What is Growth Hacking?

Key Takeaways

Growth hacking is marketing + coding. It includes things like: landing page optimization, SEO, public relations, advertising, and copywriting.

Three things that a Growth Hacker might do in a typical day:

  1. A/B testing landing pages
  2. Capturing emails before you launch your product
  3. Optimizing the virality of your product so that more people use your product.

How to Learn Growth Hacking Today

  1. Read “Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing” by Andrew Chen (5 minutes)
  2. Read “Find a Growth Hacker for your Startup” by Sean Ellis (5 minutes)

Additional Resources

  • Growth Hacker TV — Over 100 episodes where the experts on startup growth reveal their secrets. Multiple new episodes released every week.
  • One Month Growth Hacking — learn growth hacking in 30 days or less with Mattan Griffel

Does Your Startup Need A Growth Hacker

Does every startup need a growth hacker?

Most startups find themselves facing the same problem: they build a product that very few people end up using.

Let’s say that your startup, Startuply has an idea for a new photo-sharing app. You assemble a team and start building it.

At first it’s awful, it’s simply embarrassing. Your team encounters bugs and it takes much longer than you expected. Finally, six months later, you have a product you’re happy releasing.

In the days leading up to your launch, you get more and more excited. You figure that your app has all the features that the mainstream photo-sharing apps are missing — the ability to edit photos on the fly, more filters, Foursquare-integration, and the ability to easily curate and share other people’s photos.

This is going to change everything.

When that day finally comes, you launch and… nothing happens.

Okay that’s a slight understatement. You get a writeup in TechCrunch and several thousand users, but most of them stop using it after a few days. Nothing like the tremendous viral growth you were anticipating.

What do you do? Do you pivot? Do you keep releasing new features? Do you experiment with other marketing channels? Try to target a different demographic?

This is the problem most startups find themselves facing. It what Paul Graham calls the “Trough of Sorrow”:

You know you need to change something, but the question is what? This is a dangerous situation. It’s dangerous because the inclination most startups have is to keep developing and shipping new features.

There’s a feeling that something is missing and once that thing is added, your users really will start to come.

Continuing to ship new features is probably the worst thing you can do at this point.

Why? Because it just compounds what the real problem was in the first place, which is that you don’t know what’s wrong. Are people not interested in your product? Is your product good, but missing an important feature? Are people just not hearing about your product? Are you targeting the wrong audience?

Most startups that fail don’t know the answer to any of these questions because they were in too much of a rush to release their product in the first place.

A proper growth hacker looks at any decision that is being considered at a company and asks the following question: How will we know if it’s working?

Of all the improvements in technology over the last few decades, I would argue that the one that has had the biggest business impact is the ability to collect data in real-time and make decisions based on that data in real-time. As Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, said at the Mashable Media Summit, people are really bad at making predictions more than a few weeks out.

The ability to get data and respond to it quickly was what revolutionized the car industry when it came to lean manufacturing, and it’s now revolutionizing are products are developed. It baffles me that most companies waste so much time and money blindly releasing new products and features. They don’t know how to measure the impact of what they’re doing and how it affects customers.

Most people want to jump right in because they assume that they’re right and that measuring is a waste of time. The problem is that there are at least a few hundred potential failure points along the way to building a successful product. Maybe users like the way your product looks, but they don’t like the signup process, or the features listed on your homepage are unconvincing.

Let’s say that, at best, the decisions you make at your startup (in both product and marketing) are right 75% of the time — trust me, that’s incredibly optimistic and you’re probably not even close. The problem is that with no feedback system in place, you don’t know which 25% is wrong. (As the old advertising saying goes “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted… I just don’t know which half.”)

Growth hacking introduces a system for measuring the effect that startup business decisions have on product usage. Growth hacker can be a position at a startup, or it can be a mindset.

I think that even if you don’t want to hire a full-time growth hacker, you’ll want to train someone at your startup on growth hacking methodologies. This could be your head of engineering or your CEO. Your growth hacker helps ensure your company is actually making progress.

At the end of the day, it’s the only way to get out of the trough of sorrow besides pure luck.

Do You Want a Bigger Audience?

I recently gave a talk on audience growth, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know a few things. I’ve learned both from my own experience and that of the people I work with (some of whom have much larger audiences than mine).

The common thread between people who hire me to do websites, consulting, buy my books, listen to my podcast, or take my courses is this: they want a bigger audience. Hell, I too wouldn’t mind a bigger audience of rat people sometimes.

First things first, this information falls entirely short if you do not start with the audience you’ve already got.

“Your current audience — the people who are already listening, buying, engaging — these should be the most important people to you.”

Your current audience — the people who are already listening, buying, engaging — these should be the most important people to you. Far above anyone you wish you were reaching. If it’s 10 people, 100 people, or even 1,000 people — if you’re not doing right by them, right now, none of this will make a lick of difference (aside: do differences lick?). Make sure you’re listening, communicating, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you.

The next thing to think about is your message.

This isn’t what you’re selling or what you’re writing about. It’s not even who you are. Your message is what you stand for. It is bigger than any single thing you do or say. It’s not some fancy content marketing strategic plan. It’s like a rallying flag that you use to direct your forward motion. It’s what makes you stand out beyond anyone else who has similar skills as yours.

“Your message is what you stand for.”

Your message helps craft what makes your unique voice cut through the noise. It’s what draws people to you (even if many other people are talking about the same topic or building similar products).

Unless your message is interesting to both you and your audience, one of you will get bored and drop off.

You may think that developing your own unique voice is easy, since, hell, it’s your voice. Sadly, this is not the case, especially in writing. Finding your voice takes work. It’s part internalization, part confidence, and part a damn lot of practice. I’m not sure developing your voice as a creator is something you can ever completely win at — you have to continually check in with yourself to see if it consistently aligns.

Your current audience, your message, and your voice are the groundwork. Next, you need to consider why audiences grow. Why do some people build sizeable groups of people who pay attention to them, and some people aren’t able to?

Growth happens when your audience shares what you do with their own audience.

Think about it. In order for your numbers to grow, people need to first hear about you. How do they do that? By listening to people they already listen to. If those people they’re already listening to mention you, you’ve got a good chance of adding them to your audience ranks.

Growth hacking isn’t always fancy tests and cool gadgets: in order for someone to want to share you with their own people, think about why you would share someone else’s work. Chances are, they said something smart, interesting, entertaining, or useful. You feel good about learning from them, you align with their message, so you want to tell others (and you do). Now you’re helping them grow their audience.

At the heart of it, audience growth requires each of the following things to be present:

  • Value: if someone is not getting value from you, they’re not going to pay attention. So value must to be present in order for your audience to grow. How do you figure out what’s valuable to your audience? You listen to them.
  • Message: what makes what you have to say unique? What do you stand for? An audience needs to react with, “Yes! This!” or there’s no hope they’ll tell their own people.
  • Consistency: want to show your audience you give a damn about them? Show up for them. Regularly. This is why I write and share every Sunday. And it’s why other creators set schedules for sharing, because if it’s not a schedule somewhere, chances are it won’t happen.
  • Generosity: trust and gratitude are built when you do something nice for someone else, with no strings attached. Do enough genuinely nice and helpful things for people, and they’ll start talking. You should want to do good things for your audience, because they are your audience.
  • Evolution: one trick ponies never see audience growth because they’re one-trick ponies. It might be exciting to watch the trick the first time, but by the 1,547th time, it’s kind of boring. Unless there’s newness, change, and exploration on your end, there’ll never be growth in your numbers. Creators can’t sit on their past work and coast for every long. Especially not online where our attention spans barely eclipse that of goldfish.

Your audience is not made up of numbers or stats or metrics.

Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar. It’s easy to overlook the humanity when staring at numbers on a screen, but there are people on the other end of each of those numbers. People, each with their own lives, struggles, and satisfactions.

“Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar.”

Looking merely for growth is not enough, and frankly, it’s a horrible goal. You can’t just wish it into being. You need to take lots and lots of small steps towards it: test ideas, analyze results, and adapt/change as necessary. Save the magic bullet for infomercials (they’re awful blenders at any rate).

Why do you even need growth?

When I was doing just web design, I only needed a few dozen clients a year. That was the perfect number of people paying attention for me to make a living.

For smaller products or services (like $5–10 ebooks), more are required. But, there’s also enough. Enough people where it still feels like a friendly small town and not a hostile city. Enough people where you can make a difference, and moreover, help them succeed. Because if you can help your audience truly succeed, they’ll reward you for it.

So when you’re thinking about what you can do to grow your own audience, consider these points we’ve just covered. I don’t have “5 easy tips to get the numbers you want, guaranteed,” but these ideas are worth thinking about if you want more people to pay attention to your work.