The dark art of Growth Hacking.

A few weeks ago I asked a friend who has been doing “growth hacking” for a long time to help promote Asteroid and to show me a few tricks. What I learned was depressing.

If you ask a seasoned SV investor about growth hacking, he would tell you that it is a way to approach marketing with an engineering mindset, measuring everything and making calculated decisions about what to try next in order to drive the most ROI.

Now that sounds very reasonable to me. A defined approach to growth, which enables creators to measure results and make decisions. It can save people a lot of money and provide a guiding principle for making decisions and scaling. After all, even the president-elect has allegedly used these techniques to get elected; we know it works.

The reality of “growth hacking”, at least in the circles I’ve been introduced to, isn’t quite what it seems though.

The process start with data acquisition, by any means necessary. You basically identify who your potential users might be, say “creative agency owners,” and then you scout the web to find their emails. If you can’t find their actual emails, you buy them from shady sources, or you make them up and use various tools to validate whether the ones you’ve made up are potentially truthful emails.

Then you take all these emails, write a compelling message and put them into a tool that starts to spam users one-by-one.

Okay, so far it’s not very personal, but it’s not all terrible. So long as you can identify a really targeted list of emails and write a really-really compelling message to the people who most likely do actually need your product, chances are you are doing more good than bad.

But, and here is where it gets interesting, once you are done with your email campaign, it’s time to turn social. After all, if you have a lot of followers and you’re actively engaged on the social media, you’re a winner, right?

A piece of software can automate your entire social life! It can sign into your accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and execute actions on your behalf. It will follow, unfollow, star, and retweet. It will even add posts to your timeline and send pre-defined messages whenever other users interract with you. What you end up with is auto-spammy messages like this.

Just how popular is this tool?

I turned this beast on, and just after the first day I had an account full of “followers” and an inbox full of direct messages from them. It all sounded awesome at the first glance, but upon further inspection I noticed that a major fraction of these followers were all bogus accounts. They were not real people. They were just placeholder accounts tweeting pretty looking things, images, quotes, words that sounded well, but meant nothing. And that inbox full of messages? They were all automated messages sent to me by other automated accounts!

Honestly, I am all for “growth hacking.” I think it’s important to have a plan and execute on it. It allows me, as a creator, to validate a market and to decide for myself whether a product is worth pursuing, or if there are a better opportunities available with higher ROI. Growth Hacking is also not something that’s taught in schools; no one’s ever told me how to go and get users, and that’s an incredibly valuable skill to know.

Yet, seeing a little bit of the process that people go through to validate their ideas, using this auto-spamming tool, desguised as a marketing tool, I can’t help but to have a gag-reflecs.

YCombinator always tells founders to start with something users love because if you have a small group of folks who really love and adore your product they’ll champion on your behalf better and stronger than any robot would do.

Having done a few weeks of this growth experiment, I am glad to have found out the existence of these tools and to have understood better what some people do to get eyeballs, but I’ve also came to the conclusion that I prefer a more targeted approach, at least for today.