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Growth Hacking

I'm not one for jargon (lord knows we don't need another catchy phrase to describe something in marketing) but I rather like the applicability of some of the concepts around so-called 'growth hacking'. Lifting and paraphrasing liberally from these different definitions of the term from specialists (worth reading the whole thing) growth hacking is "a fancy term for high-impact, high-velocity product marketing", and describes a new process for acquiring and retaining users that combines traditional marketing and analytical skills with those more akin to product development (including trying lots of ideas, optimizing successes and discarding dead ends). It's important because it drives user growth, can get your product established, enables you to capitalise on network effects, and prevents you from being outcompeted. In their early days Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Quora all employed people to hack their growth.

Before now, marketing and product development teams have often been at odds: the former spending marketing budget to acquire users but struggling to get development resource to build something quickly (even relatively simple builds such as custom landing pages); the latter often building that which they believe will attract users but without benefiting from softer insights, and perhaps deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes.

The concept of growth hacking crosses this divide and utilises an understanding about how your users discover and adopt your products to build features that will help acquire and retain more users, so making the spending of marketing budget a lot more joined up with the building of product features and vice versa. So it mixes engineering with marketing, and represents the combination of product management, data science and marketing. It mixes art with science - the need to be creative in how you are acquiring new users with staying close to hard measures and metics. It's less focused on buying attention in order to drive awareness and interest and more on creating rich and appealing experiences for users.

There are downsides to having a catchy descriptor like 'growth hacker', as Josh Elman (a product manager who has worked at Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) points out. There's a danger that people will believe the concept to be a fad, or that they are not focused enough on the depth and sustainability of the companies, products and networks that they are building. Attempting to artificially generate growth may create spiky numbers but rarely adds longterm value ("It's kind of like eating empty calories" says Josh).

But it is about getting to these points of sustainable growth, understanding what the data is telling you about the core patterns from your more active and passionate users, how they became more active, and then building sustainable features and experiences that can help continuously attract new users, and encourage them to be active as quickly as possible. Part of that may well be finding neat ways to engineer how your most actve users can attract new ones more often. Part of that may be about finding ways to get those users more quickly involved, and coming back more often. It is about getting to those initially important numbers and ratios, like the 30/10/10 ratio that Fred Wilson talks about. There's an interesting example that Josh uses from his days at Twitter:

"When I joined Twitter, we had an interesting puzzle. Many many users were hearing about Twitter each day from press, blogs, their friends and were signing up. But none of them stuck around. Typical marketing efforts in the past would have been to use email newsletters to bring users back, or spend money on display retargeting. But instead we invested in the product. We dug in and tried to learn what the 'aha' moment was for a new user and then rebuilt our entire new user experience to engineer that more quickly. It turned out that if you manually selected and followed at least 5-10 Twitter accounts in your first day on Twitter, you were much more likely to become a long term user, since you had chosen things that interested you. And if we helped someone you know follow you back, then even better. As we kept tweaking the features to focus on helping users achieve these things, our retention dramatically rose".

The interesting thing about this for me is that, as products and services become ever more digitised, and product has marketing baked-in, and agencies progress to creating customer experiences rather than just content, this combination of marketing and product development skills will become increasingly important. I'm not suggesting that we'll suddenly see lots of marketing or agency types with 'growth hacker' as a job title, but I am suggesting that these are the kind of skills that will become increasingly useful. You might even say that the effective marketers and planners of the now and the not so distant future will need to become their own kind of growth hackers. As Josh Elman says: "Knowing how to build and market great products have always been core attributes of successful companies. I think we're going to see these blend more and more in the future". So do I.

Photo Credit: aussiegall via Compfight cc
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