You don't need a "growth hacker" just a data-driven marketer
"Growth hacking" is not a real thing, and beyond spam: any actual work they try to usurp is just marketing: hackers, gurus and ninjas, please drop the glitz and be a legitimate part of our sector
Silicon Valley and tech sector as a whole loves fancy job titles. It’s just something we do, and software and technology lend themselves to it.
But it’s not always helpful. In many cases, new titles are simply a reinventing or coopting of a practice that is already well-served by existing practitioners.
This brings us to today’s topic: growth hackers. I know many are well-intentioned and not all are consciously trying to shroud what they do in nebulous terms. But, unfortunately, there are many who attempt to sell services surrounding growth hacking with messages such as: “other marketers are behind the times / not data-driven / not digitally-savvy etc, so (of course) you should hire us.”
But let’s take a step back. What exactly is growth hacking? Defined for those who have managed to escape this one (emphasis mine):
“…a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business. …. It can also involve online community management and social media outreach or highly personalized outreach to news outlets to improve performance metrics such as driving customer acquisition and selling products.”
I’d invite you to read the entire definition via link above, as you’ll quickly see growth hackers are simply marketers by another name – as the intended goals are in alignment with traditional marketing. For example, in the quote I bolded, using digital channels to improve performance metrics is the domain of marketers of all types. Even the ones with boring titles. Growth is quite literally the job description.
If it’s not already obvious by now, I’m not a huge fan of the phrase ‘growth hacking’ or the job title of growth hacker. The simple reason is, it’s not needed. It’s redundant and unnecessarily distracting. It isn’t that actual growth hacking tactics might not work, or don’t belong within the tactical mix of your marketing. It’s that they already are there. Microsoft was using email signatures to promote Hotmail since the 90s. You’re late.
Consummate marketers use data to do things like A/B test effectively, conjure creative ways to acquire users both paid and organically, amplify reach of their content, etc – just a few things growth hackers pride themselves on. So, it’s not that what growth hackers are doing is necessarily “wrong”, it’s just that things like data fluency (which powers all digital marketing, and is the core requirement for growth-related roles) are table stakes for all marketers, as I wrote in a previous column.
What has happened is we now have a mix of both well meaning individuals thinking they’ve discovered gold, as well as very-aware folk exploiting the digital divide that continues to exist at senior levels to make their work and role sound “sexier” or more important than marketing director/strategist. The former can be forgiven, they’re typically still learning the craft of marketing and just trying they’re best. The latter, well, they’re typically the ones who are going to play loose and fast with your brand and reputation (we’ll go through a few examples of why not to do this in just a bit). You want people who are willing to put in the work and sweat the details to grow a world-class brand online, not take what frequently ends up being very costly shortcuts.
The problem with growth hackers from a measurement standpoint
Many growth hackers obsess over KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) like increasing social media followings (and frequently use automation to do so) or short term traffic to a brand’s site for the sake of hitting a given quarter’s numbers. But this is simply not sustainable nor even desirable. As I shared in a previous story on increasing organic marketing results, you want to pursue sustainable returns that compound over time, not spikes which are inevitably low quality and unpredictable. Ask anyone who has had their site go viral what the quality of that traffic was…it’s essentially worthless and definitely isn’t going to help you hit conversion goals.
Growth at any cost without considering loyalty is wasted effort
Many growth hackers I’ve talked to over the years, while talking a good game about web analytics, also show a misunderstanding of other critical business metrics. I once heard a proud self-proclaimed growth hacker at a tech conference triumphantly talk about how they rapidly grew app installs to exceed their aggressive goals in a short period of time.
Which by itself sounds great, except a year or so later I saw a story in a tech trade in which that company was undergoing layoffs because the app just wasn’t working out. They had a ton of users. None stuck around. We can blame product but ultimately retention is as much marketing’s responsibility as well, given they are the ones bringing in users (and need to work hard to acquire a cohort that finds the product sticky).
Perhaps if they had a better understanding of the CLV (Customer Lifetime Value) of users generated through their “rapid growth” tactics they would be in a better situation. Or even simply look deeper into their app analytics to see loyalty metrics and didn’t just focus on installs without understanding if they would stick around.
So much obsession with “growth,” but that’s just one aspect of marketing, and it’s table stakes …there’s much more to be done in tandem
Growth is marketing’s north star, but it can’t exist in a vacuum. Marketing is cross-functional and needs to work closely with product teams to ensure they’re bringing not just more users, but the right users. For example, they need to collaborate with product to ensure there are effective hooks built in (referral programs as one example) to help spark organic word of mouth growth. They need to spend time with customer support to learn about frustrations users are having and work through ways to address in a scaled fashion. They need to conduct qualitative research to pair with quantitative to get the full story of customers and prospects. They need to be able to sit at the executive table and be a part of high level strategy. It’s a lot, and all this and more should all be part of your marketing roadmap. The danger with growth hackers in their purist form (and if you stack your team with such folk) is they’re focused just on one thing, but marketing touches nearly every aspect of a business. Your work across groups and both internally and externally must be integrated and tell a logical, consistent story. So, build a team that’s not just growth-oriented, but embodies the ethos of your company and products and has an understanding of how the business works, the industry functions and expected cultural norms. I’m hoping for most of you that means a focus on quality of work, working closely with stakeholders, respecting your users inboxes, and not just going as fast as possible/cutting corners to make a few charts (that ultimately might not matter) look pretty in the near term.
Growth hacking lacking empathy and user experience - let’s go through a few examples that will come back to bite you
Great marketers understand the importance of empathy and respecting users. On more than one occasion, I have seen growth hackers cause users and potential customers to loathe them, all in the name of trying to chase KPIs. Which shows the danger (and, to be blunt, the stupidity) of a “growth at any cost” strategy. Some brief examples follow:
Dumb growth hack #1: Apps that cause users to unknowingly spam their friends in an attempt to grow
In recent history, an app called “Chitchat” disguised “invite” as “add” where the UI made it unclear that you’re “inviting” friends via texts (nearly everyone considers this spam) as opposed to simply adding existing users.
The entire thread linked above is worth reading if you’re curious about the type of user outrage and negative PR growth hacking tactics can provoke. To add icing on the cake, TechCrunch soon after called this company “Silicon Valley’s spammiest new app.” Meanwhile, has anyone even heard of this company since this debacle? I certainly haven’t. Is it really worth it to try a shortcut that could kill your startup before it even gets off the ground? I can’t imagine so.
Dumb growth hack #2: Running hyper-targeted ads to stem negative PR
For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to go into the entire story of what happened (feel free to click the Tweet source link below if you want to dive in). But what occurred here is Uber’s growth team made the decision to specifically target supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union to try and stop the damage of some not so flattering news about the company a bit ago.
But in a world of transparency, users are going to determine how and why you are targeting them – especially in cases that involve reputation management issues. In this case, an experienced marketer with a broad understanding of messaging and ad targeting would understand it’s inappropriate to use the ACLU as a vehicle to market their messages. The optics here are very bad for this specific situation, and while Uber is ubiquitous and will of course be fine, your brand may not be in such a position to take hits like this and come out unscathed. As marketers we are stewards of our ad tech stack and should use such tools ethically and in a way that is user-centric, for the sake of not only our employers but the industry as a whole. I’m not saying there’s never a case to run ads if there’s a crisis comms situation, but some common sense with how it’s done goes a long way. You need tenured pros in the room to do this right.
Dumb growth hack #3: Brands talking to other brands purely for engagement
Ever since Wendy’s decided to cosplay as an actual human on social, other brands have followed suit, as either they can’t figure out anything original to do or they’re all getting advice from the same midtwit consulting firms. I suppose it makes sense in a dark sort of way, given "corporations are people” now. Anyway watching brands make thirst posts and chase each others tail to try to shoehorn their logo into the topic du jour doesn’t accomplish what they think it does. Especially for major consumer brands. Just look at the following exchange. And this isn’t purely on one web3 thread, these marketers are doing this daily, on whatever might help them hit engagement KPIs that don’t even matter. Imagine torching decades of brand building for …this:
The optics above are just wrong. It feels desperate and thirsty …hacky, if you will (btw: you’d think marketers would know better than to associate themselves with that word, but I digress). This thread is embarrassing for these companies and part of a larger case study I’ll create at some point on how not to run social for large brands.
Dumb growth hack #4: Opting users in without permission
Klout previously did this, and without a hint of irony crypto startup Bitclout attempted to use a similar method of acquisition - when launching they created 15,000 profiles based on popular Twitter personalities, including ones for Elon Musk and influencers in the cryptocurrency world - all without asking anyone’s permission. I won’t go into the other drama associated with that site, but you’ll note that growth tactic left a poor taste in many user’s mouths.
As Jill notes, this type of strategy is blind to anything but a number in a dashboard. The human element has been removed, ethics and empathy not considered and it’s all about seeing what a company can take from the world. If only everyone understood the exponential returns online for brands and people who focus purely on giving and creating user experiences and marketing campaigns people love. It’s hard work, but I don’t believe you can build a modern brand that has staying power any other way.
What I would be excited to see in the coming years is that marketers by all names and titles embrace a more holistic and broad view of digital marketing/measurement and how we help improve our company’s results and lives of our customers. And, drop the buzzy titles that on some level try to infer peers are less capable somehow. As someone who has built marketing teams for many years, grew billion $ startups and helped major consumer brands modernize, all without needing team members with overly-aggrandized titles, I do not believe they serve a function. There’s no need to flex, consummate pros put in the work and don’t sit around thinking of buzzword descriptors for their role.
To wrap up, in an increasingly social and review-filled world, where spam tactics (the type favored by a certain brand of growth hacker) are called out, we should take great care to ensure no one on our team engages in manipulative behavior for the sake of growth. Protect your brand’s reputation. At all costs. Those who delight their users rather than exploit will be what separates future winners from losers.
There is so much immediacy bias built into how the KPIs work. It almost begs for shitty marketers to juice metrics via unethical means. It is trading trust - super hard to get back and hard to measure short term, for one marketer making numbers one month and getting their bonus.
The fault lies at the CEO doorstep though - if you don't know how your marketing team is hitting numbers, sticking your head in the sand looking at this month's up-and-to-the-right, you are failing your customers.