Growth Hacking: The Marketing Industry’s Next Big Title

Buzz words, fancy acronyms and other avant-garde words have been slowly creeping into our day...what does it all mean and should we care?

Titles are big in the marketing world; we internet marketers, at least, love to name things – and the more distinguished sounding or “out there” the name is, the better. For the past seven years, that name has been (drumroll, please) Growth Hacking.

I’ll be honest. At first, I was just like the rest of the industry. When Sean Ellis coined the term back in 2010 I thought, “Oooh, growth hacking! How avant-garde!” I mean, it sounded down-right snazzy. Of course, I promptly shuffled it to the back of my mind and went on with business as usual.

Others didn’t, and haven’t, and now the term growth hacking is rolling full steam ahead. Over 8,100 people search for this term a month. That’s eight thousand people! Could it be that, by going back to “business as usual,” I missed out on something really important?

You probably already know what I’m going to say…

Growth Hacking is Just Another Fancy Title

I can’t tell you what I really want to say, because what I really want to say isn’t fit for polite society. I’ll try to put this in terms that are fit for polite society. Growth hacking may not be a scam, but the title sure is, and I’m blown away by the people still supporting and pushing it.

What is growth hacking?

First, let’s look at Sean Ellis. What does he describe a growth hacker to be? In the blog post that coined the phrase, he says, “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.

Now, I don’t mean to directly attack anybody mentioned in this post. I’ll just put that disclaimer out there right now. But. BUT. Am I the only one that looked at that description and said, “What does that even mean?” That sounds like some serious guru stuff right there, yeah?

He goes on to add, “Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.” Please, somebody tell me, how does this differ from “the average marketer”? Because Sean says that these growth hackers aren’t the same as marketers. Oh no. Growth hackers can be from any walk of life; he cites a case where the person had an engineering background.

Let’s continue:

“The common characteristic seems to be an ability to take responsibility for growth and an entrepreneurial drive (it’s risky taking that responsibility).  The right growth hacker will have a burning desire to connect your target market with your must have solution.  They must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies.”

Yes. Because plain marketers (AKA NOT growth hackers) just sort of hope your target market connects with your product or service and sees it as a solution (eye roll). I got tired of reading Sean and looked for someone else to share what they thought growth hacking was.

Enter Neil Patel and his Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking on QuickSprout. When explaining what growth hacking is, he says:

“Every decision that a growth hacker makes is informed by growth. Every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative, is attempted in the hopes of growing. Growth is the sun that a growth hacker revolves around. Of course, traditional marketers care about growth too, but not to the same extent. Remember, the power of a growth hacker is in their obsessive focus on a singular goal. By ignoring almost everything, they can achieve the one task that matters most early on.”


I have to admit, I didn’t read the rather lengthy guide. Instead, I found What is Growth Hacking on his personal blog. Now, once you skip over the Introduction, Definition and Overview, some good information comes about that’s worth reading and taking in. However, it’s just good marketing.

Shout Me Loud says:

Here comes the most confusing part. How is a Growth Hacker any different from a Marketer?

Growth Hacker – ‘Growth first, Budget second’

Marketer – ‘Growth depends on the budget you spare’

And darn-it-all, if KissMetrics didn’t give it a go, too. I can’t tell you how much this disappoints me, as I love to read KissMetrics. 35 Growth Hacking Tools for Marketers Who Don’t Code is a fantastic article for marketers, with a lot of great tips. But really?

“While traditional marketers have a broad focus ranging from building out a marketing team to defining an overall marketing strategy, growth hackers focus on one thing and one thing only: growth. But this doesn’t mean that marketers can’t be great growth hackers.”

Double sigh. Stop the insanity! Just stop.

The Confusion, the Problem, the Lie – in Growth Hacking

To each their own though, right? And what’s in a name? And why does it matter what you call it if it works? A few things, and they’re really important things.

The Confusion

The original idea behind growth hacking, it seems, is that a startup business may not have enough money to deal with a full-on marketing team. So instead, they hire a growth marketer, who finds efficient ways to grow the business – because growth marketers have growth as their true north, according to Sean Ellis.

And remember, in the Neil Patel article, he says: “Marketers felt that they had to consider budgets, expenses, conversions, etc. A growth hacker does not care about any of these things…. As growth is the make-or-break metric for startups (either they grow fast enough or they die), that’s the only metric that a growth hacker cares about.”

But wait a minute. Growth hacker Mason Pelt says, “Growth hacking is about optimization as well as lead generation. Imagine your business is a bucket and your leads are water. You don’t want to pour water into a leaky bucket; it’s a waste of money. That’s why a true growth hacker would care about customer retention.”

Customer retention? Stop the presses! That sounds like regular ole’ marketing to me. After reading several sources, in fact, it appears that there is only a loose definition of growth hacking. The rest appears to be up to the person defining the term. For business owners looking for an understanding of what a growth hacker is and why they might want one, it can be pretty confusing.

The Problem

IF a growth hacker truly focuses on growth and only growth, and doesn’t care about the little things like budgets, expenses, conversions, etc…. um…? How does that translate to better costs and growth for the startup?

Oh wait. It worked for Facebook. I mean, they don’t even have a marketing department. They have a growth department.   And it worked for AirBnB, and Uber and…

Look, it’s really awesome that some companies took off and skyrocketed into Internet business fame so quickly. However, that is not the norm, and no amount of growth hacking is going to make it so. In fact, not being concerned with things like budget sounds a might dangerous for many a startup company.

Then there’s focus. Although growth is all well and good, it should matter what type of growth – the biggest question being, “Is it sustainable?” What good is a spike over a week if the traffic disappears or doesn’t convert? Oh, but growth hackers aren’t supposed to care about conversions…

The Lie

The lie is pretty simple; admittedly it isn’t used everywhere, but often enough that it irks. I like how Adam Singer puts it, in his article You don’t need a “Growth Hacker,” just a data-driven marketer. He says:

I know many are well-intentioned and not all are consciously trying to shroud what they do in nebulous terms. But, unfortunately, there are many who attempt to sell services surrounding growth hacking with messages such as: “other marketers are behind the times / not data-driven / not digitally-savvy etc, so you should hire us.”

While it’s true some marketers really aren’t data-driven or digitally-savvy, slapping “growth hacker” onto your title doesn’t necessarily mean you are.

Buyer Beware and Final Thoughts

In this article, I don’t mean to insinuate that Sean Ellis, Neil Patel, Mason Pelt or KissMetrics are bad people. However, I do feel like they – as well as many others in our industry – are helping to perpetrate a less-than-truthful idea. Is growth hacking a scam? No. Not it’s not. Because growth hacking is just good marketing in today’s technological age.

For example, if you don’t already know to look at social platforms, ad placements, SEO, widgets, apps and other tech-based options as potential opportunities for business growth, you have no business calling yourself a marketer. Or at least not an Internet marketer. These things go hand-in-hand with moving a client’s site forward. Internet marketing is called the “cutting-edge” of marketing because it’s constantly changing; target markets are constantly changing how they hang out, discuss issues and buy products. We marketers have to keep up with all that or risk letting our client fall behind.

A good Internet marketer is already aware of non-traditional marketing methods. I say “non-traditional” only to set television, print and radio apart from more online approaches. They aim towards growth, but also look at the sustainability of that growth. Rapid growth just for the sake of it is useless.

A good Internet marketer considers the best, most effective ways to spend the client’s money, time and resources. And, they do so whether the client is a startup or a multi-billion dollar company.

If you’re looking for help in growing your business, don’t be taken by fancy titles. Look for people and agencies with strong records of achievement rather than the next big marketing name.

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Buzz words, fancy acronyms and other avant-garde words have been slowly creeping into our day...what does it all mean and should we care?

Today's Author


Interested in Guest Posting?
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