The term ‘growth hacking’ was coined in 2010, but it has only recently become widely used in marketing circles. It was first used by Sean Ellis, CEO and founder of GrowthHackers.

According to a blogpost, Ellis wrote in 2010: “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinised by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Well, that sounds good and all, but what does it actually mean?

What is growth hacking?

Growth hacking is all about making BIG things happen, while only using very few resources. Basically, in the way that ‘Life Hacks’ offer shortcut ways to get things done, growth hacking does the same thing — but for brands.

It’s usually associated with small businesses and start-ups (you know, the type of organisations that don’t have much cash on hand ... ), but the concept is fully scalable and applicable to just about any online business looking to grow and maintain their user base.

According to Nader Sabry, the growth hacking process includes these critical elements:
  • an overarching focus on growth
  • utilising innovative tools and methods
  • building an audience quickly
  • growing on a tight budget

How does growth hacking differ from traditional marketing?

The concept of growth hacking is a polarising one, with some saying that it’s a revolutionary new field and others calling it nothing more than run-of-the-mill marketing rebranded.

So, are they the same thing? Not exactly.

While they may have some strategies that overlap, they have completely different goals. Growth hackers typically are found at start-ups and have very limited budgets to work with.

In an article for RockBoost, Chris Out suggests that “growth hacking was born out of [the] high-pressure start-up environment”. And because of this, growth hacking has a more holistic function. They are not only focussed on sales, but they are also focussed on business growth. Sometimes, growth hackers aren’t even marketers ...

“Marketers try to sell a finished product. Growth hackers help to design a product based on what customers are asking for,” he says.

This means that growth hackers need to have marketing abilities, but they also need some other skills including programming, automation and a good understanding of online data analytics.

Aaron Ginn, growth hacker at Everlane, says that growth hackers have three common traits:

1. A love for data: “Growth hackers have a passion for tracking and moving a metric. Without metrics or data, a growth hacker can feel out of place and uncomfortably exposed. This strong bias towards data drives [them] away from vanity metrics towards metrics that will make or break the business.”

2. Creativity: “While driven by data and moving metrics, growth hackers are also creative problem solvers. [They have] a vibrant mental dexterity to think of new ways to acquire and loop in users. Growth hackers do not stop at data but build into new and unknown frontiers to find growth.”

3. Curiosity: “A growth hacker has a fascination with why visitors choose to be users and engage and why some products fall flat on their face. With today’s distracted users, [they] are habitually exploring to find new ways to push metrics up and to the right.”

Despite the buzz, most companies are unaware of the true meaning of growth hacking other than the simplistic acknowledgement that ‘they grow stuff’ or ‘get users’.

How does growth hacking work?

According to OptinMonster, growth hacking strategies fall into three main categories:

1. Content marketing — creating content that attracts new users
2. Product marketing — using your products to build your customer base
3. Advertising — using ad space to target your customers

And while just about everyone knows what advertising, the difference between content and product marketing is sometimes unclear.

Content marketing is all about promoting a brand, without literally promoting the brand. It’s about using content to build relationships with audiences, and then leveraging those relationships. (Think blogging, podcasting, running webinars and writing ebooks and whitepapers).

Product marketing involves techniques to make your brand and products more appealing and build up the user base. (Think affiliate marketing, gamifying the onboarding process and offering incentives for referrals).

Does growth hacking really work?

Sabry says that only 14% of growth hacks work. So, yes — growth hacking does work … sometimes.

Dropbox is often cited as the classic example of growth hacking at work because instead of spending big bucks on advertising, they thought up a new and ingenious way to get more users. They offered extra storage space to existing users who referred to friends. As a result, referrals increased rapidly, and they hardly had to work for it. Smart, huh?

Airbnb is another example of success through growth hacking. They realised that by using Craigslist, they could significantly more views on each of their listed properties. Because of this, they added a ‘Post to Craigslist’ feature to their listing options menu.

Although Craigslist eventually stopped them from doing that, the temporary growth hack had already given them the boost they needed.

Finally, Uber is one of the most famous examples of a growth hack. Their innovative approach, which allows anyone to download the app and become an Uber driver, meant that they could expand at a rapid rate with little to no infrastructure.

Do you think growth hacking is an effective addition to a brand’s marketing strategy? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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The marketing jargon dictionary is constantly growing, and ‘growth hacking’ is only one of the terms in there! Ready to brush up your vocab? Check out these 20 Buzzwords every marketer should know.
*Image courtesy of Vecteezy