Growth Hacking – an Outlaw of Marketing or Efficient Strategy for a Start Up..?

All is fair in love and … marketing! Do you agree with us? When you launch a project won’t you do your worst to make it prosperous and successful? What does success of a website means? Of course it is high traffic leading to high conversion and repeated buys.

Merchants use numerous methods to reach their goals. Growth hacking is one of them. However, there are lots of people who still shudder at a single reference to hackers. Are you afraid of the hackers? It’s time to get rid of this phobia. How? Easily! By looking straight into the eyes of your fear. Are you ready? Then, we start our psychotherapy.

In truth, very often we are afraid of something we don’t know quite well. So, today we will just clarify what growth hacking is, who growth hackers are, and what can they do for your business.

Who are growth hackers?


Most of us got used to think that a hacker is someone who is more concerned with achieving an objective than following a prescribed process. And it’s not always bad or harmful because as a result, hackers often come up with innovative ways to get things done.

We are not going to deny that a hacker may be trying to get unauthorized access to a computer system and finally succeeds. Such methods tend to be pretty anti-authoritarian and unacceptable at bigger companies where employees are expected to do things a certain way.

A growth hacker is a hacker whose objective is to grow the number of users for a specific product. While lots of people consider user growth to be a marketing function, this assumes that there’s only one way to get them (namely, marketing). But this is a delusion. There are plenty of products that grew from zero to millions of users with little to no marketing at all.

There are lots of non-marketing decisions that affect user growth. Building viral product features is the most obvious, but there are many others. It doesn’t make sense to place growth hacking within a particular department like marketing or engineering. It sooner ends up playing a cross-functional role.

The idea is that for every decision a growth hacker makes, they should ask: “What will be the impact on growth?”

Did you know?


Mega popular websites didn’t scruple to use growth hacking to take leading positions on the web. Want some examples?

When Facebook was still in its early stages they built a cross-functional growth team led by a growth hacker that touched many other departments, including Marketing, BizDev, Product, Finance and even HR. Among many other projects, the team was responsible for making Facebook available in every language through crowdsourcing, implementing a robust system for importing email contacts, and even building out a “Facebook Lite” which was eventually shut down.

Over the last few years, truly innovative growth hackers have developed various frameworks and best-practices. Guys like Noah Kagan (AppSumo, Mint, Facebook), Mike Greenfield (Circle of Moms, LinkedIn), Dave McClure (500 Startups, PayPal) and many others have pioneered techniques focused on virality, email, search engine optimization & marketing.

There is an opinion that growth hacker is just a fancy word for internet marketer. Once Gary Vaynerchuk said at a keynote: “Growth hacking is just GET USERS!” that’s the biggest part of growth hacking, building a large influx of new active users. Notice, I said active, the second part of growth hacking is to keep your current users engaged and interested in sticking around. Finally your goal should always be to make your users happy. Happy customers share the experience with their friends.”

We can call growth hackers unique species. They are hybrids of coders and marketers. Growth hackers don’t have to beg engineering to implement JavaScript tracking and testing tools or pull up the latest data from the datastore. With the freedom of being able to do the whole process without barriers and obstacles on the way, smart growth hackers can try a lot of different things really fast. Having good tools at hand, they can measure and analyze what’s working and what’s not.

Expending our knowledge on what is growth hacking


Growth hacking is a buzzword that emerged in Silicon Valley around 2011 and quickly spread globally. But Sean Ellis has coined the term in a little earlier, in 2010. It describes the use of technical skills hybridized with creativity to develop and implement marketing strategies that GET REAL USERS.

Some people regard the term as a meaningless meme, but whether you like it or not, growth hacking has earned a permanent place in tech terminology. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that this particular phrase has been adopted. The inclusion of the word ‘hacking’ frequently causes misunderstandings.

Please make no mistake, ‘hacking’ does not mean writing some magical code that causes an overnight growth. It is often said that ‘growth hacking’ is just another way of saying ‘online marketing.’ Both processes include some of the same techniques. If you look at the growth hacking from SEO point of view, it is not a new term, but the method of SEO efforts optimization. In simple words, growth hacking is a strategy for quickly and effectively optimizing the social reach of a company/brand. Since ‘hacks’ always refer to shortcuts, growth hacking can be defined as shortcuts past traditional (relatively slow) marketing techniques.

Main components of growth hacking approach


  • Experimentation
  • Growth hacking is based on experiments, short development cycles, iterative feedback loops and user-centric approach. Experimentation, as in controlled test or investigation, led by the absence of knowledge about the reaction to a triggering event and a hypothesis.

  • Creativity
  • Growth hacking is always about pushing the boundaries. It requires a creative mind-set and a good understanding of human behavior and psychology to design the right growth engines. Thinking outside the box is indispensable as a vector of growth is often ephemeral. Their interest tends to exhaust as soon as they become mainstream or overused.

  • Programming
  • The hacking culture came from developers and programmers that believed that the status quo can always be tweaked, the reality bent at your own advantage in a playful and explorative fashion. Programming skills (scraping, API integration, database query, etc…) are often needed in order to extend the possibilities of a platform, program or website.

  • Data
  • The creativity to design experiments and the programming skills to implement them is supported by a strong analytical skillset. Data hold the truth, and is here to validate the digital marketers’ assumptions and help them take decisions.

Growth hacking is a new way of looking at online marketing.

More facts to justify growth hacking


It’s important that growth hacking is a cheap or even completely free way of growing your startup. It is a way of driving growth by leveraging the tools available to any startup. They are creativity, tech skills and resourcefulness.

As a rule, startup projects are budgetary constraint. They have to find new and creative ways to grow their user base. Actually, there is no choice for them: you either turn your weaknesses into strengths and completely change the rules of traditional marketing or drown. The nature of most online/software products, their features, skill set and entrepreneurial mindset of the people involved in these startups, and innovative marketing tactics helped them grow into multi-billion dollar companies like Dropbox, Zynga, Airbnb, Facebook and others.

Most of the tactics and tools growth hackers use have only existed for the past two decades, and are found mostly in online companies. Initially popular among fast-growing startups, the principles of growth hacking are now being adopted by larger organizations.

First of all the hacker finds one trick that will grow your startup, and then puts all efforts into that before moving to the next step. As you already know, the point of a growth hacker is to increase your conversion volume. This is usually done by increasing site traffic and optimizing your conversion funnel. This is quantifiable, requires experiment, and experience.

The reason why the word ‘hacker’ is used in the term is because in order to be good at this job, you have to know how to code. Growth hackers don’t replace your front end development team (UI, UX, and JavaScript engineers). While these people probably have a clue about SEO, the knowledge pool has grown too deep for them to keep up with both the SEO domain and their own front-end domain. That’s why companies have specialization after all.

Growth hackers dive through code and straighten it out for conversion volume - not just SEO. A typical internet marketer is hardly going to be comfortable diving through your front-end code, CLI, or github.

If there is no social media running, the growth hacker will probably put this in place. But they will be measuring the effect of posting material in relation to conversion volume and page rank, not in ‘new followers’ and ‘likes’.

A growth hacker will be comfortable creating adword campaigns, because they are able to make high quality landing pages that are going to have awesome CPC.

A growth hacker has a unique set of skills. They need to understand product design and development, be a student of user behavior, and have experience across the gamut of online marketing, social media, email marketing and landing page optimization. The concept of a ‘growth hacker’ is someone who drives growth through a newly evolved landscape of marketing and social media.

What are the best growth hacking strategies?


  • Creating a landing page.
  • Creating some piece of content that is related to landing page (think advertising scent).
  • Inserting call to action in content somewhere that directs reader to landing page.
  • Tweeting the content. Including picture...use Flickr to find a picture that is cool, and is available in the public domain.
  • Searching for keywords in Twitter's advance search that are related to the content you've just created.
  • Following people that show up from the advanced search. First thing new followers will see is an email notifying them of your follow. They'll see your picture and bio. Use bio as copy to promote them to visit Twitter page. First thing they see on page is your tweet...because they just talked about this same subject the probability of a retweet is higher. 15% or more will follow you back. Some will go to your landing page.

As you get more followers you'll be able to follow more people. This means your ROI will increase overtime.

Let us answer a question that is on your mind now. This is not against Twitters Terms of Use because you are following people related to your industry or content (it's not random following).

The most amazing growth hacking strategy is empathy. You have to understand who your customers are, what their problems are, what motivates them, and then plan your tactics accordingly. These answers have to be found through meticulous data gathering and, usually, talking to real people. Once the answers are understood, there has to be a steadfast, company-wide focus on optimizing the product and marketing towards those user goals. Unfortunately, there is not a one size fits all plan. Most of the growth hacking case studies that have been rehashed time and time again were not intended to be growth hacks. They were tactics implemented to fit a particular problem that their users had.

Can growth hacking be applied to e-commerce?


The answer is ‘yes’. In fact, growth hacking applied to ecommerce is probably the most pure form. It is really easy to get lots of people to sign up for something that is free and requires very little from them. It is something entirely different to get lots of people buy something - and have those purchases be social, scalable and trackable.

To put it simple, growth hacking for social network to millions of users is impressive. But growth hacking for commercial company with great number of customers is much more impressive. Some vivid examples of this are: Square, Zappos, and Groupon.

Growth hacker marketing can be applied to all sorts of businesses, be they books, restaurants or even political campaigns, like in Aaron Ginn’s case. The more approachable your product is the bigger effect of the scale is. Actually e-commerce is great because optimization of sales path or smart product advising based on your basket in Amazon are examples of growth hacking.

Top 10 consumer Internet growth hacks that have been A/B tested


  • Paypal’s friend referral bounty
  • By paying $10 cash to each new customer and $10 to the customer who referred them, Paypal was able to hack early growth to tens of millions of users before no longer offering the bonus.

  • Hotmail Tagline
  • In Hotmail whenever a user would email another user, the email would have a message saying something similar to “This email sent with Hotmail, Join Hotmail now” and “Get your free email at Hotmail.”

  • Airbnb’s craigslist integration
  • By reverse engineering the craigslist posting process and automating it to the point where it became dead simple to cross-post your airbnb listing to craigslist, AirBnb was able to hack early growth to 10's of millions of users.

  • Mailbox wait list
  • By creating an incredibly compelling launch video combined with a very cool interface that showed users how many other users were in front of them on the app’s waiting list, mailbox created a large amount of social chatter and blog attention. Within six weeks, Mailbox had a million users signed up and eagerly waiting for the service.

  • Dropbox Incentivized Referral Program
  • Roughly based off of Paypal’s invite system, dropbox allows users to invite their friends for more space. This worked to help dropbox grow from 100,000 users to 4,000,000 in under two years.

  • Twitter’s suggested followers on-boarding
  • Once Twitter found that users who followed more than 30 people were most likely to become active. They optimized the user experience to encourage this behavior.

  • Instagram cross-posting
  • By deciding to play nice with other services like Twitter and Facebook, Instagram was able to leverage the distribution of some very large existing platforms to help accelerate the growth of its service in the early days.

  • Pinterest auto-follow
  • Upon signing up for Pinterest you are automatically following a select group of high quality users. This in turn helps alleviate the cold-start problem, where you have to go looking around the site to find boards and people to follow. Instead they present a sampling of high quality content immediately filling your feed.

  • Youtube’s liberal interpretation of dmca
  • YouTube tried many tactics to gain differentiation over its competitors. In the end, YouTube’s growth hack was the only metric that mattered, conversion of viral buzz into users.

  • content/seo strategy
  • Mint focused on building out a unique personal finance blog, very content-rich, that spoke to a young professional crowd that they felt was being neglected. Eventually the blog became 1 in personal finance, and drove traffic to the app. The infographics and popular articles became regular hits on Digg, Reddit, etc.

  • Dropbox has created demo videos which were initially picked up by Ycombinator. Dropbox consider them to be the first milestone of their growth. Their later demo video for the launch of their private beta was published on Digg and got them an immediate flow of 75,000 new users.
  • Linkedin relied on power users. They seeded the product with well connected influencers, and cultivated an 'inspirational brand', which later drew in the mainstream. This is remarkably similar to what Quora is doing.
  • Mailbox have used an immensely successful 'delayed gratification' mechanism which got over 700,000 users on their waiting list one week after launch, many of them signed up pre-launch. They utilized a good combination of PR and power users, who twitted and recommended them pre-launch. They created a sense of urgency and a 'limited supply' with their first-come first-serve mechanism. They let in media and power users first, to increase the hype, and continued to build anticipation even after signing up with letting users know their place in line so the numbers slowly build tension until you're in (finally!) They also did a good job with Facebook notifications. Fab .com says they've used a similar approach, building pre-launch buzz through invites, and referral credits.
  • This is not consumer but rather B2B approach which can be adapted and utilized towards consumers. Dudamobile's CEO (mobile websites) relied heavily on partnerships with big players (GoDaddy, Google, Yahoo and others) to get initial traction.

What are the best free tools for startups to do growth hacking?


Sure, you can model your growth hacking off of other startup companies (one that is very interesting right now is Square Cash However, if you're lazy and want to rely on a tool to promote your company, try (It is a combination of SEO, keywords monitoring and analytics. You simply add a web page, Google analytics and you are defining the keywords that you want to track. The tool gives you simple “to do” list, so it’s clear what you should improve at your website (both source code and content) &
Qualaroo ( provides behavior insight surveys for smarter A/B testing. Understanding your clients is the key factor in growth hacking. Qualaroo gives you this possibility by simply ask questions by surveys. You can be also sure that people who are willing to answer your questions are the ones who are the most engaged. This gives you another insight.

Visualize where your visitors click with Crazy Egg ( - a very powerful tool that will show you the map of clicks and scrolls on your website. The ‘temperature’ map shows a time that a user spends on a part of site (hot and uninteresting content). You will like their confetti mode where you can see exactly where and how many clicks have been done on your page.

Optimizely ( is A/B testing software you'll actually use. A very simple website that lets you design A/B versions of your landing page. All you need is an account and with the help of build-in editor you will be able to change parameters as font, color, size, position etc. Optimizely gives you access to the visitors’ behavior analytics.

When is it appropriate to focus on growth hacking instead of traditional marketing?


The core concept behind growth hacking is whether you're an engineer or not. It is to bake the marketing into the product from Day 1. The product should be easy for the customer to understand, easy to use, and easy to share. Then you do the traditional marketing, gather feedback, and make adjustments.

So, technically you'd be doing the heavy lifting for the growth hacking to work first, then traditional marketing, and then as you gather data and make adjustments you'd be back to the growth hacking portion again.
Marketing is what you do when you have an inferior product: Edwin Land, Cofounder, Polaroid Corporation.

The actual point of growth hacking is to discover what creates meaningful value for your customer and to deliver that value to create growth. Essentially it's about building marketing into the product itself which is a far more potent strategy than any kind of 'traditional' marketing as you say.

So, a possible answer to this question may be that it is most appropriate to focus on growth hacking, all the time.

Growth hacking isn't an alternative to traditional marketing. It's an alternative to the traditional marketer.

Let's define traditional marketing. It includes a long term marketing plan, vision, branding, etc. as well as TV, print, radio, and even online though largely display therein. Growth hacking doesn't ignore, exclude, nor discount those things.

Rather, where a traditional marketer may run TV and hope for reach and frequency, and studies or focus groups to measure impact, growth hacking compares and contrasts those campaigns against everything (not just other marketing channels but conversion performance, customer support, sales performance, social media, etc. And optimizes and reallocates in near real time while building search, social, email, content, and PR around the TV campaign to create synergy.

If TV has a net positive impact that outperforms other opportunities, they're doing it. They're not doing it because they think they should, their competitors do it, it's how it's done in this industry, nor even because it works.

The other distinction is that growth hackers are part CTO, or developer. If someone claims to be a growth hacker but can't build their own websites, set up marketing automation suites, design mobile apps, run landing page optimization, etc., without technical resources, they probably aren't really a growth hacker. They are a marketer sure and likely a very good one, but if they can't hack things together to drive accelerated growth then... Well, it is called hacking. Traditional marketing can be hacked but a ‘traditional marketer’ usually can't do those things.

Here's a test, ask your CMO if they can build a search friendly site with a load time <1 second, multivariate testing in place, lead capture and scoring, eCommerce functionality, content marketing and social media acquisition strategy, and a plan to reduce bounce rates below 30%. Traditional marketing is always going to be better then growth hacking. When hacking your way to gain followers your numbers will increase but your interactions with actual people that care about what you are doing will stay the same. What you need to do is take advantage of the fact you have with your small targeted audience and make sure that you are catering to them. You will grow a strong core fan base that will grow organically. When you provide quality the following comes along with it. Figure out what your target market likes and follow those topics. Engage with people and expand your network. This is the only way to truly market. Remember at the end of the day it's all about personal interactions. As a startup that is your advantage. You have the luxury of providing this one on one that big companies can not afford. It's never an either/or type situation. Hardcore growth hacking, as it was originally positioned, isn't necessarily about ‘marketing your product’ in general. It requires an intense focus on growth, which does not equate to ‘marketing’ as a whole.

What are the top tips for growth hacking?

  • Look, learn and understand the existing channels and which ones are appropriate to you.
  • Find your high volume channel.
  • Find your low-cost channel.
  • Find your high-conversion channel.
  • Establish which metrics you want to pursue.
  • Try to find your intersection spot.
  • Iterate.
  • Have a SMART goal.
  • Establish & measure progress with actionable (priority) metrics and secondary metrics.
  • RTFM (almost every field has manuals or handbooks).
  • Improve your points at 1 & 2.
  • Do the work & be creative.
  • Leverage what works.
  • Blog about it.
  • Write a manual.
  • Read the news.
  • Come back to answer comments to your post.


We hope our brief guide to growth hacking didn't make your brain steam. All that has left to do now is just round out the idea of the article. Now you know the difference between growth hacking and traditional marketing. Even more, you have read the best strategies, tips, tricks and tools of growth hacking. We are sure that now you changed your mind about growth hacking if it was negative before. Today, with all industries continuing to mature and tech and software continuing to take over more and more aspects of biz, we believe that it’s a good idea to merge growth hacking with traditional marketing. Then we can stop arguing semantics and just become more efficient and awesome together. Do you share our opinion? Please write what you personally think about growth hacking. Did you change your attitude to it after reading this article? Do you use growth hacking techniques yourself? Maybe you are ready to tell us about your successful or negative experience of growth hacking methods application. Any feedback is welcome.

Helga Moreno

Experienced writer passionate about highlighting all the topics related to web, design, marketing, SEO, and more. Follow Helga on Quora.

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