactical

Every marketer I know is deluged with job offers from startups claiming “the product is great! We just need a marketer to promote it.” Wrong. If you call good Marketers to the table only at this point, you will lose. Good Marketers know how to look for companies where Marketing thinking goes into every product decision. Growth Hacking is only one weapon in our arsenals. You can hire an artillery gunner, or a general. But do it thoughtfully.

From Steve Blank to Dave McClure, the message is clear. In a startup you better be building the product, or Marketing it. You may not need to hire a “marketer” right away, but someone in your organization better be thinking like a Marketer.

P.P.S. Even Venerable Old McKinsey got it, nearly two years ago, when they wrote: “We’re all marketers now.