Is Growth Hacking a thing? The experts sound-off

GROWTH HACKING

By Kiki Schirr, {grow} Contributing Columnist

As I was beginning to write my second post for {grow}, Mark posted the following to Facebook:

Growth Hacking Mark Schaefer

Whoops. Guess I shouldn’t write about growth hacking, then!

But then I thought, a topic like growth hacking should stir some debate…

So I went ahead and asked some industry experts about what they thought about growth hacking–I think the results might surprise you!

Growth Hacking Has a Specific Meaning–and isn’t for Everyone — Sujan Patel

Sujan Patel, VP of Marketing at When I Work, and founder of ContentMarketer.io, sees a distinction between Growth Marketing and Growth Hacking. “I wrote an ebook on Growth Hacking [100 Days of Growth] but I’m more of a growth marketer. Since I can’t technically write code (at least not anything good) I wouldn’t call myself a “hacker … it’s only okay if you can do both the growth (ideation and marketing) and the hacking (implementation). To me a Growth Hacker is 30% Marketer, 50% Developer, and 20% Analytics/Data.”

“If you’re a developer that has implemented growth hacks … you’re still a developer. You must come up with the idea, execute, and measure to be a true Growth Hacker.”

Growth hacking “will be around for the next 3-5 years until the industry evolves and/or something new comes along.”

Being a “Growth Hacker” is like having blue hair –– Jay Baer, author of YOUtility

“As long as online business remains, we’ll have growth hacking as a concept.” Jay said. “Whether the title persists over time, I doubt it. … it has a specific and particular connotation that is rooted in SaaS, startups, and online business.”

“If that’s your jam, go for it. But if that’s not your jam, tread carefully. It’s like going to the job interview with blue hair. Is it okay? Sure, but you’re making a statement.”

Jay has a specific and thought-out definition for growth hacking: “Obsessive optimization of tactics and techniques that increase online conversions.” But does he associate himself with the term ‘growth hacking?’ “My team and I at Convince & Convert are certainly engaged in many/most of the principles of ‘growth hacking’ –we just don’t position it that way…”

“Maybe because I’m old, maybe because we mostly work with enterprise companies.”

Growth Hacking is not a subset of Marketing — William Harris, VP of Marketing & Growth at Dollar Hobbyz

When I looked for someone who was using growth hacking principles on a daily basis, I reached out to William Harris, who is known for making a splash with his company Dollar Hobbyz. “The term is very polarizing.” said William. “People either love it (and abuse it) or they hate it.”

“Growth Hacking carries with it the connotation of a rapid iteration of something that might not really be marketing related (hacking), but can bring about huge gains (growth). An example to me would be using IFTTT to automate your Twitter account and double your followers in 2 weeks.”

“The term ‘successful marketing’ [referring to Mark’s quote] doesn’t instill in me any understanding of the process … using a term like ‘growth hacking’ tells me that something was ‘hacked’ to grow faster than ‘successful marketing’ would typically allow.”

“I think ‘growth hacking’ is as all-encompassing as the term ‘growth.’ It is not a sub-specialty of marketing, because you can have growth hacks in sales, customer service, networking, etc.It’s bigger than marketing, and yet, it’s smaller… because by its nature it is something that is quickly iterated to produce large growth with minimal input.”

Being a “Growth Hacker” is not Something to be Ashamed of  — Tracy Ingram, Growth Hacker

When I went to a Startup Grind meeting in Tampa, I was surprised to receive a new card from Tracy Ingram, a friend of mine. “Growth Hacker” it read in bold, red script. Startled, I asked him if he ever got ripped on for using it as a title. He hadn’t, but this was the debut of the card–and by asking if he got made fun of for it, wasn’t I also questioning the validity it?

Whoops.

Growth Hacker Tracy Ingram

Tracy’s business card clearly gives him the title of “Growth Hacker”

“It was the only term I could think of to take all of these traffic sources and turn it into a simple line.” Tracy said. As a consultant, the people that he wishes to appeal to — “a startup in trouble, a conference two weeks before an event, or someone whose Kickstarter hasn’t hit 20% in the first few days” –those are the people looking for a Growth Hacker, and that’s what he’s selling.

To Tracy, “Growth Hacker” is a new term for what people used to call a “Rain Maker,” some one called in to make things work. Tracy had been in SEO for over 10 years, but sees the dominance of search engines fading and social slowing taking their place. “I think of growth hacking as getting the growth or leads in a way that increases ROI with the lowest possible cost.” And ultimately, he concludes that Growth Hacking is a thing “because it works.”

Growth Hacking: the haterz

When I asked on Facebook about Growth Hacking, I received some very witty comments:

Kiki Schirr Growth Hacking

Note the ‘likes’ –it got even more after I screen capped this picture!

Gregg Hilferding Growth Hacking

I thought this comment was insightful, and I always appreciate the use of the term ‘1337.’

Mitch Neff Growth Hacking

I think that Mitch and Mark might get along splendidly! They certainly had similar opinions regarding growth hacking!

Growth Hacking is more complicated than you think — Nichole Elizabeth Demeré, Customer Success Evangelist, NicholeElizabethDemere.com

I sat down with Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré to get her opinion of Growth Hacking. Although Nichole is an internationally-known Customer Success Evangelist and growth hacker, of GrowthHackers.com, Product Hunt, and formerly  Inbound.org. I read her parts of what others had said about growth hacking, and that got her started:

“Conversions are just part of what you’re trying to optimize, the conversions are not the end goal. The end goal is retention, customer lifetime value, think the full customer life cycle,” she said.

“I can get rankings and conversions all day but if I’m not retaining, improving the customer lifetime value, or creating brand advocates, it doesn’t matter.”

“In growth hacking, you do experiments with hypotheses to prove or to disprove, and in either case, you learn something important. If you learn that the hypothesis is true, you need to determine what to do next to take advantage of it, and so you should iterate on it–quickly!”

“Don’t spend time on things that don’t work. i.e. Don’t use Pinterest if it’s the wrong distribution or acquisition channel. Come up with a hypothesis, prove it or don’t, and then you’ll figure out what to do. –and then, from there form another hypothesis.”

“Part of the issue I have with the whole ‘we improved our homepage conversions by 50%’ thing is that you could be in a local maxima problem–where your page isn’t the ultimate version despite all the optimization you’ve done. Therefore, I don’t 100% agree with all of these quotes, it’s not always about optimization, sometimes it’s more about improvements through ‘crazy ideas.'”

“Optimizations are about small increments, Growth Hacking is not conversion rate optimization, though it’s about the same. This is because Growth Hacking is also about embracing crazy ideas, sometimes.”

And finally, Mark Schaefer has his say. (This is his blog by the way!)

Is growth hacking a thing? Five people have weighed in favorably about “growth hacking,” and they have had five quite different definitions. There’s a clue.

But whether it is “iterating quickly” as William contends or “testing hypothesis to optimize retention and customer lifetime value,” as Nichole claims, guess what? It’s all still marketing!

I am keenly aware that taking the unpopular position that “growth hacking” is puffery could mark me as a geezer, but I also have an obligation to call it like it is and I am siding with Greg on this one: “Growth hacking is what you call it because you don’t know what you’re doing is marketing”

Do people honesty believe marketers have never iterated quickly before the Internet? We’ve never done market testing? That “hacking” quick prototypes and using every available technology to test ideas is new this year? Marketers have been doing this for decades, at least the good ones.

Blogging is not “word hacking.” It’s still writing.

Implementing a CRM system does not make you a sales hacker. It’s still personal selling.

And marketing is still marketing, even if you use computer code to help you do it.

What do you think?

It’s time for you to sound off. I’d love to hear your opinion on what you think of Growth Hacking in the comment section.

KikiSchirrKiki Schirr is a cofounder of the fitness app Fittr, and also does the company’s marketing. She is the author of the Product Hunt Manual and hosts her own blog at kikischirr.com.

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  • I am very much with Mark on this one. I used to work for a startup as head of international business. The objective was growth and financial ressources were tight. I used a lot of tactics to grow without spending a dime but it never occurred to me that there would be a specific term for that

    “Growth hacking” is just another offspring of marketers trying to label something they do with a smart and hip term. In my mind growth hacking is just smart marketing and developement. That’s marketing. Period. Nobody needs “growth hacking”.

    (just my humble opinion)

  • Kiki Schirr

    I see growth hacking as being very testing-oriented and I don’t see any harm in giving a specific label to something that encourages good behaviors. That being said, you’re right–it definitely should fall under the umbrella of marketing (especially good marketing, as you did)!

  • stefankrafft

    How about this approach. Marketing is supposed to create growth, right!? With that said, I would go for Growth Marketing. Since it nowadays is plenty of tech involved in marketing, the hacking part becomes a given and very important part of doing marketing. Tech has the ability to leverage marketing in a way we haven’t seen before. Just as Social Media has created a platform for conversation between companies and people. Things evolve, my recipe for growth is: damn good product, damn good growth marketing ideas and a damn good team building it all together.

  • Matt Spaulding

    @kiki_schirr:disqus you should label yourself a “word hacker”.

  • This is great! First, thanks for including me in this Kiki. Second, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the whole article now that it’s written. Everyone’s quotes are so good – and the polarization around the term is what excites me. People tend to have strong feelings one way or another about it. Very well written.

  • Kiki Schirr

    Thanks, William! When I started writing I couldn’t believe how passionate everyone was about this subject!

  • Kiki Schirr

    haha, can I do that?

  • Kiki Schirr

    I love the term “Growth Marketing” –it’s maybe in-between Growth Hacking and general marketing, but gives a great idea about your focus. Good point!

  • To be completely fair – if you would have asked me my opinion about the term a year ago, I would have said it was a dumb term. Over the past year though I have come to appreciate it for its ability to clarify the tactic being used. Language is meant to evolve towards more clarity instead of less. If you look up the definition of “Marketing” it’s quite nondescript.

  • Kiki Schirr

    That’s pretty fair! haha

  • Ross Quintana

    Good read, Well Here is the problem I have. I would consider myself a growth hacker, but think people are misunderstanding what it is and misusing the term. This leads to a strawman argument. Growth hacking is just that, finding shortcuts to growth. It isn’t tied to marketing or SEO or coding, it is tied to growth.

    If you find a way to write posts 5 times faster than everyone else or even yourself you are growth hacking. If you optimize your schedule to get more done or even listen to audio books at 1.5 times speed because you can get through more information faster than reading it you are growth hacking.

    I think people who are drunk on buzzwords are calling marketing strategies growth hacking or just getting resultsor conversions. To me that has nothing to do with what actual growth hacking is.If you use two tools to create an effect that the tools alone can’t do then that is a growth hack if it produces a smarter faster result. So I agree it is stupid if you consider getting results or just doing stuff growth hacking, but I think the issue is in the definition and tons of phonies just use the word without knowing what it is. Many really smart people are natural growth hackers.

  • Kiki Schirr

    Would you agree with Stefan Krafft, then? Is Growth Marketing perhaps a better term?

  • Ross Quintana

    Depends, I think in that context it is just marketing. I think people are still missing it. Good marketing doesn’t mean hacking. A hack is a new way to get around things that limit your response. If someone runs a campaign and gets results and even used systems none of that is actually hacking for marketing or growth. Even best practices aren’t hacking.

    True hacking tends to be what a small group of people do to get amazing results that is outside of what everyone else is doing. They have found a way to hack the system of doing things. If this is applied to growth then they will grow at a faster rate than everyone else because of specific tactics that allow them to do so.

    The same could be used for marketing but marketing hacks would be the things people don’t talk about because they are part of the secret sauce of their success. What is common knowledge is not often a hack.

  • Ross Quintana

    I agree in context of how the term growth hacker is being misused, but most true growth hackers are both very smart and they find ways to grow or do things in a much faster way than normal. That is where the terms when properly used do define a difference. I also think a growth hacker is more about how smart and effcient a person is on not really about the marketing they are doing.

  • Ross Quintana

    I agree that is describes the tactics, but would also add it describes the mindset of the person working on the project. They work smarter and find new ways of doing things that either get results faster or smarter.

    If you are running 4 computers, multiple screens and getting a day’s worth of work done within 2 hours you are a growth hacker. For me growth hacking is a nessesity of the freedom of lifestyle I like to have.

  • Kiki Schirr

    I would have to agree! Excellent point.

  • So this would be definition number 6 : )

    You are applying this to effeciency (doing things faster and personal growth) as well as business. I don’t know how you would measure this but my sense is that most people are applying this in a professional sense as it relates to marketing.

    The reason I called my blog {grow} is because this is the essence of marketing. Our profession is aimed at one singular mission — growth. Promotion, customer aquisition, branding, customer service, product development — no matter what marketing touches it focues completely and singularly on one thing, growth by any means possible.

    I could fill pages with stories of how I used technology in clever ways to grow a business, how I went around the system (or built a new system) to grow, how I created innovative partnerships that created amazing new value and how I “hacked” an R&D process to iterate 10 times faster than my competitors.

    I don;t consider mysef unusual. This is what marketers do. Is it a mindset? Yes. We aim to crush the competition through any ethical means — innovative ideas, products, services, distribution strategies, pricing innovations, etc

    Ad yes, we use technology and coding. In 2001, I helped create one of the first B2B customer portals in the world. Last week a former employee wrote me “do you realize how far ahead of our time we were?” I suppose today that would be called growth hacking because we were using technology (even custom coding!) with rapid iterations to grow the business (wow!). I contend this is simply doing your job as a marketer. It helped us be distinctive and earn new business.

    I guess this is a hot button for me because I hate fluff. It’s like somebody just discovered water and was branding it as “gently warmed ice.” If anything the contents of this post and the confusion around the term reinforces the idea that growth hacking is simply guru speak for good marketing. There really isn’t a single argument presented that would be counter to the position.

  • Can you name any other kind of marketing that is NOT growth marketing?

  • Ross Quintana

    Hey Mark, you had me laughing out loud with “gently warmed ice” :] I agree that many of those things are growth hacks, but I don’t agree that it is just marketing because finding innovative “hacks” separates you from the competition by definition. If everyone did it, it wouldn’t be considered a hack which is outside the normal way of doing things.

    To a growth hacker it may be normal, but not when compared to the average. I agree, I am not one for pop buzzwords, but for people who have been growth hacking for a long time 10 or more years, I think it feels like the term is being hyjacked and then dissed.

    I agree marketing and good marketing is just marketing, and I also agree that most of the people using this term are selling gently warmed ice, but like the term expert, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the gently warmed bath ice. There are legit experts and the ones who aren’t shouldn’t ruin the term for those who are.

  • Ross Quintana

    An interesting thing to consider for clarity is that I have heard the idea that growth hacking is just marketing, but I think that would be like saying hacking is just computer programming. Yet all programmers are not hackers. Hackers tend to be high level programmers that understand programming enough to find new and innovative ways to do things that don’t fit in the standard protocols.

    Programmers work within a set of rules and standards while hackers work outside those rules and often break traditional rules and practices to create even better results. So if we apply this to growth and or marketing it does define a way of approaching things that is outside of the norm. If this accelerates results then that would be growth hacking.

  • Bonnie David

    Awesome read. Great insights.

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  • stefankrafft

    Thanks Kiki. I have been calling me a Growth Builder since a couple of months now, I am just as into tech, product, growth, support, copy, storytelling, social as I am into hacks. All of it is growth marketing in my eyes at least.

  • “An example to me would be using IFTTT to automate your Twitter account and double your followers in 2 weeks” … I don’t know whether this is growth hacking but I know it is stupid.

  • stefankrafft

    Thanks Kiki!

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