You Don’t Need A “Growth Hacker,” Just A Data-Driven Marketer

The following is my latest monthly Analytics column, originally published on ClickZ. You can read all my previous columns on ClickZ here.

Silicon Valley loves fancy job titles. It’s just something we do, and software and technology lend themselves to it. But it’s not always helpful. In many cases, these new titles are simply a reinventing or coopting of a practice that is already well-served by existing practitioners.

This brings us to today’s topic: growth hackers. I know many are well-intentioned and not all are consciously trying to shroud what they do in nebulous terms. But, unfortunately, there are many who attempt to sell services surrounding growth hacking with messages such as: “other marketers are behind the times / not data-driven / not digitally-savvy etc, so you should hire us.”

But let’s take a step back. What exactly is Growth Hacking? As defined by Wikipedia (emphasis mine)

“…a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business. …. It can also involve online community management and social media outreach or highly personalized outreach to news outlets to improve performance metrics such as driving customer acquisition and selling products.

I’d invite you to read the entire Wikipedia page, because you’ll quickly see growth hackers are simply marketers by another word – as the intended goals are in alignment with traditional marketing. For example, in the quote I bolded, using digital channels to improve performance metrics is the domain of marketers of all types. Even the ones with boring titles.

If it’s not already obvious by now, I’m not a huge fan of the phrase growth hacking or the job title of growth hacker. The simple reason is, it’s not needed. It’s redundant and unnecessarily distracting. It isn’t that actual growth hacking tactics might not work or don’t belong within the tactical mix of your marketing. It’s that they likely already are there.

Consummate marketers use data to A/B test effectively, conjure creative ways to acquire users organically, optimize the reach of their content, etc – things growth hackers pride themselves on. So, it’s not that what growth hackers are doing is “wrong”, it’s just that things like data fluency are table stakes for all marketers as I wrote in a previous column.

The problem with many Growth Hackers from a measurement standpoint

Many growth hackers obsess over KPIs like increasing social media followings (and frequently use automation to do so) or short term traffic to a brand’s website for the sake of increasing numbers. But this is simply not sustainable. As I shared in a previous story on increasing organic marketing metrics, you want to chase increasing, sustainable returns, not spikes which are low quality and unpredictable.

Organic KPIs improved directionally rather than chasing spikes is the hallmark of quality online marketing

Growth at any cost without considering loyalty is wasted effort

Many growth hackers I’ve talked to over the years, while talking a good game about web analytics, show a misunderstanding of other critical business metrics. I once heard a proud self-proclaimed growth hacker at a tech conference triumphantly talk about how they rapidly grew app installs to exceed their aggressive goals in a short period of time. Which by itself sounds great, except a year or so later I saw a story in a tech trade in which that company was undergoing layoffs because the app just wasn’t working out. Maybe if they had a better understanding of the CLV (Customer Lifetime Value) of users generated through their “rapid growth” tactics they would be in a better situation. Or even simply look deeper into their app analytics to see loyalty metrics and didn’t just focus on installs without understanding if they would stick around.

Growth hacking, empathy and user experience

Great marketers understand the importance of empathy and respecting users. On more than one occasion, I have seen growth hackers cause users and potential customers to loathe them, all in the name of trying to chase KPIs. Which shows the danger (and, to be blunt, the stupidity) of a “growth at any cost” strategy. Two quick examples.

  1. A chat app recently caused users to inadvertently text spam their friends in an attempt to gain users.

Tweet source

Recently, a new app called “Chitchat” disguised “invite” as “add” where the UI made it unclear that you’re “inviting” friends via texts (nearly everyone considers this spam) as opposed to simply adding existing users. The entire thread linked above is worth reading if you’re curious the type of user outrage and negative PR growth hacking tactics can provoke. To add icing on the cake, TechCrunch soon after called this company “Silicon Valley’s spammiest new app.”

  1. Running Facebook ads targeted at users who are fans of the ACLU in an attempt to stem negative PR

Tweet source

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to go into the entire story of what happened (feel free to click the Tweet source link if you want to dive in). But what occurred here is Uber’s growth team made the decision to specifically target supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union to try and stop the damage of not so flattering news about the company. But in a world of transparency, users are going to determine how and why you are targeting them – especially in cases that involve reputation management issues. In this case, an experienced marketer with a broad understanding of messaging and ad targeting would understand it’s inappropriate to use the ACLU as a vehicle to market their messages.

Quick conclusion

What I would be excited to see in the coming years is that marketers by all names and titles embrace a more holistic and broad view of digital marketing/measurement and how we help improve our company’s results. In an increasingly social and review-filled world, where spam tactics are always called out, ensuring we don’t just grow, but delight, our users will separate the winners from the losers.