3 Keys to Successful Growth Hacking
Much has been written about the phenomenon of growth hacking, yet misconceptions persist. A victim of its own success, growth hacking rather mistakenly has come to be associated with short-term tactics responsible for the meteoric rise of companies like Airbnb and Dropbox. Inspired by success stories like these, many startup founders are eager to try someone else’s “hacks” in their quest for growth.
But success often remains elusive. Tactics that played out for someone else don’t produce the desired results, can’t be fully adapted to the situation at hand, or fail at execution. And the reason is usually a failure to recognize that, barring an occasional fluke, most growth hacking success stories are an outcome of a fluid and iterative process whose results are often additive.
In each case, the winning strategy and tactics are different, yet the approaches to getting there have a lot in common. Companies that do growth hacking well usually share three key approaches.
1. Use growth hacking strategically
Traditional startup roles are usually associated with driving growth through tactical execution and technical projects focused on achieving immediate results. The goal is to iterate quickly through as many ideas as possible in order to find strategies that deliver the best results. Paradoxically, it is this gung ho attitude and tactical focus that leads many startups to waste precious time and money on initiatives having little to do with their sustainable growth and viability.
It’s easy to get bogged down and feel like a hamster in a wheel. As you move forward in your research, you’ll come across experts who’ll tell you to “just start testing.” Ignore this advice. Marketing is strategic. To succeed, you need highly focused goals. You need a framework for scalable, replicable [growth].
Instead, a successful business pursues growth by setting goals and prioritizing scarce resources to achieve them. Best growth hackers think in terms of growth roadmaps, objectives, and time frames, and focus their efforts on strategies and tactics that can “move the needle” on their growth metrics.
Being strategic also means being focused yet flexible. Growth hackers continually assess the product and the market and apply new insights to adjust growth strategies and tactics. The ability to learn from experiences, discard what doesn’t work, and move on is a big part of successful growth hacking. By keeping the big picture in mind, growth hackers are able to overcome failures and maintain growth momentum.
Upworthy is a great case in point. Known for its viral content, the company has found a repeatable and scalable way to drive traffic by aligning every aspect of its product and content around growth. The company realized the value of an engaged and motivated audience and focused on maximizing shares per view and clicks per share through a balanced appeal to its audience’s emotions and logic and relentless A/B testing.
2. Treat growth hacking as a process
The prevailing view is that growth hacking, unlike old-school marketing, focuses on short-term results and profitability, not on processes. However, as tools of the internet made growth hacking data- and ROI-driven, successful companies have transformed it into a robust process that drives long-term growth.
A rigorous and systematic process for managing ideation, testing, and learning helps prioritize work, builds a strong base of knowledge, and accelerates successful outcomes. It provides focus and generates momentum needed to achieve growth goals. Today’s growth leaders treat growth hacking as an advanced toolset of the Lean Startup methodology, as it uses the same build-test-measure philosophy to maximize growth.
Annabell Satterfield, Senior Product Manager, Growth at BitTorrent illustrates what a typical growth hacker does on a day-to-day basis:
Look at data (qualitative and quantitative), make hypotheses, push out tests and MVPs, look at the results, and roll out or start again with your new learning.
Growth hacking delivers the most value for companies that make growth a centralized function and create a culture that empowers their growth professionals to think out-of-the-box and take the lead in problem solving.
Etsy is a great example of company, where growth is driven by the culture of continuous experimentation, deployment, and optimization. The company’s approach of breaking down ideas into small components and testing for these isolated and measurable changes enables it to continuously improve user experience leading to greater conversion and engagement.
3. Find your own growth hacks
Because of its origins within the startup community, growth hacking relies heavily on tactics that don’t involve spending the huge budgets that larger businesses have access to. According to Sean Ellis,
For meaningful growth, startups must completely change the rules of traditional channels or innovate outside of those growth channels. They are too desperate and disadvantaged to adapt to the old rules of marketing. They have to dig deep creatively, and relentlessly test new ideas. If they don’t figure it out quickly, they will go out of business.
It is this desperation that drives startups to focus on creative low-cost alternatives to traditional marketing, e.g. rewarding sharing and referrals, using social media in non-traditional ways, content marketing, influencer marketing, and A/B testing to grow a company quickly and efficiently. Ironically, this imperative to search for truly innovative, game-changing ways of driving growth often makes the propensity to blindly follow widely-peddled growth hacking recipes so infectious and counterproductive.
While reinventing a wheel is usually not necessary, a growth hack should be effective given the unique circumstances it is applied in. Moreover, according to Patrick Vlaskovits,
The more innovative your product is, the more likely you will have to find new and novel ways to get at your customers.
The systematic process of building, testing, and learning is what successful companies use to discover their unique growth pathways.
Growth hacking is normally associated with companies that have already achieved product-market fit (PMF) and are looking for scalable growth. In reality, growth hacking is just as important for pre-PMF startups as it is for later stage companies. As Ryan Holiday put it,
Growth hackers believe that products – even whole businesses and business models – can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them. In other words, the best marketing decision you can make is to have a product or business that fulfills a real and compelling need for a real and defined group of people – no matter how much tweaking and refining this takes.
Although growth hacking is normally associated with post-PMF businesses, at pre-PMF companies, growth hackers may take a hands-on approach to product development making sure virality is embedded in the product itself. In an environment of extreme uncertainty and on a limited budget, growth hackers focus on understanding their users and build workable, lightweight prototypes with unique features to test user acceptance and then fine-tune the code or product.
Post-PMF, growth hackers help scale what’s already working by devising outside-the-box marketing strategies used to get the maximum number of users with minimal spend. As experimentation velocity increases, larger growth teams emerge consisting of professionals with complementary skillsets.
The ultimate goal is to find a predictable, repeatable and scalable growth process. In this phase, growth hackers use approaches like task automation and tools like platform APIs to achieve high-impact, high-velocity product marketing.
In case you think it is only cash-strapped startups that employ creative low-cost growth tactics, recall the innovative approach Google used to launching Gmail – now the dominant free e-mail service. Google initially built excitement by making the service invite-only.
Then, by steadily increasing the number of invites allowed to its existing user base, Gmail gradually spread until it became the leading free e-mail service. If giants like Google with their huge financial clout and existing user base resort to original growth hacking tactics, then your startup should most probably do so too.
Growth is the top priority for any startup. According to Paul Graham,
The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.
Given its central role in the growth of many massively successful businesses, growth hacking has been in the focus of startup community for the last several years. It has been both praised as the best available growth tool in the arsenal of a cash-strapped startup and criticized as an overhyped artificial concept with little substance behind it.
In fact, it can be either, depending on your understanding of the term. Growth hacking really is a mindset rather than a toolkit. If used indiscriminately and blindly in pursuit of short-term goals, it is likely to backfire. If used strategically, methodically, and creatively, it can be the main driver of your startup’s enduring growth.
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