What Is Growth Hacking: In-Depth Answer


If you're familiar with the trends and buzzwords in marketing, you've undoubtedly encountered growth hacking. You may be asking yourself, 'what is growth hacking?'. 

The term "growth hacker" itself was coined by Sean Ellis through his blog about startup marketing.

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth. Is positioning important? Only if a case can be made that it is important for driving sustainable growth (FWIF, a case can be generally made). - Sean Ellis

The core concept is that growth hacking is a process of continuously experimenting to scale exponentially as quick as possible. Whereas traditional marketing experts; growth hackers focus on the entire marketing and sales funnel.

Here's the growth hackers funnel:


Here's the inbound marketing funnel:


Ok! nothing is black and white. The same can be said here... there's some overlap between growth hacking and inbound marketing.

The main difference is that growth hackers gather feedback to make changes to the product or service whereas inbound marketers are often only focused on promoting the product or service they are given.

Take it from me; there's nothing worse than trying to sell a bad product you don't even believe in!

Who's a growth hacker?

Growth hackers can be anyone. Don't take my word for it, analyze the top 100 influential growth hackers as of 2015.

Marketers have enjoyed as much success as coders and engineers when it comes to growth hacking. LinkedIn Head of Growth Aatif Awans said the key characteristic for a growth hacker is the ability to analyze and recognize trends affecting growth. When a growth hacker has a clear idea of how to push that precious growth needle, they'll start creating hacks to enable growth.

Growth hacks themselves are strategies and tactics designed to be results-oriented using any means to achieve growth. To get an inside scoop check out the growth case studies on Growthhackers.com community to see how some of today's largest tech companies managed to gain millions of users.

Growth Hacker is the new VP of Marketing according to Andrew Chen. Growth hacking is traditionally used in Saas based startups or internet based companies. Regular digital marketers only focus on activation and acquisitions (getting qualified website traffic that hopefully converts into a sale). With that being said, growth hacking can be done for any online or offline company; it just requires a change in mindset.

If you're a digital marketer don't become discouraged because you're in the best possible position to integrate growth hacking into your DNA. Let me make one think clear; growth hackers often don't hold the title growth hacker.

For example, I work for an ecommerce company as a Digital Marketing Coordinator at PropertyRoom.com. We focus on all stages of the growth hacking funnel. When we see parts of the website that needs to be changed to increase retention we communicate with developers, and they put it into their next sprint. We continuously test and measure our hypothesis to learn and find new growth hacks based on the methodology from The Lean Startup, growth hacking, and inbound marketing.


What Do Growth Hackers Do?

Think of growth hackers as moonshiners. They run small operations, such as startups, and distill things down to its purest form. Instead of moonshine, they want growth; Growth is their life!

Growth hackers want to move the singular needle of growth rather than focus on "traditional" digital marketing strategies that won't generate exponential growth. 

It's important to make the distinction that growth hackers are not better or worse than marketers. They are different. Marketers are an important facet to the growth of a startup but growth hackers zero in on every aspect of the product to increase revenue and extend the customer life cycle. Every decision a growth hacker makes is informed by its impact on growth alone. The answer to what is growth hacking is to find the quickest way to create the biggest impact for a product or business.

Overview of Growth Hacking Funnel

First, off you should know that you should only focus on growth hacking after you have acquired product market fit (when someone is willing to pay for your service, and you have gotten to a good level of retention).


  • How do users find you?”

Now the first step for any growth hacker is to identify how to ramp up your user acquisitions. Ask 'How do users find you?' This can be done in Google Analytics by analyzing the number of conversions each of your marketing channels have gotten you vs. the cost per customer acquisition. Also, you need to interact with your buyer personas and understand their customer's journey.

Once you have a sense of who your customer is and the levers that trigger their behaviors (decision-making process) review this   Epic List of 100 Growth Hacks by Justin McGill. Strategies like commenting on Slideshare, offering reviews for books and content on Amazon, sharing and retweeting relevant viral content, and even hiring Vas (virtual assistants) from the ranks of the freelance masses will get you out there.

Remember growth hacking is continuously testing, measuring, and learning through experiments. Just because one growth hack worked for one company doesn't mean it will work for your startup. It's important to build this mindset into your culture so you can alway improve your product and marketing.


  • Do users have a great first experience?”

Once a growth hacker has started attracting more users, those users need to have a great first experience. We need to activate them—to turn them on—to your product. Marketing research in retail stores has long shown that the consumers want things to be easy before they want anything else, even security. So growth hackers are going to make that first experience a quick, easy, and attractive experience. It needs the same popularity as other forms of instant gratification.

What does this mean for your product? Make sign up lists easy. Ask for an e-mail address and a password, and that's it. Don't require verification. The extra effort of signing into an e-mail account and clicking verify is already four steps too many. Did you get a hook in them? Great. Don't let them off the line.

Once you've established that instant gratification of a great first experience, a growth hacker's going to find other ways to continue to provide value to that first experience. Free webinars, free trials, a suave thank you page or note after sign up and tweeting out about new members all serve to make your customer feel valued.

A great first experience incorporates instant gratification and making the customer feel valued beyond that of your competitors. Once you've got their foot in the door, activation is about luring them into that first step. Once you've activated your customers to your product or service, it's time to start bringing them back.


  • Do users come back?”

Retention is where growth hackers start to show their value. The internet is a culture of the viral video, the viral meme, and the viral website. Everything feels like a one-shot wonder. Growth hacks targeting retention are what is going to boost your startup and your product into the next tier. Getting results in retention is a goal and a mainstay in what growth hackers do.

So what is growth hacking regarding getting retention? Keeping it positive, keep it fun. Share all the good news about your product and business. E-mail updates on a regular basis. If you're worried about spamming spruce up your e-mails with some user-oriented content. Gamify your communication by offering them exclusive rewards for 'level-ups' or grant 'achievements.' The Halo generation of gamers are rising into the key consumer demographic meaning everything they do will welcome gratification.

You can also keep it classy with thank you cards, offering reminders about expiration dates on credit card information, and keeping users posted on opportunities for them to save. An integral part of retention is offering value. If a customer perceives value, be it convenience, fun, or savings, then they won't view your content as spam. Instead, they'll keep clicking and keep reading.

Retention is the essence of growth hacking. Retaining customers and keeping them hooked will pay dividends for your growth rate.


  • How do you make money?”

So we're growing. We've begun to answer the question of what is growth hacking and what do growth hackers do. We have obtained product-market fit, and our growth hackers has begun pushing that needle. Now we're getting positive activity and retention. The next question is revenue. How are we going to monetize our growth? How can we hack our existing revenue to grow even more?

Ok! so here's the ultimate revenue growth hack. "Pick up the phone and start dialing!" 

                            via GIPHY

I'm just kidding ;-). A growth hacker will begin by analyzing their current sales process and targeting at-risk customers. There's a reason why engineers and coders sometimes make great growth hackers alongside the marketers. They can do the gritty analytics.

What are the warning signs that a customer is going to cancel their subscription? Spotting these trends through careful study, for example, a customer has not browsed the shop in X number of weeks, will allow you to introduce a hack to re-engage them.

To reduce churn in your Saas startup look at the following.

  1. Find out why you're losing customers
  2. Keep current customers engaged
  3. Use drip email campaigns
  4. Downsell customers to a basic offer
  5. Figure out what part of your product makes customers become sticky

We're creating a safety net to catch customers slipping through the cracks. Tagging an at-risk customer and following up opens the potential for any future sales that otherwise would've gone by the wayside.

I believe the most powerful tactic is to downsell at cancellation. If you haven't re-engaged the customer then offer them a sweet one-time deal to renew their subscription. Again, we're offering value in exchange for future growth. It's hard to walk away from a free lunch and it's always easier to retain a current customer than to have to go get a new one.

Finally, if there's no swaying a departing customer, encourage them to provide feedback through an exit survey. Exit surveys offer valuable information for future growth hacks. You're making money from customers who are leaving your site or product behind. This information can be used in the analysis, planning, and future growth hacks to go beyond righting the ship and replacing the revenue to improving your business.


  • Do users tell others?”

Referral hacks are the last stage in the growth hacking funnel. Up to this point, our growth hackers have been focused on one user at a time. Yes, we may be attracting a large number of users, but the hacks themselves are set to interact with website visitors on an individual basis. Referral hacks take it to that next level. These are the growth hacks that cause a customer to promote your product as if they are an extension of your sales team. This is where are curve transforms from a steady progression to an exponential tilt up.

For example, Uber launched a referral program that gave $30 worth of free rides to new users. Patrick Cines is a young growth hacker that took advantage of this program and managed to rack up $1,500 in free Uber rides. Here's an overview of Uber growth engine.


Colleges are like micro communities with tech savvy users which make it one of the best ways to get initial growth if you buyer personas aligns with college students demographics.

The most basic and fundamental referral hack is to offer a perk for using your product or service. Perks can range from discounts to storage space, to a personalized reward, and even exclusive reward tiers. Keep it easy and give it value. A perk hack offers passive value in exchange for active growth to your customers.

Another easy-to-implement referral hack is to simply ask customers to share and retweet. The consumer base is more aware than ever of the benefits of sharing content, sharing value, and sharing information. If they can help you get more followers, you can help them get more followers. This basic exchange of value between you and the customer leads to that customer duplicating into a new customer. Include sharing links in e-mails, blog posts, web pages, and special offers. It's a one-click world and shared content needs to be quick and easy if you're trying to grow referrals.

Finally, we need our referrals to be traceable. Utilize tools like Google Analytics, UTM parameters, and affiliate programs to ensure that you can track the success of your referral hacks. Trial and error will inform a savvy growth hacker as to what is effective for generating referrals. Once they have an idea of what makes the needle move, they'll replicate that effort to start pushing growth.


Now you have an overall understanding of what growth hacking is. Consider finding your startup a proficient growth hacker to help unlock your product and website so you can begin developing large-scale marketing strategies.

Some experts will argue that you should learn how to do growth hacking yourself. I'm going to argue that by focusing on your skill set and hiring people that complement your weaknesses you will be able to scale a lot faster. The real question is if you want to give up equity to an early stage employee, founder or hire a growth marketing consultant... They both come with pros and cons.

When hiring growth hackers remember they should be in-depth analysts and idea people with the touch of brilliance to recognize different levers within the growth hacking funnel for your startup. Initiative, creativity, and aggression are essential characteristics of growth hackers. It's a results-first business, pushing that initial growth, so you need a growth hacker that can take the responsibility and run with it. Marketing experts are grand strategists, plotting campaigns one battle at a time to achieve victory. Growth hackers are specialists, the sharp shooters, who can target and hit a single objective using whatever means are at their disposal. Regardless here's the skillset of a growth hacker.


Think you have the chops to match the best growth hackers in the tech industry? Let me know what's one growth hack that has given you the most success below in the comments section. 

Inbound Marketing Playbook For Startups