Defining A Growth Hacker: Growth Is Not A Marketing Strategy

In this series titled “Defining a growth hacker,” I will be exploring the meaning and practical application of growth hacking through a number of interviews with prominent growth hackers. This is the third post of the series on product. You can find the first post on common characteristics here and growth hacking’s impact on marketing here.

“Viral marketing is not a marketing strategy,” Andrew Chen wrote back in 2007. “Successful viral products don’t have viral marketing bolted on once the product has been developed. It’s not a marketing strategy. Instead, it’s designed into the product from the very beginning as part of the fundamental architecture of the experience.”

While growth hacking has changed the worldview of many great marketers, growth hackers are also rethinking and redesigning the way products are developed and analyzed. Today, successful growth implementation starts at the product level because growth hacking at its core is a product-based role.

A growth hacker is a product-based role for four reasons: growth hacking is a sub-specialty of both marketing and product, engagement is central to growth hackers, growth is a form of product “R&D,” and growth hackers are empowered in a product role.

Growth as a sub-specialty

Growth is a blend of both marketing and product. While both specialties contain a partial growth perspective, growth hacking is a sub-specialty with the sole focus on pushing metrics and designing outcomes around growth. Matt Humphrey, co-founder of HomeRun, explained that growth hacking is not a new role that fits within marketing. “It’s an entire product and business level understanding of what drives users to the product, back to the product, and into their wallets,” said Humphrey. Growth hackers have a much deeper technical understanding of product as it relates to marketing.

This technical and scientific perspective on marketing pushes for a different attitude towards distribution and getting in front of customers. “Growth hacking is definitely more than direct marketing, quantitative analysis, and engineering,” said Jesse Farmer, co-founder of Everlane. “For example, Tumblr just updated their API to permit user-to-user following via HTTP POST. That sentence is a Bat Signal for any growth hacker but probably means nothing to the average marketer.”

On product, growth hackers zero in on the distribution and engagement side of product. Growth hackers are “syncing with product teams to ensure the product is built around distribution or core features are put in place with distribution as a central reason,” Humphrey said. Having both a marketing and product mindset allows a growth hacker to make a stronger product that combines both marketing’s acquisition objectives and product’s engagement objectives. “The best kind of growth generally comes from understanding the subtleties of what users want, and then being able to change the product to accommodate that,” said Nabeel Hyatt, venture partner at Spark Capital.

50% acquisition; 50% engagement

A growth hacker does not stop at the first levels of a conversion funnel. “Typically, a marketer’s job would stop at the sign up form,” Farmer said. As growth has become more difficult over the past few years due to channel saturation, good marketers have responded, reaching into the domain of a product manager to drive growth with engagement. Playing in the domain of a product manager is more technical- and data-driven than most marketing.

“Retention, cohort, usability, usage segmentation, etc. used to be a report that came from the product team,” Farmer said. “Growth hackers are a response to the need to connect inbound [product] and outbound [marketing] dots.”

Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics, agreed. “Back in the day [dot-com era], it was a land grab—there was little analysis on users and funnels,” he said. “Growth today is more about retention than acquisition. It is far more complicated.” Designing growth in post Web 2.0 is no longer just bringing traffic, but also retaining those users over time. Marketing has moved down the funnel and is now optimizing areas that used to reside within the product team.

A new kind of research and development

While integrating the growth perspective into the product is essential, the best growth hackers and their larger siblings (growth teams) value self-sufficiency to a high degree. A growth hacker or a growth team operates like a product research & development (“R&D”) team you would find in a larger company.

“Growth teams are constantly iterating and developing new concepts,” said Dan Martell, founder of Clarity. “This process can be an unnecessary distraction to core product development. This is why it is best for an autonomous team to test and focus on growth.” Growth teams and growth hackers are in a perpetual state of “work-in-progress,” which can slow core product momentum with its mindset of iteration and testing.

A self-sufficient R&D growth team also ensures continuity and quick iterations, which is essential for a well-executed growth strategy. “Ideally, a growth hacker can single-handedly put in a bunch of changes, such as A/B tests for copy and buttons,” said Mike Greenfield, 500 Startups Growth Hacker-In-Residence and co-founder of Circle of Moms. “One person with both technical and marketing skills can reduce friction and facilitate rapid iteration. Growth success comes from a lot of this background work.”

Continuous testing and speed in a growth team translates to reaching the inflection point sooner. A growth hacker and a growth team should operate independently to take those big risks that can make the difference between a small win and a big win. “Anyone working on growth needs to have the authority to be making important changes to the product,” Hyatt said. “A growth master is on an everlasting hunt for 10x growth opportunities. They are searching for a way to change the product in a way that will change the game.”

Decision maker

Some companies never find their growth due to the lack of serious investment. “Growth is hard to focus on when there are hundreds of other product concerns driven by customers to partners,” Farmer said. “It is a question of priorities.”

Product decisions are based upon a priority filter. Often, growth-related projects fall in the realm of very important but not urgent, but startups primarily operate in the realm of urgent and very important. This natural disposition can place growth on the back burner.

This disposition is one of the top reasons growth hackers are involved in product—to bring the growth perspective to the table everyday. “Growth hackers are often in product because that is where the decisions are made on what’s important,” said Ivan Kirigin, who worked on growth at Dropbox before his current startup.

Growth needs to be a pro-active priority. Otherwise, growth may never come to pass until it is too late. “You cannot sprinkle growth on top of the product as an afterthought,” said Blake Commagere, founder of MediaSpike. “Product is the vehicle for growth.”

“Build it and they will come” as an Internet slogan is outdated. It is much harder to grow today than in the past. A saturated market and a distracted user have created new marketing challenges. A growth hacker, with his or her blended mindset of product and marketing, has been one response to today’s marketing challenges.

Product is at the core of many of the best growth experts. Andy Johns, Noah Kagan, Josh Elman, and Siqi Chen have all worked as product managers in the past; however, each played an evolving role as their respective startups grew. As a company scales, a “generalist” growth hacker evolves into a highly specialized team of growth experts. As a product’s scope and feature set expands, growth teams start to formulate and specialize in the different areas that were once covered by a single growth hacker.

In my next article, I will discuss growth teams and implementing growth.

Aaron is currently a growth hacker in US presidential politics and serves on the growth committee for the Growth Hackers Conference. You can follow him on Twitter and read his blog on growth.