Nobody cares what “Growth Hacking” means to marketers

Everybody and their grandma is now a “Growth Hacker”, a term originally coined to describe marketers who use unconventional approaches and measure their effectiveness with analytics instead of gut feelings. In fact, apparently everyone who uses multiple marketing channels is now a “growth hacker”.

As someone who is on the other side of the table, looking to hire someone to drive growth to his business, I have a newsflash for you – nobody cares about the exact classification and semantics of your title.

What Growth Hacking Means To Startups

Startups are designed for growth. Not every company needs to grow fast – most businesses don’t. Startups use technology to achieve scale rapidly – that is the most common definition of what a startup is. Startups usually try to build websites that not only look great, but also help them increase sales. Check out for digital marketing specialists who can develop a functional and efficient site for your business.

As such, traditional marketing – while very important and required, is typically not enough. That means that in order for a startup to achieve its goals, a different distribution approach is often required. Enter, Growth Hacking.

As such, growth hacking is not

  • Using A/B testing (I’ve recently seen A/B startups actually market themselves as “Growth Hacking” tools). A/B testing is a basic tool in the arsenal of a digital marketer to optimize the messaging and design for conversions.
  • Using multiple marketing channels. Using multiple channels is the *core* of marketing. You can be a specialist, such as an SEO or PPC guy, but marketing as an activity involves multiple channels. That is nothing new or a hack.
  • Talking to customers and doing user research. Yet another tool, but not a *hack* – it’s just common sense.
  • Throwing massive resources at a problem to drive growth (i.e, Groupon style). That is called “brute-forcing”.

For me, Growth hacking is about finding ways to drive growth that require creativity as they are not immediately apparent or accessible, and deliver unproportional results (i.e, growth) to the resources allocated. It does not cover the conventional methods (more ads, more landing pages, more PR statements, more blog posts, more sales people) – those are effective, but scale linearly with time and cost investment for the most part.

The origin of the word “hack” in software engineering typically refers to two things –

  • Gaining unauthorized access to computer systems / data
  • Developing an effective if somewhat inelegant solution to an (engineering) problem (it ain’t pretty, but it works).

The first definition is obviously not relevant here, so when talking about “growth hacking” we mean the second. I don’t care what tools you use or how you get your results, but if they lead to large, repeatable growth – that’s growth hacking.

Growth hacking by example

When I think of “growth hacking”, a couple of instances quickly come into mind, which I think are representative of what people are looking for when they hire for the role:

AirBnB and Craigslist

Probably the most well known, successful growth hack. AirBnB used scraping and bots to automatically message property owners, impersonating as interested customers while recommending AirBnB in a natural looking way (at least, to the untrained eye). This approach helped them build their initial inventory, which is crucial for a marketplace.

This is the very definition of a growth hack. It’s not about creating landing page and A/B testing them (though I’m sure that played a role in there somewhere), or putting more ads or doing more SEO. It’s a hack – gaming a system using automated scripts in a way that it wasn’t designed for.

The beauty of this hack, is that AirBnB could reach their target audience in a massive way without scaling their operation (people, funding) proportionally.

Gmail and Dropbox

Another classic example of a growth hack (though the approach is more standardized nowadays) is leveraging your user community to grow. When the rate of people inviting other people is bigger than 1 (also called viral coefficient), the user base grows exponentially.

This process, often termed as a “viral loop”, is pretty well understood and common nowadays, so by itself not that much of a hack, but the key to making it work is in the value proposition for sharing and in the product features that enable it. Making both work in order to get the organic growth rate from invitations above 1, typically require a lot of kludging and testing to get right.

Gmail and Dropbox are two known cases of an extremely successful application of this – Gmail by starting out as a closed service where only current members can add new users (playing on exclusiveness), and Dropbox by offering massive (at the time) free storage as the value proposition for inviting other users (Gmail did that as the value proposition for joining). Both offered a service that was very valuable for people, and they gave that value as a reward for inviting more users.

This is why it’s so hard to find “real” growth hackers

Today, many people claim to be “growth hackers”, however 99.999% of them have never done a growth hack worthy of note (as the amount of those is quite small). They promote holistic marketing skills + use of analytics and A/B testing tools under the title “Growth hacking”. Again, those are required and useful skills to have at a company, but they  typically lead to incremental growth and not large gains, with the resources typically available at a small company (there are exceptions, of course).

So, if you want to sell me on your “growth hacking” skills, tell me about an actual hack you did that resulted in significant, unproportional growth (really, tell me about it – we are hiring). That is the real difference between a growth hacker and a marketer.

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  • Idan

    If you don’t mind, I will keep this for reference whenever I see one of them godawful posts on growth hacking or hackth growing or whatever the next pundit calls what you so clearly defined.

    Oddly enough, or not, being a lead gen / lead mgmt agency (in Israel), we’ve never heard a client or prospect mentioning this term when explaining their pain or what they’re looking after. I suspect it’s mostly a sillycon valley phenom. or maybe because we rarely work with early stage startups.

    Very well put arguments.

  • Eran Galperin

    Thanks, Idan, glad you liked it. Growth hacking is indeed mostly relevant for early stage tech startups, because the nature of the companies and the goals of the founders make it a good fit. But mostly it’s just a new term to capture the phenomenon of massive growth that you see every once in a while in some of those companies.

  • Rollin Skinner

    Excellent points.. I think the defining characteristic of someone who wants to claim to be a growth hacker is exactly what you have defined “creative or unconventional ideas or insight that create disproportionate results”

  • Alastair McDermott

    Using the word “hack” in software engineering to mean “gaining unauthorized access to computer systems / data” is incorrect, even if that is the typical media usage. The correct term is “crack”.

    I’d be wary of any software engineer who actually uses it regularly in that sense, given that it’s such a frequently used term within our industry. Most software engineers will avoid the term, put it in quotes or define it for their audience.

  • Eran Galperin

    Yep, I’d definitely be wary of software engineers who have a different vocabulary than you. You should definitely use that as a filtering question in your interview process.

  • William Mougayar

    You put it very well. I agree, and have been saying similar things.

  • Eran Galperin

    Thanks for the link, William.

    Your definition and mine are somewhat different – I don’t think you can find how to grow your company just by looking at analytics, unless your company has already experienced significant growth. For most early stage startup the answer is external, not internal, and a growth hacker’s job is to find those sources or approaches that will make the needle move in the right direction.

  • William Mougayar

    The context for using analytics is very applicable from a growth hacking/growth point of view. Speaking from experience, let me explain.

    The point of growth is that your existing users will help you grow by spreading your product to others. So, you need the analytics to monitor attribution flow and viral performance, and make tweaks accordingly.

    As to the external factors, of course, you need to continue thinking about ways to grow that way. It’s both internal and external.

  • Eran Galperin

    Yes, I completely agree about the need for analytics as part of the process, it’s just that it’s more for fine-tuning and rarely for coming up with the actual growth method – unless your product already had significant growth that you can look back on and infer the method from that. That’s what I meant.

  • Yanay Zohar

    Great points, and well written.

    I think most brilliant ideas for real “hacks” will not come from people with fancy “hacker” titles, but rather from the unexpected edges, either from within a company, or just people passionate about a product. That, of course, will keep the ability to spot such talents pretty challenging.

  • M Bob

    Are there any resources people would recommend to learn more about the analytics. Great post really enjoyed it. It’s funny how popular these buzz words get until it eventually kills it’s original meaning and morphs into a red flag