Hypothetical: You’re a startup in a small warehouse just outside Palo Alto (or anywhere really).

You have zero users for your new “revolutionary” application. What do you do, hot shot?

It’s situations just like this this one that have helped “Growth Hacker” become one of the most iconic marketing positions and terms in the tech sector. Fledgling companies are willing to try (almost) anything for some attention and a shot at traction.

So many case studies of companies that have recently become well known have supercharged the marketing atmosphere and infatuated founders with the idea of exponential growth.

With this excitement a breed of expert has emerged that seems to be an entirely different form of marketer, or maybe not a marketer at all.

Growth hackers seem to want to be known for doing things that other marketers can’t or won’t accomplish.

But is gaining users at any cost what it takes to “hack” growth?

It all comes down to definition and desired outcome.

This post aims to help you with both. We’ll take a look at the definition of growth hacking to identify differences between it and growth marketing (if any).

What’s In a Name – “Growth Hacking” vs. “Growth Marketing”?

Let’s get something straight from the start. Anything can get blown out of proportion. Whether you are a hardcore growth hacking fan or an old school marketer there are lessons to be learned from any method of business building.

The last thing we need is a Romeo and Juliet style battle over a name that ends up tarnishing the next generation of the craft (it didn’t work out well for them).

That being said, let’s break down the terminology.

Growth Hacking: a marketing technique developed by technology startups which use creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure.

The actual term was coined back in 2010 by Sean Ellis (@seanellis). His primary purpose was to find “out of the box” thinkers who would experiment and analyze methods to move the most significant numbers upward.

To directly quote Ellis, a growth hacker is… “a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

You can’t really argue with these two definitions. One calls it a marketing technique and the other identifies the characteristics of the person or growth team. Now that we have the 10,000-foot view, it’s time to zoom in and get a closer look at the hacking process.

Important Note: Sean Ellis is an incredible example of what it takes to attain sustainable growth. This post is in no way “bashing” the term growth hacker, but hopes to provoke you to defining your overall marketing process instead of depending on a certain process or term.

The Best Way(s) to Move the Needle

If you are in a situation similar to our initial hypothetical question, or an established company that has slowed down you need growth (quickly).

“Traditional” marketing may not be enough simply because it doesn’t include the entire picture. Typically, the marketing department focuses on brand awareness and customer acquisition. Oddly enough, depending on who you talk to, growth hacking can solely focus on acquisition.

Which is totally fine. If you follow the definitions of the term.

It’s a technique, not necessarily an overall strategy to guide your business. To help solidify this point we’ll look at the methods used to achieve rapid gains. (For a more in depth look at this check out this article by Gagan Biyani.)

Paid Advertising: One of the chief ways to market an online product has been through paid ads on social media, Google AdWords, Television (including Hulu, Youtube), even traditional print. Analytics go a long way in the growth process and can be leveraged better on some platforms than others. The data is easier to collect on platforms like social making it one of the favorites among marketers.

Sales Teams/Cold Calls: One of the oldest “tricks” in the books. Calling cold or warm leads is still effective. Sales is a numbers game. The more people you come in contact with, the more you are likely to have sales. Growth teams can try new techniques to close a higher percentage of phone calls over time.

Content Marketing: Cool businesses love to promote other cool businesses. Thought leaders are always on the lookout for new content to reference or retweet. Rapid growth can be achieved through creating industry leading, controversial, or down right silly content to “break-into” a large crowd.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): As a business you don’t have a “niche” site with a dozen pages. You have a business and that business has a website. What an SEO does versus what you need to accomplish are two different worlds. Growth comes from a long term replicable search ranking strategy.

Split Testing (A/B Testing): Anyone who specializes in growth should feel like changing their title to “Chief Split Tester”. Attempting to see large gains fast means having a ridiculous amount of data streaming in ALL of the time. It’s really the difference between building growth and shooting wildly into the air.

If you take a look at these methods and the others by @gaganbiyani highlighted here, not many of them deal with anything past acquisition. Which leads me to my point on “growth hacking”.

(Gulp) It’s a beneficial part of marketing that’s great for a period of growth, but falls short of a holistic approach for sustainable increase.

In fact, solely focusing on getting customers could lead to problems if new users are flooding in with no sense of direction or activation. A sloppy (or unsustainable) post sale process leads to a higher churn rate, lower customer satisfaction, and a frazzled infrastructure.

Let’s recap, “traditional” marketing focuses on getting the brand name out and new customers in the figurative door. Growth hacking focuses on testing and trying multiple methods (discussed above) with the sole purpose of increasing a certain metric at an (often times) exponential level. These things both have their uses, but traditions become stale and raw growth has to be sustained and nurtured.

It’s these reasons (among others) that I prefer the term Growth Marketing.

It’s Time to Think About Growth Marketing

Oddly enough “growth marketing” isn’t something that can be defined with something as simple as a Google search. I checked.

We’ve already determined that rapid increase can occur through experimentation and focus on a single goal, but you’ve also heard the old adage “what goes up must come down”. When you’re throwing customers into your products, what do they land on?

  • What channels are they put through (onboarding, first experiences, email sequences)?
  • Is there a dedicated holistic process that starts with a visitor/prospect and ends with satisfied customers/loyal brand users/advocates?
  • Are you using the data from your growth to make both the process and products better?

If you are unsure of the answers to these questions, a run to the top could cause problems. Growth marketing is an overall approach to setting up systems and teams that will lead to immediate and sustainable growth.

How? The same laser focus on growth with a broader approach.

Instead of (only) focusing on acquisition and front end sales, a marketing strategy geared for long term growth should include every step of a user’s journey. A growth team will identify behaviors and create an environment that leads the highest percentage of customers into becoming brand loyal and even advocates for your business.

Moving the numbers can happen quickly, but long-term growth happens when you have a machine that produces predictable and tangible results. Brian Balfour had this to say in a wonderful article on growth and marketing:

Growth is typically described as the blending of marketing, product, and engineering.

Essentially, you’d be using the same methods and channels to build your user base as mentioned above, but also analyzing the data and improving the overall experience of new users. Here’s an image to help.

Here are a few of the ways to take a big picture view of growth marketing.


Attaining new users/clients/customers is the area where you will find little to no difference between reputable hackers and growth marketers. You can’t make growth happen without revenue and that won’t happen without customers. Trial and error lead to great gains and a ton of valuable data.

But there is so much rich data that comes from experimenting that it would be a shame not to use it in every way possible.


After you’ve convinced someone to shill out the money in exchange for your product they then enter a new territory. It’s a new product that will require education. A growth marketing strategy accounts for this sense of “first day jitters” and rolls out the red carpet until your new user experiences initial success.

It can be done through email marketing, video tutorials, or even one on one interaction. This is a critical step to not only lowering your churn rate (retention), but also creating advocacy (a person can’t promote what they can’t use properly).


Brand loyalty is getting harder and harder, but not impossible. Loyalty often comes over a time frame of proving your continued care of customers.

Bubble Burst Alert: Your product isn’t perfect. No one’s is and that’s ok. You should however be listening and asking your current users to help you make it better. Business that continue to improve their existing products get loyalty from their buyers.

Take Ford, Chevy, Apple, or any popular software for example. New and (mostly) improved models/iterations year over year (or even month after month).

Using data for continuous improvement and communication with your current customers leads to loyalty among other things (higher lifetime value, and the next step to advocacy).


Getting people to share your brand with friends is a science, but it isn’t mystical. So many businesses think that it’s a process that requires knowing someone or having a “cool” product.

That’s just not true.

In fact, your advocates don’t even have to be customers. An advocate (in this sense of the word) is someone who talks about you to their sphere of influence. It can be through sharing a social media post, emailing a product link (from an email that you sent them), or just talking about you over coffee to a friend who may need your stuff.

Example: Dollar Shave Club’s video introducing their brand has over 22 million views, and logic dictates that not everyone who shares it are customers.

Simply put, advocacy can come from the continuous red carpet treatment you give to your customers (and audience in general) or from certain “hacking” methods used to attract them. It may help to be cool like Apple, but good service and always caring about your people (inside and out) will never grow old.

You Just Want Growth Right?

In the end, it’s not about what you call your efforts to achieve consistent gains. Even the term “growth marketing” is called by a half dozen other terms.

It all really comes down to the definition of your processes and the desired outcome you hope to achieve, not a name. I can’t sum it up any better than Mr. Balfour when he said:

Call it growth, growth hacking, quantitative marketing, full stack marketing, technical marketing, or whatever you want.  Growth, in my opinion, far less about the terminology or tactics.  It is more about a change in our mentality, process, and team structure of how we grow a technology company.

If you put the time and effort into exponentially growing your company, you should make the same effort to set up the entire buyer journey. Instead of supercharging one area or aspect of your company, you’ll be constructing a growth machine that reproduces a desired result.

How do you define your marketing plan?