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Just when you think you can know everything there is to know about digital marketing, someone slaps you in the face with a new phrase.

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. Today I’ll be looking at growth hacking. 

Of course the phrase ‘growth hacking’ isn’t actually that new. 

Let’s check Google Trends for the term. That’s always a fun job…

July 2012 saw the beginning of the rise of growth hacking. Well searching for it on Google at least. Many sources point towards Sean Ellis as the coiner of the phrase back in 2010 (more on that later).

So why explore it now? I have to thank the mighty Dan Barker for a tweet he sent yesterday…

Which then led to the following mini debate…

Growth hacking or just good marketing? It would probably help if I knew what the term meant in the first place, so let’s explore.

And then when we’re done we can spend some time figuring out what ‘fwiw’ means. 

Definitions of growth hacking

I feel immediately resistant to any term that uses the word hacking, as the connotations rarely seem positive. Whether in the world of computing, ice hockey or being lost in a wood alone at night. However this time the resistance may not be necessary.

First let's take a look at a few different sources for a definition before resorting to Wikipedia.

Let’s start with Quora, being as that led to the spark in the first place. Here are some responses from the highest upvoted answers to the question “what is growth hacking?”

Andy Johns, who claims to not like “being referred to as a growth hacker” suggests that it’s a practice where entrepreneurs: 

...can take a clever or non-traditional approach to increasing the adoption (growth rate) of his or her product by ‘hacking’ something together specifically for growth purposes”. 

The growth or mass adoption of a product doesn’t necessarily happen organically just because the product is brilliant. How many amazing, world-changing pieces of technology have been ignored or forgotten throughout the years because of bad, or a lack of decent, marketing?

Mattan Griffel goes on to clarify what we understand about the term ‘hacking’:  

...a hacker is someone who is more concerned with achieving an objective than following a prescribed process. In other words, hackers care more about what needs to get done than how it should get done”.

A hacker may come up with ways to a solution that some may consider renegade. In the worst cases this is sometimes unethical or possibly dangerous, but often in the best cases, highly innovative.

And that’s what shakes things up.

He gets results, damnit.

Is there a difference between growth hacking and straightforward marketing?

Quicksprout’s definition of growth hacking explicitly states that:

...a growth hacker is not a replacement for a marketer. A growth hacker is not better than marketer. A growth hacker is just different than a marketer.” 

The earlier mentioned Sean Ellis, entrepreneur and CEO/founder of Qualaroo, stated in his term-defining 2010 blog post Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup: “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth”.

Eliis's post goes on to state that in the early days of any start-up, marketers are often hired to fulfil a variety of objectives that just aren’t necessary yet. Establishing strategic marketing plans and building and managing marketing teams are all for nothing if a “scalable, repeatable and sustainable way to grow the business” hasn’t been found.

The person to help you find that growth is a growth hacker. A person with “an ability to take responsibility for growth and an entrepreneurial drive” with growth being the sole focus with “the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies”.

This is summed up succinctly by Quicksprout:

The power of a growth hacker is in their obsessive focus on a singular goal. By ignoring almost everything, they can achieve the one task that matters most early on.

Examples of growth hacking

Here are some classic examples as posited by a variety of sources. I’m happy to rigorously debate their inclusion if readers feel they’re incorrect or believe that they’re 'just good marketing'.


Right from the very first days of YouTube, users were presented with an embed code that meant they could embed a working video player on their own website, blog or social profile.

This generous innovation helped the video sharing platform feel more like a community from an early stage, not to mention show off its uniqueness via the maximum amount of channels possible. 


You’ll see this example in a lot of references to growth hacking. It’s earliest and most impressive growth spurt wasn’t down to an expensive advertising campaign or complicated marketing strategy. Oh no, Airbnb basically used Craigslist to get what it wanted. 

Image courtesy of Dave Gooden.

Airbnb combed through Craigslist to find the nicest properties, emailed the owners and poached them for its own service. You’re very welcome to click Gooden’s link above or this piece from The One Hour Startup to read both sides of the ethical debate.

As somebody who spent hours a day in my early-twenties posting trailers for a film I made on every single MySpace profile I could possibly find, I can only empathise with the endeavour. 


Perhaps the simplest of the simple growth hacks with the most impressive results. 

In the late 90s Hotmail added a piece of text at the bottom of every email that read “PS: I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail” with a link back to its homepage.

According to Venturesity, Hotmail started averaging 3,000 new sign-ups a day. It then reached 1m users in six months. Five weeks after that, it reached the 2m mark. Hotmail was purchased in 1997 by Microsoft for $400m.

Does that clear everything up?

I suppose my own tl;dr version would go something like this… 

Growth hacking is the practice of companies with limited budgets using non-traditional and innovative methods of obtaining exposure and therefore generating growth.

Sound good? Perhaps we should give the final word to Dan Barker himself, who has the following to say on the practice...

I'm not 100% keen on the term 'growth hacking', but it seems to have caught on very well in some spheres, and I think it can be legitimately applied to particular things in a way that's useful. In terms of definitions - there are dozens of definitions of 'growth hacking' scattered around, and not everyone seems to use the phrase in the same way. And, of course, there are thousands of definitions for 'marketing'. Here's a stab at a definition of each of the two that means they fit together in a useful way:

Marketing: the art, science, and process of finding, creating, and growing customers.

Growth Hacking: finding, testing, and scaling measurable 'high growth' opportunities within the marketing process, usually using technology.

Following that, ‘growth hacks' are repeatable patterns for achieving growth in particular numbers within particular marketing contexts - a bit like UX patterns or design patterns.

One caveat is: it seems to crop up more & more that some people refer to shadyish marketing tactics as 'growth hacks'. Eg. doing things that wilfully trick users into doing things they otherwise wouldn't. I'm not that keen on that, and think it's best avoided.

Further reading for beginners

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things… 

Our Festival of Marketing event in November is a two day celebration of the modern marketing industry, featuring speakers from brands including Airbnb, LEGO, Tesco, Barclays, FT.com and more.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 27 August, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

Comments (2)


Matthew James

We have a similar project we call social rewards that gives discounts to ticket buyers a discount for sharing an event on facebook and twitter and saw it really drive page views to events from friends of friends which resulted in higher conversions than traditionally.

Like all "Growth hacks" the secret is having that flow on affect from the first product users dropbox is another classic example!

about 2 years ago


Anish Kumar

I means, Growth hacking could be a promoting technique developed by technology start ups that uses power, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell product and gain exposure. The great scopes in growth hacking. Thanks for suggestion.

about 2 years ago

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