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What The Hack Is Growth Hacking?

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In our previous blog post about growth marketing, we dove into the world of growth marketing in an effort to understand how it works, what makes it different from traditional marketing, and why your company needs to embrace it. If you’ve been reading much about how to stimulate business growth, chances are highly likely that you’ve stumbled across the phrase “growth hacking” as well, so we’d be remiss not to address it. 

You may be wondering what the difference is between growth marketing and growth hacking, and if one is preferable to the other. The terms are often used interchangeably, and there certainly exists an overlap in the goals of growth marketers and growth hackers. Ultimately they are both data-driven approaches that are hyper-focused on metrics and hitting KPIs. 

But there is also a lot about growth hacking that is misunderstood or misinterpreted. We want to break down a few of those misconceptions to help you better understand what growth hacking really is (and isn’t).

Myth #1: Growth Hacking Is a New 

The term growth hacking may be quite buzzy right now, but the concept itself isn’t really anything new. It was first coined in 2010 in a blog post written by influential entrepreneur and angel investor Sean Ellis. It really blew up a few years later, though, when Andrew Chen (who was working with Uber at the time) boldly declared that “Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing.” 

But even before these two gave it a name and some viral traction, companies like Facebook and LinkedIn were building their marketing strategies around a scientific approach to rapid growth. This type of innovative and strategic thinking has been around for decades

Myth #2: Growth Hacking Is a Magic Wand 

The way growth hacking is hyped up, it’s easy to see why businesses would think it’s an overnight fix. But the sky remains blue, and business remains a long game. There is no wizardry in the world that can provide instant results, and time and effort are still necessary components to success with this approach. 

Both growth marketing and growth hacking are all about intentionality and efficiency. So while there is always a chance you’ll hit on something huge and have a viral campaign on your hands, that shouldn’t be your expectation right out of the gate. 

These methods focus, instead, on constant testing and tweaking to uncover growth opportunities. That can’t happen overnight. Additionally, it might take some serious shifts in the way your business operates to get there. But nothing worth having ever comes without effort, right? 

Myth #3: Growth Hacking Is a One-Man Show 

In the early days of growth hacking, there was an unfounded belief that this type of work was the purview of one very specific type of person. The idea that you could hire a growth hacking “guru” who was a marketing genius with crazy coding skills to come in and revitalize your dying business was rampant.

As time has inevitably proven, however, that’s not the case. Growth is literally never a one-person job.

Do you need someone on your growth team who has coding skills? Yes. Someone with extensive marketing experience? Yes. Someone with an intimate working knowledge of your products and services? Yes. Someone who is well-versed in data analysis? Yes.

Can (or should) one person do all those things? Absolutely not.  

While it’s great to look for people with a unique skill set to help propel your business’ growth, don’t fall for the lie that any one person can do all of this for you. Partnering with a growth team or fleshing out your growth team by bringing in contract workers to complement your full-time employees is one thing, but remember that no man is an island. If someone promises you they can deliver astronomical results single-handedly, walk away. 

Myth #4: Growth Hacking Is a One-Size-Fits-All Solution 

Just as growth hacking is sometimes considered a magic bullet, there is also the misconception that there is a growth hacking “playbook” that anyone can take a page from and find success. Would that it were that easy, but it’s simply not the case. 

The growth game is all about zeroing in on what works for your brand and your customers. That’s why the approach is based on the scientific method and involves countless rounds of testing and revision. It’s all about individuality, so what works for your business is very unlikely to work for someone else’s, even if you’re in the same industry. 

Each business is going to have a unique path to sustainable growth. While there is a general framework of processes many growth hackers work from, it’s vital that your approach be tailored to your product, audience, industry, etc. Growth hacking is not a copy-and-paste solution any more than traditional marketing is.

Myth #5: Growth Hacking Can Make Up for an Inferior Product

What’s that old saying? Ah, yes: ”You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

Many businesses have made the mistake of indulging the thought that growth hacking can provide a boost to their bottom line even if they’re selling a subpar product. If you’re running into product quality or customer satisfaction concerns, though, attempting to create a “viral” moment won’t help anything. 

But growth hacking can ultimately help you improve your product. The kind of instant feedback loop this approach creates can help you tweak not only your marketing but your product and service offerings as well.

It can be difficult to admit that your product isn’t everything you wanted it to be, but look at it as an opportunity to work out the bugs and uncover areas for improvement that will ultimately clear the path to sustainable growth. You’ll be better off for it in the long run. 

Forget Hacking and Embrace Processes 

At Tuff, we have to admit to having a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the use of the term “hacking” when it comes to discussing growth. Frankly, you can’t hack together long-term sustainable growth; you have to earn it. Chen himself even spoke out recently saying that in many ways, he regretted his role in the popularization of the term, as it has been co-opted by content marketers trying to sell quick-fixes to businesses that should instead be focusing on overhauling their processes.

We understand that when you look at businesses like Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb, it can be tempting to imagine that they have uncovered some secret sauce for instant success, and you just need to figure out the recipe. But our philosophy is that while the concepts behind it are solid, “growth hacking” is largely a buzzword. At its core, it’s really just an attempt to describe how brands find success by embracing non-traditional methods of growth. 

Whether you’re a startup or an established player, growth is always going to be one of your primary challenges. So it’s understandable that businesses are eager to believe it’s possible to “hack” your way into it.

But what you should really be focusing on is refining your processes and optimizing your efforts. At the end of the day, if you’re giving your customers what they want and need, and you’re staying plugged in to the pulse of your business, the byproduct is going to be a kind of natural, organic expansion. 

Rather than looking for tricks or hacks, businesses would ultimately be better served by focusing on developing and deploying their own growth processes. It’s easy to be distracted by exciting, shiny new things that promise instant results, but the reality is that creating sustainable, stable growth is a tall order. And frankly, it can feel boring sometimes. 

But the brands that really nail the growth game aren’t those that experience one instance of rapid explosion. It’s the ones that put in the hard work to find the right catalyst for that explosion point and go in armed with a fully fleshed-out plan for how to capitalize on—and continue—that growth after the initial shine wears off.

The landscape of marketing is constantly changing, so growth initiatives simply can’t be a one-off thing. Growth has to be an integral and ongoing part of your business plan.

Your approach has to be able to evolve. It has to be able to pivot. There are lots of great ideas underpinning growth hacking, but make sure you don’t get caught up in the hype. 

If you want to explore more about how to approach creating a smart and sustainable growth plan for your business, reach out. We’d be happy to set you up with one of our free 30-minute growth strategy sessions. We’ll meet with your team to talk through some ideas for growth that are specific to your brand and your long-term goals; no “hacks” needed!