3 Nearly Free Growth Hacks

“Growth hacking” is a term that people seem to think means “magically market any product or company for free.” I wrote a post called What is growth hacking? to clarify the difference between efficient, effective marketing and mythical marketing pixie dust, yet still people don’t seem to understand.

Before I give you three tips for powerful, nearly free marketing, let me explain why I didn’t title this post “3 Free Marketing Tips.”

Growth hacking isn’t free marketing

A few months ago, I spoke at a startup accelerator that wanted to hear about all the amazing “free marketing” that growth hackers pull off. I was sorry to disappoint, but when I was in the 6th grade, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” was the first thing I learned about economics. Even if you don’t have to pay for lunch, someone has to pay in the cost of goods, in the services provided or both — meaning there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true with marketing.

Normally, when someone says, “free,” they mean things like content marketing, public relations or social media. I understand budgets are limited, but amazing content doesn’t simply create itself. (It takes this dyslexic guy an average of about 4.5 hours per blog post I write.) Public relations takes time and research, and the same is true of social media.

So, while I’m sorry there is no such thing as free marketing, you also don’t need a huge budget to do amazing things. Now that we are all on the same page, let’s talk about how to do effective marking on the cheap.

Three nearly free growth hacks

PPC to test for profitability — before you focus on SEO

Let’s face it, SEO is costly. And with researching search volume, creating content, building backlinks and all the technical elements of search engine optimization, like schema, site speed, JavaScript render blocking, proper use of rel=canonical, etc., SEO is also time-consuming.

Pay-per-click may be just as technical and involved to master, but PPC is built for immediate gratification. I understand it may take you a long time to build a quality score of 9 or 10, but, unlike SEO, once ads are running, they are running.

It’s always better to spend a little money than to waste months of time.

When you do keyword research for SEO, your main metrics are instinct, search volume and competition. You don’t have any information about profitability. I’m not the only person who has wasted time focusing SEO efforts on keywords that brought in traffic, but didn’t make money.

Effectively using a landing page and a small budget for PPC will help you a lot in identifying the keywords on which to focus. This has become much more important since Google removed keyword referral data from analytics. The budget to test will vary based on your industry, but it’s always better to spend a little money than to waste months of time.

Facebook ads for market research

Facebook ads offer some very powerful targeting options, like workplace targeting, custom audiences from email lists, phone number lists, app IDs and website visitors and lookalike audiences. Lookalike audiences, generated from past-buyer custom audiences, just may be the most powerful tool for any paid channel, but saying, “use great targeting” on what is otherwise a normal social PPC campaign is hardly a “nearly free” tip.

What is a free tip is using the amazing ad-targeting options offered by Facebook to mine data and research your target market. I did a blog post and an interview about this tactic for The Starters Club, but here is a short recap.

From Facebook power editor, we are going to build a new campaign, new ad set and new ad, but we’re not going to run it, this is just for research. Because all targeting in Facebook is handled at the ad-set level, go to the ad set and let’s play with targeting. In this example, I want to find out the overlap of fans of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and the breakdown by gender.

First, I target Taylor Swift as an interest. I can see that I have a potential reach of 20,000,000 people. Next, I change gender targeting to men. My potential reach drops to 6,800,000 people. I change the gender to women and I have a reach of 13,000,000 people in the U.S. who are over the age of 13.

Growth hacker 2

So, why are we missing 200,000 people? There could be a lot of reasons; people with unspecified gender, or simply that power editor is rounding up. I’m not sure, but I have learned that exponentially more women than men have an interest in Taylor Swift. If I were researching to see which female artist would be the best investment as a celebrity spokesperson for a brand aimed at men, this would be a useful insight.

Now let’s do the same thing with Katy Perry, who has a potential reach of 23,000,000 people. To see the overlap between those interested in Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, I target both interests and see a potential reach of 28,000,000 people. Because 20 million and 23 million would be 43 million people, I know that Perry and Swift have an overlap of 13 million people who have expressed an interest in them both over Facebook or Instagram.

Growth hacker 2

This process can become very time-consuming, and this method is far from perfect market research, but it’s a good gut check and a way to spy. You’re only limited by Facebook’s ad-targeting options and Facebook’s rules that determine what is and what is not available in the ads API.

Targeting ads to specific users on Twitter

Social ads are amazingly effective, but Twitter offers the ability to target specific usernames. Before I explain how to do this, let me try to explain why this isn’t just one more “pay money and get results” kind of tip. You can target any username on Twitter!

If, for example, you had only a $50 budget to run Twitter ads to promote a well-known TV show that is now available for streaming in the U.S. for the first time, you could target people interested in anime or people interested in the show. You would probably get about 30-60 website clicks and a reasonable level of social engagement. But this is growth hacking! — we can do better.

Marketing, even when budgets are limited, should focus on effectiveness.

So, do some research and find the 50 most influential Twitter users talking about anime (Klout and other such sites make that fairly easy) and target them. The goal is getting them to share your content with their audiences. If everything is done correctly, at least some of these 50 users being targeted will be interested and excited about the Twitter-length message. If you’re targeting people who don’t care about the content, it’s a waste of time and money. Therefore, you should plan well.

This trick can be used in a lot of ways. You could target every employee at a VC firm you’re seeking a meeting with each time your startup receives positive press. You can target decision makers at companies you want to do business with or everyone who wouldn’t date you in high school. The possibilities are endless.

To create your custom audience, go to ads.twitter.com, click Tools, then select Audience manager.

Once in the Audience manager, click Create new audience and select Upload your own list.

Name your audience, check Twitter user IDs as your data type.

Now that you’ve created your audience, you can build your campaign normally and simply select Add tailored audiences and pick the audience you just created when you set your targeting.

But, only one of those was free?

No, only one of my tips was your labor only. None of those tips are free. Sometimes money is tight, but I’ve had times when a less than $200 PPC test would have saved months of work optimizing a website for terms that just didn’t convert. I understand that my time is not the same as my money, but my spending 30 hours creating content and building backlinks was a waste that cost far more than $200.

Sure, I could have given different tips, like updating your website’s directory listings to be sure they are consistent across the web, or setting up and verifying a Webmaster Central Account at Google and doing the same for Bing Webmaster Tools. I also could have said it’s free to date Taylor Swift, then you would get a hit song written about you after the break up. But I didn’t.

Marketing, even when budgets are limited, should focus on effectiveness. The goal isn’t to spend as little as possible, it’s to have as large of a return as possible.