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Growth Hacking and Marketing: All I want for Christmas is a sense of perspective

With a week to go until Christmas the silly season is now in full swing – the annual prize fight between the big British brands for the best Christmas TV ad has already been won by John Lewis (in my opinion), and the remaining contenders for the Christmas single steeplechase are putting in their final sprint to the finish. But in the Techtopia, the world looks a little different, and a couple of things that appeared in my Twitter feed last week have prompted me to do some thinking. The first has been the growing buzz around the concept of Growth Hacking and its impact upon Marketing in general, and the second, seemly disconnected, was this absolute (Christmas) gift from Canadian airline, Westjet.

Growth Hacking?

Firstly, let’s talk about Growth Hacking, where did it come from? The fact it arose was pretty understandable – start-ups are small and agile and out of necessity marketing tasks often fall to an engineer. Given this, and the engineer’s comfort with data, the focus on user analysis to affect marketing is a logical outcome. Techtopia, though, can have a pretty blinkered world view, and it carries a prejudice against “traditional” businesses. In this context, a data driven approach to marketing must have seemed incredibly new and revelatory. Attach a label to it (including the inevitable use of “hack”), attend a few conferences, and bingo, you have a new ‘disruptive’ force to take on the business world.

As you may have guessed, I am something of a sceptic about the rise of the Growth Hacker. Initially my scepticism arose mainly because the term was poorly defined and the actions undertaken by self-proclaimed practitioners – essentially heavy use of data to identify and acquire new users, and to improve product – were really just plain old marketing.

Everything Old is Made New

Non-tech companies have been conducting data-focused customer acquisition for decades – examples such as customer loyalty programmes, sales data generated by register receipts and market research – are nothing new. The really clever marketers, such as FMCG giants Unilever were doing the same for product development by blending the techniques above with product and consumer behaviour research. Ironically, if there’s anywhere that has had a “traditional” divide between product and marketing, it’s the Tech world itself. The other main difference is that in the online world customer and user data is ludicrously easy to come by, Marketing departments of even 15 years ago would have given their eye-teeth to have the data that we can get from online analytics. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t trying to do so – frequent flyer programmes weren’t created to give you free flights.

However, as Growth Hacking has evolved, it has become something more substantial than a slide deck at a tech conference. It is more defined, and is now crucial to some pretty impressive actions which I’d argue go beyond just analysis and display genuine creative thinking, such as the Air B’n’B case study in Andrew Chen’s article from the link above. I’d be willing to agree that Growth Hacking is indeed a new marketing discipline – folks like Patrick Vlaskovits are pretty bullish and compelling on this point – and this is genuinely quite exciting, but it doesn’t change the fact that Growth Hacking still sits firmly in the realm of Marketing.

Growth Hacking IS Marketing

So why does this matter? It matters because the underlying assumption that Growth Hacking is somehow different to Marketing betrays a glaring lack of knowledge of how businesses outside Tech actually work. It is a classic case of that tiresome Techtopian tendency to appropriate something from other areas of business, sometimes out of ignorance, then claiming it as unique to Tech – like a Bolshie teenager who claims his favourite artist is unique despite them sampling everyone from The Beatles to John Lee Hooker (you can Google him). It’s actually a bit embarrassing to see it happen so often.

More important though, it matters because at its essence Growth Hacking is a tactical discipline – it is based on a series of actions that aim to address current problems and it prioritises short-term growth (hence the name) above all else. Because of this it is not strategic, and as your start-up grows, Growth Hacking alone will not be enough to build long term market value. Having a strategic understanding of the relationship between your company and its customers must become the priority. In his article about Growth Hackers, Ellis admits this much – seeing the role as a necessary hybrid until a company grows to a certain level. At this point, the Growth Hacker assumes a role amongst a wider team of Marketing disciplines, a specialist role certainly, but part of a team. Returning to Vlaskovits, his belief that the best Growth Hackers use a medium that is as disruptive as the message itself is straight from the traditional media buyer’s playbook. But this is where I take issue with Chen’s view of Growth Hacking as well as anyone who refers to the “death” of Marketing.

Part of the Skill Set

Growth Hacking is not disrupting the marketing team because that assumes that Marketing is somehow a stable place. Marketing as a function constantly evolves to take advantage of new opportunities to reach audiences and sell them new products; in the last century we’ve gone from the telegraph to the Internet, picking up radio, cinema, television, colour television, cable television, the Web, social media along the way just to name a few. We’ve gone from push marketing to pull marketing where customers (and therefore marketers) have much more say in the product development process. Each of these changes brought new challenges, new forms of measurement and new opportunities, as well as new specialists disciplines into marketing. But through them all, the basics of marketing remained the same.

Which brings us all the way back to that viral gem from Westjet. At the same time I was reading about the death of marketing at the clammy hands of the Growth Hackers, my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn feeds were lighting up with the story of a flight of normal people who saw their Christmas wishes appear on a baggage carousel. My friends talked about the general awesomeness of the idea and the film; my business contacts talked about the genius of the business itself; and my marketing comrades shook their heads and just said “I wish I’d done that”. But the point is this – one Marketing department did do that (with the help of a very clever ad agency) and probably at surprisingly little cost. As a result, the people on that flight will probably remain loyal to Westjet, and all around the world people who have never heard of Westjet may just think about doing so if they’re ever in Canada.

That, right there, is a growth hack from a traditional Marketing department.

Many thanks go to Peter Thomson for his feedback and advice with this post.

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4 thoughts on “Growth Hacking and Marketing: All I want for Christmas is a sense of perspective”

  1. Great piece. It mirrors the conversations that I have been having with people in the start up world I work in. Trouble with marketing is our penchant for new terms that make the obvious sound sophisticated. Great marketing is simple marketing.

  2. Nice piece. I guess a lot of people with ‘growth hacker’ in their job titles (or Twitter bios) probably wouldn’t be that pleased to be reminded that their job is essentially the equivalent of the ‘innovation manager’ role you can find on many brands in the creaking old brass-and-stream world of FMCG marketing. In essence, in charge of taking findings from customer experience and behaviour and feed it back into the product development process. An important role, but in no sense a replacement for brand marketing, which is its own discipline.

    To some extent the tendency to beat up on ‘old-school’ marketing by tech companies is part of the old game of promoting one’s own disruptiveness, which is fine. But it also reflects an immaturity in the digital products sector. Most of its categories are quite new, are getting more A and B series investment than they know what to do with, and are riding a wave of consumer enthusiasm. That means the growth hackers are mainly concerned with growing market share in categories whose growth currently takes care of itself. At that stage brand building consists largely of category promotion, share of voice maximisation and user experience (‘You want one of these! We’ve got one of these! Check out how good ours is!’). Brand marketing comes into its own when a category’s momentum peaks – it matures, or even starts to decline – as a way of building strong associations through creativity that let you outperform even when people aren’t all that excited about your category any more, then find opportunities to extend into adjacent but sexier ones.

    I suppose a good test of a growth hacker’s utility would be to kick him or her outside the comfort zone of a hot category. How would he or she improve the UX of a tin of beans in a way that would drive growth?

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