To many, “growth hacking” is a relatively recent and mostly unknown term.
The concept, however, has been put into practice for years by some of the top production managers and internet marketers in Silicon Valley.
Here, we’ll examine growth hacking in greater detail, focusing on the best strategies, sites, and tools commonly used by growth hackers.
What We’ll Cover:
- What growth hacking is
- How growth hacking compares to SEO
- Key differences between SEO and growth hacking
- Examples of black hat growth hacking strategies
- Examples and strategies of growth hacking from brands
- Growth hacking tools
- How to measure results
What is Growth Hacking?
While growth hacking as a concept is not exactly new, it wasn’t officially given a name until 2010, when Sean Ellis coined the phrase.
Ellis, already known as a “go-to” guy in Silicon Valley for helping companies grow their user base, defined a growth hacker as “a person whose true north is growth.”
A growth hacker is not just another term for a marketer; while their goals are based in marketing, they are driven by product instincts.
Additionally, many growth hackers have more technical know-how under their belt than the typical marketing pro, and often bring coding skills and other technical skills to the table, allowing them to directly implement their ideas.
Unlike classic marketing methods, growth hackers look for quick and often unconventional wins and adopting everything from behavioral processes to cross-marketing synergy to gamification to get the job done. Growth hackers set about finding the right message to reach users and pull them in.
In short, growth hacking is a strategy used by start-ups (usually) to reach a large audience as quickly as possible. It is generally looked at as a way to hack your marketing so you can accomplish goals faster.
In other words, the only rule in growth hacking is, there are no rules. As you can imagine, this has lead to a bit of controversy, which I’ll get into later on.
It is also important to note that many of the same things done in traditional marketing such as SEO, PR and social media can fall into a growth hacking plan. The main idea is that growth hacking is a way to get to an online goal quicker.
How Does Growth Hacking Compare to SEO?
SEO is an attempt to rank a website to increase visibility in thr search engine results pages (SERPs), anytime someone types in a specific keyword.
For example, if you’re selling blue widgets, ideally, your brand will show up on the first page of the SERPs, or best case scenario, in the featured snippets. However, the reality is, you’re competing with every other blue widget brand in the game and it’s up to Google to determine which brand deserves that top spot.
The algorithm uses several factors, including search volume, intent, click-through-rates, and reputation to determine the results.
Where growth hacking comes in is, there are certain things you can do to gain visibility and drive traffic—which, done right, can help you grow.
One of the most effective ways to improve a website’s ranking is with backlinks, ideally from high-quality websites like The New York Times, the Washington Post, or websites ending in .edu or .gov. That said, authoritative links can also come from sources that aren’t quite NYT-level, niche publications, popular blogs, and media sites with credible information can help raise your profile, as well.
It’s also important that backlinks are within content related to the subject of the keyword itself (these are called “contextual backlinks”). For example, you don’t want an article about this season’s best lipsticks linking to your e-commerce site if you specialize in gaming laptops.
There are other aspects to SEO as well. These include ensuring that the site is indexed, optimizing the speed of the site, proper usage of keywords within the site (not too many and not too few), ensuring that broken links are fixed, preventing redirects, proper use of subheading tags, and ensuring images use proper keywords.
Key Differences Between Growth Hacking and SEO
While growth hacking and SEO are often used together to build out a brand, there are a few notable differences between the two. Generally, SEO is a specific marketing practice, while growth hacking applies to anything that aims to provide a shortcut to growth.
A few more differences to know:
- SEO is strictly for search engine traffic – People who use SEO do it specifically to rank with search engines. However, growth hacking is an all-encompassing effort to boost a brand using every technological means at your disposal.
- Growth hacking focuses on results, over reach – Growth hacking is used to grow a business quickly. In some cases, by any means possible. SEO, on the other hand, is used to increase visibility and boost a site’s reputation. While SEO does support growth, it’s often about playing the long game.
- Growth hacking is all about speed – Growth hackers are looking for shortcuts to achieve maximum growth in a very short period of time. Still, SEO doesn’t always take longer to bear fruit, certain tactics will deliver major results in short order.
- Growth hacking typically requires more imagination—Growth hackers often combine innovation with technology, whereas SEO engineers often follow specific best practices proven to rank websites. However, while the technical side of SEO is all about following the Webmasters’ rules, content marketing—be it blog posts, video, or social demand a great deal of creativity.
Examples of Black-Hat Growth Hacking Strategies
Now that we’re clear on the differenced between growth hacking and SEO, let’s dive into what not to do when it comes growth hacking.
Just like SEO, there’s a black hat side to growth hacking.
Let me give you one example to start. Imagine that a digital agency wants to get new YouTube advertising clients.
They might try applying the following tactics to make it look as though you’re delivering the results promised when in reality, you’re pulling the strings behind the scenes.
- Create a script that crawls YouTube and looks for videos on a specific keyword.
- The script saves information about videos on channels that have less than 100 views and the associated channel website.
- It crawls each of the websites to find contact information, or pull contact information from WhoIs, and then sends an email to all the channel owners letting them know you can drastically increase their YouTube views.
- If someone clicks on the link in the email, it takes them to a special offer page.
- That page offers 1,000 free YouTube video views for every person they refer to the agency and 500 YouTube views for each new customer.
This example isn’t 100% above board, but it could potentially help you land new clients.
Another recent example is that YouTube is currently full of “black hat” growth hackers using bots to generate video content by pulling content from reputable news channels like Reuters, the BBC, and ABC without crediting the sources.
Again, I’m not endorsing these.
Other shady growth hacking approaches include the following:
- Paying for positive reviews from top sites, without telling consumers
- Paying people on social media sites to endorse a product, without disclosing the endorsement
- Paying everyday people each time they recommend a product
- Paying people each time someone clicks on a link that they ask them to share, without disclosing the ad
- Scraping email addresses from the Internet and blast offers to them or add them to social media distribution
- Swapping email lists with other businesses, not in the same space, and sending offers to them
- Putting fake ads on Craiglist or other websites to attract people to your website
- Using a tool like Mechanical Turk to get fake app store votes
- Asking questions or making comments on message boards that seem real but are really just done to get a product noticed
- Creating a web crawler to scrape email addresses or addresses to use for marketing
- Creating aliases and leaving comments about products around the web
In addition, it should be noted that many of these black or gray growth hacks are similar to white hat strategies like viral marketing or interactive campaigns.
For example, you might run quizzes on Facebook that attract thousands of people and collect email addresses in exchange for the results.
The difference between this strategy and an unethical growth hack is consent.
Users opt-in to receiving emails in exchange for their results, whereas failing to disclose a partnership or creating fake ads prevents customers from making informed decisions about a brand. When in doubt, always opt for transparency.
How to Growth Hack: Examples and Strategies From Real Brands
One classic growth hacking strategy comes from Airbnb’s playbook.
The gig-economy home-sharing site rose to international stardom by allowing people who listed their properties on the site to automatically post their listings on Craigslist at the same time.
This involved a feat of engineering that broke new ground and enabled Airbnb users to reach the massive audience on Craigslist, while providing a ton of exposure to the new company.
Below, I’ve included a few more examples of how to growth hack within the context of your own business.
Design a Referral Program
Yes, we all know about referral programs.
But done right, they’re still an effective strategy worth adding to your growth hacking plan.
Many online startup companies are setting up referral programs as a quick way to help grow their businesses.
It’s a highly successful early strategy that has been used by companies both big and small. Some examples of successful, on-going online referral programs include:
- Dollar Shave Club – a California-based company that delivers personal grooming products by mail – offers a $5 coupon to all referrers
- PetFlow – a New York-based company that delivers pet food by mail – offers $10 store credit for every referrer AND $10 off for the friend who was referred
- NatureBox – a subscription-based healthy snack food delivery service – offers $10 store credit for referrers and $10 off for the referred friend as well
- Sol Republic – an Oregon-based headphone manufacturer – offers 15% off the customer’s next purchase for referrals as well as 15% off for the referred
Referral programs aren’t just employed by small-to-mid-level companies, either. Many big online businesses have had great success with them as well.
Two of the most famous–and wildly successful–examples of referral programs are Groupon and Dropbox.
As a massive, global-scale coupon website, Groupon has the ability for its customers to share and refer hardcoded into its business model.
Groupon realized this very early on, and capitalized on it by encouraging customers to share the deals they encountered on the company’s web site in a variety of ways, including:
- Spreading the word on deals that require a set number of people to sign up
- Sharing their deals on social media as soon as the purchase is made
- Daily emails for group deals
- Getting $10 in “Groupon Bucks” for referring a friend
Dropbox was similarly able to use growth hacking techniques to boost their business exponentially in a short amount of time.
When the company first launched, they tried the paid ad route but found that the cost of acquiring new customers far outweighed their long term value.
So they chose to look elsewhere for ways to grow quickly and came up with a wholly unique idea for a referral program of their own: 500MB of free storage space in Dropbox for both the referrer and the referred.
It certainly worked – I mean, who wouldn’t want extra FREE online storage space? – and today, Dropbox is one of the most successful subscription-based cloud storage companies operating.
Keep in mind, referral programs might not work forever.
Consider apps like Uber or Lyft, where just about everyone already has an account and has likely run out of contacts who haven’t heard about the app yet.
While it certainly makes sense to keep the referral going, you’ll need to strategize ahead of time to make sure your growth doesn’t stall when the referrals start to run thin.
Make it “By Invitation Only”
Most people love the idea of exclusive, “members only” clubs that you need an invitation to join.
It makes us feel prestigious and gives us a sense of being a part of something special.
To be included in one of these exclusive cliques is to is almost like confirmation that you’ve been accepted among your peers.
That might sound a little over the top, but it’s hard to argue with the popularity of exclusive invitations – especially as a growth hacking strategy!
Social networks are the most obvious example of this technique at work. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and many others all have almost completely barren home pages that feature quick and simple sign up forms to encourage new users to create accounts; almost as if to say, “Hey, you wanna see all those cool pages all your friends are always talking about? Gotta sign up with us first!”
The strategy works, as each of those sites boasts membership numbers in the millions. Facebook is perhaps the most famous example: The site started as an online directory connecting college students, whose invitation aspect came from the requirement of a college .edu email address to join.
Other popular social network sites at the time, including Friendster and MySpace, were open to all to join, but Facebook being “for college students only” not only helped lend them an air of exclusivity, it also helped grow their business rapidly as they moved from college to college, before finally opening their gates to all.
Pinterest is another great example of an Invitation-Only strategy paying off handsomely.
The site initially used the same low-key sign-up form layout approach as other social networks, but with one major difference: Users were encouraged to sign up with their email addresses and were then placed on a waiting list to receive an exclusive invitation to join the site.
Of course, whether there was an actual waiting list to join the site or not is up for debate, but it’s also beside the point. The strategy worked and Pinterest is still going strong.
Lock Down the Right Partnership to Fuel Your Growth Strategy
Partner with another successful company or influencer to grow your own social following and drive more traffic to your website.
In 2005, before influencer marketing was the big thing it is today, YouTube partnered up with the social media juggernaut of the day, MySpace, by agreeing to embed videos on the site without having to pay YouTube costs for hosting.
In exchange, YouTube plastered their logo on the embedded videos, along with links back to watch the same content on their site. With this deal in place, YouTube saw a major increase in brand recognition, and soon skyrocketed in popularity.
And it’s not just major companies using strategic partnerships to gain more followers– small businesses, entrepreneurs, and influencers use this strategy to tap into a larger audience with brands that target the same demographic.
Embrace a Freemium Model
Who doesn’t love free stuff?
People everywhere are up for just about anything if there’s no cost involved, which makes giving something away to new customers perhaps the easiest and quickest way to build up your base.
Two of the best examples of companies putting this technique into practice are actually two different email services, Hotmail and Gmail.
When Hotmail launched its web-based email service way back in 1996, it quickly built up a robust customer base in its first month – 20,000 users, to be precise.
Rather than adopt a traditional advertising strategy from there though, Hotmail tapped into those customers and added an enticing tagline to the end of each of its outgoing emails: “Get Your Free Email with Hotmail.” As a result, Hotmail’s base skyrocketed to one million users within six months of launching.
Similarly, when Google unrolled its own premium email service, appropriately dubbed Gmail, in 2004 (which was also by invitation only, at least initially), it enticed new users to queue up for a spot in line by offering an unprecedented 1GB of storage space to new users – 500 times what Hotmail was offering in space at the time.
Look Toward Social Growth Hacking
- AI and chatbots—Chatbots allow website owners to offer on-demand customer support, smart recommendations, and help brands collect insights that can inspire personalized content and improved customer experiences.
- Interactive content—Interactive content helps brands capture limited attention spans, capture data, and drive loyalty. Examples include polls, quizzes, interactive infographics, and video. Tools like free assessments work well for sellers with long sales cycles, helping collect information by providing a useful resource.
- User-generated content—Follow GoPro’s example and tap into your followers’ creativity to connect with new audiences. The brand solicits UGC by posting giveaways, like the recent million-dollar challenge.
Create a Free Tool
In keeping with all things free, you might also try a slightly different approach to the giveaway and create something incredibly useful to your audience.
Examples include CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, a free tool that rates your headlines in exchange for subscribing to their mailing list or HubSpot’s whole suite of free training courses, CRM software, and lead generation tools.
Ditch Comments for Social Shares
This growth hack is one of the simplest ways to increase engagement on social media without little effort.
If you’ve looked at any blog posts lately, you’ll notice that the comments section doesn’t do much to expand your reach, and often they’re littered with spam.
Instead, disable your comments and add buttons and highlights to your content to encourage sharing.
Let’s say I leave a comment on a Search Engine Land article. Only a few people are likely to see it. However, if I make that same comment on Twitter profile, 20,000 people see it.
This makes it so that each time there is an interaction, an entirely new audience is engaged, creating an opportunity to drive traffic to the site.
Use Data to Inform Your Content Strategy
Look for trending topics and keywords with high-search volume.
Dig into your social analytics to see what’s trending on Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. Your goal is to understand what content is proven to work for your audience so you can deliver the best possible results.
In addition to data pulled from analytics tools, you’ll also want to make sure you embrace social listening to uncover the opinions, suggestions, preferences, and pain points of your audience.
Growth Hacking Tools
Now that we have successfully defined the concept of growth hacking and identified some of the top strategies used by growth hackers in the past, let’s take a look at some of the tools used to overcome any online marketing challenges budding businesses might face as they start out.
Here are some options that can help you collect data, improve your content strategy, and add more value to the customer experience.
- ManyChat—ManyChat connects with Facebook Messenger and allows you to build a bot using a simple drag-and-drop editor.
- Buzzsumo—A search tool that allows you to see what types of content perform best for specific topics or industries. You simply enter your search query, and Buzzsumo returns an evergreen score, top performing posts, social share counts, and total engagements.
- Clearbit—Clearbit’s customer data engine helps you collect information about website visitors so that you can address specific needs and wants. Can be used to inform email marketing efforts, content, and sales strategy.
- Ahrefs—An essential tool for SEO marketers and content creators, Ahrefs helps you with competitive research, backlink analysis, and identifying topics to write about.
- UserLane—This software is designed to help you onboard new customers using gamification to reward them each time they successfully complete a step.
Before You Launch Your Web Site
Before you even think about pouring your time and money into building a fully featured web site, you will likely want to test out some of the ideas you have for your product.
Both of these sites are a great way to quickly build and validate landing and/or launch pages for your site.
Once your landing page is live, the next step you will want to take is to see how many people might be interested in stopping by to check out what you are offering.
The best way to do that quickly would be to drive a little traffic to the page and test it. In this case, you might look toward your Google Audiences or Facebook Insights to test your proof of concept with your target audience.
Bringing Traffic to Your Site
Okay, so you have validated your product or concept and are ready to start welcoming new visitors to your new site. But how to do that? Luckily, there are a ton of options here for helping you find your customer base and reach out to them, including:
- Colibri.IO. This is a great option for finding out where your active customer base is engaged online, so you can smoothly add yourself into the mix and start engaging with them directly. As an added bonus, the site also integrates with Google Analytics.
- Nimble. Nimble works by helping you aggregate your contact and email lists, along with any other activities or follow-ups you may have, so that you can more easily manage all of your social networks from one site. It also lets you know when people mention you in a post, so you can easily engage in the conversation as soon as you’re notified.
- MixRank. Need help finding new customers? MixRank works to help you find new customers through profitable sales leads and traffic sources that come straight from its vast advertising database.
- Pay with a Tweet. Everyone still loves to tweet to their heart’s content, so why not incentivize your customers to spread the word about your product by offering them access once they’ve posted about you on Twitter? You can also post to other social media sites as well, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.
- Click to Tweet. This site works similarly to Pay with a Tweet, with one major difference: You write the messages you want shared yourself. From there it’s a simple matter of generating a custom link and sharing it with your followers.
Now, there are so many methods for generating traffic. In this section, I just wanted to list a few you may not have heard of. If you are looking for more traffic generating strategies, I can help with that. Tweet to me ( @johnelincoln ) or leave a comment here.
Encouraging People to Stay on Your Site
Now that you have successfully managed to bring customers to your site, your next step is to get them to convert.
Here are a few tools that can help.
- Bounce Exchange. Having trouble retaining visitors on your site? Bounce Exchange can help you get them to stick around by offering to convert them before they leave; capturing their information as they are about to click that little red X.
- OptinMonster. If you’re running a WordPress-powered site, you might want to take a look at this plug-in, which some subscribers claim has boosted their email subscriber base by over 400% in only a few weeks. The service also provides A/B testing, along with analytics.
- Hello Bar. This is a great, easy-to-use tool that allows you to quickly create a CTA button and a horizontal bar to place it in, right at the top of your site. You can customize your CTA to either drive traffic, collect email information, or direct traffic to your social media channels.
Side note, here wee see the Hello Bar landing page. They have a growth hack in place. See how they ask you to log in with Google? That is because, when you log in they get access to your Google contacts. This turns one small conversion into multiple conversions.
- Scroll Triggered Box. Similar to Hello Bar, this is a simple tool that creates a custom pop up for your page that appears once visitors scroll down to the bottom of the page, asking if they are ready to sign up.
- SessionCam. Ever wanted to watch how your visitors are clicking through your site? SessionCam is a great tool that allows you to do just that – watch recorded sessions of visitors making their way through your site, so that you can easily identify where you might be losing them and what you can do to increase your conversion.
How to Measure Growth Hacking Results
Now that we’ve covered growth hacking strategies and tools, it’s time to look at exactly how one measures the results of their growth hacking endeavors.
Growth hackers are most concerned with determining exactly where and why customers choose to leave your site.
Zeroing in on that key area and optimizing it can pay off greatly for your site in the long run, leading to improvements in your conversion rate. But how do you go about finding the problem(s) in the first place?
The Growth Hacking Funnel
The best way to start looking for problem areas is by using a process known as funnel analytics.
A funnel analysis is used to accurately show you where users are dropping off in your acquisition process, on your web site, when they convert and when you lose them during retention.
It’s a series of consecutive steps that is designed to help you turn visitors of your site into full blown customers.
- Get Visitors
- Activate Members
- Retain Users
Each step in this process should have its own KPIs and specific strategies associated with it. For example.
Phase 1 (3 months)
- Get Visitors (4,000 visitors a month)
- Activate Members (900 members)
- Retain Users (50% of members are active on a weekly basis)
Wrapping Up Growth Hacking
Growth hacking can be a great way to get more customers.
Just make sure you’re doing it the white hat way by following the strategies above, and use the tools listed to make the most of your campaign.
Have questions or comments about Growth Hacking? Feel free to comment below or contact us.