Growth Hacking is not Marketing

Confusion around the term 'growth hacking' harms companies. Growth hacking is an incredibly useful tactic, but only when used at the right stage of your company. You might miss a more painful marketing problem if you rely on growth hacking too soon.

I had a recent conversation with a founder who told me his company needed marketing... so he hired a growth hacker. This perplexed me.

We proceeded to have an engaging discussion on the difference between the two, and when you should hire for each skill-set.

Growth Hacker Search The term 'Growth Hacking' is only a recent phenomenon. The idea has been around much longer.

Sure, growth hacking is a part of marketing. It's also a part of product. A great 'growth hacker' needs to have high aptitude in both worlds.

However, growth hacking is never going to solve your marketing problems.

Growth hacking is about removing friction. It has specific and tangible goals:

  • Improving the conversion rate in a signup funnel
  • Increasing usage rates of an application
  • Boosting your virality coefficient by encouraging sharing and invites

Growth hacking guides a user to perform actions that they already want to perform.

Publish content users want to share?
A growth hacker makes sharing to social media dead simple.

Create a product that solves a specific problem?
A growth hacker guides users to the solution as quickly as possible.

Growth Hacker

Growth hacking helps you capitalize on value you have already created.

On the other hand, marketing is a systematic study of markets1. Marketing answers the following questions:

  • What should you build? How does your product fit into the overall market?
  • Who are your competitors? What direction are they going? What are they building?
  • Who are your customers? What needs do they have?
  • How do you best communicate that your product fills their needs?
  • What channels can you use to reach them? Which ones do you start with first?

Marketing helps you determine how to create value for your customers. Then it helps you communicate this value in the most efficient way possible.

When should you hire a marketer?

All businesses need marketing from day 0. They need to answer the first 3 bulleted questions before they start operating. The first marketing job is filled by the founder.

The second marketing job (the first one with 'marketing' actually in the title) should be filled when you need someone to answer the other set of questions:

  • How do you best communicate that your product fills customer needs?
  • What channels can you use to reach them? Which ones do you start with first?

Your business can gain initial traction by relying on your industry network. This is why second and third time founders have an outsized advantage.

You need a full-time marketer the moment you need to communicate your value to people who have never heard of you. Depending on your industry and network, this is after you have a working prototype and a few initial customers; but before you have gone head-to-head with competitors over new business.

Jason Lemkin has a great post on when to hire a SaaS Vp of Marketing.

When should you hire a growth hacker?

You should hire a growth hacker when there is perceivable friction in your product or sales/marketing funnel. After you've already created a product that produces value and have the customer-base to prove it.

Are your paid users receiving a tremendous amount of value from your product, but your free users aren't converting? A growth hacker will find friction in the process and take steps to reduce it.

Is your app's usage rate through the roof but new user rates are plateauing? A growth hacker will help users invite their friends and colleagues.

When all the ingredients for growth are there — great product, happy customers, positive feedback — yet you're still not growing is when you need a growth hacker.

Growth hacking is a tool.

To summarize, growth hacking doesn't take the place of marketing or product. It's a tool that helps you capitalize on the success of marketing and product.

It's a way to increase the growth rate. It will not give you growth if it isn't already there.

  1. A market being a grouping of buyers and sellers who share a transactional relationship.

Image Credit: René Reichert