'Growth-hacking' is not just a buzzword - it affects how advertising works
A view from David Rowan

'Growth-hacking' is not just a buzzword - it affects how advertising works

You can always spot strands of the future whenever 6,000-plus entrepreneurs, tech investors, digital marketers and various other geeks gather to swap war stories and business cards.

DLD Tel Aviv – that’s "Digital, Life, Design" – offers glimpses of tomorrow’s product lines: biohacking techniques to imbue your dog’s excretions with a sweet, minty scent; tools to reach the consumer’s connected household appliances. But it’s the offstage conversations that reveal more. And one subject that keeps coming up is the obsessive experimentation taking place inside tech start-ups to accelerate user acquisition, retention, engagement and, ultimately, revenue generation by treating marketing as a new hybrid science.

The buzzword is "growth-hacking", and each conversation leads me to modify my perceptions of what it is. Sure, it typically involves a team that optimises its digital product through a combination of A/B testing, data analytics, landing-page adjustments, behavioural psychology, design and user experience, and other forms of real-time, measurable experimentation. But, in truth, growth-hacking is not a toolkit – it’s a mindset.

Venture capitals are building growth-hack hit squads to strip products downto what can be tested

Whether at game developers or payments services, entrepreneurs talk of building virality into their products by recoding them to be inherently sharable; of testing Daniel Kahneman’s theories about consumers’ psychological biases by playing with game design; of retiring existing products in favour of new iterations whose starting point is their ease of Facebook sharing.

Most of all, they talk of marketing and advertising as irrelevant cost centres that no longer work hard in a world of social discovery. So venture capitals are building growth-hack hit squads: teams of coders, marketers, psychologists, even rocket scientists, to strip products down to what can be tested and optimised.

Now, not every product can be made viral: feminine-hygiene products, for one, are tough to gamify around a leaderboard. But the scientist’s mindset – develop a thesis, devise experiments, measure carefully, analyse the results – is brilliantly scalable in a world of always-on.

If you don’t know your shopping cart’s abandonment rate before and after a few design tweaks; if you don’t have half-a-dozen versions of your home page under live test; if you aren’t trialling multiple renewal prices – then you’re underserving your clients. Because, today, smart human beings don’t know what causes product growth. Only the evidence, rigorously tested, does.

David Rowan is the editor of Wired