Like “inbound marketing”, “growth hacking” is a term that’s thrown around a lot. It embeds the image of a yuppie at a startup planning random shenanigans to get the word out around town about their latest app or service.
It’s a notorious word that was once whispered by marketers too afraid to be called out for using it, either because it was frowned upon by traditional (outbound) marketing agencies or those who used the term but had no idea what it truly meant.
Growth hacking – hacking growth, right? One would think it involves deciphering the cosmic riddles of virality and instantly turning every audience into an army of obsessed patrons of a company or a ragtag group of developers that seemingly came out of nowhere.
While the above may be the eventual result, the first stage of growth hacking is far less mythical and honestly a little boring in reality. This article will demystify the ethos of the growth hacking community and shed some light on how its practices have been reevaluated and re-administered into the modern age of marketing via the seemingly ever-changing concept of Inbound.
What Is Growth Hacking?
In actuality, growth hacking refers to the process of taking a product or service, new or old, and incorporating marketing efforts into its development and functionality.
The strategy started as a way to shave down marketing budgets that were used to get the solution in front of as many sets of eyes or in the minds of as many consumers as possible, by focusing on niche markets, growth driven design, and the select sets of consumers who really need it.
Once a growth hacker gets their solution into the hands of their exclusive target audience, one or two things happen.
- They have a great product or service, so they focus on finding ways to make it as shareable as possible with incentives. In other words, they try to remove the barriers to virality.
- They turn the users into feedback machines for building the solution to be better for them by listening and responding through development. In doing this, growth marketers are actually zeroing in on the optimum product-market fit. This fit plants the seed of hyper-dedication inside the user base.
By doing this, growth hackers essentially create free walking billboards who want nothing more than to share this newfound “perfect” solution with their peers, friends, family members, colleagues, dog walkers, people in line for the bathroom, et cetera.
The word “perfect” is quoted above because nothing is ever perfect. As a user base shares and spreads the word of a growth hacked operation, feedback will be constantly flowing in – ideally at an accelerating rate. The solution needs to be updated to best fit the growing audience to keep that product-market fit mentioned earlier.
Build a Viral Machine
Company X created a new online file storing and sharing service they realized would fill a gap. They found a select, niche group of consumers who were desperately in need of a new way to keep files in the cloud. Company X’s service fulfilled these users’ needs, but they found their user base wasn’t growing.
To boost their numbers, they decided to give users extra space to store more files should they get peers to sign up and use the service, as well. It worked astoundingly, as Company X saw its service’s adoption increase roughly 40-fold over the course of a year.
Company X’s evaluation was found to be over $10 billion only 8 years later. The truly insane part of this example is that it’s a true story – Company X is Dropbox.com.
Dropbox.com flipped the need it was aiming to solve on its head by rewarding an enhanced user experience for those who helped the company grow. They took a solution, made it better for their audience and let their fans run wild, becoming a classic growth hacking case study.
Advertise Within the Product
Another case study of growth hacking that’s less conventional and more psychological is Apple.
Around the turn of the century, Apple released their online music store, iTunes. The first iPod would land on store shelves shortly thereafter.
While the packaging of iTunes and iPods seemed to be a solid marketing strategy already, Apple took things a step further. They had a music player that had white headphones in a world dominated by black cords.
As you read the above paragraph, your mind probably flashed back to those commercials of silhouettes dancing against colored backgrounds with white headphones… Or I’m just dating my 28 year old self. Either way, it’s a bit of outbound marketing, but the growth hacking is what followed.
At first, people would be listening to music on their standard MP3 player, as they walked down the street seeing these figures in store window television sets and on posters at bus stops. Then, they started noticing people around them using white headphones, and later found even more people, and then even more!
Everyone with an iPod was flashing these iconic earbuds, marketing for Apple better than the commercials ever could. An advertisement is an advertisement, but an exclusive community is an exclusive community. While advertising is typically seen as the consistent bout of oppressive consumerism, an exclusive community falls in line with the feeling of an “in crowd”.
Over the course of the next few years, Apple had the top digital on-the-go music player on the market symbolized by the white headphones. By the mid-2000’s, the concept of white earbuds was synonymous with Apple, causing the company to be synonymous with music.
Let’s be honest here. The sentence, “I can’t wait to listen to all my MP3’s on my Windows Media Player,” has probably never been heard by a hefty majority of us. If you have heard that, reach out to me on Twitter at @dcdevshop. You fill an interesting niche of pop culture that needs to be heard. I’d love to hear from you!
Create Transparent Exclusivity
It should be noted that this attempt at growth hacking only works when insiders can be seen by outsiders. Google+ is a failed attempt at using exclusivity as a growth hacking method, since people who did not desire to be a part of a new social network at release likely never joined as they could not see who else was on the social network.
It could be argued that Facebook became popular because everyone’s friends joined it, or that Twitter became popular because everyone’s idols joined it. Google+ failed because no one had any idea what was happening.
It just goes to show you: Exclusivity works when it’s transparent. The old adage, “Build it and they will come,” is flawed. Growth will come if people can perceive it.Exclusivity works when it's transparent. The old adage, "Build it and they will come," is flawed. Growth will come if people can perceive it. Click To Tweet
An excellent example of growth hacking with transparent exclusivity comes from Hotmail.
Hotmail added a signature at the end of every email sent by the service early into release that “P.S. I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail” and linked an invite URL. Email recipients would see how many people were actually using the solution and a desire to use it, as well, started to build.
Apple attempted growth hacking again by using this strategy, too. Think about how many times you’ve received an email that read “Sent from my iPhone”. Transparent exclusivity at its finest.
There are plenty of examples that could warrant a book (and I’m sure someone has already published one) discussing all of the different ways people can “hack growth”. But the secret always starts with a small niche market.
A more technical term for growth hacking could be “reverse-engineered viral marketing”. While being filled with esoteric jargon, it does give a better illustration of what the process consists of. That being said, my alternative is far less sexy than ~growth hacking~, so there’s probably something to be said for mystery adding to its genuine popularity.
What is Inbound Marketing?
The term inbound marketing is said to have been coined by HubSpot founder Brian Halligan in the late 2000’s, but that’s not to say the concept is this young.
For the sake of detail, “growth hacking” was allegedly coined in 2010 by Sean Ellis, the founder of, you guessed it, GrowthHackers.com. However, it’s clear the growth hacking methodology is much older, as well. These are simply new terms for old behaviors, but digging into the history is not the goal of this writing, so we should move on.
Inbound is a marketing philosophy that revolves around three actions: Attract, Engage and Delight. “Attract” is the step of building the audience of prospective buyers. “Engage” involves reaching out to these prospects with the intention of guiding them through the process of choosing your product or service over others, colloquially called the “Buyer’s Journey”.
“Delight” occurs after the purchase, but is arguably the most important part of the system, as it involves customer service that keeps customers and clients happy and returning for more. The theory is that delighted customers will, in turn, help bring in new prospects for the company.
HubSpot Inbound Marketing
I won’t go into as many case studies as I did in the previous section of this article since Inbound is a much less mysterious concept for many of us. However, I have an example that will help clear things up should you be learning all of this from scratch!
HubSpot produces a customer relationship management (CRM) service that allows companies to manage all of their prospects, leads and customers in a centralized platform.
They advertise to startups and growing businesses that are most likely looking for a streamlined way to manage their incoming business. They attract these target audience members with ads and a generally positive image and position within their market.
Once these prospects access HubSpot’s website, they are encouraged to sign up for access to different services or gated resources that will help them out with their own struggles. Upon providing contract information, they have converted to becoming leads for HubSpot.
Leads get emails sent to them tailored to provide information that is most relevant through targeted analytics. As engagement continues, HubSpot shows leads a wealth of knowledge and resources they can build upon.
If all goes well, the lead will convert to becoming a customer. From there, even more resources become available such as HubSpot Academy: A free online course and certification library for HubSpot customers to use when building their skillset, knowledge-base and credentials in their respective fields.
The continued exposure to more and more content provided openly to customers is used to delight them and encourage them to spread the word about HubSpot and their insane amount of helpful resources including their software solutions.
Remember the growth hacking concept of turning users into walking billboards by transforming your offering into something you know they want? You can see that inbound does the same in the HubSpot case study, but this methodology is hardwired into the entire company and not just development.
There’s an echo of the saying “it takes a village…” here, and it’s so true. To have a successful company, you need full commitment from everyone, not just the marketing department, in-house developers, sales or customer success team. They need to be all in sync with the mission. Inbound lays the tracks for this to happen and has evolved from traditional digital marketing.
It’s as simple as that.
Growth Hacking Fuels Inbound Marketing
At this point, you’ve figured out how inbound takes the mindset of growth hacking and brings it all a step further. Not only are marketing efforts built into a product or service, they’re also fused into the philosophy of the company and every branch within.
It’s interesting that the turn of the century brought about these radical changes to marketing as we knew it in the mid 20th century. Madison Avenue’s Mad Men aren’t the only ones who can get a product or service in front of anyone they need to. The internet with all of its interconnectivity has changed marketing for the very best.
As someone who praises the skills of the growth hackers, I must say transitioning into inbound is likely the best course of action for continued growth. It’s no longer enough to build a viral mindset into your offerings, you need to bake it into its development, sale and customer service.
If you do it correctly, you should find success. (Hint: There’s no wrong answers as long as you listen to your audience. You’ll get the best luck with open ears and a pen in hand.)
If you read this article, let me hear your thoughts! Likewise, if you’re interested in discussing growth hacking, inbound marketing, or the weird realm between these two worlds, definitely seek us out on Twitter @dcdevshop!