What Is Growth Hacking?

I tend to use this word a lot; "Growth Hacking". A lot of people will nod their heads when I start talking about it -- if they're marketers, they tend to roll their eyes. It's the big buzzword in the marketing world and as a digital marketer who has decided to hitch his wagon to this whole 'growth hacking' craze, I decided I should probably give a proper explanation of what growth hacking is.  

So what is growth hacking?

Put simply: Growth Hacking is a set of skills and tactics that digital marketers use to drive user growth.

Sean Ellis was the one who coined the term, “Growth Hacker” in 2010. Sean Ellis was one of the first marketers at Dropbox and later went on to found Qualaroo, a company that provides behavioural insight surveys for startups. It was Sean Ellis who famously said; “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.” Truly, it cannot be said better. 

Over traditional marketers, growth marketers are more technically-inclined and their number one obsession is growth. They are creative, curious,  analytical and everything they do is in service of growing their company. This new approach to marketing has given rise to a whole new breed of marketers who are primed to successfully navigate the information economy. 

Growth marketing has become popular within the startup community because of its focus on lean thinking and user growth. More often than not, this is  the focus of an early stage startup and growth marketing techniques have resulted in exponential user growth for companies like Hotmail,  Dropbox and Airbnb. 

We all strive for that "hockey-stick" growth curve; but, in reality, growth is a lot more volatile. This is why growth marketing is so important. It's about finding what works and what doesn't and optimizing the things that make a meaningful impact on your business. 

"Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder." - Andrew Chen

Andrew Chen is another startup marketer who helped popularize the term “Growth Hacking” with his blog post “Growth Hacker is the new VP of Marketing”.  In his post,  he describes a growth hacker as a hybrid of marketer and coder and talks about the value of marketers with a technical understanding. 

In order to navigate the information economy with some degree of skill, marketers with an understanding of computer engineering have a leg up on traditional marketers who have to wait on a team member with skills to implement a new campaign. Automation is essential when it comes to scaling your campaigns or nurturing your leads. Having the technical skills to implement scalable marketing campaigns is what makes a growth hacker a growth hacker.

Growth Hackers also have to be lean. Eric Ries is known for popularizing the "Lean Startup" method which promotes the concept of building minimum-viable-products (MVPs), measuring their success, learning from your data and then starting over. 

Build -> Measure -> Learn -->

The same applies to lean marketing. It's the process of applying rapid testing, experimentation, and data analysis of your marketing campaigns. Being "lean" allows you to do more with less and figure out what works faster. Lean Marketing is an entire methodology (similar to AGILE or SCRUM), so this little post isn't the place to really dig into lean but remember that it's a huge part of growth hacking. 

In some way or another, growth marketers use some variation of Dave McClure's "Startup Metrics For Pirates". Also know as the "Lean Marketing Funnel", Pirate Metrics focuses on 5 stages; Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Revenue, and Referral. Each stage represents a different user behaviour and it's a growth hacker's job to identify which stage will drive the most growth for their businesses. 


The funnel is a new way of looking at the customer cycle from a marketing perspective. They ask questions like;

  • How are users finding you? (Acquisition)
  • Do they have a great experience? (Activation)
  • Do they come back? (Retention)
  • How do you make money? (Revenue)
  • Do users tell other people? (Referral)

As you break down each metric and compare them to your business and product, you can begin to segment your customers and marketing channels and determine where you should focus your efforts. Your goal is to monitor, analyze and optimize each stage for your business, product or campaign.

Growth hackers have been adapting this model into their own funnel -- one that focuses on the first three stages of the Lean Marketing Funnel. Typically, growth hackers are charged with acquiring, activating and retaining new users. It helps to drill down on these three stages as you build your marketing campaigns in particular. As you adopt the "growth hacker mindset" you can better understand how to further optimize these user behaviours. 

When it comes to growth hacking in action, the most famous example is Hotmail with their "PS I love you, get a free email at Hotmail" tag that they added to the bottom of every email sent through their service. Before long, user growth exploded and since then more and more companies have been adopting the growth hacker mindset including Dropbox, Airbnb, Stripe, Uber, Slack among countless others. 

P.T. Barnum = the original growth hacker

P.T. Barnum = the original growth hacker

Growth Hacking or growth marketing might be a relatively new concept -- strictly reserved for tech startups-- but people having been coming up with "growth hacks" since as far back as you can remember. In my opinion, famous showman and businessman, P.T. Barnum, is the original growth hacker. When it came to promoting his business and getting people in the door, Barnum was a masterful master who could bring untold masses to his shows. 

One of my favourite "Barnum Growth Hacks" was his promotion of new acquisition to his oddities museum -- the Fegee Mermaid. Barnum ran newspaper ads with illustrations of bare-breasted mermaids promising more creatures of the deep. In reality, the "Fegee Mermaid" was a dead dog attached to the tail of a fish. The ads worked and hundreds of people flocked to his museum. And this was just one growth hack that was used by (my personal idol) P.T. Barnum. 

In a nutshell, growth hacking is a set of skills and tactics that digital marketers use to drive user growth. More than that, growth hacking is a mindset that marketers can apply to their marketing campaigns and their day-to-day lives. The important thing is to test new ideas (be curious!), learn from your data (be analytical!) and think big (be creative!).

Further Reading: