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What is Growth Hacking?

Updated: Apr 28

Growth hacking has only been around for a few years, but it’s already catching fire. In fact, every startup is looking for growth hackers. Growth hackers know how to grow ridiculously fast and acquire millions of users and dollars in revenue, all while spending as little as possible. The term “growth hacking” was coined by Sean Ellis, founder and CEO of GrowthHackers.


What is a Growth Hacker?


Traditional marketers have to consider budgets, expenses, conversions, etc. A growth hacker doesn't care about any of these things. Sean, in his words, was looking for “a person whose true north is growth.”


Growth hackers only care about growth, since it is the make-or-break metric for startups (they either grow fast enough or they die). They use creative, low-cost strategies to help businesses acquire and retain customers. Although growth hackers certainly know marketing, they aren't simply marketers. Product managers and engineers can also be growth hackers.


Growth hackers hypothesize, prioritize and test innovative growth strategies. They analyze and test to see what’s working. And throw away what's not working. They repeat this process over and over again, until the company grows.


The best growth hackers know how to set growth priorities, identify channels for customer acquisition, measure success, and scale growth.


How Growth Hacking Works


So, how does growth hacking work?


For each company, it’s about figuring out why you grow, and looking for ways to make that happen on purpose. Many startups use Dave McClure’s “pirate funnel” as a recipe for growth. His keys are acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue (AARRR). Others include raising awareness as a key part of growth hacking.


Either way, the point is to get traffic and visitors, turn visitors into users, and retain those users as happy customers.


How to Start Growth Hacking


Step 1: Make sure you create a product people actually want


This sounds very simple, but you have to create your product and test to make sure people want it, and are willing to pay for it.


You have to get your product out there, as fast as possible, to start collecting feedback and keep improving your product-market fit on a regular basis. This will help you gather data so you understand your key buyer personas and can target growth marketing tactics accordingly.


Another part of making a great product is validating your product idea. A sure-fire way to know that people really want what you’re about to create is to ask them to pay for it.


Once you have a decent product, you must update your product at regular intervals, and keep getting customer feedback along the way so you stay on the right track. At the same time, market your product using A/B testing and other optimization techniques to foster continued growth, and track the success of those results.


Step 2: Don’t target everybody


You should create a customer profile. To do this, consider all aspects of your product. Then ask yourself: Who would get the maximum benefit from our product?


Be specific. Describe a real person as best as possible.


If Dropbox were to tell you about their ideal initial customer, they’d probably say this: A 22-year-old white male who is tech-savvy, lives in San Francisco or the Bay Area, is skinny, has only a few really good friends, wears XYZ brand clothes, and spends most of his time online.


To reach the majority of people, your product must first successfully pass through innovators and early adopters.

These small groups and communities make up 15% of the population but you need to target them first.


Geoffrey Moore wrote an entire book called “Crossing the Chasm” that talks about this phenomenon.


Products either captivate the first 15% of the market or they will die there. If your target customer is “everyone,” there’s no way to growth hack through that first 15% because you don’t even know who to convince to buy.


Growth Hacking Strategies


Most growth hacking strategies fall into three main areas:


  • Content marketing

  • Product Marketing

  • Advertising


Depending on the tactics used, content marketing can be a low-cost way to get the word out about your product. Typical content marketing activities include:


  • Starting a blog and creating valuable, shareable content

  • Guest blogging

  • Creating social media content

  • Writing ebooks and white papers

  • Podcasting

  • Running webinars

  • Running contests and giveaways

  • Getting bloggers to review your product

  • Joining relevant forums, groups and subreddits

  • Influencer marketing

  • Using email marketing to build a stronger connection with users

  • Improving content visibility with SEO

  • Getting listed in relevant marketplaces and sites, such as Product Hunt


Product marketing includes techniques for making your product more appealing, and building the user base. They include:


  • Leveraging the fear of missing out (FOMO) by using an invite-only signup system

  • Gamifying the user on-boarding process to make it more enjoyable, and offering rewards

  • Offering incentives for referrals that benefit both the referrer and the new user

  • Affiliate marketing, which will also use content marketing growth tactics


Growth hackers can also use online advertising avenues to promote their business:


  • Search engine marketing (SEM)

  • Social media advertising

  • Pay per click (PPC) advertising

  • Native website banner advertising

  • Affiliate marketing

  • Video advertising


Video ads are growing in popularity, especially with the younger generation of consumers.


And with YouTube being the number one platform for videos, it makes sense that growth hackers are flocking to this social media application.


In fact, HubSpot reports that 48% of marketers plan to add YouTube to their content strategy in the next year.


Growth Hacking Examples


Some well-known examples of successful growth hacking campaigns include:


  • Dropbox, which rewarded existing users for inviting new ones with additional storage

  • Hotmail, which appended a line to each outgoing email encouraging people to sign up for a new account

  • AirBnB, which used Craigslist to find and market to people looking for affordable accommodation

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