Those of us who follow startups and their internal culture have noticed a sea-change in the way tech companies look at marketing. The traditional “VP of Marketing” is slowly but sure being replaced by someone called a “Growth Hacker,” especially for bootstrapped startups that must rely on tenacity and skill to compete with bigger fish.
Despite the fact that everybody seems to be talking about “growth hacking”-there are websites, guides, and online courses dedicated to the topic-no one seems to agree on what it means, exactly.
According to Andrew Chen, an Angel investor and former director of marketing at Audience Science, “Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of ‘How do I get customers for my product?’ and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.”
Paraphrasing Sean Ellis, the entrepreneur and blogger who coined the phrase, the authors of “The Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking” write:
“A growth hacker is not a replacement for a marketer. A growth hacker is not better than a marketer. A growth hacker is just different than a marketer. To use the most succinct definition from Sean’s [Ellis’] post, ‘A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.’
Though there are many alternative definitions of “Growth Hacker” and “Growth Hacking,” they all seem to share a few salient features:
The primary focus of a growth hacker basics should be growth. Their job is to help startups acquire massive numbers of new users right out of the gate, if not before.
The growth hacker combines the role of traditional marketer with serious technical chops and is likely to have serious experience with software development.
Growth hacking tactics isn’t just about initial growth-it’s also about user retention.
Perhaps the best way to get to the bottom of “Growth Hacking” is to take a look inside the Growth Hacker’s toolkit. Though all of the concepts we’re going to look at have been effective in certain cases, the best solution for a given startup may be a combination of different tactics, or a strategy altogether novel.
Here are a few of the most effective basics growth hacking strategies for startups have used to rapidly acquire millions of new users and keep their current users happy.
Test Like a Mad Scientist:
A/B testing should already be familiar to those of us who managed to stay awake during high school science class. It works like this: take a uniform pool of test subjects, divide them in two, make a slight change to the environment of one group of test subjects, and see what happens.
In the context of web and mobile applications, A/B testing is a way for developers to see which new application features will be popular with users, and which will most likely fall flat or go unnoticed.
A great example of A/B testing’s efficacy is the German game-maker Wooga, responsible for the development of some of Facebook’s most popular social games like Monster World and Bubble Island. Each new feature in a Wooga game is introduced to a subset of users, whose reactions are then measured. Only the features that receive positive feedback are kept.
Wooga’s A/B dogma is a great example for those startups worried about retaining users. Since Wooga runs every new feature past current users, they don’t have to worry about alienating them with radical changes to user experience.
Know People Who Know People:
While the marketer of the past used to mediums like T.V. and radio to spread the message about a given product, the growth hacker of today need look no further than your cell phone’s contact list in order to reach hundreds of potential customers.
Though it can seem a little icky, a number of companies find new users based on information gleaned from existing users’ contact list or email address book. Blab, a video-communication platform, lets users chat with anyone in their address book regardless of whether or not they have the application. The invite to chat does, of course, come with a link to where the recipient can download Blab.
You’re probably also familiar with this technique (or maybe not, depending on how carefully you read user agreements) from Facebook Messenger, which continually synchs your contact list so that you can invite non-users to join.
Let Users Show Off:
One lesson we can learn from the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, is that people like to show their friends what they’re up to.
Some startups, like the curated news platform Circa, are using that fact to reach millions of potential users by allowing their existing ones to share in-app content via text message. Since some 98% of text messages get opened, it’s a good bet that in-app sharing gives Circa a lot of exposure.
Another iteration of this strategy, the row of share buttons at the top or bottom of a page, is a feature we almost completely take for granted, though doubtless is gives news sites and bloggers a huge amount of traffic they wouldn’t otherwise receive.
Use The Power of Popular Platforms:
Similarly, a large number of web and mobile startups use popular platforms as free ad space by letting users post app-based content on Facebook, Twitter, or, in the case of Airbnb, Craiglist.
We’ve all heard the story of how Airbnb conquered the world by allowing its users to post adds directly on Craiglists from its site, though Foursquare is an equally impressive example.
Until summer of 2014, Foursquare allowed its users to share their current location with friends via text and social networking sites, giving it access to millions of potential users without having to pay for likes, post original content, or even create a Facebook page.
While the social networking components of Foursquare have since been spun-off into a new app called Swarm, its example lives on for growth hackers everywhere to follow.
Ever since Google created an algorithm to rank search results by relevance, websites have been trying to manipulate it with a series of techniques collectively known as Search Engine Optimization (hereon SEO).
Getting to the top of a search result list virtually guarantees a higher number of clicks, and thus a greater degree of exposure for your website. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that companies spend a good amount of time and resources vying for the top spot.
Groupon, a company that offers users discounted gift certificates from local and national companies, boosted its position in Google’s rankings by integrating a footer to its website that shows users additional Google links.
Some SEO growth hacking techniques for businesses, like making sure your website uses keywords users are likely to use in a search, writing for users, and integrating links, are considered best practices. Others, like writing sentences composed only of keywords or cloaking additional links by making them the same color of your site’s background, are considered “black hat” and can get your site kicked off of a search engine entirely.
Synch Content Automatically:
Every mobile application developer wants his or her work to become integral to the lives of their users. What better way to do that then by making it easy for users to integrate your app with all of their devices, and even with other apps?
That’s exactly what the makers of Instapaper, an app that lets you save and manage texts you find online, did. Since the app automatically synchs with all of a users’ devices, the awesome recipe you read about on your tablet will be waiting for you on your smart phone or laptop when it’s time to start cooking.
Automatic synching is a great way to keep your users happy and your retention rates high, but sometimes companies –cough cough Skype-go overboard by making unprompted radical changes to user experience. Here’s a tip for all you aspiring growth hackers out there: if it ain’t broke, you can still fix it, but not so much as to make your product unrecognizable to your loyal customers.
Create an Open API:
The developers of Pocket, an app that lets users save stuff they find online but don’t have time to look at right away, created an open API that makes it easier for developers to integrate it with other apps and ecommerce. To date, Pocket is integrated with 500 different apps across various platforms, including Flipboard, Twitter, and Pulse.
Customer Service is Important:
Sometimes it’s a startup’s attention to customer service that sets it apart. Take Harry’s Shave Club, for example. Harry’s, a project of Warby Parker alum Jeff Ralder, answered a customer request for shaving tips with a long, personalized response that probably earned them a life-long user. You can read that letter, and pick up some pretty stellar shaving advice, here.
Taking the time to address customer concerns with a personal touch is a great way to inspire customer loyalty and earn the kind of reputation that encourages new users to sign up. Word-of-mouth is still the best, freest, and most viral way to spread the word about your startup.
I know this sounds corny, but all the companies I’ve mentioned so far have a lot more going for them than just good growth hacking. What ultimately makes or breaks an application is its ability to make a user’s life easier, more interesting, or a combination of the two.
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