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What is growth hacking? If you haven’t heard of it, growth hacking is a marketing technique that uses analysis and creativity to sell products and gain exposure.

It differs from traditional marketing by focusing on social metrics and other digital channels to analyze user behavior and deploy innovative or low-cost alternatives to traditional demand-generation and campaign-based marketing.

Perhaps the most famous example of growth hacking was Hotmail. By employing a signature on every out-bound email that said, “Sent from Hotmail. Get your free Hotmail email today!”

Hotmail was able to drive incredible growth numbers in a very short amount of time.

Growth hacking, as you might assume, is largely practiced by startups with limited marketing budgets that are looking for non-traditional ways of getting exposure and driving growth.

In short, they don't have money and need alternate ways to get their brand recognized and their product sold. Only growth hacking isn’t just for new companies or 20-something marketing geeks.

The digital world is significantly noisy. There is so much happening all the time that few people if any are paying attention to traditional marketing approaches, which is probably why there has been a surge of interest in social selling, or selling based on relationships, which is something that I talk about in my latest book 'Recommend This!'.

This means that every marketer needs to find innovative and alternative methods to reach and engage with their audience if they are going to be heard at all.

Even if you don't want to 'give into the dark side' and practice the tenets and principles of growth hacking, it's hard to deny that it's an approach built for the digital age. Nimble. Quick. Agile. Flexible. Because of that, it's also not surprising that it holds some nuggets of wisdom of which even traditional marketers should take note.

The status quo is no longer the status quo

It’s clear that marketing has changed. Why do I say that? Because the relationship between consumer and brand has transformed thanks to social media.

For the first time since the inception of the 'information age', consumers have a direct line to brands - using social media, someone can engage in a conversation with a brand.

Even just 15 years ago, this was relatively difficult if near impossible. What’s equally important about the opportunity for engagement, though, is how consumers can influence their friends and family through the same channels.

A positive (or negative) social media post can have a profound impact on the brand’s receptiveness amongst the person’s immediate and extended networks.

But even the social networks are undergoing change. New networks can appear overnight (with millions of users), old networks (like MySpace) can disappear and then reappear. Technology enables all of this to happen in the blink of an eye, which can make it difficult for most brands to stay or appear relevant in the conversation. 

In short, there is no status quo. Just as traditional marketing gives way to non-traditional, social-selling marketing, the channels for social selling give way to new social-based channels.

Growth hacking, which is predicated on quickly changing the approach and objective of engaging with the market, recognizes that marketing innovation comes from being in a state of constant change.

A butterfly flapping its wings on one site can impact your marketing efforts on another

Stealing a little from the hyperbole of chaos theory, the gist here is that even the littlest of events can have the biggest impact on your marketing strategies, planning, and execution.

Consider again the Hotmail example. Instead of banner ads and a traditional awareness campaign, the Hotmail crew simply typed up a nine-word slug and programmed it to appear at the bottom of every sent email.

In another example, DropBox incentivised users to invite their friends to signup by providing 2GB of extra storage for every invited friend that signed up. The result? Millions of new, paying users.

The point here is that in traditional marketing, we try to affect the outcome of growth and awareness through volume and velocity, which generally equates to bigger campaigns and more money.

When, in actuality, it is sometimes the smallest effects that can create the biggest impact.

Marketing deals with people and people are unpredictable

In a traditional campaign full of banner and other advertising, marketers rely on personas - they target groups of people based on how they are supposed to behave and act. But, let’s face it; people are unpredictable.

One of the tenets in my latest book is about understanding “relationship types.” Not everyone wants the same kind of relationship from a brand. But, more so, not everyone wants the same kind of relationship all the time.

People can change their minds like they change socks. One day they may like a brand, the next not. Part of this unpredictability is a result of the internet and how much information to which consumers have access (a negative news story or upset consumers can sour a brand's perception; just look at what happened to Abercrombie & Fitch).

Social media. Reviews. Rants. Blogs. A quick Google search on a brand can turn up all of that and more. What’s more, brand sentiment can be radically influenced directly through engagement via social channels.

Growth hacking, though, doesn’t rely on straight segmentation. The principles of growth hacking are built on the idea that everything is shifting and that you can't be tied to an understanding of the audience to launch marketing activities. You simply have to put a line in the sand, react to the responses, and adjust as needed.

Sometimes budget size and campaign success are inversely proportional

More is better, right? Not in today’s world. With a banner advertising clickthrough rate of about 0.1%, volume doesn’t get the traditional marketer anything.

In fact, it probably just wastes more money. The traditional marketing approach has always been about throwing more money at it to achieve better results. If 1m impressions get 100 click throughs then 10m will achieve 1,000.

Only there’s an inherent flaw in that logic. The first flaw is that the additional impressions might not be targeting the right people; who wants a bunch of leads if they don't have the right qualifications?

The second flaw is that the campaign itself might be wrong. The only way that traditional marketers understand when something has gone wrong is after the fact... when the campaign is over.

Growth hacking, on the contrary, is predicated on looking for low-cost alternatives to traditional marketing spend. Like Hotmail’s email signature or DropBox’s incentive, growth-marketing campaigns generally don’t look for the method in which to spend the most money in the most places. They look for ways to spend the least amount of money but still have a demonstrable (and measurable) impact.

Sometimes the best strategy is having no strategy at all

A recent Harvard Business Review article on strategic planning (subscription required) posited that the 'planning' part is not strategic at all because it relies on rigid assumptions.

In many cases, this is exactly how marketing operates today. Marketers assess the market, build segments of people (based on personas), define objectives, create the campaign, run it, then measure. Everything is predicated on “how things should happen” (i.e., objectives).

And when the campaign doesn’t perform as expected, it’s deemed a failure. Rinse and repeat.

The problem with this approach is that people and the digital world are changing all the time. If there is too much time between all the planning and the execution, the variables might have changed. The campaign may be doomed from the start.

What growth hacking teaches us here is that it pays to remain fluid, adjusting campaign approaches while they are running. Considering the Hotmail example again, if the slug didn’t work, a traditional approach would be to remove the slug and try something else.

In the growth hacking approach, it would be to keep adjusting the slug because it doesn’t cost anything to have it there (and a different order or selection of words just might do the trick).

What can you get from growth hacking?

The practice of growth hacking may not be for every marketer or brand but it does teach us some fundamentally different ways to approach marketing:

  • The entire market with which you are trying to engage is shifting and changing constantly.
  • Executing campaigns based on a set plan is probably hurting your success more than it’s helping you to allocate your marketing budget.
  • People aren’t personas and it’s not personas that are trying to engage with you via social media and other digital channels.
  • Spend less time planning and more time changing the way you execute your campaigns.
  • Don’t have campaign start and stop; just let them run continually and adjust based upon on-going analysis.

Am I suggesting that we toss out the baby with the bathwater? Is growth hacking the new way to do marketing? No. I think it’s a hybrid approach. I definitely believe that there are pros to traditional marketing (deeply rooted in psychology) but that it needs a good 'hack' to align it better to the way consumers behave in a digital world.

And that is perhaps the thing that growth hacking teaches us the most - everything is changing... and therein lies the opportunity.

A note on agile marketing

You might think that a lot of what growth hacking is can be encapsulated by 'agile marketing'. I would disagree. Agile marketing is still traditional marketing, just done within an agile framework (i.e., using scrums, sprints, etc.). It still relies on all the fundamental tenets of traditional marketing - volume, velocity, and planning.

Jason Thibeault

Published 4 March, 2014 by Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault is Senior Director of Marketing Strategy at Limelight and a contributor at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Stuart G. Hall

Great piece. It's also true that often marketers are doing a form of growth hacking already, they just didn't know it!

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

My previous company, an ESP called Email Reaction (now Smart Focus), used a similar tactic to Hotmail, by embedding a HTML comment in the emails.

This did not offend our clients in the way a visible Hotmail-style announcement would have, but was seen by quite a few techies, gaining us exposure and customers.

over 2 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks

Stuart,

That is absolutely the case! I think as more marketers become data-savvy they will adopt more and more growth-marketing techniques.

over 2 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks

Pete,

Thanks for sharing that story. I think like Stuart said, a lot of companies are practicing growth-hacking techniques without really knowing it. All marketers should be looking for low-cost, alternative, and innovative techniques to get "above the noise" that digital brings.

over 2 years ago

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Joshua Harrell

Great article! I will be sharing this with everyone I know.

Thank you Jason.

Warm regards,

Joshua

over 2 years ago

Jason Thibeault

Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy at Limelight Networks

Thanks Joshua! I really appreciate that and glad that you enjoyed the piece!

over 2 years ago

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