Growth hacking sounds great. And it is.
If I went with my tendency, this article would be all about the glories of growth hacking. But since I’ve written all about those glories elsewhere, I’m going to do something different.
I’m going to tell you about its dark side.
Maybe “dark side” is too strong of a term. But there are some very real things in growth hacking that could destroy its effectiveness.
Here’s why I think this article is important. All too often, an eager-eyed entrepreneur, growth lead, or startup gets wind of the trend called “growth hacking. “
With zero clue as to what it really is, they dive in. Several months later — with no budget, no customers, and sad hearts — they realize that they totally screwed up growth hacking.
Growth hacking is grossly misunderstood. And the greatest violators of its integrity are they very people who should be using it — entrepreneurs and startups.
Growth hacking also comes with risks. Maybe the term “hacking” tipped you off to that. But, as you’re about to find out, it’s not the “hacking” vibe that gives growth hacking its edgy characteristics. It is, instead, a misunderstanding of what growth hacking is.
This article will provide some clear-headed instruction on growth hacking safely.Think of it as your kind uncle reminding you to buckle your seatbelt.
Make sure you understand what growth hacking is.
Understand what growth hacking isn’t.
Understand who’s in charge of growth hacking.
1. Don’t skip the basics.
What are the basics? Go back to marketing 101.
- Who is your audience?
- Where are they?
- What do they want?
- How do you reach them?
A mistake that I frequently observe is a rush for “growth hacking,” but a neglect of marketing basics.
Sometimes, it’s really bad. A business doesn’t even define their target audience. Instead, they try to pull out some growth hacking tactics, thinking that it will somehow, magically, make their company grow.
Growth hacking doesn’t work that way. Growth hacking builds on the foundation of sound marketing principles.
2. Set your expectations.
There’s a delicate balance between setting other-worldly expectations and staying realistic.
Because there are so many myths surrounding growth hacking, I challenge you to stay sane about your expectations.
Expecting results like Airbnb or Dropbox may not be justified. Why not? Well, for one, remember the point above? Your audience size may be limited because there just aren’t enough members of the target audience. You may not have the same resources at your disposal.
Safe growth hacking is successful growth hacking. To be successful, your expectations should be high enough to make you hustle, but low enough to keep you focused.
3. Have a budget.
Growth hacking is not free.
Nothing in life is free.
Let’s just start with you as a growth hacker. It costs some amount of money to keep you alive, even if it’s only the amount of money necessary to purchase the substandard fare of ramen noodles.
Advancing up from ramen noodles, however, you’ll need to pay for other growth hackers, contractors, coders, designers, copywriters, SEOs, assistants, software, and other services that will enhance your growth hacking efforts.
Growth hacking is marketing. And marketing requires money.
Are there “free” growth hacking methods? Of course. Should you try them? Absolutely. But should you expect to hack your growth without spending any money whatsoever? Probably not.
4. Give it time.
We marketers are eager people.
Okay, so “impatient” is probably a better word.
Nowhere is this impatience on greater display than in the wild world of growth hacking.
On the one hand, we have every right to be impatient. Impatience is what fuels action. Besides, growth hacking is supposed to be fast. We’ve heard about Dropbox, Airbnb, and Quora, and how they exploded to millions of active users virtually overnight.
As Paul Graham said, “A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” How does it “grow fast?” It hacks growth.
But keep in mind that things do take time. Even growth hacking.
Let me explain how it takes time so you don’t misunderstand the speed/time distinction.
You will spend time preparing to grow. But the growth itself will be fast.
In the case of Airbnb, it took months for the startup founders to gain traction. They spent more of their time testing, trying, and hacking into Craigslist before they were able to see the massive growth.
It’s okay to spend time — a lot of time, if necessary — on the foundational aspects of growth.
You’ll be better served by laying the foundation carefully and thoroughly than by spinning your wheels in a flurry of nonproductive activity.
5. Don’t annoy your users.
One of the core principles of growth hacking is retaining your users.
Once you lose your active users — your tribe, your loyal following — you’ve lost your reason for existence.
Burn this into your mind: Hang on to your existing customers! Hang on for life.
The danger is in engaging growth hacking techniques that annoy your users.
I can’t help but remind you of point one above — “Don’t skip the basics!” The basics of marketing is understanding your target audience. The better you know them, the greater you will please them.
Never allow growth hacking to get in the way of a great experience for your users.
6. Don’t depend on a single individual to be your growth hacker.
Growth hacking is more of a mindset than it is a position or a set of tactics. A frequent mistake that I see organizations making is the believing that a single person can effectively make growth hacking happen.
In order for growth hacking to be successful, the entire organization needs to be on board, engaged, and pursuing growth.
There are lots of non-marketing decisions that affect user growth. Building viral product features is the most obvious, but there are many others (I’ll cover these in a future post). As a result, it doesn’t make sense to place growth hacking within a particular department like marketing or engineering.
The simple image that he uses helps to capture the idea of the cross functional role of growth hacking:
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mover and shaker who can spark the growth hacking revolution in your organization.
But don’t depend on it. Instead, focus on the pursuit of growth as a corporate behavior and mentality.
7. Make sure your team is diverse.
I’m a big fan of diversity in all of life, but it’s especially important in a growth team.
What kind of diversity am I talking about here?
Diversity of skills, background, and experience.
One does not merely hire a “growth hacker.” There is no formal training, background, or career path that produces a successful growth hacker.
The key is to create a team that is, first and most importantly, focused on growth! Then, you can determine the types of people who can successfully hack that growth.
- It might be a coder.
- It might be a designer.
- It might be a traditional marketer.
You’re going to need to use several different methods of growth hacking, each of which requires disparate skills. Maybe you’ll need a copywriter for guest blogging, a designer to create infographics, a developer to run split tests, or someone else entirely.
Embrace diversity, or you’ll end up with the danger of a myopic attempt at growth hacking.
8. Focus on the big moves.
Growth hacking isn’t about small efforts. It’s about massive growth in a short amount of time.
The danger I’m focused on here is the danger of targeting small victories. Tracking micro conversions, obsessing over micro features, and targeting micro wins is going to result in overall micro growth.
An article from Intercom brilliantly identifies this danger:
At a lower-level, the danger of micro definitions is they result in micro efforts. For near-term growth-orientated product teams (often called “growth teams”) and marketing teams, focussing on the immediately measurable should not translate to focussing on the trivial. The size of the changes you’re willing to make, will directly correlate with the size of your returns. Put another way: A billion dollar company was never built off better button colors.
Make big moves. Create big waves. You’ll achieve big wins.
- You’re going to need to hustle. And hustle hard.
You’ve heard the glib advice to “work smart, not hard.” But the fact is, growth hacking is hard work.
“It is a story of pure unadulterated hustle,” according to one startup founder.
If you have a desire for growth hacking, you must have the chops for hustle.
I want you to do growth hacking safely. Why? Because growth hacking safely is about growth hacking successfully.
Sure, you’ll take some risks, as you should. No risk, no reward. By taking strategic risks, you are increasing your odds of success.
Take the right risks — the kind of growth hacking risks that will allow you to rise and grow with astonishing power.
What are the dangers that you’ve seen in growth hacking?