Whatever Happened to the "Growth Hacker"​ Revolution?


In our latest episode of Anatomy of a Strategy, SEO expert and founder of Moz.com, Rand Fishkin, recalled his experience with the growth hacking revolution of a few years back:

"We'd chase a growth hack. We'd find one that would move the needle for us and then we'd keep trying to juice it. But the second time you do it, and the third time, and the fourth time, it would fall in value and in success rate and would eventually burn out.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the term "growth hack," it's essentially a quick (and dirty) way to usually trick a visitor into buying something or helping you grow. Some of these "hacks" are dirtier than others. As Rand brings up, there are a few recent ones you may be familiar with:




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Growth hacking, as a practice, includes anything that increases the likelihood of a visitor to convert and usually involves some level of manipulation or trickery to do it. A growth hacker's aim is to increase short-term growth at a minimal cost and effort. The term was coined by Sean Ellis in 2010, who is widely credited for inventing the more infamous Dropbox "share for free storage" tactic that helped the platform grow like wildfire in early days.

Though you don't need to be either a marketer or a developer to be one, many people who started calling themselves "growth hacker" had development skills. Mostly, however, a growth hacker specializes in closely watching analytics, recognizing behaviours and then exploiting that behaviour. Growth hacking techniques include pop-ups, contests, giveaways, referral incentives, A/B testing, landing pages, contact spamming, and sharing incentives. If you've ever received an invitation from a person you haven't heard from in a while that invites you to try a new app or game, you've been growth hacked.

As you may be able to tell, I'm not a fan of these techniques. Sure, they work, but only in the short-term and, as Rand's quote above indicates, they lead to a lot of chasing the next hack. As he learned first-hand, that is energy that would be better used to create more long-term growth strategies:

This (chasing the next hack) is opposed to putting those same efforts of discovery and testing and iteration into a flywheel. A flywheel is something that scales with decreasing friction. It's something that you can do over and over again and will keep producing results, and, hopefully, more results than it did last time.

In and around 2013, I was looking for work after I left my own startup and the market was saturated with calls for "growth hackers." I applied to a few of these positions, thinking that my record of helping startups grow with small budgets and my knowledge of basic coding and advanced analytics would be sufficient to convince these job posters that they didn't need a "growth hacker," but, instead an experienced marketing strategist who also understood the recent growth trends. Alas, I was passed over for all of the positions.

In the years following, I watched these same companies run after endless hacks to try to trick people into signing up with little to no success while new companies entered the market and took over their leads with a strategic combination of brand awareness building, focused and relevant acquisition tactics, customer-centric retention strategies, and authentic word-of-mouth building.

Why Do I Have a Problem With Growth-Hacking, Anyway?

My biggest beef with growth-hacking is the way it disrespects the customer and it exploits the worst in people. Growth-hacking uses the following negative exploits:

  1. Turning our friends and colleagues into annoying people - I'm all for rewarding your best customers and encouraging people to spread the word when they've enjoyed your product or service, but when these rewards and that encouragement leads to anti-social behaviour that annoys your customers' friends and colleagues (Farmville, anyone?), you've made the internet a worse place for what? A few temporary gains?

  2. Manipulation of emotions - None of us may have fallen prey to the "No, I don't want a better life" confirmshaming or manipulinking techniques, but they certainly don't leave us feeling better about ourselves. When has signing up out of fear of missing out ever led to positive outcomes? Show me what I will gain, not lose.

  3. Traps users in corners - Have you ever clicked on a link to go check something out, landing on a page that won't let you do anything but sign up? I do lots of research to find the best software to help our clients, but all too often find myself on a carefully crafted landing page whose goal is to make me fill out a form. I don't want to fill out a form yet. I am doing research. Let me see what your (generally very expensive) software can do, then, if I think it's right for me or my client, I'll fill in a form (which usually is hard to find at this point - argh!) to get a demo. Stop using landing pages to trap me! It makes me never want to come back.

  4. Cheap tricks - "Please send me notifications for every website I visit," said nobody EVER. But hot on the heels of GDPR cookie notifications (not a fan of these, either, but at least their purpose is to educate me of information being tracked), multiple websites installed "allow notification" popups that I accidentally clicked "Allow" on multiple times before I realized they weren't Cookie popups.

Even worse, growth hacking is about doing all of the above for little to no beneficial outcome. As Rand talked about in Lost and Founder, these hacks quite often hurt the company's longer-term growth and current relationships with their loyal customers.

The growth hacking mindset is selfish and short-term. Metaphorically, a growth hacker is that person who lies to you to get you to what they want, then moves on, destroying your ability to trust anyone else into the future. Growth hackers are leaving an incredible amount of consumer trust carnage in their wake and, as a marketer, this pisses me off.

No, That's Not How Business Works

For anyone who thinks I'm just upset because I didn't take advantage of human weaknesses myself to make a gabillion dollars, you would be wrong. As a student of behavioural economics, psychology and cultural studies, I'm well aware of all of the ways I could be manipulating people in my work. Heck, I even admit toeing the line many times over the years (during the Justin Trudeau campaign, I knew the audience wanted to see him as his father, so I hunted down that photo of him in a canoe), but I always ask myself if the action aligns with the longer-term outcome a client needs to achieve.

I also understand the need to pursue short-term growth objectives and that many companies deploy these not-so-savoury techniques in order to survive. But I will say that there are better ways and they won't require pillaging the trust of the audience. Growth is a fine objective and, let me assure you, there are quite often as many people looking for you as you are looking for them. Use everything you've got to drop the barriers to them finding you and getting in front of them, rather than wasting time tricking people who don't need/want you to sign up.

And not all of the tools that growth-hackers use are bad. Landing pages can be a fantastic way to help put the right information in front of the visitor, but don't use them to trap people. Sharing and referral incentives are amazing ways to encourage your loyal and happy customers to spread the word but don't turn it into a game for people who love free stuff to spam their friends.

So, What Happened to the Growth-Hacking Revolution?

I guess it's (finally) getting tired of chasing after new ways to manipulate people and realizing that "hacking" - a very negative term in the first place - is less cool than seeking out effective marketing strategies that both help in the short-term as well as benefit the long-term.

I'm looking forward to the launch of Rand's newest project SparkToro, a social intelligence tool that seeks to help companies find their audience and learn how to connect with them and build their flywheel.

This is a revolution I can totally get behind. Listen to the entire conversation here: