Growth hacking is currently going through a turbulent adolescence. After being thrust into the public spotlight by opportunistic media pundits and loosely-correlated startup success stories, the innovation community has struggled to define and defend growth hacking as a practice or designation with substance. To borrow from a thoughtful, recent article by Lincoln Murphy, the growth hacker community has been heavily compromised and co-opted by “…linkbait [name-dropping] people use to get traffic while they rehash the Hotmail and AirBnB ‘hacks’ or talk about SEO or Copywriting or [any generic marketing tactic] and tag it #growthhacking.”
Today, we seem to be past the point of no return, and stuck at two opposite extremes. At one end, doing anything successful at a startup that required more technical acumen than opening a web browser is heralded as “growth hacking.” Yet, at the same time, growth hacking is being increasingly lumped in with spammy, smarmy and coercive promotional tactics used by over-eager startup marketers to try to get an edge.
Can growth hacking rise above all this self-induced backlash? Does growth hacking still have a reputable professional identity that gives it legs to stand on? Am I a growth hacker? Are you? Growth hacking feels like it needs a clearer, nobler definition, and here’s my first attempt to suggest one. Growth hacking achieves a business vision using digital resources (code, content, data) to capitalize on economic or technical opportunities in order to produce sustainable yet rapid growth for a company or cause. If a strategy or tactic doesn’t have a technology-enabled vision, doesn’t identify and expose a market opportunity, isn’t sustainable and/or secure and doesn’t result in helping a company grow faster, bigger or both, it’s not growth hacking.
How is this different from, well, digital marketing? Let’s take search engine optimization (SEO) as an example and break it down:
1. Vision. Implementing a high-quality SEO strategy takes some vision, but outside of a few select companies like Hubspot, Moz, KissMetrics and SlideShare, most companies are following in well-worn footsteps, not defining fundamentally new business opportunities with a growth-oriented mindset. SEO falls down in this category, as do most traditional marketing methods like search engine marketing and email (not that something as simple as business messaging isn’t an arena where industry-shaping vision can be demonstrated, as the incredible product team at Intercom.io has made clear). It takes vision to see the entire customer or user acquisition funnel and optimize for it; that can’t happen at a narrow “channel” level like SEO or email.
2. Digital Resources. SEO uses digital resources like HTML metadata, permalinks, website content and analytical tools, as well as collaborative engineer work, so let’s check off that box.
3. Exposing an Economic or Technical Opportunity. At a macro level, SEO pursues a clear-cut recipe: create a lots of relevant, high-quality website pages that make Google searchers happy and draw inbound links from authoritative websites. Blazing that trail (like Hubspot did, coining the practice of “inbound marketing” along the way), or the early use of embedable iframes with linkbacks (SlideShare, YouTube) might be considered growth hacking; taking unsustainable shortcuts like Rap Genius’ ill-fated affiliate link-building gamesmanship really isn’t. In short, can you growth hack SEO? Certainly, but very few companies are actually doing it.
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4. Sustainability. Again, this is a place where shortcuts can fall down fast, while product and user acquisition vision (often backed by robust data science) stand the test of time. Growth hacks don’t have to be perfectly sustainable — I’ve seen quite a few that were “too good” to rely on a single API access dependency — but good growth hacks shouldn’t have difficulty scaling, particularly given their technology roots. That said, a fundamentally solid SEO strategy that doesn’t cut corners has plenty of sustainability, so we’ll check this box too.
5. Growth. Tactical channels like SEO, email and search engine marketing are perfectly capable of generating company growth (i.e., “more people find your e-commerce store when they search, sales go up, your company grows”). In fact, Muhammad Saleem said it pretty well in his own heavy-handed critique of growth hacking:
Applying a data-driven and programmatic approach to your online marketing strategy is not new, either — pick up any book on search engine optimization, and you’ll gain some insight into how much good SEO relies on developer resources and collaboration within a company.
I don’t disagree with any of that, but here’s the thing: Facebook didn’t grow to a billion users because it had a team that really studied their SEO. Twitter, Dropbox, AirBnB, Github, LinkedIn or Square — none of these companies’s core growth (and growth rates) happened because the marketing team happened to be “data driven.” True growth hacking targets and achieves step function faster growth because of platform-based vision and relentless optimization on product-market fit. Compared to traditional digital marketing, growth hacking is a different ethos, a different culture, a different degree of tech-integrated execution and a different willingness to conduct marketing experiments beyond the acquisition channels we all already know about. Put another way, if somebody’s already written a book on it, then it used to be a great growth hack.
To repeat, growth hacking starts with vision, integrates technology, content and data to find product/audience and product/market fit, exposes new channels or new, untapped opportunities in existing channels and does so in a way that is sustainable and repeatable (typically owing to a meaningful automation component). It should also be sustainable from a brand safety standpoint, and not create reputation risk for a company. Like most other growth hackers I’m cool with tools and techniques that might be controversial (perhaps even annoying), but there’s a line where opportunistic hacks become immoral, unethical or damaging, and as a community we need to uphold that line. Finally, true growth hacking generates real growth. Not 5% quarter over quarter growth, not “nice, I’m building my email list” growth, but real, multiples-on-core-operating-metrics growth in short (three to five year) time spans.
That’s how I think growth hacking should be defined, and if you want to call yourself a growth hacker, or something a growth hack, I think this is the rubric you should compare your work to. Otherwise, yeah, we’re probably just doing marketing.