Growth Hackers

There’s a growing movement in Silicon Valley to replace “Marketers” with a new position called “Growth Hackers”. Some are claiming that startups should eliminate their marketing teams altogether.

I agree that marketers in general need to become more data-oriented and tech-savvy. I also respect many of the techniques that are getting categorized as “growth hacks”. But I seriously question that this narrow new job title somehow replaces or obviates the entire field of marketing. Everything that I’ve read about “growth hackers” seems like a part of the marketing role — a subset of direct marketing blended with product development.

As background, here’s how Andrew Chen defined “Growth Hacker” in a widely read piece called “Growth Hacker is new VP Marketing“:

“The new job title of “Growth Hacker” is integrating itself into Silicon Valley’s culture, emphasizing that coding and technical chops are now an essential part of being a great marketer. 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. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.”

Dropbox marketing alum Sean Ellis first coined “growth hacker” a few years ago with this explanation:

“The reason I created the term was that I wanted to distance myself and others from the 80-90% of marketers that made me cringe with their acronyms and lack of accountability to results. These are the people that gave marketing such a bad name in Silicon Valley.”

Lastly, here’s how Ryan Holiday explains “growth hacking”:

“See, growth hacking threw out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Its tools are emails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While traditional marketing chases vague notions like “branding” and “mind share,” growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth — and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.”

Andrew Chen illustrates growth hacking with a case study from Airbnb. Airbnb integrated with Craigslist so that people could post their Airbnb listings on Craiglist with a few simple steps. Craigslist doesn’t have a public API, so Airbnb had to engineer a fairly complex workaround to make this integration work in such an elegant way. This allowed Airbnb to benefit from the massive platform of Craigslist. Andrew goes on to point out that a traditional marketer wouldn’t have figured this out.

I agree that this is a great scrappy way for a startup to acquire customers. I also agree that engineers should be thinking as marketers. But that’s not the only type of marketing a company needs to think about. Airbnb’s success is due not only to these types of “growth hacks”, but to traditional marketing too, including display online ads, push marketing, and even traditional print and TV ads. Airbnb marketing extends to the company’s hospitality philosophy and the touch points of individual hosts. All of this is marketing and all of this led to the success of Airbnb.

Marketing is far broader and deeper than “growth hacking”.

Growth hacking alone doesn’t build a brand. And I think marketing is more important than ever, even as it evolves to be more data-driven. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.

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