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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Balke

What is Growth Hacking & The Differences To ‘Regular Marketing’

Updated: Jun 2, 2019

If I had gotten a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say: “What is Growth Hacking anyway” or “I don’t really believe in Growth Hacking. I think it’s all some kind of bullsh** new trend”, I wouldn’t be rich but I’d definitely have enough money for a nice meal at Nobu in Malibu.

Here’s the thing, yes, Growth Hacking may have become somewhat of a buzzword, BUT it is not bullsh** nor can you afford to ignore it. Growth Hacking is the new way of Marketing and you will need to know about it if you want to survive in the “new world” (cue Pocahontas music).

In fact, there never was a more appropriate time to use this GIF then when warning about the risks of ignoring Growth Hacking.


“What is a Growth Hacker & What is Growth Hacking?

According to Sean Ellis, the godfather of Growth Hacking, a Growth Hacker is “A Marketer who’s true north is growth”. Enlightened yet? I’m guessing no.

While Sean Ellis is the McDaddy of Growth Hacking, Neil Patel has done a better job of defining it:

A Growth Hacker is someone who uses analytical, inexpensive, creative and innovative ways to exponentially grow their company’s customer base.”

In more elaborate words, as written by Ryan Holiday in his book ‘Growth Hacker Marketing’:

“A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like ‘branding’ and ‘mind share’, growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth — and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.”

That’s better (and long), but you’re probably still wondering what exactly makes a Growth Marketer / Growth Hacker or whatever you want to call it different from a Digital Marketer or Marketing Manager.

Well, wonder no more. Here are the 5 top things that differentiate Growth Hacking from ‘regular Marketers’.


1. Data, metrics, data, metrics, data, metrics

Growth Hackers live and breath metrics all day long. Every strategy, every decision, every analysis is based on looking at data. Every conclusion is derived from it. While some Digital Marketers love to look at KPIs, more often than not, they are looking at the wrong ones, called vanity metrics. Vanity metrics are numbers such as site traffic or app downloads.

While those look great on paper they don’t really tell you how much your business is actually growing. If all those new site visitors drop off after a few seconds, no bueno. If a bunch of people download your app but never use it, no bueno.

The key difference, therefore, is that not only do Growth Marketers base every strategy and decision on data they also base it on data that indicates true growth. In the example above, that data could be daily returning app users.

2. Ah, ooh, test it. Test it real good!

Listen, I’m well aware that Digital Marketers have heard and maybe even performed the occassional A/B test. Maybe some collateral for a Facebook ad was tested. Maybe even the color of a button on a landing page.

However, that’s not what Growth Marketers do. Growth Marketers do more. They test everything. Literally, everthing. If science hadn’t proven that the earth was round, they would probably test that stuff too. No assumption, no hypothesis should be taken as given.

Everything has to be tested until something is found that really, really works.

The key to this is iteration. They test something and iterate, iterate, iterate their way to success. They change every possible aspect of a test that could have an effect until they find that little thing that brings big impact. Literally, they iterate a lot (that sounds great, doesn’t it?).

The key difference is that growth hackers don’t operate on a “let’s throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” methodology like most digital marketers do, but instead test out (nearly) all options available to them in small scale experiments, collect data from those (see above) and then use that data to make informed decisions about which programs to scale. That is why they find the stuff that really works much quicker than others do.

3. Get me some product/market fit already!

The old way of doing things meant having a product team come up with a great product that then gets handed off to the marketing team who’s sole focus is to promote it. The marketing team, therefore, had no say in product development and couldn’t give the product team any feedback that they were getting from customers. In other words, ya had to promote the thing wether it was sh** or not.

Nowadays, thanks to the Growth Marketing approach, marketers take the product team’s finished version and while promoting it collect customer feedback on it. That customer feedback gets funneled back to the product team in a feedback loop which then uses it to improve the product. That way, the teams ensure that the most important thing in any business is achieved first, product/market fit.

Why is product/market fit the most important thing? Easy. It makes zero, nada, niente, nil sense to have your marketing team funnel a lot of newly acquired (and probably expensive) leads to you just to have them drop out because of a “bad” product. Hereby, product/market fit might not even mean that you have a bad product. It could be that you just have the wrong idea of WHO needs your product. Growth marketers are tasked with finding out if you have achieved product/market fit first before ever focusing on acquiring leads and customers. You want to avoid pouring water in to a leaky bucket because it will leave you with an empty bucket and empty buckets don’t usually make a lot of money.

So instead of taking the product as is and heading out to solely focus on promoting a static product, Growth Marketers use their findings and learnings from talking to customers and obversations in the market to help the product team improve the product.

4. Customer Interviews, aka ‘I’m your personal Freud, now spill the beans!’

Something that Growth Hackers do that ‘regular’ marketers do very little is talk to their customers. Yes, talk as in “bla bla”, as in connect person to person.

They conduct something called customer interviews and while market research and surveying customers is as old as marketing itself there is a key difference between those methods and what Growth Marketers do. While questionnaires and surveys are looking for quantitative data Growth Marketers look to gather qualitative data from their customer interviews. Meaning, they don’t want to know that 65% of customers “were likely to use the product for its smell” but rather that “they used the product right after cleaning and especially liked the vanilla scent because it reminds them of the cookies their mom used to bake”.

[Side note, obviously Growth Hackers want to know the quantitative data too. However, that’s only the first step for them. After gathering quantitative data they dive into qualitative data with their customer interviews to figure out the deeper sh**.]

Why do Growth Marketers want to know that really silly sounding stuff? Because they are looking for really, really deep insights into their customers on top of all the great quantitative data they have. And for that, there is no substitute besides actually talking to your customer from human to human.

That way they know that the next product they bring to market should not just eliminate smells, but add a nice smell, preferably Vanilla, as well.

Remember that to get those deep insights your customer interviews should not feel like a questionnaire, survey, study or as the name says an interview but more like a casual conversation between two people. The key to the conversation is not for you to ask questions and the customer to answer them but for you to listen, and only listen, what the customer has to say about the product and how they use it. Get them to start rambling on about their problems, how they use it, what they need. Be a real Freud, you get it.

That way you can find out the real good stuff like:

  • How your customers really use your product

  • What arguments they weighted in their heads before making the purchase

  • Words they like to use to describe the product/service or the solution to their problem (if your product/service is not quite there yet)

  • Deeper emotions behind your customers purchase (e.g. that vanilla cookie smell that makes them feel like home)

These interviews provide great context for the qualitative data that Growth Hackers gather and help them understand their customer base very, very, very much (more than regular marketers).

A great example for the power of customer interviews is Febreze, the now staple brand for making your fabrics and home smell good (do all the examples above make sense now?).

Febreze started out as a odor killer meaning that if you sprayed it on any type of fabric it would remove the smell the fabric had. The company came up with this idea and thought it would be great for pet owners, smokers etc. because these people could just spray on Febreze and it would remove the nasty smells. However, while there seemed to be a few raving fans initial sales proved to be slow.

It wasn’t until two Febreze marketers actually WENT TO THE HOUSE OF A FEBREZE SUPER USER (YES, CAPITALS! YES, WENT TO THE HOUSE! YES, THAT’S WHY I’M WRITING IN CAPITALS) and actually watched that customer use Febreze that they realized customers were using Febreze as part of their cleaning routine in which they used Febreze to remove the odors and then used another type of spray to make those fabrics smell nice. The “Aha Moment” for Febreze’s customers therefore was not just removing the bad odors but actually making things smell nice. The rest is history, right?

5. “To infinity and beyond” — The Growth Hacker mentality of creativity, curiosity and more

Last but not least, I believe one of the main differences between regular marketers and Growth Hackers is their mentality. Growth Hackers live a Buzz Lightyear kind of life. Instead of wanting to play by a proven rulebook Growth Hackers love coming up with their own creative and innovative solutions to new problems.

Their creativity, curiosity and willingness to try new things and fail distinguish them personally from the practices of regular marketers who often fallback on marketing tactics they know and feel comfortable with no matter how costly they have gotten (example, display ads). Instead of being afraid to fail Growth Hackers embrace failure because it provides an opportunity to learn and make the next experiment even better with the gathered data. So while failure is looked down upon and feared by regular marketers it is commonly accepted (and happens often) in the Growth Marketing world.

Nothing is set in stone. Nothing is too crazy. You can — scratch that — you should learn from anyone and any field of expertise. Everything is possible. Period.

So my fellow Growth Marketers, go out there and do something crazy (fingers crossed it’ll work out).

There ya have it folks. Those are the main 5 differences between regular marketers, digital marketers (whatever) and Growth Marketers & Hackers. Now next time your friend asks what the hell a Growth Hacker is you’ll have a solid response ready.

To end this post I’d like to close with a quote by Aaron Ginn, who said it better than anyone:

“The end goal of every growth hacker is to build a self-perpetuating marketing machine that reaches millions by itself.”

Let me know what you think the main differences between marketers & Growth Hackers are in the comments.

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