Growth hacking and marketing, identify ways to grow a business- chapter 2
YOU HAVE TO BE A
PROGRAMMER TO BE A GROWTH HACKER
Gagan Biyani, the co-founder of Udemy and a growth hacker himself, said, “many of the growth hacking descriptions on the web are unnecessarily restrictive. I don’t believe growth hackers must be formal engineers when many of the most well-regarded growth hackers don’t code regularly.”
It’s understandable why this mistake is sometimes made given the dependence upon code to achieve many growth hacking goals, but it just simply isn’t true that a growth hacker needs to be a programmer. A growth hacker usually needs a programmer on his team, but he doesn’t have to be the programmer. Consider the following example, which is a composite of actual situations:
A growth hacker at a small startup has a team of three people: himself, a front-end developer, and a back-end developer. The team has just been assembled and no growth hacking has taken place. The two developers have never really thought about growth much. They know it’s important, and they are excited about learning, but until now they’ve never been on a growth team of any kind. The first day they are together the growth hacker talks to everyone about event-based analytics and why they matter. The growth hacker then makes a list of every event he wants tracked on the product (signups, referrals, interactions, etc.), and then he shows them KISSmetrics, his tool of choice. He tells the developers where to find the documentation which will help them track events on their product, and then he leaves them to implement the code.
Some weeks pass, and the growth hacker calls everyone together. He uses the data that has been coming in to build a funnel within KISSmetrics. He teaches them what makes a good funnel, and he lays out some goals for each step of the conversion process. The team decides to focus on the unique visitor to signup conversion rate. The growth hacker’s hypothesis is that people are bouncing instead of signing up because the copywriting isn’t clear enough, or powerful enough, so he crafts some new copy, and the front-end developer makes it look beautiful on the site. The conversion rate goes up by 7% for that part of the funnel, in the most recent month over month cohort.
This team, as a whole, is now responsible for growth hacking, but ask yourself this question. Which person, of the three, was the fuel that made growth a real possibility? The engineers alone would not have increased conversions by 7%. Of course, some programmers could do everything in this story, but that’s not the point. This is a thought experiment to show that a growth hacker doesn’t have to be a programmer.
CAN’T BE GROWTH HACKERS
Growth hacking has become a sort of religion, in a bad way, and marketers are viewed as the opponent, instead of a very close ally. If anything, a growth hacker is a marketer which has restricted their activities to growth alone. Yes, this focus has created a subculture which looks less and less like marketing as time passes, but their roots are not diametrically opposed.
Consider the story from above about the growth hacker and the two engineers. Traditional marketers usually have copywriting within their skillset. So they have a leg up on someone without any training. In the example above, if a marketer took their copywriting skill, then narrowed their focus to growth alone, and implemented event-based analytics in order to run funnel analysis for different cohorts to track improvements due to copywriting, then they would be growth hacking. The traditional marketer is best poised to become a growth hacker (compared to the general population), should they choose to, if they have a strong analytical and technical mind.
In fact, Sean Ellis, the godfather of growth hacking, called himself the first marketer at Dropbox. Marketer was the title he most associated with when there wasn’t another label for his role. Many of the best growth hackers working today continue to sport the title of Chief Marketing Officer or VP of Marketing. More and more companies are choosing to have a Growth Lead, a VP of Growth, or even a Growth Hacker, but they used to just be called marketers, so let’s not forget our roots.
YOU HAVE TO BE UNETHICAL
TO BE A GROWTH HACKER
Whenever you narrow your focus to one singular goal (in this case, growth) then you run the risk of making decisions that are not in the best interest of others. Every growth hacker must draw the line somewhere, and like any discipline, it will have bad actors.
In recent months Path has been accused of going too far because of their aggressive practices around obtaining the phone contacts of their users, and the way in which they messaged those contacts. Many think they went too far. I tend to agree. However, I don’t think that AirBNB went too far because they were actually serving people while they served themselves, and Craigslist could change their site at anytime to disallow AirBNB’s actions. Path users can’t undo the spam that went out in their name.
But here’s the real point. Most growth hackers don’t even have to ask the question of what is ethical. They are building harmless product features that increase conversions, and they are getting that product into the public through their knowledge of distribution channels. It’s smart, not unethical. Every growth hacker has to decide if they are going to be a Jedi or a Sith.
GROWTH HACKERS ARE EXTREMELY ANALYTICAL
Ok, we’ve talked enough about what a growth hacker isn’t, so let’s talk about what a growth hacker is. One of the core aspects of any growth hacker, whatever background they come from, is their love of, dependence upon, and understanding of, analytics.
Analytics is the blood that flows through the veins of a growth hacker. Almost everything they do has an element of analytics either in the foreground or the background. Without analytics a growth hacker feels naked. Here are some of the ways that growth hackers use analytics:
ANALYTICS KEEP GROWTH HACKERS HONEST
The world of marketing has been a place of feelings and emotions for quite some time. What was the ROI of the billboard in Times Square? Who knows, but it looks cool, right? Times have changed. Now it doesn’t matter how charismatic you are in a meeting, or how powerful your ideas seem, or how many sheep in upper management signed off on the campaign. The analytics will uncover your awesomeness or your daftness. Period.
Dan McKinley, a principal engineer at Etsy, tells a great story about their infinite scroll fiasco that sums up this point well. After spending five months creating an infinite scroll for Etsy products, they released the new feature. Of course, they celebrated first. High fives. Back smacks. The usual. Then the numbers came in, and people were buying fewer things through search. What? Needless to say, they got rid of the infinite scroll. Here are two of the slides that Dan uses during his talk on this. Hot isn’t enough:
There are a lot of takeaways from this anecdote, but for our purpose we’ll focus on the analytics. If they hadn’t depended on analytics they might not have realized their error. Analytics keep growth hackers honest.
ANALYTICS SHIFT THE FOCUS OF GROWTH HACKERS
When you have systems that are tracking your product and activities, the numbers have a way of shifting your focus in unforeseen ways. You might have never dreamed of spending more resources on your referral loop. It might have been a throw away feature that you put in the product just to see what would happen. Then, after you dig into the data, you realize that over 20% of all new signups are coming from this loop, and their lifetime value is higher than your average user. You know that you can make the loop much more efficient, so you change the focus of your team for the next two weeks to focus on this feature. Analytics can help stack rank your to-do list in interesting ways.
ANALYTICS MAKE SUCCESS REPEATABLE
When you don’t take analytics seriously you can’t efficiently repeat past successes. If all you know is that the company made more money in Q4 than in Q3, then you know nothing. Why was Q4 better? Were there more users signing up for your product, or did you just convert higher numbers of those that did sign up. Was there a particular feature that began to be used because of a recent redesign? Did the AdWords campaign finally began to have a positive ROI because a competitor who bidded up the cost per click stopped running Google ads? If you know what is leading to your success then you can repeat what is working (and stop what isn’t working).
ANALYTICS PREDICT THE FUTURE FOR GROWTH HACKERS
Companies make bets on the future everyday. They guess what the competition will do. They guess what the market will want. They guess at ways to skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been. They guess. Let me be clear, the future will always be a guess to some extent, but inductive reasoning based on analytics allow us to make informed decisions about tomorrow, based on yesterday’s data.
Will the sun rise tomorrow? Technically, there is not a deductive way to know, but inductively we can reason that it will since it always has. When you look at your charts and there is clearly a line moving in a particular direction there is no guarantee that it will stay the course, but if other factors remain the same, it probably will. This isn’t an exact science, but it’s better than guessing.
This is also where correlation and causation become important concepts. If your analytics show that A and B follow a similar course then this information could be used to change the trajectory of those stats. You could run experiments to see if A and B are just corollaries of one another, or if one of them actually causes the other. When a growth hacker uncovers causation, a process heavily aided by analytics, they have a very powerful weapon at their disposal.
GROWTH HACKERS ARE T-SHAPED
When it comes to the skills possessed by a growth hacker, they need to be shaped like a capital T. Here’s what I mean. The flat horizontal part at the top of the T represents all the various skills and disciplines that a growth hacker needs to be familiar with. You need to know at least something about many different things. You need to know a little about psychology. You need to know a little about viral loops. You need to know a little about drip email campaigns. You need to know a little about…well, you get the picture. There shouldn’t be anything mentioned in this book that you couldn’t hold a conversation about.
But that’s not enough. You also need to have a few skills that create the vertical line of the T. These are the skills where you dominate. You are the expert in these areas. You go deep. Maybe you know everything about onboarding and 85% of everyone that signs up for your product gets to the MHX (must have experience) which keeps churn down. This can make up for a lot of mistakes. If you can take any piece of the funnel and make it drastically more efficient then you have something to begin building your growth around. You need a few things that you’re awesome at to even have a chance at scaling.
However, here is what separates the professionals from everyone else. Professionals are not happy with a T-shape. They want a V-shape. As they begin to master more and more disciplines they don’t have one or two vertical lines representing deep knowledge, but rather 10 or 20. This creates a V.
Growth hacking seems mysterious, but it really isn’t. A growth hacker is less like an illusionist and more like a marathoner. There’s no smoke and mirrors here, but rather a lot of hard work to master the skills that pertain to growth. If you want to finish a marathon then you have to train for months in advance. More than that, you have to train in the right way. Likewise, if you want to grow a product you need to become a T-shape, then a V-shape, and who knows, maybe eventually a U-shape, and this will take months of training. There is no shortcut to running a marathon or growing a product.
GROWTH HACKERS ARE ALSO RIGHT-BRAINED
Growth hackers spend so much time talking about analytics (truth #1) that it’s easy to forget that they are also heavily right-brained. Analytics are super important, but so is curiosity, creativity, and a general fondness for anecdotal evidence and qualitative facts. If I were forced to select between analytics and anecdotes, I would choose analytics. Luckily, I don’t have to make such a choice, and there is no need for a false dichotomy. Products are machines that usually fly when you have the right mix of whimsy and hard science. Don’t err in either direction.
CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT, BUT…
A lack of curiosity will kill your product. Growth hackers have an urge to think new thoughts and try new things. If you want to follow a manual that outlines every procedure for your job then become a middle manager. If you want to follow orders then join the army. If you want to grow a product then get curious. Maybe something has never been tried until now because it’s a dumb idea, but maybe it’s never been tried because no one has ever been curious enough to find out if it would work. Here are some examples of curiosity…
- What would happen if we made our entire product invite only, and not just for the beta period?
- What would happen if we made our users do something every week to keep their account from being deactivated forever?
- What if we let our customer’s pick their own price, including free?
- What if we gave away an upgrade to our product to anyone who pays to have Chinese food delivered to our office during lunch hours? And we tweeted about it every time it happened.
- What if we made our entire homepage an homage to the heroes of our industry on the 1st of every month, and we made it easy to share with friends?
- What if we went through and rewrote all the error message copywriting on our site using famous quotes from cult classic movies?
- What if customer support requests triggered a drip email campaign of hilarious videos from YouTube pertaining to their problem?
Are these ideas stupid? Many of them probably are, but at least I’m brave enough to write them down in a book that will be read by thousands of people. Why are you afraid to write down dumb ideas in a text file that no one will ever see? Curiosity is a function of overcoming fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being right. Fear of being different. If you don’t have the guts to think about really bad ideas, you’ll never have the opportunity to execute brilliant ones.
THE SQUISHY, EPHEMERAL, FLUFFY STUFF
IS NOT YOUR ENEMY
Logicians and mathematicians crave a binary world. Everything would be yes or no. The data would be clear. The plan would obvious. But alas, we live in a world of grey, where “sort of” and “maybe” are the answers to many questions. The growth hacker must never forget this.
The data may be showing a drop in conversions from the second to the third screen in the checkout flow. You can stare at numbers for hours and still be lost, or you could go to Starbucks and ask a total stranger to checkout using your credit card. I bet you’d learn something. Sure, one person isn’t a large enough sample size to make statistically relevant decisions, but not all problems need mountains of data. You might realize, after watching Jenny from Starbucks trying to check out, that you didn’t give a description of what “CVV” stands for and that she had no idea what to put in that field. How much data do you need to put a helpful message on the site that corrects this? Sometimes one anecdote is enough.
GROWTH HACKERS ARE OBSESSIVE
Do you really have what it takes to think about growth all-the-time? Sure, it’s fun for a week, but will it be fun in 6 months? Do you have the capability to focus on a narrow goal to the exclusion of everything else, for the foreseeable future? Here is why it’s important to be obsessive:
IT’S THE 213TH TACTIC THAT
WILL PROBABLY WORK, NOT THE 7TH.
If growth hacking was just a matter of trying five or ten things and then watching the users signup and the money roll in, then there would be no need for a book like this. The truth is that growth hacking only looks simple once you’ve found out the things that work for your product. Until then you have to try hundreds of dead ends.
WITH ENOUGH PAPERCUTS
YOU CAN KILL YOUR COMPETITION
There is sometimes the assumption that all you need is one breakthrough to win. One big awesome growth hack to own your market. I do think that you can kill your competition, but it usually occurs because of a million micro-lacerations, not one huge one.
Small successes compound over time. If you are able to stay the course and improve your numbers day by day, then you’ll look up after a year and realize that you actually moved the needle in some pretty remarkable ways, but there might not be a breakthrough moment. Bryan Goldberg, writing for Pando Daily, said:
“Whenever I pitch a VC, one of the most common questions I get is this one: “When did Bleacher Report really take off?” The answer is never. As of today, Bleacher Report is one of the 50 largest websites in the United States…But what is even more fantastic is the chart of how we got there. Now, I challenge any reader to pull out a pen and put an “X” over the spot in which Bleacher Report achieved escape velocity. What you may find is that it cannot be done. There was never a moment in which we “took off like a rocket.”