What is Growth Hacking? PART II: Growth Hacking Grows Up

Growth Hacking Part 2

Mohamed Zahid is HootSuite’s User Growth Business Analyst. This is Part 2 of a growth hacking blog series authored by “Mo.” Catch up and read Part 1

From Hacks to Formal Problem-Solving Framework

While the term is recent, growth hacking dates back to Hotmail’s “PS: I love you” hack and probably even earlier. A “hack” is a shortcut or workaround, and a “growth hack” is simply a workaround traditional distribution techniques.

Embedded video was YouTube's growth hack. In return for free video hosting, websites promoted the YouTube brand as the standard in video hosting by embedding YouTube-hosted videos on their websites. Only recently, has YouTube become a portal for video.
Embedded video was YouTube’s growth hack. In return for free video hosting, websites promoted the YouTube brand as the standard in video hosting by embedding YouTube-hosted videos on their websites.

The first generation of growth hacks focused primarily on users acquisition: this included everything from hyperlinks, viral growth, shares, invites, etc. These techniques were and still are incredibly successful, but a fundamental problem arose time and time again for companies overly focused on user acquisition to the detriment of a product’s other dimensions: you cannot fill a leaky bucket. These “growth hacks” could bring users to a landing page, but getting them to perform an action (or “convert”, eg. watching a YouTube clip, uploading a picture to Flickr, adding a friend on Facebook, following someone on Twitter or sending an email in Hotmail), let alone remain and come back to do it again was an entirely other struggle which many startups simply regarded as a bridge they would cross once they got there.

The term “hacking” also implies curiosity, and a strong desire to learn, iterate and progress. The new wave of growth hacking is much more product focused, working on the more difficult problems of user activation, engagement and retention. Instead of simply bringing as much traffic to a product as possible, the new currency is in trying to build an audience of core, engaged users (which in turn leads to high retention and possibly even virality).

With a decade of experience under their belts, growth experts and practitioners honed their craft, from simple and creative “growth hacks” to an elegant, stylized and quite frankly brilliant problem-solving framework (which I’ll explain in more detail in the next post). Combining internet marketing with engineering, analytics and product, enter the new growth hacker and fully-fledged growth teams, a phenomenon of recent years, who are gaining incredible traction in the Valley and elsewhere.

The Growth Hackers’ Conference: Growth Hacking as a Problem Solving Methodology

Growth Hackers ConferenceI recently attended the Growth Hackers Conference in Palo Alto. There was surprisingly little talk about literal “growth hacks.” Rather, the real focus of the conference was on the discipline’s next big challenge, which was getting the user to a product’s core value as quickly and as often as possible (to paraphrase Chamath Palihapitiya, ex-VP Growth at Facebook, whose rules for growth I will explain in the next part of this series).

The premise seems so obvious that if one hadn’t spent years focused solely on trying to ramp up user signups, it would appear a trivial suggestion. But at the same time, it’s incredibly robust. Most marketing and distribution is focused on the start and finish, with the middle being somewhat of a mystery.

I’ll end on a high note by quoting Andy John’s brilliant analogy regarding growth teams and growth hackers: “growth teams are technology’s equivalent to a finance team, rather than capital, they optimize the flow of users in and out of your product.”

Growth hacking is a young, fragmented and vast discipline, but this series is an introduction to the discipline. In the next post, I will explain Facebook’s four pillars of growth, setting them on the path to a billion users.

PS: I love you. Questions and comments are most welcome.