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Some hard questions about growth hacking.

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    over 6 years ago #

    I am largely to blame for the recent tirade against "growth hacking." I've let the term be bastardized and redefined a lot since my original blog post on it back in 2010 http://www.startup-marketing.com/where-are-all-the-growth-hackers/ . I wrote that blog post primarily for *startups* that had achieved product/market fit. The idea was not to replace marketing, but to create a category of marketing activities that have a direct attributable impact on growth. Startups are always on the brink of death. They don't have the luxury to focus on things like awareness building or to prepare 50 page slide decks on the demographics of the customer. I wrote that a startup's first marketing hire should have "growth as their true north." They shouldn't be outsourcing and managing vendors, the person should be a hands-on "builder" and optimizer of growth programs. In order to help make the concept stick, I put a name to it. On that day the term "growth hacker" was born.

    I won't rehash why all this debate is actually a good thing. Read my comment here http://www.growthhackers.com/dhh-growth-hacking-a-cool-sounding-euphemism-for-making-the-doer-feel-good-about-using-the-same-old-sleazy-marketing-tricks/ for my thoughts on that…

    Since my original post in 2010, I've been happy with certain evolutions of the term. One is that I think large companies should have a group that is exclusively focused on managing the activities that are directly attributable to growth. Companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have had these groups for a long time. Bigger companies have the luxury of specialization so they can have research departments, PR departments and I think "growth" should be a focused discipline within larger organizations. Part of this group's objective should be to create a culture of growth across the entire organization and help each department evaluate and measure activities that have a direct impact on growth.

    "Growth hacking" may or may not be the right word, but it's the one I used and it stuck.

    Much as SEO is a categorization of marketing activities that improve a websites search ranking, you can think of growth hacking as a broader categorization of marketing activities that directly and measurably impact growth. In my original post, I suggested that the role should be easier to hire than a VP Marketing, since the scope of focus is actually smaller. I also suggested that some of the best growth people I've met have engineering backgrounds. It wasn't until Andrew Chen's post "Growth Hacker is the New VP Marketing" that people really began to focus in on engineering skills as a prerequisite for being an effective growth hacker. He also falsely positioned it as a replacement for VP Marketing. I both disagree that it is the new VP Marketing and I disagree that engineering is a prerequisite. A VP Marketing needs to have a broader understanding of all of the disciplines within the marketing function. Some growth hackers will be good for this and some won't.

    Lastly, you could easily argue that SEO as a concept doesn't need to exist because marketing already exists. But SEO is a subset of marketing activities. Growth hacking (to me anyway) is a subset of marketing activities too. The most powerful online marketing tactics often involve exploiting the unique advantages of the internet, which generally require some engineering skills. It's easier to run these experiments if you don't need to beg an engineering department for help. So engineering skills are definitely an advantage, but results trump skills.

    Apologize to all that the conversation will likely to shift to a "defense of growth hacking" for a while. But eventually we'll be back to the sharing of effective ways to grow the user bases for products that customers love.

    • CC

      Chris Conrey

      over 6 years ago #

      So While I get all this, your response to DHH was actually relevant here "You built rails and lots of shitty sites were built on it, not your fault" - paraphrasing, but once you put something out in the world you lose control of it.

      As it stands, the term certainly has been co-opted by plenty of derp/blackhat/scam style marketers but the same could be said of any marketing tactic that has been discovered.

      Call it whatever you want, but I'm focused on growing my business.

      • SE

        Sean Ellis

        over 6 years ago #

        I think it's less about the spammy black hat marketers identifying themselves as growth hackers and more about external perceptions positioning it that way. Here's how I think we got there and where I think things are headed (in chronological order):

        1. I write first post on growth hacking
        2. Andrew Chen makes it more interesting and amplifies the term
        3. 1000+ job openings for growth hackers on Simply Hired at any time during the next couple years.
        4. Many people update their LinkedIn profiles and suddenly get recruited as growth hackers.
        5. New definition blog posts and books sprout up.
        6. Media initially embraces term.
        7. Media begins to vilify all spammy marketing as growth hacking.
        8. A flawed understanding of growth hacking begins to become commonplace among outsiders.
        9. Many growth hackers change their LinkedIn profiles back to "strategic marketing genius" or whatever.
        10. GrowthHackers.com launches as community to share best practices and discuss ethical sustainable ways to drive growth.
        11. GrowthHackers.com attracts 70,000 growth oriented marketers in first 90 days, mostly organically.
        12. Marketing publications and classically trained marketers jump on band wagon bashing term
        13. We (GrowthHackers.com community) keep getting smarter about driving growth by pooling our learning from experiments and resources from across the web. We realize that it is pointless to try to grow crappy products, so we obsessively seek or build products with product/market fit.
        Predictions (14 and 15 will happen over next couple of years)
        14. Good products start thriving more quickly, bad products start dying more quickly.
        15. More successful results become associated with growth hackers. Spammy tactics are recognized as just bad, unsustainable marketing.

        • AA

          Austen Allred

          over 6 years ago #

          No offense Sean, but I think I would like the phrase a whole lot more if every time I saw it mentioned there wasn't an explanation about how you coined the phrase. I know you're trying to lend yourself some legitimacy in the discussion by doingn so, but I'm much more impressed by what you did at Dropbox. "Growth Hacker" is a popular phrase, and it's out of your hands now - it doesn't really matter what you meant it to mean when you wrote the blog post, because 99% of the people who use the word will never see your post.

          I'm really not trying to be a dick, I promise.

          • ND

            Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

            over 6 years ago #

            Good advice, Austen.

            In his defense, though, there is also ongoing backlash that the term isn't gender neutral (I experienced it as recently as last night) so unfortunately he's in the position of continually explaining why he coined it. I think it'd be difficult for anyone to restrain from addressing those types of serious accusations. I can't speak on Sean's behalf of course, but I'm assuming that these types of replies are an effort to address everything at once.

            • SE

              Sean Ellis

              over 6 years ago #

              Nichole, in this case I'm happy to let you speak on my behalf.

            • BY

              Bryce York

              over 6 years ago #

              I can see how a term like 'man-handling' could be seen as not gender neutral, but how is 'growth hacking' at all gender biased?

          • MB

            Morgan Brown

            over 6 years ago #

            When people are confused about something where do you go for clarification?

            The source.

            There's a lot of misinformation on what the term meant, what the aims were with it, etc.

            I like the fact that Sean clarifies the original intent where he can to add some context to the wild BS that's out there.

            Sean doesn't need any more credibility, nor exposure, and he's not trying to make sure everyone knows he created the word (if you think that, you don't know him).

            He's trying to provide source level insight which I think (with bias of course) is essential to any debate.

            For him not to weigh in would be a disservice.

            • SE

              Sean Ellis

              over 6 years ago #

              Austen, what Morgan said... Most of the regular community here won't see anything new from my responses to growth hacking bashing. I would much rather engage with the community about effective ways to achieve growth results.

            • ND

              Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

              over 6 years ago #

              I agree with Morgan, especially because the "wild BS" (I know exactly what he's talking about here), etc. is from other thought leaders or is making its way into the headlines of some of the most respected blogs in our industries. I think it's easy to forget that's what's going on here and that it isn't just coming from random people online who are bored and just trying to pass the time.

        • SC

          Shana Carp

          over 6 years ago #

          I don't think we're at 15 - needs to be more education in the market

          • SE

            Sean Ellis

            over 6 years ago #

            Agree. That's why it's under predictions :-)

            • BH

              ben hoffman

              over 6 years ago #

              Id also like to add:

              16. Just like we saw with SEO, certain rules and codes of conduct start to emerge. Mostly driven by industry leaders, these guidelines help differentiate between what is ethical and what is spam. Within a few years, all lean companies across the country start to hire GHs.

              Regardless of whether you like or hate the term, it is here to stay.

    • SE

      Sean Ellis

      over 6 years ago #

      I left a similar comment on main article if anyone wants to jump into discussion over there (or vote it).

      • ND

        Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

        over 6 years ago #

        I'm so glad. I think our community should start copying our responses into the comments sections of these types of articles.

        • CC

          Chris Conrey

          over 6 years ago #

          disagree - the best thing to do is to ignore it. It too will die.

          • ND

            Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

            over 6 years ago #

            I don't think that's the best approach at :this: point in time. It's so new to people right now that I think silence would be interpreted as conceding.

            Do I think that's what we should eventually do? Yes.

            • SE

              Sean Ellis

              over 6 years ago #

              I actually think I stayed silent for too long. All the negative perceptions are a great opportunity to engage in discussion that makes everyone smarter (including me). My original post on growth hacking was part of a multi year effort to help lots of startups become more effective. I spoke, blogged, helped 1:1 and was able to make a lot of positive impact.

              The negativity around the term hurts my ability to share with more companies ways to more effectively bring great products to larger customer bases. This week Entrepreneur Magazine asked me to become a regular contributor. This morning they asked me to "tone down the jargon" in a piece I submitted on creating a growth culture. My last growth hacker piece on Entrepreneur.com got over 500 retweets, so clearly it struck a nerve. I believe the key reason that they wanted me to "tone down the jargon" is the emerging negative perceptions around growth hacking.

              That's why I plan to happily take an active role in discussing the ups and downs of growth hacking with any of its critics.

      • MB

        Morgan Brown

        over 6 years ago #

        Voted!

  • EM

    Elan Mosbacher

    over 6 years ago #

    As I always say: "I don't care what it's called, as long as it gets me customers!"

  • ET

    Everette Taylor

    over 6 years ago #

    Link baity Kanye West style rant. These pop up now on the regular when it comes to detractors of growth hacking.

  • TD

    Tiffany Dasilva

    over 6 years ago #

    I think growth hacker is an important term to describe the types of marketers with many skills like you described Sean. It wasn't until I had put "Aspiring Growth Hacker" on my linkedin a few months ago before I start receiving jobs for more conversion rate focused, online marketing focused (not just seo or sem specifically) jobs. Before that, I was a senior manager for online marketing getting job asks for things like, "seo coordinator" because no one knew the difference and they saw that I had done "seo" once.

    I think growth hacking is a term that makes people on edge. It creates discussions like the ones we're having here but it also creates articles that start to break apart all the "skills" that makes someone a growth hacker, and the type of mindset a person has to have to start thinking like one. So before long, people will have a better understanding of what online marketing is, all of its subsets and what sets an online marketer apart from a growth hacker. So is it a bit bullshit right now? Maybe? But at least it's being talked about and dissected much like SEO was back in 2000.

    • WL

      Will Lam

      over 6 years ago #

      While I'm not a fan of the term.. I'm a bit squeamish about it actually, I've taken more a liking to the title of "Product Manager - Growth" or something along those lines as it entails ownership of all activities in related to a product and how to grow it. That might also mean taking on other roles, such as SEO/Inbound Marketing, CRO, Email, etc, but the main point of contact would be the Product Manager responsible for growth or the growth team if the team is large enough to merit more people tackling different areas with respect to growth marketing.

      In any case, there's still a lot of vitriol being spewed about the term, but for good reason, a lack of understanding of the role and it's overlap with many other marketing activities.

  • MM

    mike merrill

    over 6 years ago #

    I'm posting this here only for folks to be aware and discuss.

  • BH

    ben hoffman

    over 6 years ago #

    You know what is bullshit? Using outlandish article titles to get people to click.

    • ND

      Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

      over 6 years ago #

      You mean doing the same thing they're supposedly advocating against?

      • EK

        Eugene K

        over 6 years ago #

        haha, good one!

        • ND

          Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

          over 6 years ago #

          I'm honestly becoming desensitized to this "growth hacking is bullshit" type of propaganda. At some point it just isn't going to be effective anymore and then we'll be able to stay on topic. I have yet to come across anyone complaining about "growth hacking" being a buzzword who wasn't also trying to take advantage of it as one.

          • BH

            ben hoffman

            over 6 years ago #

            haha yeah seriously. I love watching people/companies ride the wave of whatever is trending... Next thing you know, we will see a new headline:

            "Growth Hacking Now Accepts Bitcoin"

          • EK

            Eugene K

            over 6 years ago #

            yeah, there will be people that always complain about this or that, but to my taste the reality often is that they either feel endangered by any new practice or just embrace the "Why XYZ buzzword is bad for you" tactics as in this example

    • MM

      mike merrill

      over 6 years ago #

      yeah it is link bait for sure

  • EK

    Eugene K

    over 6 years ago #

    Thanks for sharing Mike, tough he is right; but this is completely the same rhetoric and situation we had with SEO industry some time ago. There are always the real guys and the ones that "fake it till they make it", nothing actually new @msaleem.

  • NW

    Nick Warner

    over 6 years ago #

    In the right light marketing = growth
    Who's to say that being a strategic marketeer isn't the same as being a "growth hacker".

    If you are expanding, if your are rising in revenue, that is considered growth. I think that marketeers are loosing the "lime light" when it comes to business, and the "growth hackers" are becoming the rockstars marketeers once were.

  • JL

    josh ledgard

    over 6 years ago #

    Selfishly, as a startup founder, I love when new terms in an existing industry start catching on. It helps easily weed out job applicants in the first round.

    If someone hasn't heard of the term, by now, I know they aren't paying attention to trends within the industry they claim to be serving.

    It helps even more when I get a candidate who is able to explain how they've been doing all "that stuff" before the term exploded.

  • SC

    Shana Carp

    over 6 years ago #

    Ironically, I think one of the more interesting facts of what he is saying:

    What he is saying is true. That doesn't mean most online marketers actually does what he says.

    There also seems to be the paradox of direct response* as part of growth hacking, which I think he doesn't address at all.

    *You're building a brand through direct response methods. Basically you are shamwow.

    • RD

      Ray Duke

      over 6 years ago #

      Most people don't know about direct response. There is not one element of growth hacking that cannot be attributed to direct response. This is the main reason why I laugh inside when I see people use growth hacking as a new thing.

  • JM

    Jason Miguel

    over 6 years ago #

    There is silicon valley where you could argue that "growth hacking" is just marketing.

    Then there is the rest of the country and small businesses where there is a definite difference between the activities of the average marketing position and the different set of skills and rule sets applied by growth hackers...

    In the real world there is a difference. It involves a sub set of skills and rulesets that the average marketer doesn't YET use.

    Thanks Sean... F*ck the haters cuz.

  • RD

    Ray Duke

    over 6 years ago #

    I love this article. It sums up exactly how myself and a lot of people feel about the buzzword "growth hacking".

  • WM

    William Mougayar

    over 6 years ago #

    Where growth hacking derails is when a startup thinks that's all they need to keep doing. In reality, growth hacking is one of the marketing arsenals, and if the startup grows, they get to implement more diversified marketing.

  • MM

    mike merrill

    over 6 years ago #

    Great commentary here.

  • JB

    Justin Brooke

    over 6 years ago #

    Sean Ellis definition of Growth hacking...

    "a category of marketing activities that have a direct attributable impact on growth"

    Wikipedia definition of direct response marketing...

    "a type of marketing designed to generate an immediate response from consumers, where each consumer response (and purchase) can be measured, and attributed to individual advertisements."

    #JustSayin

  • MC

    Mike Cunsolo

    over 6 years ago #

    Growth Hacker, Online Marketer etc... it's just semantics.

    Our brains need a way of storing and organising all of the data we process each day. You might employ a Growth Hacker and a Content Producer. These two people do different jobs but ultimately both roles live in the same 'semantic neighbourhood' of Marketing.

    Perhaps this is what winds some people up... yet another another categorisation? Or more likely, a categorisation which threatens to usurp the category they self identify with?

    Have you ever heard music nerds discus genres? Same thing. They will defend their preferred genre until the end.

    However, the emergent of new genres/categories don't necessarily negate the original genre/category, it just widens it. Which, I believe, is a good thing.

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