growth hackers

There’s a growing movement in Silicon Valley to replace “Marketers” with a new position called “Growth Hackers”. Some are claiming that startups should eliminate their marketing teams altogether.

I agree that marketers in general need to become more data-oriented and tech-savvy. I also respect many of the techniques that are getting categorized as “growth hacks”. But I seriously question that this narrow new job title somehow replaces or obviates the entire field of marketing. Everything that I’ve read about “growth hackers” seems like a part of the marketing role — a subset of direct marketing blended with product development.

As background, here’s how Andrew Chen defined “Growth Hacker” in a widely read piece called “Growth Hacker is new VP Marketing“:

“The new job title of “Growth Hacker” is integrating itself into Silicon Valley’s culture, emphasizing that coding and technical chops are now an essential part of being a great marketer. Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.”

Dropbox marketing alum Sean Ellis first coined “growth hacker” a few years ago with this explanation:

“The reason I created the term was that I wanted to distance myself and others from the 80-90% of marketers that made me cringe with their acronyms and lack of accountability to results. These are the people that gave marketing such a bad name in Silicon Valley.”

Lastly, here’s how Ryan Holiday explains “growth hacking”:

“See, growth hacking threw out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Its tools are emails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While traditional marketing chases 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.”

Andrew Chen illustrates growth hacking with a case study from Airbnb. Airbnb integrated with Craigslist so that people could post their Airbnb listings on Craiglist with a few simple steps. Craigslist doesn’t have a public API, so Airbnb had to engineer a fairly complex workaround to make this integration work in such an elegant way. This allowed Airbnb to benefit from the massive platform of Craigslist. Andrew goes on to point out that a traditional marketer wouldn’t have figured this out.

I agree that this is a great scrappy way for a startup to acquire customers. I also agree that engineers should be thinking as marketers. But that’s not the only type of marketing a company needs to think about. Airbnb’s success is due not only to these types of “growth hacks”, but to traditional marketing too, including display online ads, push marketing, and even traditional print and TV ads. Airbnb marketing extends to the company’s hospitality philosophy and the touch points of individual hosts. All of this is marketing and all of this led to the success of Airbnb. Marketing is far broader and deeper than “growth hacking”.

Growth hacking alone doesn’t build a brand. And I think marketing is more important than ever, even as it evolves to be more data-driven. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Justin Jackson says

    I think one thing that’s changed for everyone (from the CEO, to Product Manager, to marketing, to engineer) is the need to produce real results.

    For the marketer, the old axiom (“Half of my advertising budget isn’t producing results, I just don’t know which half”) is no longer an acceptable answer.

    There’s the expectation now, to produce real data to backup your claims.

    Overall, I think this is a good thing: now we can actually track what works, and what doesn’t.

  2. Dan Thornton says

    I think part of the allure of hiring ‘growth hackers’ as opposed to marketers is that you can then claim your company succeeded without ever needing marketing.

    Even if it is very much needed focus on what is testable, trackable and scalable, it’s not a magic solution to everything that any brand or business needs. I love working on growth hacking and product development projects, but you have to put as much effort into other areas otherwise you’ll have something which is incredibly well optimized, but completely soulless.

  3. alex schultz says

    I was the original marketing guy on the growth team at Facebook that was set up by Chamath Palihapitya in 2008. My title has always contained the word marketing and I am very proud of that fact. We have an amazing CMO called Gary Briggs who I look up to tremendously and did at eBay too. His team recently did an amazing project with the Facebook “look back” video (nothing to do with me or my team), it was a brilliant intersection of brand marketing and technology pulling in your own pictures and posts into a video pre-rendered for 100MMs of users and available across mobile web and desktop web. Just awesome work and showing that it isn’t just direct response marketing that can do amazing work at the intersection of product, engineering and marketing, brand teams can too. As such I don’t draw a line between growth hackers and marketers, I draw a line between great marketers who drive impact and the rest. Hopefully both the growth team and the core marketing team at Facebook fall into the later category. I’m super proud to be associated with the term marketing and never want to be a growth hacker.

  4. Fiona McAnena says

    I love this cartoon. Growth hacker is just a new name for marketing. Why is a new name needed? Because the idea of marketing as a holistic approach to generating and matching demand with stuff you can make and sell has been totally bastardised by people in the tech space (whether ecommerce/ digital marketers on the client side or tech specialists in the agency world). Appending the word “marketing” to everything – e.g. search engine marketing, content marketing – only reveals that they think marketing is the promotion of stuff you’ve got in the warehouse. That’s just sales at scale. There’s a place for marketing communication, which is what they mean by marketing. But real marketing is about understanding what creates value for potential customers too, and influencing what the company does as a result – in other words, real marketers influence inside their business not just outside. This is something best done without hubris.

  5. R Daems says

    Many outside the profession and even in, mistakenly interpret marketing as the practice of one-way communication—a blind art of spending a lot of money trying to persuade people to buy something with limited data or ability to truly diagnose impact and drivers. But that is not marketing. It’s advertising—a very small subset of what real marketing is.

    The core of true marketing lies in providing satisfaction and fulfillment to targeted consumers. It reaches to the very core of the business. True marketing involves everything from product and service design to delivery, from innovation to communication. Communication is a subset of marketing, and per the root of the word (“co”), it is by definition a two-way relationship. That requires information, data, and insight. This is not new to the discipline.

    A real marketer understands deeply what moves and inspires consumers (even better than they know themselves), develops strategies, leads innovation, guides product and service design, shapes delivery, crafts the value proposition, and develops the channels which facilitate relationships with the consumer. To do this, a marketer must have real data. Data is as vital to a marketer as instrument readings are to a pilot. Without that, neither will successfully achieve their objective. Advances in technology and channels of communication will continue to improve the ability to gauge and understand the dynamics that impact the business, but new instruments do not negate the practice of marketing—it enhances it.

    So call it what you like, but “growth hacking” is a simply a delineation between advertising and real marketing—a new paint job on an already well-placed fence. Ironically, the coining and promotion of “growth hacking” itself is advertising.

  6. Ben Z. says

    Growth hacking sounds more like “big data’s” older, smarter sister. It sounds like it could be a great part of a marketing/growth strategy, but not replace the entire field of marketing or exclusively build a brand.

    I think it easy to lose sight of traditional brand building and the equity that’s wrapped up in real human insights, compared to algorithmic data.

    I think striking the right balance between the utilization of today’s new data gathering and leveraging techniques, and traditional marketing tactics is the best use of a healthy marketing budget.

  7. Tracy Carlson says

    “Growth hacking” is a purely left-brained view of the world, sprung from an engineering culture that only values the things it already understands as important. As Tom says, there is considerable merit to it: who doesn’t value things that can be proven to work? And marketers who shy away from data and/or accountability do themselves and the profession no service. But that’s only part of the story. Surely even the hardest-nosed Silicon Valley geek can appreciate what Steve Jobs did at Apple. What made Apple special, beloved, and the largest company in the world (for a time) was integrating the “squishy” right-brain stuff that is often the province of marketing (though rarely stated as such): beauty, art, craftsmanship, intuition, emotion, playfulness, and more. Yes, integrating Airbnb w/Craigslist was a great idea, but it’s only part of the story, though perhaps the only part of the story that Andrew Chen and his like can appreciate. We need excellence in both left- and right-brain approaches, not just the linearity that underlies “growth hacking.” After all, what makes something go viral is not just tech goodies embedded in a product–it’s something that delights people in some way.

  8. Steve Thomas says

    When people asked what I did when I was at eBay, I typically answered, “marketing”. The thing is, I’m a coder and, so I’ve been told, a pretty good one. I was the technical leader for a team of over 100+ engineers–I asked all 100+ of them to think of themselves as marketers too.

  9. kaymackgee says

    There is a huge digital audit going on, and Consultants give advice on where we are, where we should be and what will be important in 2014 … LETS BE CLEAR! They are simply a Middle Man explaining all the mistakes of the previous years rule book. That isnt very agile at all. I wrote a piece on a CMO that is doing it very well –>

    As far as new roles, these fat hippos that are just throwing money should actually invest in a program of breaking new ground yourself ? Paying someone else to explain the internet is just plain lazy in my eyes.

    Go find out for yourself! If you can create a great story/message and be consistently engaging then your audience will follow. So go make it happen, Cut the Crap & the rule book – Happy?!

  10. Jann Mirchandani says

    The term is just an attempt to create “buzz” around something; the effort itself is a marketing endeavor as R Daems has already pointed out.

    The fact that marketers now have metrics to help guide them in doing their jobs more effectively doesn’t actually change what they are trying to do; just how they do it.

  11. Tom Alewine says

    Sounds like a valuable service. We used to call it Business Development. Agree with Jann, Growth Hackers are just using old-fashioned marketing techniques to try and create interest and an appearance of rare and sophisticated talent. It’s been going on since reporters became journalists. In the end, we’re all salespeople of different stripes anyway.

  12. Montoya says

    I got hired for my latest job as a “growth hacker.” I was quick to change my title to “product manager,” though. On why I made this change, I said: “sure, I’ll help you on the growth side, but my preferred way to do that is by making the product better.”

  13. Yael Givon says

    Before tgere was growth hacking, there was product marketing, which is actually the same thing, but sounds less cool maybe, and not enough companies had someone in that position. I find that the companies who do have someone that’s dedicated to include the marketing perspective in products, and forces marketing depts to look at results and ab testing,tend to maximise their marketing potential and have more options for healthy growth. The hype makes me cringe, i must admit.

  14. Sean says

    As a consumer savvy in tech and a few other specialty disciplines, nothing turns me off more than an ad which was obviously done by someone who does not understand the product they are advertising: ads for computing platforms which omit even the most basic specs in favor of shiny case art; ads for design/media/gaming school that look like they were photoshopped by their target demographic in under 15 minutes; ads for posters or t-shirts which describe the featured design in terms that nobody who would recognize it to begin with would ever use; etc. I have been known to screenshot and post particularly egregious violations to my own social media wall of shame. For my 2 cents, the emergence of “Growth Hacking” reflects the fact that an increasingly sophisticated consumer base with increasingly many options is less inclined to fall for big-budget blanket bombardment, and doesn’t have much patience for interacting with marketers who only want to make a sale. They would much prefer the promotion of a product be an informed extension of the product’s development process/team, and ideally a two-way street in which knowledge/improvements/use-cases/etc. can be exchanged. Not that this is anything new- for years and years whenever vendors attempt to sell tech to my office, they shoot themselves in the foot when all they send are canned demos and marketing experts who don’t really know how the product is developed or used and can’t answer pointed technical questions about how it will integrate into our existing systems or future products.
    Can “traditional” marketing still sell products? Certainly, particularly if they are traditional products that everyone already understands, and which differentiate themselves primarily on “brand image,” “consumer mindshare” and the like. Can traditional marketing sell new concepts and technologies developed by niche creators targeted at highly-informed consumers and early-adopters in the sort of environment epitomized by silicon valley? I could easily believe not.

  15. Frank Watson says

    It is the term itself that should be changed – not the type of work it suggests and has developed. There is the implication of creativity – if not just in the capriciousness of the name – that is needed by any successful marketing effort.

    To not make use of the ‘big data’ that is now available would be foolish, but A/B testing and multivariate testing have been around since before the computer. It is the laziness of just using the tools, of not including the insights that can be drawn from them, that is at fault. Credit card purchase histories saw the upswing in direct mail, as did bulk mail and geo-targeted deliveries.

    AirBnB was clever – and yes the Craiglist integration was a smart play – but they were not the first – the sale of Craigslist posting bots supports that.

    The company succeeded because they adopted to the changes in response that studies of tracking showed. The addition of photos, the generalized mapping compliments of Google and other actions have shown the company has been quick to change.

    Semantics should be ignored unless it is that of the words on the electronic page. Whether we put marketing after the numerous areas that can generate potential sales or come up with some other clever name for it – we are still all about increasing the company’s ROI – a term that has been around since that of investment, be it sweat or money.

    Just as the speed of access to the internet has increased so has the speed to market and the tools used to get us there. When it moves faster that we can respond there is a need to adopt programmatically.

  16. Sean Ellis says

    Great cartoon and article. The term growth hacker has evolved quite a bit since I first coined it in 2010. My original intention was to define a role for early stage startups with a singular focus on driving sustainable customer acquisition growth. I was trying to replace myself at companies like Dropbox that I had helped take to market and too many of the resumes emphasized the softer skills of marketing. I actually think those skills are important in a later stage company, but startups don’t have the luxury to focus on many things besides acquiring customers and quickly iterating on their feedback.

    While those were my original intentions, I actually like a lot of the evolution in the meaning of the term. All companies can benefit by championing innovation in customer acquisition. Too many marketers gravitate toward established advertising channels, which are increasingly saturated with little promise for profitable scalability. Engineers can play a huge role in driving growth, and growth hacking seems to be a more attractive way for them to look at their role than marketing engineer. The challenges of marketing are only increasing, so I don’t expect “growth hacking” to slow down anytime soon.

    Before “growth hacking”, “agile marketing” was emerging as the term to describe iterative, data driven online marketing and optimization. But this Google Trends chart suggests that “growth hacking” has replaced it:

    Personally, I’m most happy that it has triggered articles and discussions like this that emphasize the best ways to effectively drive customer acquisition growth. We can all get better through these discussions.

  17. Jennifer Nelson says

    The intent of what a growth hacker is all about is wonderful (I like the hubris and actively advocate self appointed title creation!), but when the individual in such a job is ready to expand his capabilities and toolkit so that he can ALSO effectively dissolve barriers to growth (AND find ways to fuel demand) by working with ALL of what it takes to sustain growth in a business — R&D, manufacturing, engineering, legal, regulatory, PR, sales, design, customer service, etc — then they are ready to be a marketer.

    I guess I’m kind of an old school “Total Integrated Marketing” type — if a marketer isn’t doing everything a growth hacker is doing and so much more, then they don’t deserve the title either.

  18. Bernard Desarnauts (@bdesarnauts) says

    What’s somewhat missing in my mind from this otherwise very good article + the discussion (there and on is that the #1 most important “marketing” tool more than any program is the product itself (inferred somewhat in the Apple/Jobs earlier comment)

    To follow on the Airbnb case mentionned, the whole product experience is the essence of the marketing of the service. the hack of leveraging craig’s list was a simple accelerator (important but not sufficient). If you’re interested in Airbnb, you should read the recent Fast Company interview of brian chesky and chip conley (ex Joie de vivre and who was in the 90s a revolutionary marketing guy – his book is priceless too – interview at

  19. Timo says

    As a product manager, entrepreneur, ex startup CEO and a marketing scholar I’ve become enormously interested in the intersection of metrics-driven customer acquisition, engineering and marketing that Sean E. started calling “growth hacking” because it gives structure to the chaos of what is called marketing.

    What I mean by this is that although I’ve studied and done marketing for years I still feel it is such a huge term that encompasses so many things, that calling oneself a marketer sounds 99% of the time like overselling.

    Growth hacking, for me, is a sort of a promise of a more focused approach to marketing, where you focus on only the bare minimum of what is needed to get a startup off the ground. I haven’t studied much brand marketing apart from Marketing 101, and have focused more on the things I’ve felt are within reach of a startup, that is performance marketing, CRM, services marketing and new products development. Now that I’m working for a bigger company, I still feel that as a product manager the startup-oriented focus of my studies have served me well and that the brand-specific parts of marketing are better handled by specialists.

    Like it was noted in the comments before me, getting the product & positioning right first is the often neglected core of marketing, and building a brand is much easier when the product is right. How do you get the product right then?

    To me, the conventional “wisdom” is that engineering / product is responsible for that and then marketing has to deal with whatever comes their way. The second promise of growth hacking for me is that when marketing and engineering combine, there is no-one the blame but oneself if the attempts fail, since growth hacking is end-to-end.

    So I feel the contribution of growth hacking to the humongous and hard-to-grasp field or marketing is that it is a subset of marketing activities that enable a startup to have just the minimal ingredients within marketing to get enough early traction to get that Series A round of funding to then hire the “big guns” of brand marketing, that if hired any earlier, could do nothing for the startup if the product itself wasn’t working.

    Finally, I heard from a fellow CEO of a startup this point that kind of blew my mind because I hadn’t thought about it at all: growth hacking can be determining factor of who of five competing startups take a “winner-takes-all” market that is yet undecided. Now this might be a point that not all agree on, but I think it says a ton about going the extra mile; if everyone in a market plays by-the-book, the one that does that and then some growth hacking can exploit arbitrages (such as the famous Craislist example) that aren’t available for marketers to come, but are very real for those ones that can exploit them within the narrow window of time that they do exist.

    So, thank you Sean E. for coining the term, it has reignited my interest (and hope) in marketing, the field which just a moment ago felt so unbearably multi-faceted that I almost gave up on it.

  20. Pam McNamara says

    What about customer retention hacking? Growth typically means customre acquisition. Which is not the marketer’s only challenge believe me.

  21. Cecile @digitalfabriq says

    Reg. “Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?

    More to the point: Why would anyone want my product in the first place?

    That’s in my view the first question hackers should seek to answer. Perhaps if we did pay more attention to this before anything else, we would not end up having so many products no one needs. P&G’s connected toothbrush and a talking toaster on social media are the last 2 that come to mind… Marketing is about selling meaningful products and services first and foremost.

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