Growth Hacking: What It Is and What It’s Not



In case you’ve not yet heard the term, “growth hacking” is a term that’s been bandied about for several years now. On the one hand, those who get it and embrace it seem to just do it. To these experienced marketers, growth hacking is just using the technologies at their disposal to grow a product or business. But, unfortunately, the term “growth hacking” has also been misused by marketers who haven’t changed the way they’re doing things, but rather have simply added “growth hacker” to their LinkedIn profile in an effort to get new business.

So what exactly is growth hacking, and what is not growth hacking? Let’s take a look at some industry sources.

First, on Quora, there are 44 responses to the question, “What is growth hacking?” I recommend you read the entire discussion, but here are some nuggets that will help us get across our point here about what growth hacking is.

“First understand what is meant by the term hacker. A hacker is someone who is more concerned with achieving an objective than following a prescribed process. In other words, hackers care more about what needs to get done than how it should get done.”  – Mattan Griffel

“A clever or non-traditional approach to increasing the growth rate/adoption of his or her product by “hacking” something together specifically for growth purposes. What people call “hacking” today will become common sense to most in the tech world in the future because people are waking up to the fact that growth doesn’t simply come from having a good product.” – Andy Johns

“Lots of non-marketing decisions affect user growth. Building viral product features is the most obvious.” – Mattan Griffel

The definition of the term “growth” is obvious, or should be, to the marketer, so combining what we can glean from “hacker” makes it a bit more clear. To help solidify what growth hacking is, let’s take a look at three examples of incredibly effective growth hacks.

  • Facebook. You knew they had to be on the list. In the early days, when Facebook was just for universities, some schools had their own “social networks,” so Facebook would skirt that school and market directly to their neighboring schools, surrounding the “socially networked” school with demand for Facebook.
  • Mailbox. Mailbox worked in stealth mode for well over a year before announcing their product, and when they did, they didn’t. Instead, Mailbox created a waiting list, which created huge artificial demand for something that didn’t even exist yet, except in the minds of their target audience through their very catchy “inbox zero” video.
  • Hotmail. A simple tagline at the end of every email read, “Get your free email account now!” during a time when you still had to pay for email.
  • PayPal. The first of many really easy ways to send money peer-to-peer, PayPal used something everyone has: email. To send money to someone, you just sent it to their email. In order to get the money someone sent you, you had to create your own PayPal login. We talk all the time about giving your audience something of value in exchange for a registration. PayPal gave them their own money!

Only one of these growth hacks utilized actual “hacking,” or some sort of software development, unless you consider adding a message to the end of an email “hacking,” which I do not. So what does that tell you? It tells me that “growth hacking” is more about the growth and less about the hack. The hack is what Andy Johns (above) refers to as the “clever or non-traditional approach,” and what he says will become common sense in the (very near) future.

When someone refers to “growth hacking,” that’s what it is. So how do you know when someone says they’re doing growth hacking, but they’re really not? Here’s what growth hacking is not:

  • It’s not traditional marketing using technology. That’s just what we call “doing your job” and using the latest and greatest tools of the trade.
  • It’s not “hacking” in the sense of breaking something or breaking into something in a non-criminal way just to get your product or business to grow. Although Airbnb did this successfully early on by enabling a one-click posting of an available room to Craigslist. It worked…for a while, but since they didn’t use a recognized API, Craigslist shut down that hack soon afterward.

So as you dive into the brave new world of digital marketing and technology, it’s good to understand what exactly growth hacking is and is not. And when you see a non-traditional way to grow your business, you might want to dig deeper into it. And you may also be a growth hacker.

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About Kevin Sandlin

Kevin Sandlin is a serial entrepreneur and 7-time startup veteran, including one IPO and two acquisitions. Kevin founded CWNP with $500, and grew the company into the industry standard for vendor-neutral WiFi certification & training through great digital, email, and content marketing. Kevin is the founder of Atlanta Tech Blogs and Pitch Practice and teaches General Assembly's part-time Digital Marketing course in Atlanta. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevsandlin.