The following post was written by Noya Lizor, who was Director of Content at Viola from 2014-2019.
For the last 6 years or so, I have been a growth-hacking marketer, except that I’ve always thought of my growth hacking efforts simply as out-of-the-box marketing initiatives. Throughout my career, as new technologies emerged that led to the introduction of brand new media channels, the scope of “marketing” inevitably expanded to cater for all of them. The term that was eventually coined for the methods used to achieve the most recent marketing objectives in the era of smartphones, apps and internet-based products, was “growth hacks”. But something kind of crappy happened almost as soon as growth hacking officially became a “thing”, and it has irked me ever since.
You see, in the eyes of the new generation of hipster, hot-shot growth hackers and those in the industry who saw fit to elevate them to the status of freaking demi-gods, I, Noya Lizor, creative and forward-thinking marketer with a well-honed expertise spanning multiple disciplines, became an irrelevant dinosaur, or to use a term that I’m about to coin right now – Marketus Obsoletus.
Of course, that’s total rubbish. I didn’t become obsolete overnight. As far as I’m concerned, I gained a new title to add to my credentials. But instead of including all of my credentials in my professional title – which would make it sound comically long and distastefully boastful (I have been a marketer for over a decade and have devoted myself to mastering several disciplines over the years) – these days I describe myself simply as a “Marketer”. I’m a huge fan of growth hacking principles though, and I’m glad that a sensible term was invented to encapsulate everything that it represents, but it’s a term that has attracted controversy and endless debate far and wide ever since its inception, with people usually arguing with impassioned fervor for their chosen stance.
I think that the main reason for the controversy stems – I’m sorry to say – from the attitude of growth hackers (some, not all!) to other professionals in their ecosystem and to the value of their work. I know of many clever and energetic growth hackers who devote all of their time (as opposed to some of their time, like me) to developing and executing growth hacks. They are respectful and collaborative, and following their achievements is both exciting and inspiring, especially when they are ground-breaking and trendsetting. But I have also come across growth hackers who lack any type of specialized training or a meaningful track record, yet still fancy themselves the coolest of “pioneers” in the new frontier of startup growth simply by virtue of their adopted ‘trendy’ title. They behave as though their work is the only work that matters, belittling all the other roles held by peers in the tech industry, and marketers in particular.
So my argument is a little strange, in that while I totally support the principles of growth hacking, and admire the work of many full-time growth hackers, I take issue with the notion that growth hackers are an advanced and separate breed that renders traditional marketers redundant in our increasingly app-driven, tech-savvy, startup-booming world.
Before I explain why in more detail, first, let’s take a look at some popular definitions of “growth hacking”. I use the plural “definitions” intentionally, because there are actually many interpretations of both the term and what it entails. Here are just a few of them:
6 Popular definitions of Growth Hacking
1) In a 2010 blog post, Sean Ellis, who is widely credited with coining the term “growth hacking” defined a growth hacker as “a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.” In reference to being credited for the term, he once tweeted, “I was first to blog about it, but Patrick Vlaskovits and Hiten Shah helped conceptualize it.”
Sean’s argument, was that the skills and job function of traditional marketers were more suited to established corporations rather than to new startups for whom standard marketing goals didn’t make sense (yet), and whose primary objective in its early days was simply – to grow. By this definition, growth Hackers, unlike traditional marketers, are not concerned with traditional marketing goals and tactics. Instead, they employ new and innovative methods designed to achieve growth (more downloads, more users, more traction, more sales, etc.)
2) Ryan Holiday’s definition of “marketing in this Fast Company article was spot on:
“At the core, marketing is lead generation. Ads drive awareness…to drive sales. PR and publicity drive attention…to drive sales. Social media drives communication…to drive sales. Marketing, too many people forget, is not an end unto itself. It is simply getting customers. And by the transitive property, anything that gets customers is marketing.”
In contrast, to define “growth hacking”, he references tech essayist Andrew Chen (who recently joined Uber’s supply growth team) who argued that growth hackers were the new VPs of marketing.
“What he understood is that businesses have new ways of finding new customers and as a result, we need to expand the definition of marketing. As he writes: Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.”
3) From Wikipedia (yes, I know, but the definition is actually pretty decent):
Growth hacking is a marketing technique developed by technology startups which uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure.
It can be seen as part of the online marketing ecosystem, as in many cases growth hackers are using techniques such as search engine optimization, website analytics, content marketing and A/B testing.
Growth hackers focus on low-cost and innovative alternatives to traditional marketing, e.g. utilizing social media and viral marketing instead of buying advertising through more traditional media such as radio, newspaper, and television.
Growth hacking is particularly important for startups, as it allows for a “lean” launch that focuses on “growth first, budgets second.” Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Dropbox are all companies that use growth hacking techniques.”
4) Growth Hacker Aaron Ginn believes that growth hacking is more closely affiliated with Product than with Marketing, defining it on TechCrunch as “a blend of both marketing and product” and a “mindset of data, creativity, and curiosity” that disrupts marketing in five ways: “Reimaging [sic.] marketing spending, engineering virality as a core strategy, exploring new channels, pushing traditional limits of marketing, and product-based marketing strategy.” According to Ginn, growth hacking has more to do with Product than with Marketing:
“While growth hacking has changed the worldview of many great marketers, growth hackers are also rethinking and redesigning the way products are developed and analyzed. Today, successful growth implementation starts at the product level because growth hacking at its core is a product-based role.”
5) Mattan Griffel, Co-founder & CEO at One Month and a growth hacking evangelist, defined growth hacking as “a set of tactics and best practices for dealing with the problems of user growth.” Griffel has opined that while most companies only track 3 things (traffic, users and revenue), “the magic is what happens in between” and a growth hacker’s job is to figure out how to move users from one state of the funnel to the next most effectively using a variety of measurable experiments. Usually, the most successful growth hacks have features that are built into the product to help it go viral, resulting in exponential growth for the company.
6) The Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking by Neil Patel and Bronson Taylor offers one of the most comprehensive definitions of the concept of Growth Hacking that I’ve come across, explaining the origins of the term and providing truly useful examples and growth hacking lessons (it’s a must-read). Here’s one of the sentences from the guide’s introduction that particularly resonated with me:
“A growth hacker is not a replacement for a marketer. A growth hacker is not better than marketer. A growth hacker is just different than a marketer. Every decision that a growth hacker makes is informed by growth. Every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative, is attempted in the hopes of growing. Growth is the sun that a growth hacker revolves around.”
I couldn’t agree more, but the next paragraph suggests that there’s a growing divide between the role of marketer and growth hacker:
“The power of a growth hacker is in their obsessive focus on a singular goal. By ignoring almost everything, they can achieve the one task that matters most early on. This absolute focus on growth has given rise to a number of methods, tools, and best practices that simply didn’t exist in the traditional marketing repertoire, and as time passes the chasm between the two disciplines deepens.“
With respect, I couldn’t disagree more: If anything, I believe that the role of the growth hacker is becoming more synonymous with that of a marketer, since these days modern-day growth hacking is increasingly becoming part of the “bag of tricks”, strategy, and mindset that a modern-day marketer is expected to possess.
Why the “overnight” demotion of traditional marketers everywhere really irked me (and still does)
I don’t dispute the notion that growth hacking is based on methods, tools and best practices that may be different to those used by “traditional” marketers before the need for growth hacking (as we know it today) became relevant. And I completely agree that growth hackers are not “better” than marketers and vice versa, and that in today’s online, mobile (app-driven), tech-savvy marketplace, growth hacking is a proven and essential strategy that’s especially important for startups – but not only.
The term “growth hacker” came about, as Patel and Taylor explain, when Sean Ellis was advertising back in 2010 for people to help achieve growth (as he had done himself, with incredible success). Originally he advertised for “marketers” , but when marketers applied, they didn’t have the sort of skillset or mindset that Ellis felt a true growth hacker should have, so he started advertising for “growth hackers” instead, with the “hacker” part of the term implying that a particularly innovative, and even tradition-breaking approach would probably be required as part of the job.
The way I see it, this implies (whether intentionally or not, and I’m guessing not), that prior to 2010, traditional marketers were not sufficiently concerned with “acquiring massive amounts of new users quickly using fresh, innovative ways”, or at least not enough to justify a dedicated name for this particular goal (except for maybe “user acquisition”, which doesn’t sound nearly as buzzy and cool), and that marketers weren’t generally in the habit of using tech-driven, non-conventional methods to boost their user base. This may have been true of some marketers, but certainly not all of them (myself included).
So when the first growth hackers adopted the title in 2010 and began presenting themselves as “growth experts”, suddenly the role of the traditional marketer became irrelevant to young companies that needed to grow massively and quickly, regardless of how capable many marketers were of driving growth results that were just as impressive.
But if growth hackers didn’t exist before, then where did they come from? Were they beamed over from a nearby galaxy to save the day? No, they weren’t (although it would be pretty cool if they had been).
If the first Growth Hackers didn’t come from outer space, then where did they come from?
The first growth hackers came from a variety of backgrounds, including coding, marketing, product development, or a combination of all, or none of the above. Whether they had training or not in any of these fields, they concerned themselves with using any and all tactics necessary to conceive of innovative initiatives to acquire users, including conducting agile experiments designed to boost growth, adding product features that encouraged virality, launching all sorts of marketing and lead-generation campaigns, etc. Everything would be tested and measured for effectiveness and scalability, with successful tactics to be repeated and less successful efforts to be ditched in favor of new tactics. More often than not, these initiatives could be pulled off with a negligible budget and minimal development time.
And while it’s true that many of these tactics (especially some that have been glorified in case studies that have become the stuff of legend in the growth hacking community) were highly innovative at the time, with respect, none fall into the category of rocket-science. Just as best-practices and methodology can be taught for any specific area of marketing, so too can they be learned for the purpose of achieving growth, whether it is by an individual dedicated solely to this purpose or by a marketer who applies growth hacking principles to whatever else they’re working on at any given moment.
The fact is, that most of the “original” growth hackers were self-taught, first by learning the principles of growth hacking and studying previous examples, and then by applying it to whatever product and company they were tasked with growing. The quintessential Growth Hacker is zealous and driven to achieve his goal using original, out-of-the-box tactics. But then again, so is any professional marketer who is creative and passionate about his work.
I can already hear some of you thinking “Ah, she obviously has a chip on her shoulder because she’s just a mere marketer and not a snazzy-wazzy, twenty-something, kick-ass Growth Jedi”. Not true. Well, the part about not being twenty-something is, but as for the rest, it’s all a matter of perception and terminology. My “repertoire” of marketing expertise honed over years of training, hard work and experience, did not become suddenly obsolete just because Growth Hackers became “the new black”. And just as many other savvy, veteran marketers started to practice growth hacking techniques more actively when it became prudent to do so, I too learned to adjust my mindset accordingly and apply it to my work.
In my humble opinion, growth hacking is an “approach” used by companies to achieve significant growth, regardless of where they’re at in their lifecycle, whether they are budding startups still in bootstrapping mode or established corporations that are in constant need of reinvention in order to stay current and relevant to an ever-evolving audience.
I agree with Sean Ellis wholeheartedly when he said in his post “Growth Hacking is for smart marketers – not just startups“– albeit 4 years after his original definition – that “growth hacking was born out of startups, but it is something that every smart marketer should embrace.”
Sure, big companies have more resources and bigger budgets, but even with big budgets, traditional marketing tactics aren’t always as effective as they used to be, because consumers behave differently from how they used to, and many “big” marketing departments realized that they too must turn to out-of-the-box, tech-based solutions that are specifically tailored for today’s most popular media channels in order to reach modern consumers.
So my problem isn’t with growth hacking. On the contrary, I think that growth hacking is great and necessary. My problem is with the implication that “growth hackers” are considered somehow more relevant and valuable in the startup world than those who still call themselves just plain old “marketers” (like me), even though we’re just as capable of using creativity and ingenuity to develop innovative ways to achieve growth for companies of all sizes, and to adapt our techniques to suit ongoing technological developments.
As part of my profession, I have made every effort to study every emerging trend and adapt my marketing strategies and tactics over the years so that they were always the most relevant and effective based on the popular media channels and audience attitudes of the day. I have always been a growth hacker. The “hacks” have simply evolved along the way, as have many of the terms used to describe them.
Just as marketers a few decades ago approached their work in a certain way and were considered ultra-modern “hot shots” for successfully promoting brands and growing customer-bases using the media (and associated “tactics”) available to them at the time (radio, television, outdoor, direct mail, etc.), today’s marketers are also considered savvy if they know how to achieve the typical marketing goals of our era using current media channels, devices and an understanding of what motivates today’s audiences in order to achieve brand awareness, boost sales, acquire, engage and retain customers.
Which brings me to the crux of my argument:
Growth hacking should be something that cluey, modern-day marketers who know what they’re doing are already using, so if it’s not already part of their overall marketing strategy and mindset, then they simply aren’t savvy by today’s standards. But in my opinion it’s wrong to dismiss those who still call themselves “marketers” as less creative, valuable, effective or capable of achieving growth, than those who call themselves “growth hackers”.
In fact, I prefer to stick with the title of “marketer” because in my view it implies that I am qualified in other important disciplines besides “just” growth. Growth is part of what I do, but it’s not all that I’m capable of.
I believe that Growth Hackers and Marketers are NOT separate breeds. They’re “fighting for the same cause”, for goodness sake! Growth Hacking is a new subset of marketing (that often requires collaboration with departments outside of marketing too) where Growth Hackers “growth hack” full time, whereas Marketers engage in a variety of promotion-related disciplines to which they also apply growth hacking principles whenever relevant in an effort to achieve not only growth, but also other typical marketing objectives. So in a perfect world, full-time growth hackers should be working alongside full-time marketers and product managers, not replacing them.
Growth Hacking, before it was called Growth Hacking
Not so long ago, when Search became a whole new industry, and then Affiliate marketing became all the rage, and then Social Media changed life as we know it, and then Content was crowned “King”, you’d see VPs of Marketing clambering to hire SEO experts, Social Media experts, Content Marketers, Email Marketers, Product Marketers and Analytics experts. At the time, each new discipline was considered to be yet another ground-breaking way to reach and acquire potential new users, and each in its own way represented a channel for growth.
These days, although each field certainly requires its own level of training and expertise, they have also blended into each other to the extent that it would be odd for someone applying for a “marketing” position not to possess at least a basic (if not in-depth) knowledge of some or all of these aspects of online marketing – all of which exist for the purpose of promotion and ultimately growth and revenue generation.
The need to grow user bases quickly with limited budgets or within limited time-frames in an agile way that’s also scalable (ideally), is a major priority for both startups and established companies alike, which is why it has become popular to hire Growth Hackers to ‘add’ the rest of the mix, so that there’s a dedicated resource in the company that can concentrate on nothing but growth projects.
But for goodness sake, they’re not demi-gods, they just use different, and sometimes experimental tactics to achieve their objectives, because that’s the whole premise of growth hacking. They certainly shouldn’t be given free rein to “run the show” in any company, dictating the direction of product, marketing, engineering or R&D – as suggested in some of the definitions of “growth hacker” that I’ve come across – but rather they should be working with each of these departments on various growth initiatives.
Some have suggested, and I tend to agree, that the popularity of the term “growth hacking” is probably temporary, because as our world continues to change and it becomes necessary to conceive of new ways to reach audiences, promote products and acquire, convert and retain users – new tactics will most likely be developed, and new trendy terms may even be coined for them. Hell, I bet that Virtual Reality marketers, or VR Hackers, or “Unreal Consumerists” will become veritable rock stars when the time comes (not long from now!) to reach consumers via VR devices. And we probably can’t even conceive yet of the devices and media channels that will be available beyond that. But whatever tactics are necessary to promote to consumers of the future, and whatever these tactics will be called, they’ll most likely still be executed by savvy MARKETERS of the day, whether it’s a year or a century from now.