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How is growth hacking viewed in marketing circles?

Growth Hacking has taken the startup space by storm and has helped many amazing businesses rise out of the noise of. However, inside marketing organisations it’s been branded both as ‘nothing new’ and ‘the saviour of marketing’! We have seen new agencies pop up, new hackers rise to the top of the notoriety pie and businesses leveraging it for dramatic growth. It has also caused a deep misunderstanding with some founders as to what it can do and what its purposes are. This misunderstanding means many investors are losing money based on the promise of growth.

“We have a growth hacker on the team, it’s ok!”

Labelled a ‘buzz word’ “growth hacking” has, in short, caused turmoil in many ways. It has offered young developers and digital marketing magicians a new source of income and notability but has it really offered marketing executives anything new? Has it furthered the discussion on strategy, building a brand and pushing unit economics in the right direction? Rarely.

I think that any ‘re-branding’ of marketing is merely a form of evolution, as it mirrors the ever advancing technology available to us, which in turn has dramatically changed both user experience and expectations.

From traditional paper marketing, to digital marketing, to black hat SEO, to social media marketing and engagement, to social media advertising, to data driven marketing, to growth hacking and beyond. This is the evolution of marketing.

So, what is the new ‘buzz word’ – or evolutionary step? Read on to find out what could be just around the corner. Utopia…!?!?

I’m not suggesting the topics below aren’t already being talked about by some of the most prominent growth marketers out there, I just feel it’s important to define things so that we all know where the opportunities lie. I think it’s time we put growth hacking in a box, and start looking at how we can systemise and leverage this to add value to clients and partners.

What is growth hacking?

What is growth hacking?

I’ve read many explanations and definitions of growth hacking, but we must attribute its rise and popularity to Sean Ellis who stated a that “a growth hacker’s true north is growth”. A combination of product development, behavioural economics, social referrals and viral loops, growth hacking is about finding ways that the product can grow itself. It has been about finding lean growth, which is paramount for startups with little cash who are competing against big players with lots of it. Ultimately if the product is good enough then it can grow itself.

Alistair Croll of Growth Tribe also defined growth hacking as “exploitative growth”, i.e. avenues for growth that should not exist, and if reversed engineered can be exploited for growth. The ‘classical’ cliche example is how Airbnb reverse engineered Craigslist. Here is a great video of Alistair in action, talking about the subject.

Both are valid, and I believe both are underpinned by a robust approach to experimentation. It’s about finding those tiny gains in product performance and allowing them to compound over time. There is a great post by Chris Lake that sums this up very well, called ‘Growth by a 1,000 hacks which talks comprehensively how little wins can deliver massive gains in top/bottom line growth and shareholder value.

So this is my attempt to define it, and combine all three…


Growth Hacking is a process that finds, prioritises, tests & scales growth initiatives in the funnel Click To Tweet.

What has growth hacking enabled?

Growth hacking vs growth marketing white on black

Growth hacking has enabled marketing teams to redefine their purpose, their goals and to acquire new skill sets. They have moved into a mindset that is not simply about communicating value and trying to position their product and brand at the right place in the customer journey. Instead they have now been able to leverage software, data and analytics, and make machines that grow themselves using clever viral loops. Ultimately it has been about asking the customer to grow the business for them.

Marketing teams have changed, and now include a plethora of people that would look out of place only 5 years ago in a marketing department. Product developers, social media gurus, data analysts (although we should now all be data analysts), content creators and full stack marketers have all found themselves sitting around the table with one another and sharing ideas…

It has been about defining and systemising an approach to product development that’s sole focus is growth of the user base, and conversion to the end of the funnel. It has been about trial and error of traffic acquisition hacks, to drive top level traffic and awareness.

Who does it?

So those on a growth team are likely to be a social media guru, a full stack marketer (UE, SEO?), a content creator and a developer. Ironically with this, where is the strategic oversight?

Why is growth hacking important for businesses?

Growth hacking is invaluable for businesses because it forces teams to justify decision making using data. It has forced marketing teams to stop building strategies based on ‘gut feeling’. That transition has been hard for many, and has left some by the wayside. But those businesses, teams and individuals that have crossed the chasm have reaped the rewards.

Growth hacking, if implemented with rigour, can allow a business to develop and deploy marketing assets quickly… call it agile marketing if you will. The process will offer the ability for businesses to expect iterative gains in performance all the way down the product pipeline.

I think that without growth teams many of the best businesses today might not have emerged, if they had simply relied on traditional digital marketing channels. They might have optimised their traffic acquisition funnels, but leads might then not have been optimised by sales or customer service.

Do growth hackers have a blind spot?


It’s time to define growth hacking as a tactic, a process or way of operating that moves one needle at a time. Click To Tweet


There is one small issue that I want to shed some light on. The problem with growth hacking replacing old style marketing is that I think it could create a blind spot for businesses. If you are solely focussed on growth via technical assets and products, you are failing to build a brand and an emotional connection with the customer. Those things that don’t deliver ‘growth’ might very well be left out in the cold.

Clay Christensson once suggested, in his seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma’, that incumbent businesses were regularly blindsided by ‘disruptive innovations’ simply because the corporate machine does not promote risky ideas that will deliver lower profit margins. This has made many staid industries prey for new disruptive businesses. I wonder whether the ‘growth hacking mentality’ will make business blind to potential new opportunities for building customer efficacy simply because it does not ‘grow’ the business.


Don't forget it’s the little things that count, those personal interactions that make a brand real and human Click To Tweet


One thing I have seen over and over when talking and listening to growth hackers who don’t get it, is that they seem to pedal mindless growth unrelated to business performance. I can get you more Facebook likes, or more people landing on an acquisition page, or I can change that conversion rate and make it go up. This is great, BUT only if it’s strategically important and ultimately builds the bottom line.

This is probably the reason that growth hacking is seen a dubious and unreliable way to approach growth. I know that Sean Ellis did not mean this when he defined ‘growth hacking’ early on, but since then the term has been hijacked to mean any kind of mindless fast growth.

It’s time to define growth hacking as a tactic, a process or way of operating that moves one needle at a time. It’s a great way to push for growth on specific metrics. But my question is this… how do you choose what metrics to change, what needles to move?

I believe this is the role of growth marketing.

What is growth marketing?

Growth hacking vs growth marketing boxing match

Growth is a component of strategy. Strategy without formed, long term growth initiatives will lose. Click To Tweet

Growth marketing is the new tip of the spear. Having worked as an executive in high growth tech startups and as an agency assisting founders grow their businesses, the one thing I know is that growth hackers don’t solve your business problems. Defining where the growth activities needs to occur is most of the battle. Why grow something that has little relationship to the bottom line?

I believe that growth marketing has a far longer planning horizon, and is perhaps the closest thing to marketing strategy these days. A marketing strategy is still required, and it should be based on assumptions and insights gleaned from data at hand. Where to position yourself as a business, what niche to target, what price point to go in at are all important decisions. These are all decisions that should be made with strategy in mind. However it is of course the role of marketing to rigorously test these assumptions and update the strategy.

Growth is a component of strategy. Strategy without well formed, longer term growth initiatives will deliver poor results. Therefore having someone that can guide a business through data and where to focus attention, for how long, and when to move focus is of course paramount to the success of a strategy. It should also blend product optimisation and top of funnel growth with a constant approach to reduction in cost of sale. In short it’s all about the attribution model. This is the ultimate growth mechanism. If you’re undertaking growth initiatives in the right areas, in the right order you are far more likely to win the battle.

It should be about building a robust analytics framework, modelling attribution and directing your growth teams to move the needle the areas that will matter the most. It’s all about identifying the biggest opportunities for growth on investment (GOI). That is growth marketing.

Growth marketing is the new strategy

I am aware that marketing strategies, in the traditional sense, are pretty much dead. But in my article ‘The Death of the Digital Marketing Agency’, I argued that marketing teams needed to have an underlying set of marketing rules (or assumptions) to which they work. You can call this a strategy or I like the term playbook. However, what makes this hard is that these playbooks are mailable and prone to change over time.

The resource allocation decision should be based on near real time data and insights. This is really where agile marketing teams can come into play, being able to redirect their attention and deploy marketing assets in a more flexible manner.

I don’t believe that all marketing strategies are dead. Instead companies that choose to stick to a strategy – even though data is telling them it is not working – are.

I am concerned that the move toward growth as THE business driver has made executives turn to growth hacking as THE solution to their problems. Growth hacking is merely a tactic to help move the needle, and senior management needs to understand this.

I once asked a notorious growth hacker how he thought the future of marketing strategy might play out and his answer amazed me!

Growth hacking is the strategy!”

Say what?!?! That’s it, that was his answer. It was at this moment that I realised the dangers for heads of marketing in speaking with hackers. They don’t understand the strategic imperatives of the business, and although they say they are data driven I fear that many are not. They might be able to measure the growth in Twitter followers, or the improvement in conversion of a particular page, but they can very rarely ever answer the simple question…

“How did that growth affect my bottom line?“

This is both a risk, and a real opportunity for business that are willing to dig a little deeper. Start with asking the right questions and you might stand a chance of making the right decisions.

So what are the objectives of growth marketing?

In his brilliant article ‘Indispensable Growth Frameworks from My Years at Facebook, Twitter and Wealthfront’ Andy Johns suggests that Heads of Growth should be able to do the following:

  • Build growth models
  • Develop Experimentation Processes
  • Build and scale customer acquisition channels

What is so great about the article is how Heads of Growth should be directing and prioritising growth initiatives. He even openly suggests that you don’t want to hire a growth hacker as your Head of Growth.

“You don’t need or want a growth hacker to lead. I say this from a recruiting perspective because it can be more of a bad sign. How many growth hackers do you know who have successfully executed on two to four years worth of growth work at Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn or Airbnb?” says Johns. “I don’t know any, but I know a lot of growth hackers that are clever and sophisticated in their own way. They understand tactics expertly and have worked on smaller products, but that’s it. You wouldn’t hire a finance hacker as your CFO, would you? Or a sales hacker as your Head of Sales at a SaaS company, right? Don’t fall sucker to that temptation.”

Ultimately growth marketing is at the crossroads of product development, digital marketing and marketing strategies and if taken seriously can deliver significant (and more importantly) sustainable growth for businesses. It is about process and discipline. It’s about bringing all decision making at a tactical level back to the data; and those decisions that direct growth work should be based upon a prioritised list of potential growth opportunities.

Where does Attribution Modelling fit into all this?

I believe that the ultimate, and massively underused, growth marketing tactic is reliable and consistent experimentation with attribution modelling. If you can understand the perfect proportions of marketing spend and resource allocation between channels and activities your chances of success will inevitably increase. I believe that so many businesses are focused on lead acquisition they fail to look at those assist touch points to conversion and therefore do not optimise their spend accordingly.

So what does the future hold?

I think that savvy marketing and growth teams should be focussed on revenue growth, but perhaps more importantly on reducing cost of transaction. A combination of the two will deliver increased profits.

This will come about through an approach to experimentation across product and digital channels but also a granular understanding of attribution modelling and the perfect proportion of marketing’s focus and spend. It will take a collaborative approach from growth, data, development and strategic teams – something that I am not sure exists today for most companies.

The marketing teams of tomorrow will consist of developers and growth hackers focussed on product optimisation, sitting alongside creative managers that are responsible for creating and building an emotional resonance with customers.

Heads of Growth will be responsible for picking the areas that require growth work, and oversee all growth initiatives and will report into the CMO’s; helping them deliver increasing returns and profitability.
So, roll your sleeves up – we have some serious work to do…