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Growth hacking – a decade on, is this competitive marketing strategy still relevant?

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

When growth hacking became the new buzzword back in 2010, it was a strategy used by marketers to achieve a competitive advantage.

Silicon Valley

Originally emerging from Silicon Valley, it was a term coined by keynote speaker and author, Sean Ellis, and used by start-ups as a means of promotion with minimal budget.

I put a name on it. It’s really the scientific method that’s been around for thousands of years applied to growth. Lots of people were already doing it, so 10 years ago, I said ‘this thing needs a name” and came up with growth hacking.

Sean Ellis on Growth Hacking Eazl, YouTube 2020

Growth hacking vs traditional advertising?

Although many people consider them to be the same thing, there is a subtle difference. Growth hacking is not a substitute for marketing; it is a part of it. It is a mindset within a marketing team; a means of revenue generation for a minimal outlay. Typically, growth hacking combines advertising, optimization and developmental know-how to create automated advertising on a very small budget.

A picture of social media screen like Facebook on a computer screen with a person pressing a like button

Examples of growth hacking practices can include but are not limited to:

  • automated notification emails

  • easy sign-up homepages

  • streamlining onboarding for new clients

  • gamification of onboarding to encourage social sharing

  • monetizing the data your contacts import into an app or social media feed

Growth hacking involves constant data analysis, optimization, testing and updating. It is no surprise that the early growth hackers were firmly rooted in the world of programming. They work fast. They test new ideas. They continuously analyze the data so they know which growth drivers to pursue, and which to ditch.

It’s often trial and error, but the faster they implement new ideas, the more likely they are to find scalable ways to grow their business.

Crossword letters spelling GMAIL

When Gmail launched, it used an invite-only system to drive growth. The fear of missing out is a powerful marketing technique.

Business-to-Consumer (B2C) brands used flexible strategies and innovative marketing techniques to increase lead generation and grow revenue at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing.

Growth hacking is an umbrella term used to describe innovative techniques and strategies focused on the growth of your business.

What's in a name?

Growth hacking has become a victim of jargon. Businesses love the idea of growth, but the word ‘hacking’ sounds cheap.

I think that the definition of growth hacking in people’s heads needs to change.

Sean Ellis, CEO and founder talks to The Signal at Mixpanel

Man wearing hoodie typing on a laptop

Should our mindset be to focus more on the growth, and less on the hacking? After all, growth is as important as product design and marketing to most companies, so affordable ways to grow are surely worth pursuing - whatever they’re called.

Sean added:

Growth hacking is about running smart experiments to drive growth within your business… if you’re not running experiments, you’re probably not growing.
Two men holding a arrow pointing right and upwards with a jagged line

The problem is that traditional marketing is invariably focused on driving brand awareness; it uses more qualitative metrics to measure success. Growth hacking differs from traditional marketing by creating a company-wide culture of experimentation to move both key qualitative and quantitative business metrics.

How does growth hacking use your data?

Companies such as Facebook lost a lot of consumer trust in the early days. They used their users’ data to exponentially grow their business. To get more of an insight, it’s well worth watching The Social Dilemma as it unveils the hidden machinations behind everyone’s favourite social media and search platforms.

Corporations such as LinkedIn and Facebook allow you to import all your contacts from multiple email importing services (way over 100 at last count).

Well, why wouldn’t they?

As soon as your contacts are in their systems, they have all the data they need to invite your connections to join you on the platform and engage with your, and other users’ content (and connections!).

People are more mindful now about data privacy. Users are more empowered and now have the means to guard their data.

Yellow key and padlock placed above a blue keyboard

They have the ability to:

  • block unwanted tracking

  • opt-in as opposed to opt-out of cookies and email marketing

  • remove personalization

  • modify ad preferences

  • hide location identifiers

What does the future hold for growth hacking?

A lot has changed in the way marketers have adapted the practice of growth hacking over the last few years. Users are more careful with their data, and companies generally have to be more transparent about how they use it. That said, businesses will always be looking for cost-effective routes to growth, and there is still a lot to be learned from growth hacking about maximizing growth with minimal budget input.

We would love to hear your opinions and experiences on growth hacking – is it something you currently employ to grow your share of the market? Or do you want to know more about how growth hacking can be used alongside data privacy laws? Drop us a comment below.

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