I tend to be a bit late to these things. I’ve also been wary of "growth hacking" – that start-uppy flavour of marketing oriented towards e-mail, virals and A/B testing (I think because of the smart-arse Silicon Valley venture-capitalist culture it’s often bundled with).
But, in the past couple of days, the scales have fallen from my eyes. Sure, growth hacking has an obnoxious culture, plays fast and loose with privacy and is rather over-inclined to spam people, but so too does regular marketing – and at least growth hacking has the capacity to change.
The re-evaluation came because of another splendid talk from Paul Feldwick, on how organisations learn. It reminded me that so many companies repeatedly fail to learn because they have no capacity to evaluate what they’ve done and no appetite for asking basic questions, such as: "We’re spending all this money – are we all agreed on how advertising actually works? Is there any evidence to support that idea? When we’ve finished, will we have created any more knowledge about what might work next time?" When was the last time that got discussed in your workplace?
Growth hackers start from a different place from traditional marketers and, crucially, have very different habits
The growth hackers don’t have that problem. They’re not any more sophisticated or intelligent, and they probably don’t ask themselves basic questions either, they just start from a different place and, crucially, have very different habits. The default marketing habit is: deliver messages, something will happen. The default growth-hacker habit is: do something, see if it worked.
The average growth hacker is working on the web, with deeply measurable tactics. Given that as a habit they don’t really need clever theories, they can A/B test their way to success, or at least to being big enough to hire someone with some theories. Importantly, they’re also in small enough businesses and teams that they can make their product a central part of their marketing. Thus Twitter’s "suggested users" list, or Dropbox offering free storage to people who introduce a friend.
Recommendation is, of course, not a new idea, but the speed and precision with which it can be done with an online tool makes it something powerful. Start-ups don’t have the money or a traditional marketing background. And this, of course, is precisely the circumstances in which they need to invent something brilliant.
Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service