Web Culture

A Short Introduction to Growth Hacking

Rob Nightingale 15-04-2014

Over the past few years, you’ve likely heard the term ‘growth hacking’ being thrown around, but what exactly is growth hacking, and how is it different from plain old ‘marketing’?


What Is Growth Hacking?

Growth hacking seems to be more than one of those Silicon Valley buzzwords you see being born every other week. And although the definition may err on the side of subjective, there does seem to be some common fundamentals that most ‘growth hackers’ seem to abide by.

From my own research, growth hackers often (but not always) sit in a unique position, at the intersection between data (statistical analysis and programming), marketing, and product development.

Growth Hacking1

When speaking with MakeUseOf writer Matthew Hughes about his understanding of the term, he said that to him ‘growth hacking is the process of attracting users by taking an analytical look at the platform, marketing, and the users’.

In most articles that you may read about growth hacking, it’s the emphasis on data, and the analytical side of the coin that stands out. A growth hacker spends the majority of their time attempting to push quantitative metrics forward by rapid testing, iterations and methodologies that are (ideally) highly scalable and automated.


How Does Growth Hacking Differ From Marketing?

If you’ve been reading about this online, you likely know that this is where the real debate lies. Online communities battle over this question relentlessly, but nevertheless, it seems there is a difference between marketers and growth hackers, even though the line may be somewhat blurred.

  • Marketing may be focused on re-targeting, changing public perceptions, improving brand awareness etc. None of these explicity focus on growth (although some aspects of marketing do use growth as a measure for success). Growth Hacking, on the other hand, explicitly revolves around the growth of a company, whether that’s through improving/changing the marketing message, the product or the user experience. The end goal is, more often than not, growth in the number of dedicated users for a certain product.
  • If you consider ‘growth’, and the focus on rapidly building certain metrics within a company, you’ll see that growth hacking lends itself more to the startup industry, rather than larger corporations. After all, a growth of 0.5% for Coca Cola from one campaign may be a great success, whereas for a startup it would likely be little more than a ripple in the ocean. Growth hackers tend to go for the larger numbers here, which are mostly achievable by working with startups.
  • The emphasis on the startup industry, therefore, means that budgets are often tight. Businesses are looking for quick growth, but without the large cost that a more traditional marketing campaign may incur. And so the word ‘hack’ comes in. Growth hackers are looking to find shortcuts, aternative routes, or entirely new roads to reach those high-growth numbers, adding an extra dimension of creativity and curiosity into the mix.

It is, however,  true that a more ‘modern’ approach to marketing can take into account all of the above. For years, marketing has been analytical too (SEO Demystify SEO: 5 Search Engine Optimization Guides That Help You Begin Search engine mastery takes knowledge, experience, and lots of trial and error. You can begin learning the fundamentals and avoid common SEO mistakes easily with the help of many SEO guides available on the Web. Read More , etc.). But as I mentioned, being analytical alone, isn’t what makes a growth hacker different from the marketer. It’s the whole package. It’s the technical ability, the focus on growth, the understanding about product development and user experience.

A marketer very rarely has this whole package, but a growth hacker does.

What Kind of Tactics Are We Talking?

It’s impossible to sum this up for you quickly or easily. The whole premise of growth hacking means that tactics used for one company aren’t necessarily replicable by another. This Slideshare, however, does take you through 21 ‘tactics’ that growth hackers can consider employing, including SEO, content marketing, search, A/B testing, built-in sharing, automated distribution, CRM automation, remarketing, etc.


There are, of course, some more famous examples of growth hacking done extremely well. When Dropbox ensured that both the referrer and the person referred receives benefits, rather than the usual situation where the benefits are reserved solely for the person doing the referring, this helped to ensure that successful signups skyrocketed.

Another successful example is Buzzfeed, a company that “adjusts their headlines, text, and images in real time to see what will increase sharing. Sort of like an A/B test but there are multiple variables being changed simultaneously and in real time. The results speak for themselves.”

Other Resources

There’s a wealth of information to delve into if you want to learn more about growth hacking. Here are six of my favourites.


Athough the term ‘growth hacking’ has been (and still often is) confused with other aspects of marketing, promoting and building a business, it does seem to have its own specific skill set which sets this role apart from other positions. This is obviously still a developing role, however, and with the tools and methods available at growth hackers’ fingertips, the future looks pretty exciting to those embarking on this career path.


What do you think of Growth Hacking, and have you seen any less-well-known growth hacks?

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  1. Dann A
    April 28, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    As a complimentary resource to your short introduction to growth hacking, I thought I'd post this really LONG introduction to growth hacking: http://www.quicksprout.com/the-definitive-guide-to-growth-hacking/ I haven't read the whole things yet (could take days), but it seems to provide a lot of really great examples. Have you seen this yet, Rob?

    • Rob
      May 2, 2014 at 2:26 pm

      Awesome resource, thanks Dann! I've not had a chance to read over it properly yet, but definitely will, but from what I see so far, seems like a good place to send people for a longer primer :)

  2. rob
    April 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Yea, I think gradually it's becoming more and more necessary for marketers to know about more analytical/statistical based stuff, but there will always be room for specialists in the more creative areas, too, I think :)

  3. Dann A
    April 16, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    I've been hearing the term 'growth hacking' more and more lately, and it's been irritating me quite a bit. Understanding what people mean by it makes it less annoying, though. Thanks for this writeup! It explains a lot.

    However, I'm not totally convinced that growth hacking isn't just a trendier name for marketing (as anything with 'hacking' on the end is super trendy right now). It seems to me like we're just talking about a shift from traditional marketing to digital marketing—SEO, A/B testing, collecting and analysing lots of data, and so on. I mean, the three commandments listed in the SlideShare above are things that people have been saying forever.

    I think everything that's going on in the 'growth hacking' world is great stuff, and that we should encourage it, but I'm not sold on the term yet. I think it's just marketing. And I worry that companies are going to go out looking for growth hackers, when there's a huge pool of marketers that they could be pursuing.

    However, I will check out those links above and see if they change my mind. Awesome article, man!

    • Rob
      April 21, 2014 at 2:35 pm

      Hey Dann, thanks for your great comment! I think you're right in that it's a label for the shift to a more digital form of marketing, but I still think there will always be space for 'pure' marketers, who don't necessarily need the statistical and technical skill of a 'growth hacker' or 'growth engineer', if that's a better term, so having a term that differentiates the two types of marketers, I feel, will be beneficial...What do you think?

    • Dann A
      April 23, 2014 at 8:23 am

      That's a good point, Rob. I haven't been in the marketing field for a while, and I was always a digital-focused guy. But I suppose you're right! I sometimes forget that some people's jobs don't revolve around the internet. :-)

  4. dragonmouth
    April 16, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    "Growth Hacking" does not SEEM to be a Silicon Valley buzzword, it IS a buzzword.

    • Rob
      April 21, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      I guess ;) The article was trying to see if it was more than 'just' a buzzword- I guess that's still open to discussion somewhat, but I do still think it's fot a bit more of a foundation than 'just' another buzzword... :)

  5. Tim Shaw
    April 16, 2014 at 1:59 am

    famous examples of growth hacking done extremely well.

    Growth hacking hmmmm......

    Dropbox says it is committed to security and privacy, despite admitting that its services were vulnerable to the Heartbleed internet encryption flaw.
    (Credit: Dropbox)

    But while the company has assured users that a password change will protect their data, Dropbox vice president Ross Piper was today unable to give assurances that security had not been breached in the past.

    • Rob
      April 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      In all honesty, though I think most large companies, if being completely open, would pretty much say the same thing. This doesn't take away from the fact that Dropbox has been pretty incredible when it comes to their growth... :)