“Growth Hacking” – Ignore the Hype

July 30th, 2014 | Maura Lafferty | 7 Comments

Growth Hacking

There is a dangerous idea being shared in marketing, community management, and start-up circles in San Francisco – “Growth Hacking.”

Image: daryjeki via Tumblr, CC 4.0

According to Neil Patel, the history of the term comes from a successful Silicon Valley executive who helped organizations achieve substantial growth specifically in acquiring a user base. However, this version of the story neglects to mention the long-term life-cycle of the companies and how complex successful communications programs really are.

There is no mention of whether this style of growth worked for the organizations to really achieve what they’re looking for. There is no mention of which specific companies have employed this approach successfully, nor analysis of the return on investment, customer retention, or perception data.

The term seems to be applied as an umbrella for a range of Internet skills and tools, from social media engagement, to measuring site traffic, to content site partnerships. Using social media and Internet tools to amass a huge user base can create as many problems as it solves, because engaging with lots of people means more stake-holders, each of whom bring their own expectations to the table.

Believing that “growth hacking” is the way to build your user base, community, or marketing program is a very dangerous idea.

It treats people monolithically, ignores differences in everything from demographic make-up to political background to existing perception barriers, and most importantly, ignores how complex the end customer’s decision-making process is. There is no consideration of how the customer comes to understand and relate to the brand, nor does it account for the additional bandwidth that this growth requires and the new constraints this adds to existing structures.

The great promise of social media has been to give consumers more power through connection to their favorite organizations. By glossing over these distinctions, “growth hacking” completely ignores what an empowered consumer looks like in the social media age, and treats each person as a data point. That sophisticated customer who would understand and appreciate a new technology tool, that this approach is geared towards, knows that they do not have to be treated poorly by the organization.


In some ways, this makes sense in the current Silicon Valley zeitgeist. “Growth hacking” comes from a combination of the “faster is always better” and “newer is always better” mentality – contrasting Internet products like Facebook and Dropbox with tangible products like shampoo and couches.

Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous way to think about organizational growth.

This way of thinking encourages marketers to push for growth above all, rather than take the time to build something properly. The very product examples mentioned above compare apples to oranges, and gloss over the nuances in each of those market spaces. As a buzzword, this approach overlooks the very real challenges that technology both faces and has created, which are evidenced in the conversations raging around diversity, inclusion, and social responsibility. Even the Airbnb example leaves out what happens when the organization rolls out a new brand that misfires.

More insidious is the fact that, because “hacking is cool,” growth hacking as a buzzword encourages lazy marketing and communications, and allows those using this approach to feel superior to more experienced communicators. For some start-ups, “growth hacking” has come to mean pursuing a single viral content hit, as opposed to a well-rounded content strategy that takes into account the complexity of reaching a return on investment and the organizational growth goals. Even if a start-up could engineer the success of a single piece of content to go viral (an increasingly challenging task in today’s complex online world), there is no guarantee that this coverage would result in the end metrics most successful organizations must rely on.

When content goes viral, the organization loses control over the message, the customer’s relationship to the content, and the reason that the content is being shared.

“Growth hacking” treats people poorly, ignores how complex real communications success is, encourages lazy thinking, overlooks the maturation process of an organization over time, and sets the organization up to be blindsided by inevitable problems that will come from having a large userbase.

Responsible communicators will know that real success comes from ignoring spin like this, and investing in well-researched, carefully-crafted programs based on an understanding of their audience and stakeholders.

Graphic via BufferSocial

Maura Lafferty
Maura Lafferty loves San Francisco, social media, and social responsibility. She is currently applying for full-time communications roles, where she can bring her nonprofit and tech knowledge and integrated media relations to a great team building some awesome programs.
Maura Lafferty
Maura Lafferty
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I sort of agree and disagree with you Maura - I think your point about growth hacking being overly hyped is on point. In my experience where it does matter is in early stages when a company doesn't yet have product-market fit. 

To both @ginidietrich and @DanielHonigman's point from below, the most critical thing in early stages is to focus and get useable information that helps you build product / service. That's something that growth hacking can help with...but of course as you say it's not a communications strategy. If the product is poor or doesn't address a real problem, then PR / integrated comms will simply reveal that. For me, this means that a startup has to internally define when it's ready to move from customer & product development and into a larger communications strategy. William Mougayar has some good posts around this topic (http://startupmanagement.org/author/wmougayar/) in particular, this one: http://startupmanagement.org/2013/09/16/hack-your-growth-but-dont-hack-your-marketing/


Though a communications professional, I read this with a different eye. My husband has been building an online business in the political space for 18 months. It won't officially launch until January, which is when most states will begin their campaign year. During that time, he has built the product, created the content, and brought on users...at a manageable pace. In the beginning, though, he was completely taken by growthhacking and how quickly it seems businesses grow in the Silicon Valley. Because of that, he spent nearly a year trying to get funding. What he kept hearing was, "Get some customers and see if they'll use your product." I relate this story only to say, I agree with you. It's really difficult to build a business through growthhacking.


Agree with about 90% of your post.

Growth hacking is more than a marketing activity. It's looking at one's product critically to figure out new/innovative ways of growing business, traffic, clicks or something else. It might not necessarily be coming up with a "viral" (man - HATE that term) piece of content, but it could be testing out offers, copy, content - everything. 

Growth hacking isn't just marketing. In part, it's testing everything under the sun + acting on results quickly to grow one's business. 


This is a really bold article and I love it because it really puts the growthhacking trend into perspective. 

However, I will say that PR folks CANNOT ignore the growthhacking conversation. There are extremely insightful articles written within this community that can make really inform the PR industry vantage point on digital marketing. 

Let's face it, PR is now claiming to be a lot more than just PR (and rightly so) but that means that we're entering an arena with professions with differing backgrounds. Someone graduating with a PR degree is now, more than ever, competiting with the same individual with a Marketing degree (Journalists are increasingly infiltrating the same space). That means that within the same broader profession, different niches are forming. 

My take on growthhacking is that it is a online communications niche that has evolved from the startup scene which is rich in marketing backgrounds. So that viewpoint will be different than that of "us", those who approach digital marketing from a content/narrative first vantage point. The growthhacking niche views digital marketing from a metrics/conversion lense - this is in large part to the SaaS legacy it spawned from (think of growthhacking as a spinoff of Hubspot's content marketing brigade). 

So basically, my viewpoint is that we need to "know thy enemy" and the strategy/tactics being used. Sometimes they may clash with more traditional methods, but there are other times where the viewpoints aren't drastically different. 

All in all I don't think growthhacking is going anywhere soon - so we better not ignore it, but instead, do what we do best - out-content them with rationales why the "get-rich-quick" stuff won't fly. 

We need ot be sure we explain our perspectives on digital marketing within the same circles so that there is an informed opposition to every "lazy" argument put forth (and be sure to amplify the smart stuff their talking about too - becauase it isn't always going to be one way or another). 


@DanielHonigman Thanks for the feedback! I think there is room for proponents of growth hacking to better explain and highlight the critical analysis that you mention here - this takes solid hands-on work, to test, analyze, and assess the success of new growth strategies. There are people who are making it sound like this is an easy process, and it's important to underline how much work this really takes.


@JasKeller thanks for your detailed response! I agree that it's important to know what's happening in the growth hacking space, and for communicators to be able to respond when a client or prospect asks about it. You'll notice that I didn't say anything about tactics, as I agree that the web has brought new tactics and areas of growth to all professions. 

However, this post was inspired by a conversation with an organization whose heavy emphasis on growth hacking, and the "cool" factor associated with a marketing-first focus was blinding them to other key areas of a successful communications program, and you can see in the results that they're getting that there's something missing.