What Is Growth Hacking? A Definition and a Call to Action

While traditional marketing chases vague notions like "branding" and "mind share," growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth -- and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users.
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In the midst of World War I, a guy named Edward Bernays more or less invented the fields of public relations and marketing. The fact that he was Freud's nephew is pretty fitting in that regard.

After him, a brilliant young writer named Walter Lippman codified it in a landmark book called Public Opinion. Meanwhile, Bernays continued to pioneer the industry he helped create.

Most of you are relatively familiar with what came next, whether you know it or not. The Mad Men-era of modern PR and advertising -- which the show portrays with surprising realism -- took it to the next level. It's ethos is best seen in the working and thinking of David Ogilvy. His 1963 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man is high art.

Then basically the industry stopped innovating or changing in any real way for decades and decades.

Sure, new mediums came while others rose and fell -- TV, talk radio, cable TV, the internet. But the same basic tactics, first pioneered by Bernay's and then perfected by Madison Avenue remained in place. The press release, the premiere party, the celebrity endorsement, the advertising campaign.

All was well if you were in this industry. Big retainers, big budgets, big commissions. It was prestigious. It was cool. You were the only ones who knew how to "make a hit." You were brand builders and big companies would pay a lot of money to get you to work your magic for them.

I don't want to over dramatize it, but that has all come -- and is coming -- to a giant screeching halt.

The culprit is a totally new approach to marketing that has taken over the Silicon Valley. You may have heard the buzz word. If you haven't, you've surely seen its fruits: Growth Hackers built Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Airbnb, even Amazon.

They built billion dollar brands from nothing, with next to nothing. No big budgets, just a new strategy.

See, growth hacking threw out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Its tools are emails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While traditional marketing chases vague notions like "branding" and "mind share," growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth -- and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.

Growth Hackers quickly became, as Andrew Chen put it, "the news VPs of Marketing" at the hottest startups on the scene. Growth hackers are typically computer engineers that build great marketing ideas into the product during the development process. Growth hackers are pros at hypothesizing, testing, and iterating different version of their products (and promotional campaigns) to create hockey stick growth for their companies. Consider Noah Kagan, who was a growth hacker at Facebook and Mint before he went on his own and started App Sumo -- which became a seven figure business on a $60 investment. Also, Sean Ellis, who helped Dropbox blow up with their referral program (which now drives like 40 percent of all new sign ups).

Growth hacking is about scalability -- ideally you want your marketing efforts to bring in users, which then bring in more users. Virality at its core is asking someone to spend their social capital recommending or linking or posting about you for free. Unless you're smart like Groupon -- literally the fastest growing company in history -- who built in a share feature that paid users to invite their friends to join in on deals.

Virality is not an accident. It is engineered. And that's why growth hackers beat traditional marketers.

The innovations heralded in a new era. A leaner one, a more efficient one, one that doesn't need the same creative genius or gut feelings or expensive office buildings on Madison Avenue. What's valued now is the hacker mindset -- the ability to take advantage of loopholes and platforms.

Think: how Paypal built itself off the back of eBay. Or how Reddit faked its first users to get people to stick around. Or think about how Airbnb hacked Craiglist and got tons of free advertising and exposure.

That's the genius of growth hacking and it is the future. It's the new stage, wave or era of marketing. I have no doubt about that.

The imperative is on you to study this field and prepare for it. Because the future has a way of putting the past out of business. If you'd like to continue in marketing, I suggest you learn from these guys.

It's not too late, but it's getting urgent.

What will you do?

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author and advisor to many brands and writers. His newest book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry. He gives monthly reading recommendations as well.

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