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Well, it’s complicated…
A lot of people, not to say marketers, whom I know and respect keep asking me what on earth the difference between growth hacking and just plain marketing is. It sometimes feels like growth hacking is a term made up by marketers to describe…well… marketing. Yes, at first glance it’s hard to tell the difference between growth hacking and traditional marketing. And indeed, some would say there is none. Others, however, will immediately draw a clear line between the two. Some would say that what separates traditional marketing from growth hacking, is the modern twist, adapted to face the challenges that many startup companies deal with.
So, I set out on a journey to find the best way to explain the difference between marketing and growth hacking. Here’s what I came up with:
The wedding planner metaphor
Think of marketing as traditional and straight forward. Growth Hacking is a little less straight forward, as the new-ish gimmick name sake says – it’s a hack. A great metaphor that will better explain the difference between marketing and growth hacking is envisioning them as an expensive wedding planner and planning your own wedding with a lower budget. The first option will require minimal leg work on your part, but will cost you a lot of money due to collaborations with pricey service providers, while the later will require you to work harder to improvise and to be creative.
Brands (or corporates) vs Startups
Another distinction is related to the company on behalf of which you are operating, whether it’s a startup or an established tech company. Why? Because startups, unlike corporates, don’t have the time or the budget to mess around, they don’t always follow the-‘by-the-book’ approach – And they have to find low cost, fast and productive ways to grow. They are just like guerilla warriors. They ‘hack’ the marketing mechanism, and search for “out-of-the-box” activities. They sometimes even reinvent marketing, just to find those gold mines that will generate scalable success on budget and within their resource limitations. Startups have to be extra creative. Now, I’m not saying that corporates don’t need to use growth hacking tactics, of course they do, but I will say it is more likely to find startups that use it and focus on growth hacking as their MAIN strategy, while in corporates it’s just another approach to follow, one of many.
Testing and experimenting
Growth hackers always experiment and test new ideas as they many times use tactics that are relatively new and were not necessarily properly validated. Through testing, growth hackers scale their results. That’s an integral part of the everyday life of most growth hackers. How else will they know which idea sticks, which channel works best, and how they can use their failed campaign in one channel for a successful remarketing campaign in another? Growth hackers have to be data driven, so testing the waters and going with what works best is a routine. If content is their king, data is their queen (although some might say it’s the other way around).
Again, by no means am I saying that corporates don’t test. But, many of the tactics they are using are already known and validated for many years, so there’s no need to provide explanations or reasoning to why they are being deployed.
Think of it like that: Every time we all hear of new tactics, technologies or solutions that are launched, we are (naturally and healthily) curious, as marketers. But many times, we tend to wait until there is enough evidence of the impact of a specific tactic or technology before we choose to use it ourselves. We hold off, until we can see some valid use cases or get a reference from a colleague. Growth hackers are usually the first ones to try out these new technologies, test the results and then report back to the whole industry. Yes, growth hackers pave the way.
Ask questions, all the time
You know this annoying guy who keeps asking questions during the meeting, never stops raising eyebrows and just doesn’t keep quite? Well, this one can potentially make a superb growth hacker! “Which tool do you guys use for…How would you go about using this report to generate…? Why do you think it’s the best way to tackle the challenge?” Growth hackers’ minds are like big sponges, always asking questions in order to absorb new information and use it to hack their way through a challenge. And it works. Industry experts are more than willing to help if the questions are presented in the right way. Of course, growth hackers’ curiosity and constant question-asking is not only restricted to their colleagues. They also try to get information from their customers in various creative ways so they can figure out why they abandoned their site or didn’t complete checkout or by asking them to rate their experiences and so on…
I recently found a great way to hunt for interesting information – I get a lot of tips from potential employees I interview. I learn about methods, tools, specific challenges and problem solving used in other organizations. Boy, hiring tech marketers is so hard, at least I have this silver lining!
Growth hacking can be product development, marketing and sales all rolled into one. I know it sounds super complicated and it feels like you need to be able to master the knowledge of all these disciplines, but don’t worry, it’s not quite like that. The growth hacking concept evolved from traditional marketing and has taken inspiration from business development and sales theories and tricks. The main mechanism of growth hacking is less about going with the flow and more about thinking way outside of the box. It’s not about what you know, it is about what you still don’t know. Willingness to adapt and combine new unconventional technology tactics are what growth hacking is all about.
Own the funnel and close the loop
Contrary to traditional marketing, where not all funnel steps are owned and dealt with by marketing, growth hacking is focused on the entire funnel since growth is influenced by everything; sign ups, prospects, leads, users, active users and so on. Keeping track of the entire funnel process thoroughly is yet another difference between traditional marketing and growth hacking. It means no step in the funnel is being ignored or passed on to another team.
Creativity – Out of the box thinking
I know that “We are looking for ‘out of the box’ thinking” is a cliché, ‘old school’ corporate approach to take with employees on the first day of work. But there’s no doubt that growth hackers have a certain attitude (in a good way) that leads them to breaking through traditional barriers and find their way to affordable, fast, original ways to get the success they crave.
Now, what’s considered out of the box? That’s the big question. When I am asked to do things out of the box I often get concerned. I don’t know what’s in the box or what’s out of it any more, as both traditional marketing and growth hacking activities are part of my daily routine, the blend I love using, my secret sauce. So yes, growth hackers are creative but we are not rocket scientists, we don’t formulate in our secret laboratories things you’ve never seen or heard of before.
One very famous growth hacking example everybody talks about… me too …
Remember AirBnB? The great app that helps you find short term rental apartments for your amazing VACA (what a dream!) Well, these guys integrated with Craigslist. They created a way for their users to easily share their listings on Craigslist despite the annoying fact that Craigslist doesn’t have an open API. They solved the API setback by using reverse engineering. The result: AirBnB now rides on Craigslist traffic – a brilliant move which involved tapping into a barely used advertising channel with almost no competition. I would say that’s impressive! The insane idea and figuring out the process to actualization is growth hacking at its finest.
My journey into determining the difference between marketing and growth hacking has led me to the conclusion that growth hacking has developed from the more traditional marketing as we used to know it and that has elevated the game to new heights. Growth hacking is about challenging the imagination to come up with innovative, not-taking-no-for-an-answer ways to turn your most ridicules ideas into reality.