Sometimes, traditional marketing tactics just don’t cut it.

Sure, you can write the most enticing emails and create the most compelling landing pages and pick out the most persuading Call to Actions. Bid on a spot in Google. Paint your logo on a million billboards. Eat up the entirety of Facebook ad real estate.

But sometimes you need something else. Not necessarily a mechanism for exposure, but a cheat sheet for growth.

Sometimes you just need a hack.

That’s where growth hacking comes into play.

What is growth hacking?

Growth hacking is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea partially blossomed out of black hat marketing practices, but recently evolved to become its own esteemed discipline, with theoretical, analytic and even academic backing.

While some controversy has attached itself to the name, the hack in question isn’t necessarily a manipulation or an aggression. Instead, it’s simply a shortcut focused on creativity, data and development.

Growth hacking is all about scale.

A growth hacker creates fresh, divergent ideas for acquiring new users. Fast. The field has mostly been linked to internet startups, implementing untraditional approaches for expansion.

Growth hacking is the most efficient practice in the market for growing pretty much any business. At the heart of it are a few essential elements: qualitative research, data analysis, swift idea testing, cross-functional teams and strict metric usage.

Growth hacker vs. Marketer

With startups flowering and dying out quicker than they were created, the marketing realm needed new some strategies.

That’s where Sean Ellis comes in.

Ellis helped multiple startups grow at incredible rates, from Dropbox to Eventbrite to LogMeIn.

The problem would come when he would try to find his replacement. Ellis would get hundreds of marketing applications, all strong, all qualified, but none of them exactly fitting what his job entails, because Ellis’s techniques don’t really follow the traditional marketing route. When you ask for a marketer, you get a marketer. And Ellis needed something else.

So Ellis coined the term growth hacker, and set out to find that instead. A growth hacker doesn’t take over a marketer’s role, doesn’t necessarily supplement or outrank it – it just has a different agenda in mind. According to Ellis’ post, “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.”

Marketers obviously also care about growth too, but not with the same singular aim. They focus on a multitude of other factors that affect branding, product, pricing and image. They have to see things from a big picture. Growth hackers, on the other hand, are obsessive in their one pursuit, blocking out all other factors and funneling out all other obstacles to gain traction in the thing that matters most: growth.

What makes a good growth hacker?

 A growth hacker is scrappy.

He knows how to navigate the internet for leads, methods of exposure and social connections.

Growth hackers are a cocktail of characteristics that are rare to come by. They move fast, but take time to analyze data. They’re systematic, but firmly creative.

Growth hackers are devoutly studious in the science of people and products, and the connection between the two.

 They have to be tech-savvy. Not necessarily to the point where they have a coding degree and a keen understanding of SQL, but they need to know enough to be able to set out what others should do. They know SEO. Social media. Conversion rate optimization. They’re no stranger to the digital world, always on top of the latest technologies and internet services.

Growth hackers also have to be quick. In the beginning, startups only have so much time before their funds dry out and any initial hype fades away. In the ever-evolving internet field, growth hackers need to know how to respond quickly and efficiently while still retaining the big picture goals.

The most important thing a growth hacker is, though, is a problem solver. The kind of person who knows how to think outside of the box to implement new strategies, medias and methods of dissemination.

At the heart of growth hacking is an ability to understand five important metrics outlined by Dave McClure, the former marketing director of PayPal, who spearheaded multiple startups.

The metrics follow the funnel stages and have been condescended into the acronym AARRR. They include:

1. Acquisition: Attract new customers and get them to really know your brand

2. Activation: Work to make sure that customers believe in your product

3. Retention: Keep customers coming back

4. Revenue: Generate a steady stream of revenue

5. Referral: Incentivize your customers to tell their friends and family about your product

Growth hackers follow through every stage of this by testing for and measuring specific metrics that demonstrate how a product is performing.

Rewriting the product

First things first: the product.

The core of growth hacking strategy lies in a product’s ability to organically attract attention to itself, like a bonfire drawing people to its light. However, in order to do that, you have to first make sure that you have a product people actually want.

The easiest way to do that is to look for a product that solves a problem.

Ask questions, and see what people really need. What keeps them up at night. Then pose your product as the solution.

We did this with Wuilt. After years in the technology and digital marketing field, we were able to see what issues most business owners had, and the bulk of that laid in the difficulties of creating a website, be it through dysfunctional codes, or the lack of time and design experience required for drag-and-drop website builders. So we created a website builder that automatically makes websites based off of people’s content.

However, once you have that strong idea, get feedback on it. Don’t spend a year building your product in secret only to come out later and ask people what they think. Figure it out right away. We started an early access campaign for Wuilt as soon as possible, getting feedback from thousands of people in order to develop the builder into the next phase.

Instagram also did a remarkable job of this.

The company’s founder had originally developed an app called Burbn intended for whiskey lovers. However, after some research, they realized that the part people turned to the most was the photo sharing component.

So they did more research, realized the market was there. And then Instagram was born.

Instagram combined Burbn’s sharing mechanisms with the best elements of the available photo applications. It garnered instant celebrity status – as in, two million users in two months.

All of this goes back to the idea of redefining the product.

The development of the internet came with the development of a wide range of software-as-a-service products, all requiring a new type of thought process.

Makeup, motorcycles, even MacBooks – all of these products need someone to stand outside their door with an advertisement, trying to sell them to the masses. But a product on the internet can sell itself. Social media encourages users to get their friends on the platform in order to enhance their own experience. Uber lets you get discounts for inviting other people. A traditional product doesn’t do that.

The core of growth marketing goes down to making a product that drives traffic to itself.

Growth hack by knowing your ideal audience

Once you have the right product, you need to define its target audience.

The trick here is to smart small. Even though you believe your product is meant for everybody, you can’t market it that way. When you market to everyone, you end up appealing to no one. You should always start with a super niche audience, and then grow from there.

Dropbox, a case study for growth hacking done right, did this with their audience.

In the beginning, Dropbox’s advertising efforts were failing. An AdWords campaign wasn’t breaking out the revenue needed.

But founder Drew Houston understood his ideal demographic – techies and nerds – perfectly, and he knew how to target them. He introduced Dropbox at the place where they congregated every year: The TechCrunch 50.

From there, a viral video campaign was posted on Digg, a popular social news network where said-techies were already based. He drizzled the video with multiple elements of humor, including about 12 inside jokes.

Dropbox got 70,000 beta list sign-ups overnight.

Dropbox knew who they were advertising to and exactly what to say to them. This is an important distinction; showing that you are part of a community as opposed to just a traditional marketer.

Be specific about who you want. Like, super specific – a 17-year-old high school junior who spends most of her time on her cell phone, shops at Forever 21 and orders a caramel macchiato from Starbucks every morning, specific.

Uber did something similar when targeting their audience. They waited a year for the South by Southwest festival and gave free rides to the concert’s attendees – mostly hipsters and hippies. The company name effortlessly spread afterwards by word of mouth.

How to growth hack

 Now, it’s all about growing.

Once you’ve built a small, loyal following, focus on expanding to a platform where everyone is present. You’ll still be targeting your ideal audience, but in a much broader sense.

Here, it’s all about taking advantage of new systems and popular avenues and using them to your advantage.

Just look at McDonalds.

If one could say there was ever a pre-internet growth hack, we’d say it belonged to them.

When the interstate highway was built, McDonalds knew how many cars would be passing through it every day. So they painted the exits with their golden arches and let people’s hunger sweep them away.

They took advantage of a system that was already in place and infiltrated it to make it their own.

In modern times, that would mean to mark the invisible internet geography with your own McDonald’s signs, taking advantage of the places where you know they will be seen.

AirBNB is a fine example of this.

The service didn’t have much of a reach at first. They knew they had a powerful idea, but they lacked the proper tools to get it out there.

No one was searching for places on AirBNB, so they went to the place that was: Craigslist.

People posting their bedrooms on AirBNB were given the option to simultaneously post it on Craigslist, letting AirBNB reach their target audience without paying a penny.

It was ingenious. AirBNB was able to grow tremendously, washing away any competition (it’s safe to say Craigslist doesn’t let AirBNB users automatically post to their platform anymore).

It’s all about searching for those untapped opportunities. Testing and testing and testing. You should start by looking for a concrete hypothesis to test so that even if it falls apart, you know what went wrong and you can use that information to create a new experiment.

Hotmail did this in the simplest possible manner. Instead of pasting their logo all over the internet, they simply signed off every email that a Hotmail user sends with a small note: “PS: I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.”

Somehow, this small gesture worked. Sign-ups rose by 3,000 a day. In six months, the number of users was doubled – going from 500,000 to 1 million.

After drawing their initial users from Digg, Dropbox implemented a referral system that allowed them to grow to 15 million users in 15 months. Users were then rewarded extra space on Dropbox for completing various tasks: following them on Twitter, emailing a link to their friends, or sharing the service on Facebook.

Another way to growth hack is to let your product be an advertisement for itself. Not just in its magnetic quality, but in its physical properties. WordPress lets people create free websites. It is responsible for 29% of websites online. However, if you want a free website, you have to sport their name in your subdomain, making it so that all free websites appear with in them.

Apple also found a way to do this by simply changing the color of their products from the traditional black reserved for headphones, to a unique white. Anyone walking down the street with white headphones on is an automatic advertisement for the company. No logos needed.

What all of these examples share is a focus on ingenuity and development. Try to get into that mindset and see what works best for your business.

Growth hacking tactics have dismantled all the barriers between a product and its marketing procedures –somewhere in that space is where you can make your product grow at a rate you never would have thought possible.


  • Growth hacking is all about creating fresh, divergent ideas for acquiring new users
  • Growth hackers are tech-savvy, quick and creative, differing from marketers in that their only true focus is on growth
  • To be successful at growth hacking, you have to target a specific audience initially, and then have them attract other people to your product
  • The core of growth marketing goes down to making a product that drives traffic to itself
  • Dropbox, AirBNB, Uber, Instagram, WordPress and Apple are a few examples of successful companies who saw their popularity rise from growth hacking