What Is Growth Hacking, Actually?

What Is Growth Hacking, Actually

If there’s one thing marketers excel at, it’s creating buzz. So it’s no surprise that the marketing world is periodically shaken up by shiny new buzzwords. One term that has set the marketing world abuzz over the last decade is growth hacking, also known as growth marketing. 

In this post, I’d like to explore this particular buzzword to understand what it actually means and how it can be used to improve upon traditional marketing approaches.

While growth hacking is used by some marketers to refer to a more agile, faster-paced version of demand generation, with the goal of attaining quick wins, that is not the definition I’ll be addressing in this article. Instead, I’ll refer back to the original definition of the term as coined by Sean Ellis back in 2010

Ellis stated that a growth hacker is a marketer who scrutinizes everything they do in terms of its potential impact on scalable growth. Specifically, the goal of a growth hacker is finding scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways to grow the business.


Hence, a growth hacking approach to marketing will focus on the net business outcome—not just on lead gen—and on sustainable and repeatable growth, rather than quick wins. 

How Growth Hacking Differs from Traditional Demand Gen

Here are a few thoughts on how growth hacking differs from a traditional demand gen approach to marketing.

    • Analytical approach: An effective growth marketer is disciplined and analytical, rather than purely tactical. You might even refer to growth marketing as applying the scientific method to your demand gen activities. So you’ll start with a bit of background research, construct a hypothesis, run an experiment to test your hypothesis, analyze the results and then use your conclusions to fine-tune your next experiment.
    • Tracks real ROI: Growth hacking is more closely aligned with tracking real ROI rather than vanity metrics. As for how to tell the difference, it’s important to remember that what’s vain for a large, well-established tech enterprise may be meaningful to a small startup. However, the bottom line remains the same for any business; you need the ability to track where your actual revenue is coming from.
    • Creative approach: In the pursuit of optimizing ROI, growth hacking encourages marketers to examine more creative and unconventional means to grow revenues, rather than relying on the usual budget-heavy approaches (e.g., paid advertising).
    • Addresses entire customer lifecycle: As part of its focus on overall growth rather than mere lead gen, growth hacking requires marketers to address the entire customer lifecycle. That means that, in addition to bringing in fresh new leads, the marketing team must also work to nurture those leads until they convert into paying customers, and even market to existing customers in order to increase renewals and upsells. All of these are necessary in order to grow your revenue.

While these differences are significant enough to warrant a differentiation between traditional lead gen marketing and growth hacking, the good news is that many of the same basic marketing principles still apply.

I’ll be using the remainder of this article to take a systematic look at how to “growth hack” your demand gen campaigns by suggesting some tips and tricks that can enhance marketing ROI at every step of the process.


1. Segmentation

Regardless of what lead-gen approach you adopt, customer research should always be high up on the to-do list. One important point to keep in mind when applying a growth hacking approach to your demand gen is to create personas for all stages of the customer journey. Remember, your target persona(s) and their needs may look rather different at each stage of the customer lifecycle. For instance, should you be targeting upper- or mid-level management? Would that audience be more interested in reducing workloads or increasing revenues?

Additionally, it’s important to be as clear and as specific as possible when creating and tweaking your target personas. It’s not always obvious at the outset which buyer details will be most useful in your marketing efforts, nor is there any one source that you can rely on to glean those details. For that reason, you should aim to collect both objective and subjective data, and from multiple sources, such as surveys, customer interviews, industry research, and input from your Sales team and CRM.


2. Content

As always, you want to create valuable, authentic and compelling content that resonates with your target audience, whoever they are and wherever you’re reaching them. Naturally, one size does not fit all.

That’s right, I’m talking about personalization. But not just in the [firstname] [lastname] sense. In a broader sense, you want to be utilizing all of the data at your disposal to serve each content consumer according to his or her needs. 

That means fine–tuning your messaging to best address the needs and interests of each persona, at every stage of the customer lifecycle, and across whatever channels you are utilizing to distribute content. The messaging you use to engage prospects who are not necessarily familiar with your offering may be less effective when marketing to veteran customers who need some encouragement to renew their SaaS subscription—and vice versa.

In addition to messaging, you may want to experiment with how you “package” your content for each persona, channel, and lifecycle stage. Which cross-section of your audience responds best to infographics? Which personas will most appreciate learning about that recent survey you ran and who will be most likely to engage with your expert-based content

In most cases, it’s impossible to answer questions like these accurately without a bit of experimentation.

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3. Distribution

Once again, the same core principles you use for content distribution will apply when taking a growth marketing approach, save for a few minor details. But those details can dramatically impact the outcome for your business.

Perhaps you already know that your target audience spends a lot of time on Twitter, and you’ve been thinking of using a larger portion of your advertising budget there. It’s probably not a bad idea to test that theory, just be sure to avoid these common tech marketing mistakes:

    • Limiting yourself to the obvious: Rather than simply broadcasting your messaging via email and social media, take a step back to consider where your voice is likely to have the most impact. For instance, you may want to try reaching out to influencers and micro-influencers to help generate buzz for your brand.
    • Leaving the marketing to the marketers: Your tech team probably includes several people who are a good match for your target personas. Pick their brains about where you’re most likely to encounter others like them and, if they’re willing, have them help engage those others. A message from someone in IT or R&D will likely resonate more with techies than a message from the VP marketing.

4. Monitoring

Last but certainly not least, growth marketing means continually monitoring your performance and tweaking your process accordingly.

When choosing which metrics to monitor, be sure to keep your eyes on the goal. In broad terms, of course, the goal is business development. How that looks may differ from campaign to campaign, depending on factors such as customer lifecycle. For instance, are you trying to bring in more new leads, advance those leads through the sales funnel, retain existing customers, or find upsell opportunities?

Additionally, remember to focus your attention on measurable, actionable KPIs that align closely with real ROI (i.e., what’s truly bringing you closer to your chosen goal), rather than vanity metrics. 

For instance, the number of visitors to your site is not necessarily a valuable data point on its own. Tracking the number of visitors that click through to your campaign’s landing page is slightly more helpful. Tracking the number of opportunities generated from those clicks—perhaps using your marketing automation tool as an aid—is already much more telling. If you can also determine what steps you and your organization can take to increase the win rate on those opportunities, and then act on that understanding, you are doing real growth marketing.


I’ve used the terms growth marketing and growth hacking interchangeably in this post, to refer to a more systematic approach to business development. It’s not just about driving more traffic, gaining visibility, or improving your brand awareness. What you want is to build a business development system that leverages all of your organization’s assets, from sales to R&D, to deliver consistent organizational growth—in both the long and short term.

Hopefully, this article has helped you to identify areas for business growth and seize on these opportunities. You can also turn to growth hacking forums and communities such as Growthhackers.com to continue learning new growth strategies and techniques.

Tech marketer? Don’t compromise on your content!

Tap into IOD’s network of hundreds of tech experts to maximize your reach.

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