It’s Time to Retire the Term “Growth Hacker”


It’s time we nipped this in the bud, people.  I’ll confess that, in writing this column, for the first time I googled the term.  I’ve heard it thrown around for at least half a decade, heard it misapplied to various marketing and software and product management roles at various startups on both sides of the border, and heard people use it to describe.. me.

It’s an appealing term for someone who began his career as an actual hacker: trying and failing and trying again until ultimately succeeding at various software and actual [ahem] hacking projects.  Eventually, I progressed to Product Management and Marketing and that is where I’ve hung my hat for 20 years.  So, you’d think I would be all over this validation of my craft, right?

Wrong.  Here’s the problem:  like so much modern business terminology, “Growth Hacking” has become quickly co-opted, misconstrued, misapplied, over-promoted, and ultimately used to denigrate the role of marketers within the startup community and elsewhere.  In particular, I recently noted a company with no VP Marketing or any senior marketing roles on their web site, advertising for a Growth Hacker role.

Despite its title-du-jour status, Growth Hacking is not a replacement for Marketing.  It’s one of the arrows in the quiver.  People often like to cite the “hack” of Hotmail juicing their growth by appending a footer to every outbound email by default that promoted the service and contained a link to the site.

In the early days of RingCentral, and before that BuzMe, we ensured that all callers to users of our service got a hint at what service was routing their calls.  We didn’t think to call this “Growth Hacking” or anything else.  But while pitching Venture Capitalists in those days, this was our response to how we made our service viral.

This sort of engineered virality has become a staple of early-stage service and product marketing: what is it about your product that the very act of using it helps promote it?  But that’s just the thing: it’s not all they do.

But wait!  There’s more:  During this interview about How Stewart Butterfield scaled Slack, wherein he provides no actual information about how he scaled Slack, Butterfield does drop this little gem about so-called “Growth Hacking”, and why he hates it:

“It’s so easy to fall into the trap of like maximizing for some local position or juking the stats in the– Juking the stats. Yeah, in ‘The Wire’ terminology. So a quick example of that is an email that Twitter would send that would give you the top five interesting tweets from your network today. And they would show you the tweet, but they didn’t link directly to the tweet. They linked just to the timeline of the person who tweeted it. And the inference, and I’m almost positive this is why, they did it is because you would go click on the timeline, and then you would try to find that tweet. And you would end up frustrated and angry at Twitter, but you’d spend a few more moments on the site. And so when they did A/B test, if some people got this email and some people got this email, they’re like oh, people got this email spent a little bit longer on the site, and that’s the result that I want.”

Looking purely at the data yields a false dividend.  And in the specific case cited by Stewart, frustrated users.  Services compromising their user experience in favour of techniques to maximize time-on-site or other metrics ultimately could corrode growth and engagement, or much worse: leave a service open to an attack from a competitor.

Concepts like Growth Hacking can grab hold of a culture, within a community or a company. This one in particular seems appealing

because of its implication of low cost, accessibility, and measurability.  But taken as a snapshot without the benefit of a broader marketing approach, or an appreciation of the product’s need to service happy users, the overall effects and the burden of expectations can bury the noblest of intentions for those who identify themselves as Growth Hackers.

I’m all for the idea of taking ideas and techniques for building and marketing better businesses, applying labels to them, and sharing the concepts broadly.  But the danger in too much hype around these concepts is that they’ll be considered and promoted by some as an end-all / be-all solution, which none of them is.

Every successful marketing effort blends the appropriate mix of marketing techniques and, yes, hacks.  That alchemy is as unique as the team, and the organization, implementing it.  There is no panacea.  Beware of anyone who says there is.  I feel like I say this a lot.