Growth Engineering: When Growth Hackers Grow Up

Aug 7, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s 2010.

Mark is your scrappy startup’s resident “Growth Hacker,” a term just coined by tech influencer Sean Ellis. Social Media as an institution is in full swing and the recent economic crisis leaves no room for exorbitant marketing budgets. What is a Mark to do? Naturally, he puts the bulk of his energy towards utilizing all available technologies to grow the company’s customer base and to ultimately retain them. He has to be clever, lean, and resourceful if he wants to overcome competition and boost the bottom line. Email marketing, modern advertising approaches, and a strong social media presence are a part of his game plan — all in an effort to gain as much media exposure and customer acquisition as possible without the hefty price tag.

In the last decade, what have been the tried and tested tools for growth hackers like Mark? These come down to the basics: email marketing, viral marketing, social media, branding, and targeted advertising. All of these methods replace the traditional and costly options of print, radio, and television advertising, which in the climate of competing startups feel more like a bane than a boon in terms of operating costs.

Realistically, growth hacking has been a concept before technology really made its way into the workplace. There have been plenty of model-defying examples imagined by companies in pursuit of customer acquisition. Just think of McDonald’s in the 1950’s: freeways started lining the nation and McDonalds was there at practically every exit to feed famished travelers.

It’s only now that technology is the main driver of an industry that businesses have uprooted traditional lines of thinking and pursued digital means of growth. Just like older methods, growth hacking is falling by the wayside as “growth engineering” comes on the rise.

Growth engineering builds upon the concept of growth hacking. It’s not just about recruiting users and customers by whatever clever means possible. It’s a more thoughtful approach to growth that takes into consideration the fact that companies don’t just need customers, they need customers with high lifetime value. And the reactor core of this approach, if you haven’t already guessed it, is data.

A growth engineer will use sophisticated tools and processes to obtain, retain and inspire users: from data to testing to trend analysis. These are not quick hacks, rather extensive efforts to leverage user feedback and input to understand their behavior and anticipate their decision-making. Be sure to read our follow-up article on Growth Engineering tools where we’ll dig deeper into this subject.

Backed by data and analysis, growth engineering is less like guerilla-warfare and more like strategic military operation. When a company grows up, they can afford to spend more time and money on the single most important aspect of their business: growth. This investment largely manifests in the form of advanced software tools and human experts dedicated to the harvesting and analysis of user data as well as creating and executing corresponding action plans. This is growth with a plan, with very precise anticipation for the future.

The year is 2019.

Big Data reigns and technology and methodologies have leaped beyond the capabilities of the late 00’s. Social Media is omnipresent but so is CRM software, analytics, and the presence of Growth Engineers: modern-day Growth Hackers. Mark, a veteran now, is seasoned enough to know it’s his job to lose and that he’s going to have to work hard to keep up. His employer is no longer that bootstrapping, Hail Mary-throwing outfit with a shoe-string budget at their disposal. Offices line the coast as well as international shores. With greater resources at hand and a seemingly endless stream of data, Mark must adapt and co-opt new technologies to discover relevant information in his field. Whereas it’s still wise to save money, Mark will be able to employ more robust measures that will exceed all prior growth hacking attempts in complexity and scale.

What are some of these tools? You may have heard of Salesforce, a leading platform in customer relationship management. Scores of information can be gleaned and updated including contact info, purchase history, and overall market trends based on your company’s product or service performance.

SEO or Search Engine Optimization is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit. What good is your brand if no one sees it or finds it? Outsourcing an SEO team can really add up as a significant expense, so in-house attempts may be most appropriate for your budget. This aspect of your company can really make or break your future in the market.

In fact, a lot of the same channels exploited by Growth Hacker Mark — social media, targeted advertising, email marketing — are still the same channels that Growth Engineer Mark will turn to. The main difference now is he can use data analysis to create more precise and effective growth campaigns.

Like the McDonald’s example described earlier, businesses in the growth engineering era are also still taking out-of-the-box approaches that don’t necessarily rely heavily on technology. Take Airbnb for example. It’s not the height of high tech. It simply dived into an unrefined market and streamlined its profitability. It even had pre-existing organizations to thank like Craigslist, as it poached their customers and blasted their own ads on Craigslist’s established platform.

It must be remembered that not all new thoughts and creative ideas hold water. In an attempt to spark growth and customer acquisition, businesses can fail miserably. Just think of Etsy and their “infinite scroll” feature. For a period of time, the online boutique let users scroll indefinitely through their product offerings. Did this increase sales? No! Sales went on the decline despite their projections.

The year is 2021.

Thanks in part to his evolving skill set — from scrappy growth hacker to veteran growth engineer — Mark’s startup has just announced their IPO. Although he could retire nicely off vested company shares, he can’t deny that growth is like an insatiable itch for him. He’s not quite ready to hit the beach yet. There is still work to be done: a younger generation of growth experts to train up, and new frontiers of growth engineering to discover and perfect.


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