What even is GROWTH HACKING?

Marketing is a funny area to work in. I have clocked up 20 years now and it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly creative marketers are- sometimes even inventive.

It was extraordinary how fast the advent of the internet, generated a whole industry of brand new marketing jobs. I remember when SEO first came in. I was working agency side and had the unenviable job of explaining that having a website, didn’t necessarily mean anyone would find it. I had to emphasise that we needed the website optimised, so, search engines could actually find it. And no we didn’t offer that service but… we knew a guy. Very clandestine. I felt like we should have been dressed in trench-coats, meeting our SEO at night under a bridge.

Things have moved on since then, but every now and again I have to pinch myself for the sense of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ I get from certain things. One of the more recent triggers is Growth Hacking. I’m often asked to explain what it is.

So, does it really exist? Is it a thing? Can you use a growth hacking SAAS? Well, not quite yet. Mainly because its roots are lodged in the reality of results-driven marketing on low budgets and at the heart of this is risk-taking and experimentation. Growth hacking goes with entrepreneurship like gin with tonic. Once they are mixed together it’s hard to tell them apart.

“Ok, but you still haven’t explained what it actually is?”

Well, it’s alchemy. It’s a mindset. It’s the joy of problem-solving. It’s playing the system. Its other peoples’ networks. It’s the free ride. Its rapid experimentation and short term acceleration. It’s not everyone’s bag, but it’s not as if just anyone can do it either.

Let me give you a couple of examples, as well as some rules for success.

Rule number 1: Throw out your rule book. But please don’t break the law…

The first example was back in the 1920s. You’ve properly heard of the number 1 mouthwash in the world: Listerine? But did you know it owes its success to an early growth hack instead of its formula, brand or packaging? Listerine had been on the market since the 1880s mainly being used as an  antiseptic and floor cleaner. But it wasn’t until much later in the 1920s that the owner’s son Gerard, invented Halitosis as a medical condition and transformed their marketing, growth and future almost overnight.

Rule 2: Get your own skunk-works, don’t be afraid to take risks and fail

Conventional thinking will deliver conventional results. The story goes that in WWII the German air force was more developed than the British RAF  and if a new plane wasn’t developed fast, there could be terrible consequences. They needed a faster more agile fighter plane, but the channels for the development of aircraft in Britain weren’t disrupting the status quo. It wasn’t until a completely external company, conducting different types of experimentation were brought in that the Spitfire was born. Later this method of separating the conceptual department of engineers from the pen-pushers was named ‘The Skunk Works’ and more inventive aircraft were produced like the Blackbird – the fastest plane in the world.

Although Growth hacking isn’t associated with historical events, I just wanted to highlight that this isn’t really new, it just got named. More commonly it is the domain of startup and scale-up businesses that have come into existence since the advent of the internet. Growth Hackers use techniques that involve the newest software systems. They are often wired for experimentation from product proving and often have lower budgets with a higher motivation for success at speed. Overall they have a greater stomach for risk.

Rule 3:  True growth hackers are always looking for the opportunity. It’s not just something for the day job. It’s a mindset.

I was at a digital marketing conference just the other day. The day was pretty much as expected, then one guy comes on and wakes me up by saying: “There are so many gurus out there.” Which I have been feeling for a while now. Then he says he has grown 4 businesses from scratch – all through growth hacks – I was all ears. During his presentation, he explained that we didn’t need to take notes, as he would provide slides at the end. Throughout the talk, he basically managed to shut down everyone from taking notes or photos. No one thought twice about this. Near the end, he presented a slide that we should take a pic of, where he showed us our login details. He went on to explain his last slide which was a  gradient of how many people you needed to refer to him to unlock the different slides. More referrals = more slides- he had hacked the marketing conference. Gold.

Thinking you can research growth hacks and implement them to grow your business will only take you so far. They might be effective initially but by the time you get your hands on them, they will have probably passed from growth hacks into digital marketing territory.

Growth Hacking: It’s a mindset. Like being a Jedi.

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