Growth Hacker? Or Growth Marketer?

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I don’t like the way the word “hack” is being thrown around willy-nilly, especially in regards to marketing. And according to some definitions, I’m actually a growth hacker. I don’t like it.

Last week my colleague (read: boss) Danny Sullivan tweeted:

Good question.

I participated in a tweetchat a few weeks ago about #growthhacking and that same question came up numerous times – how is growth hacking different than marketing? And, how is hacking necessarily a good connotation when it comes to marketing? That short conversation didn’t seem to get very far, but I still felt like I was missing some secret marketing approach that was going to save me oodles of time and headaches. Isn’t that what hacking means these days? Over the past few months I have been visiting the GrowthHackers forum periodically, checking out videos on GrowthHacker.tv. There are some great ideas, and some excellent resources. But I couldn’t seem to definite it differently from smart marketing. So I looked it up.

What is Growth Hacking?

I first came across growth hacking via Mattan Griffel, partner at GrowHack, who defined growth hacking as “a set of tactics and best practices for dealing with the problem of user growth.” You can check out his primer on Slideshare (you can skip to slide 43, and if you’re short for time go straight to slide 102 through 137) but it all looks so, so familiar, including A/B testing, email marketing, and segmenting your audiences.

I dug a little deeper, and discovered Sean Ellis first described a growth hacker in 2010 as someone in charge of scalable growth, primarily for start-ups, without the inflated credentials of a traditional marketer.

I found more satisfying definitions and opinions of what growth hacking means over at Quora, and liked this definition of growth hacker from Aaron Ginn:

growth hacker (noun) – one who’s passion and focus is pushing a metric through use of a testable and scalable methodology.

In this case, a growth hacker is someone who is more concerned with achieving the growth metric rather than getting bogged down by a defined process.

I really like Aaron Beashel’s process in 4 Stages of Growth Hacking, but to me, this is far from a hack, it is a legitimate painstaking process to build customers. It’s work, there are no shortcuts, so why is it hacking?

Nick Usbourne, a self-proclaimed “growth hacker since 1979” (back then we called it “direct marketing”) reviewed Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising, and concluded that much of growth hacking is marketing.

Patrick DiChiro took another approach last year, distinguishing the differences between growth hackers and brand marketers, concluding that in order to be successful, the two roles will ultimately collaborate together.

And recently TechCrunch article depicts how growth hacking can go “bad” to spammy digital marketing shortcuts, especially to meet investor expectations.

It seems like what once had been defined as a creative, start-up marketing role in 2010 has evolved into as using aggressive tactics that just annoy and infuriate users.

So Do We Have To Use The Word “Hack” When Talking About Marketing?

Personally I still define the word “hack” as unauthorized entry into a system, or cobbling code together as means to get to a desired outcome. The phrase “hack job” implies you have no idea what you are doing. And, in case you were wondering, the word “hack” originates from the word hackney, which can mean, “To cause to become banal and trite through overuse.” My friend Kristy Bolsinger shared this ridiculous article where two of the “it” jobs to watch for startups have “hacker” in the title. Yet all these definitions and descriptions about growth hacking sounds a lot like what I do. Maybe I’m old fashioned and tired of buzzwords, but I would rather explain exactly what my role is in a company and talk about growth and engagement. Because all I can think of is hacking and wheezing. So let’s just stop already.

Dear LinkedIn, Please Fix Your Stuff

Last week I read that Chris Brogan closed his LinkedIn account because it was no longer working for him. Not just “not working” in that it doesn’t drive business or suit his needs, it actually wasn’t working.

I like LinkedIn, I really do. I like that you can export contacts and in fact reinstate your account if you do decide to cancel it (which in itself is a lesson to those who think that their data is solely theirs.) I like how you can keep tabs with colleagues, and it provides an easier entry point to connect online with people you don’t know as well. I like how users exchange ideas, how business use it to recruit, network and share ideas. I like it how it can drive traffic to sites. Lots of advantages.

But it is broken. Chris mentioned his frustrations. Here are mine:

1) At one point the LinkedIn Share button on searchengineland.com had been hacked. Luckily this was resolved, but it’s unsettling that something like this could happen. SEL attracts significant traffic, and it impacted overall user experience that’s expected ON THE SITE – not on the social platform.

2) On the Search Engine Land and Marketing Land Groups, the Manager’s Choice options are both broken. The Search Engine Land group button has been broken for 10 months, and the Marketing Land group button is now broken. We submitted previous help requests for this as well, without a clear answer besides it’s a “known bug.” The news we have had posted in Manager’s Choice is extremely outdated and it gives the impression that we are not actively managing the site. My own profile is associated with the last post we made to Manager’s Choice – having an outdated post also makes me look bad. Did I mention it has been broken for ten months?

3) The newest issue was the email notifications generated when the moderators comment on a discussion, or approve a discussion in our groups. When we commented on a discussion, there is a check box that offers email updates of that discussion. Although the check box is marked, we did not receive updates. This has been fixed as well, but without follow up. I had to do the work and keep checking and testing.

I mentioned that it is getting increasingly difficult to get a clear answer of when these issues will be resolved. I begged at times, and contacted whomever would listen. Unfortunately these problems seem to compound as the group gets larger, just when we need to manage the groups more frequently. I wish these tools were more reliable.

Humility, Twitter Reciprocity and Not Being Famous

A month ago now I was at SMX West in San Jose, meeting up with good friends and colleagues, and meeting many for the first time as well. I had the pleasure to be introduced to someone well-known in the search space. We had a few great discussions over the course of 3 days, and at one point he turned to me and said, “I am sorry, but up until today I have never heard of you.” My response was merely, “So what?”
I don’t have any aspirations for recognition from strangers, I just want to do good work. But the exchange stuck with me, and started to think, do I fall into the same trap as to quickly assume because I haven’t heard of someone that the conversation is less meaningful or interesting? And where do the new connections generally originate if not in person? On Twitter, of course.

So this past week I just turned back on my Twitter follower notifications –  the past two years or so I was getting so much spam that I had to turn it off to maintain some level of sanity (especially those that pull the follow > unfollow > follow again trick to get your attention). And I still don’t know how people can engage with 10,000 people, or even 2,000 for that matter. But I wanted to see who the real people are in real time as they followed.  Plus it’s easier to detect the spammy profiles compared to back in the day when you actually had to visit a Twitter page, so the inbox hasn’t suffered too badly.

Interestingly, I noticed that I still didn’t follow back. And not because I didn’t want to “JOIN THE CONVERSATION”. I am on Twitter because I care about the people I follow and what they say, and it’s easier to do that if I manage that list. In fact I could probably do a better job reining it in. So does that make me a Twitter snob? No, the way I look at it is this – the people we seem to respect are following the least amount of people. It’s not an exclusivity metric or a popularity contest, it is because they have curated and honed in their following list to a realistic and useful level, and when they do converse, it’s not broadcasted noise.

Anyway, back to the “I am sorry but I have never heard of you” exchange… what is most interesting to me is the assumption that this was a bad thing. My participation in the marketing community – online and offline – has been a genuine effort to contribute and build respected relationships and trust, not about fame. So I keep my circles pretty tight. I could use Twitter (or anything else for that matter) as a platform to elevate my status, but what’s the point? I can’t equate accomplishing my goals that way, it’s not how I work. Let me clarify that using social media to meet people  – especially before and after events –  is a very powerful thing. But I don’t need it as a narcissistic stroke of the ego. And frankly, there are more than enough egos in this pond to contend with, another would just be jumping the shark.

A Case Study In Outsourcing Ridiculous Titles on Twitter

It’s nearly midnight, I completed my first blog post in three months, and get stuck on a decent title. I take a break and hop on Tweetdeck to share my lament. The recommendations come fast and furious:

“Bing Biz Portal Kills Google Places SEO while PANDA is a +1 addict”

“10 Tips About Google +1, Panda, Content Farms, Google Blocking and SEO Killers For Social Media Success”

“The Panda Update Killed SEO and +1 is Social Media Awesome and Google Sucks”


“How I Increased My Site Traffic 0.0001% by Optimizing for Blekko and Not Getting Banned”


“+1 Gamechanges Panda’s Face In Fit of SEO Madness”


“I Killed SEO, and Your Next!”
(misspelling intentional because grammar is only an option at this hour)
Mind you, the post has very little to do with SEO, and nothing to do with Panda, +1, Blekko, Bing or Google. We search people need to get out more.

Very special thanks to Jon Henshaw, Dr. Peter J. Meyers, Tony Verre and Dawn Wentzell for their creative insights. But I still don’t have a decent title despite these literary gems. At least they are not going to waste.