Hacked off

Disillusioned with convention, a new breed of marketer is rewriting the business-growth rule book. By Ryan Holiday.

Hacked off

There’s no business like show business. Yet, when it comes right down to it, that’s the industry that every marketing team – no matter what business they’re actually in – pretends to be in when they’re launching something new.

Deep down, I think anyone marketing or launching a product fantasises that they are premièring a blockbuster movie. And this illusion shapes and warps every marketing decision we make.

It feels good, but it’s so very wrong.

We seem to want a huge grand opening, a big launch, a press release or major media coverage. We default to thinking that we need an advertising budget. We want a red carpet and celebrities. Most dangerously, we assume that we need to get as many customers as possible in a very short window of time – and if it doesn’t work right away, we consider the whole thing a failure (which, of course, we cannot afford). Our delusion is that we should be Transformers and not The Blair Witch Project.

Needless to say, this is preposterous. Yet you and I have been taught, unquestionably, to follow it when we think about how to launch or grow our business.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, for starters: most movies fail. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it: "Nobody knows anything – even the people in charge. It’s all a big gamble."

Which is fine, because their system is designed to absorb these losses. The hits pay for the mistakes many times over. But there is a big difference between them and everyone else in the world. You can’t really afford for your start-up to fail; your friend has sunk everything into her new business; and I can’t allow my book to flop.

Testable, trackable, scalable

For most of us – this is it.

It was only a matter of time before someone smart came along and said: "It doesn’t have to be this way.

The tools of the internet and social media have made it possible to track, test, iterate and improve marketing to the point where these enormous gambles are not only unnecessary, but insanely counterproductive."

That person was the first growth hacker.

The term "growth hacker" has many different meanings for different people. Here’s my definition…

A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions such as "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.

Today’s companies know that they must grow or die. We’re all trying to grow our business, launch our website, sell tickets for our event or fund our Kickstarter project.

So no wonder, almost overnight, growth hackers have become the new rock stars of Silicon Valley. You see them on the pages of TechCrunch, Fast Company, Mashable, Entrepreneur and countless other publications. LinkedIn and Hacker News abound with job postings at places such as Google, Dropbox, Airbnb, Twitter and every other hot new company: Growth Hacker Needed.

In action, growth hacking is inspiring and creative…

• When Burbn pivoted and became Instagram – that was a billion-dollar branding decision.
• When Dropbox rolled out its referral programme, paying you in free storage to bring your friends on board – that was viral marketing genius.
• When Twitter created its Suggest Users list, it improved customer acquisition like crazy. It was product development that made marketing work better.

It’s a loop – one that runs over and over again inside tiny start-ups hoping to be the next Google, to big companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Zappos.

More mindset than toolkit

It should be a wake-up call that these billion-dollar companies became what they are by using a new playbook – one that most of us aren’t familiar with yet.

Deep down, traditional marketers have always considered themselves artists. That’s fine – it’s an image I aspired to myself. It’s a sentiment responsible for spectacular and moving work. But this sentiment is also responsible for some appalling ignorance and waste. One Harvard Business Review study found that 80 per cent of marketers are unhappy with their ability to measure marketing return on investment. Not because the tools aren’t good enough, but because they’re too good, and marketers are seeing for the first time that their strategies are "often flawed and their spending is inefficient".

Are those the people you want to learn from?

Thankfully, growth hacking isn’t some proprietary technical process shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it has grown and developed in the course of very public conversations. There are no trade secrets to guard.

Aaron Ginn, the growth hacker tasked with rapidly updating the technology behind Mitt Romney’s US presidential campaign and now the director of growth at StumbleUpon, put it best: growth hacking is more of a mindset than a toolkit.

The good news: it’s as simple as changing your mindset. (Or if you’re just starting out in marketing, it means you have been spared the baggage of the old guard.) Growth hacking is not a 1-2-3 sequence but, instead, a fluid process. Growth hacking at its core means putting aside the notion that marketing is a self-contained act that begins towards the end of a com­pany’s or a product’s development life cycle. It is, instead, a way of thinking and looking at your business.

The tools will vary from job to job – it’s the mindset that will be the killer advantage. And that can start right now.

The growth hacker wake-up call has arrived. Will you answer?

Ryan Holiday is the director of marketing at American Apparel and author of Growth Hacker Marketing, which was published last month by Profile Books and is priced £8.99