Building a Growth Engine

The term “growth hacker” has sprung into vogue in the last few years. I’ve seen it on job boards at technical companies, on reddit, and in the titles of recommended books on Amazon. I’ve always found the phrase irritating. It sounded like a trendy way to repackage “marketer.” It sounded like a way for technical people to talk about marketing, without actually talking about marketing. Like “marketing” is a dirty word!

But I admit my understanding of growth hacking is incomplete. What separates a growth hacker from a traditional marketer? Why has this position popped up on job postings at tech companies? What does it even mean?

Last week, I read Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday.

A growth hacker doesn’t see marketing as something one does, but rather as something one builds into the product itself.

Growth hacking is about building growth engines. It’s about understanding your audience, attracting early adopters, and scaling beyond your initial audience. A growth hacker is someone who thinks about marketing in a holistic, scientific way. Someone who understands that marketing is something you build into your product.

The nice thing about a growth engine? It doesn’t have to be perfect. Marketing should be as much a part of your product as the login process, or the payment system. Like any other part of your product, your marketing can be tested and improved over time. Building marketing into your product means your business can continue to grow without a PPC budget, and when you don’t have time to write blog posts, or hustle for new customers.

Whereas marketing was once brand based, with growth hacking it becomes metric and ROI driven.

Growth hacking is starting to sound a lot like how I think about marketing. I don’t get excited about vague, soft terms like “SEO benefit” or “brand awareness.” I like hard targets, and building brand awareness for a new product is pointless if people aren’t signing up.

These aren’t exactly new ideas. Claude Hopkins wrote about measurable results back in the 1920s. Seth Godin wrote Purple Cow back in 2003. He’s been talking about building remarkability into products for years, and he’s a marketer. A smart, creative marketer, but not a growth hacker. What’s remarkability but a way to get people excited and talking about your product?

Your audience should want to talk about your product. What’s a purple cow but a vehicle for spreading your message?

Growth hacking at its core means putting aside the notion that marketing is a self-contained act that begins toward the end of a company’s or a product’s development life cycle.

Making something nobody wants is a tremendous waste of time, effort, and resources. Marketing shouldn’t be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be something you do with no feedback from your target audience. Ask questions, and make adjustments. We don’t measure because we like measuring. We measure because we want to be better.

It doesn’t matter how many people know about you or how they find out about you. It matters how many sign up. If handing out flyers on a street corner accomplishes that, then consider it growth hacking.

Finding early adopters is important for any new business, but marketing doesn’t stop once they’ve signed up. Your first customers have taken a chance on you. It’s up to you to help them find success. More than that, your customers should be so delighted with your product that they want to spread your message. Growth hacking isn’t about a soft launch, or a huge launch campaign. It’s not a one and done situation.

If you want to go viral, it must be baked into your product. There must be a reason to share it and the means to do so.

Holiday uses Dropbox as an example of this idea in action. If you refer someone new to sign up for DropBox, you get extra storage space, and DropBox gets a new user. This is the Law of Reciprocity in action. This is Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. It’s about building remarkability and a reason to share into your product. It’s about making marketing part of the development process - not something that comes later.

These aren’t new ideas. Data-driven marketing, customer development, and market research have been around for decades. Growth hacking is a shorthand for changing the way we think about marketing. It begins with the initial sketch of the product, not when the product launches.

It’s about not being afraid to throw away ideas that aren’t working. It’s about understanding your audience, and building a growth engine into your product. Something that works, even if it’s not perfect, and runs by itself.

The opposite of a traditional high-touch, high-cost, marketing campaign.

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.


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