A growth hacker is a hunter of growth. Growth hackers focus all their efforts on uncovering the rare gem of a (low-cost) action that will trigger rapid, massive and self-powered growth (much like a tsunami – once triggered, it’s propelled by its own momentum).
Digital marketers spend their days working in their analytics solutions, distilling and transforming insights into actions with the goal of improving performance, and therefore creating growth. The digital marketer digs around, analyses all available data even down to the “weak signals”, builds creative action plans, tests, measures, adjusts, and starts all over again. And then repeats.
And one day, bingo!!!! The digital marketer discovers a totally unexpected way of generating strong, self-propelled growth, for a nearly non-existent level of investment: The digital marketer has become a growth hacker!!! And this is even more true if implementing the said action involves non-traditional methods which straddle the border of current ethical standards.
It’s likely that the digital marketer will always retain this status of growth hacker, even if this majestic feat may never again occur during the remainder of his or her career.
This is why, for digital marketers, growth hacking can be likened to the stars on a football shirt (or soccer player’s jersey), which represent a result that was achieved once or twice (like winning a world championship title)… but do not necessarily represent results from today.
In reality, “growth hacker” can only be a temporary status, a dazzling but short-lived moment in the life of a digital marketer.
If digital marketers have held disdain for “regular” marketers, digital marketers themselves are now held in disdain by these (too often self-proclaimed) growth hackers.
But, so goes the trend for personal branding and the quest for differentiating one’s individual standing.
Let’s trace back the history of marketing, which itself sees the repetition of numerous examples from our civilisation’s history: The old prophets like Porter, Deming, Drucker, and many others who I won’t cite here, inspired a true cult-like following from certain elite followers.
And then, a new elite takes power and replaces the former elite, via a new evangelisation: start with a clean slate, get rid of idolised symbols, reconvert the believers, recycle and dress up (or sometimes simply rename) useful (often even necessary) concepts by assimilation.
The new doctrine is then propagated and prospers until the day where a new disruptive concept arrives, casting doubt on the old one, and the cycle comes full circle.
The current surge in growth hacking could lead us to believe that today, there are more growth hackers than marketers.
But if we look more closely, we can easily see the flaw in this logic… The true, authentic hacks we always see cited as examples since 2010 only really represent a handful, and they’re difficult to reproduce.
I’m going to cite a counterexample:
Airbnb and its famous Craigslist hack are often cited. But more recently, we’ve observed that major real estate groups are massively offering their properties on… Airbnb!
This shows all the signs of growth hacking (yet we are not talking about start-ups here).
Note: Here we’re referring to the reproduction of the “white hat” side of the Airbnb hack, which, according to certain publications back in 2011, would also have brought about a “black hat” component (which got them banned from Craigslist for a certain time).
Aside from that, a great number of actions or marketing processes have been rebranded as growth hacks (A/B testing, landing pages, analytics, omnichannel, emailing, social selling, etc.).
It’s got more flourish, it’s more viral, and it sounds better.
So why this confusion?
- The proximity between the two roles: A growth hacker is a marketer, but not all marketers are growth hackers.
- The nature of a hack itself: by definition, it’s a rare commodity.
- The rapid obsolescence of the hack (what may initially be a hack slides over into the realm of mainstream marketing if it’s too often reproduced, and quickly loses its impact).
- The subtle difference in the end goal: Both digital marketers and growth hackers seek to generate growth, but the growth hacker concentrates exclusively on ultra-rapid, low-cost growth, which powers itself (the [benefit]/[cost] ratio is exceptional and sees an even greater increase when scaled).
- The philosophy which underpins the actions: For the growth hacker, the end justifies the means, which accounts for the creative manners in which growth hackers seek opportunities, as well as their permissiveness regarding certain widely accepted ethics (but this doesn’t necessarily mean fraudulent practices).
- The nature of the company and its life cycle: Clearly, start-ups must generate quick growth or they will die, whereas more mature companies look to bolster their position and “keep on growing” with regards to their market competition.
There are very few genuine growth hackers – and that’s how it should be.
And none of this lessens the virtues of digital marketing, Lean practices, analytics, or data. Actually, it’s not rare to see growth hackers whose mission naturally evolves over time toward digital marketing.
So, you’re a digital marketer? No problem… be proud of it!
Even if the title may have lost some of its former shine, it has now taken on a patina with time which testifies to the longevity and solidity of the profession.
If you have a powerful digital analytics tool, if you’re not afraid to dig deep into your data, if you possess the skills to analyse it, if you test and re-test, if you’ve proven yourself to be creative and agile…
… then you don’t need to disguise yourself as a growth hacker, and you don’t need to give in to the buzz – you are already essential and a must-have for your company.
And if one day the opportunity presents itself, you’ll know to grab it and sport a star on your growth hacker jersey!