Growth Hackers: The Ninja Rockstar Pirates of the Marketing World

I really enjoyed this article from Layered Thoughts: “Growth Hacking is BS. It’s All Just Marketing.” But, it did make me reflect on my adoption of other terminology over the years.

In the early 2000s, I liked the term “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) over “Search Engine Placement” (which some people still use) or “Search Engine Marketing” (which now means SEO+PPC or sometimes just PPC) or “Search Ranking Optimization” (which never took off). On the various blogs and forums of the early web marketing community, vicious fights broke out over who coined it, whether they had an agenda, and whether anyone should support it. Thankfully, it grew legs and is now an industry standard.

In the mid 2000s, another term “Social Media Marketing” (SMM) started taking off. I remember writing about it just after the first time I heard the term (which turned out to be a smart move as an SEOmoz blog post ranked on page one for several years thanks to that).

There was “linkbait,” and “linkerati,” and “inbound marketing” and plenty of others. New terminology is to be expected in a fast moving industry. Some of it sticks and some doesn’t. What I’m finding is that I tend to like vocabulary that makes something that was previously hard to explain easy. And I don’t like jargon that merely obfuscates something obvious or already established. Changing “SEO” to something else in 2002/3 was a bad idea. I’m glad it didn’t happen. Linkbait was never a great one – we probably should have just stuck with the more obvious and established “viral content.” The “linkerati” is a useful term, but the branding isn’t great, and nowadays “influencer” is nearly as effective, if not quite as detailed.

The phrase “inbound marketing” is interesting because just like the old SEO terminology debates of the early 2000s, it’s aroused a lot of ire. And I feel that same ire when I hear “growth hacker” or “growth hacking.” I’ve been trying to sort out whether I’m just an asshole hypocrite or if there’s really a meaningful difference, and I think in this case, there is.

Inbound marketing is just another way of saying “all the unpaid web marketing channels.” It encompasses organic search, unpaid social media marketing, content marketing, most email marketing, online PR (which is beginning to be called “influencer marketing” or simply “outreach”), etc. It’s a pain in the ass to say all those things together every time you want to talk about inbound channels, so inbound would seem to fit the criteria of usefulness. There’s no established phrase for this, so we need something. I’ve seen “earned marketing,” “organic marketing,” and “unpaid marketing” all used, but inbound had fewer weaknesses and more strengths (and adoption) so after fighting it for a couple years, I finally came around and embraced it (thanks largely to Dharmesh’s urging).

On the flip side, “growth hacker” and “growth hacking” seem extremely confusing, misleading, and repetitive, and they’re coined and primarily embraced by a culture that (historically at least) has specifically rejected what they mean – marketing.

Facebook, along with several other progressive startups, have a growth team and a marketing team. Growth works on improving the usage and engagement of specific products while marketing works on customer acquisition, funnel optimization, and retention. That split makes sense, but then I see job postings for growth hackers and blog posts about growth hacks that don’t follow these reasonably well-defined sections.

It would seem that “growth hacking” falls much more into the territory of pure Silicon Valley/startup ecosystem jargon. It’s used by the same folks who say they’re “killing it” and that they’ve “pivoted” and that they’ve “bootstrapped” despite having funding sources. Far more importantly, it’s used to refer to classic marketing tactics – leveraging consumer psychology to create more viral funnels,

I’ve seen the argument that growth hackers are those who have both marketing and development skills. But that strikes me as both naive and insulting. Millions of marketers have programming skills. Many of them have built features or even fully fledged software products. The ability to code does not separate a marketer from a “growth hacker,” anymore than the ability to give excellent presentations on stage makes one a “speak marketer” or artistic skills transform a marketer into a “design marketer.” Marketers who can program have existed for over a decade, and in many marketing roles, particularly in technically demanding fields like SEO, CRO, and CRM, they’ve been a common sight, not an exception.

All that said, growth hacking has helped to make the Silicon Valley mindset (regardless of geography) seemingly more receptive to marketing. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a clever branding ploy, designed by marketers to help those in the startup ecosystem take note of the value this knowledge and these tactics can bring. If so, bring on the jargon. A few years back, I recall software engineers and web developers calling themselves “rockstars,” and “ninjas,” and “pirates.” If  us marketers need to adopt some silly new naming convention to fit in with the crowd, so be it. We’re probably not above a harmless naming convention change.

p.s. The term “growth hack” I think I have less of a problem with, as I’m challenged to find a suitable alternative in our existing terminology. As I understand it, a “growth hack” is a product feature or innovation that creates greater customer acquisition/usage/retention. Other than a “marketing project,” or a “marketing-focused feature,” I can’t think of great alternate phrasing that has common adoption.

UPDATE: I wasn’t happy with this post after noodling on it for a night and a morning, and wrote a little more about that here.