What is Growth Hacking: definition, strategies, examples, tools
Growth hacking is one of those hyped-up buzzwords that are so popular you are not sure what they mean anymore!
But don’t worry. In this post, I’ll remove this confusion, explain why growth hacking matters not only for startups but for bigger companies too, and talk about the most effective growth hacking strategies for your business.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is growth hacking?
The term growth hacking derives from the phrase “growth hacker” coined in 2010 by Sean Ellis, an entrepreneur who helped Dropbox achieve its business growth. Trying to find a replacement for himself, he invented a new job position that would be different from a position of a “marketing specialist.”
But what exactly is the difference between growth hacking marketing and traditional marketing?
I tried to summarize it in one comparison table:
Growth hacking is used to describe a set of innovative, creative, and usually low-cost strategies that companies use to grow their customer base.
It’s always about:
- Watching the trends. Growth hackers keep up with the always-changing market, identify potential investors, and understand where their product or service is the most valuable. Besides, as the digital world evolves with rocket speed, they often consider updating their hardware and software to manage a larger customer base. Speaking of…
- Applying the necessary growth hacking tools. Growth hackers understand the value of growth hacking software. These tools are everywhere — from social media to email marketing tools, from SEO to sales automation software.
- Achieving the goals. Growth hackers clearly understand their company’s goals and link them with the processes that can help achieve them. In other words, to succeed as a growth hacker, never lose an opportunity! Take advantage of business events and connections with the only aim in mind — leading your company to maximum growth.
What is a growth hacker, then?
A growth hacker is someone in your team who watches the trends and knows how and what tools to use with the only aim – to achieve your company’s growth-oriented goals.
Does my company need a growth hacker?
Yes, but you don’t always need a separate position for that.
Anyone in your organization can be a growth hacker if they focus on innovative ways of achieving the company’s objectives, expanding the customer base, and reaching top results.
Let’s imagine: your marketing analysts suggest buying new software to monitor your competitors — companies that launch a similar product. This can be called growth hacking, as they encourage testing something new without much risk.
Such an idea has lots of potential for business growth. By automating the process of competitive monitoring, your team will be free from manual work, which will result in higher productivity in general. Meanwhile, your company’s sales team will be forearmed with valuable data about competitors for successful sales outreach.
Growth hacking step-by-step: AAARRR funnel
Sure, growth hacking is all about taking advantage of opportunities, but this doesn’t mean there’s no strategy behind it.
To measure key growth drivers, growth hackers often rely on the 6-step AAARRR funnel, aka Pirate Funnel. This framework was designed to help startups identify where they should optimize their marketing and sales efforts.
AAARRR acronym stands for Awareness, Acquisition, Activation, Revenue, Retention, and Referral (don’t mix it up with a typical sales funnel!).
Sometimes, you might come across a reduced 5-step funnel model, where the Awareness stage is omitted. Still, I will include it in my AAARRR funnel description, as business growth always starts with people becoming aware of your product or service.
Build your growth hacking strategy following these steps to see how well your business is doing and what you can optimize at each stage.
Let’s talk about AAARRR steps in detail:
Stage 1. Awareness
Basically, you start with a brand-building aspect.
The first thing to track and consider for your growth hacking is how people become aware of your brand. The goal of this stage is to think of new ways of introducing your company and attracting more customers.
Consider how many people visit your website and how much time they spend on specific web pages. Whenever you get a new user, try to learn how they found out about you. For example, you can do it in your welcome email by including a multiple-choice question. Was it email, social media, or SEO?
Stage 2. Acquisition
Here, the goal is to determine how people become your leads.
You need to understand how well your ads, SEO, and other marketing channels are performing. Track impressions, website traffic, visit-to-lead conversion rate, and how long it takes on average for a person to click through.
What channel brings the highest volume of users? What is the quality of these leads?
Think more about your content, as content marketing is still one of the most powerful tools to acquire new customers. Brainstorm fresh ideas of how to deliver content or invite an influencer to help you spread the word of exclusiveness about the product or service your company offers.
Have difficulty coming up with new ideas? Neil Patel, one of the most famous growth hackers, recommends starting with offering free content or other lead magnets:
“Create a blog or YouTube channel and provide content around the niche that you want to build your business in. Share your content on social media.”
These can also be free checklists, ebooks, guides, PDFs, video courses — the only limit is your imagination. HubSpot, for example, created a free website grader back in 2009 that led to increased brand awareness, traffic, and thousands of users (btw, you can still get it for free).
Stage 3. Activation
Also called “Happy First Visit,” this stage presupposes you track the number of people who stick around after first visiting your website. This can be the number of people who signed up for your email list, use your app, or read your blog.
Find ways to optimize conversions.
For instance, if your opt-in form contains too many lines, think about removing one field to speed up and simplify the process for your subscribers. This can be a credit card field that most leads avoid, especially when signing up for a free trial. Or, even better, allow them to sign up using an already-existing account, e.g., on Google?
You can also experiment with UI since much depends on how user-friendly your website is and how quickly your potential user gets to the CTA.
Stage 4. Retention
Retention is probably the most difficult yet highly important stage, as it costs 5X less money to keep existing customers than to acquire new ones.
To improve customer retention, try different methods and find the one that works best for you: send regular email alerts for new products or events, do time-limited sales, and create special loyalty programs.
Besides, think of combining communication channels. According to the study conducted by Facebook and Salesforce, if you combine Facebook ads with emails, the reach of your campaign and your ROI will go up.
Stage 5. Referral
At this stage, you should think about how you’ll make your customers brand ambassadors who will tell their friends and colleagues about your company and product. You can expect at least 16% more in profits from referred customers — a great reason to work out your referral program!
You can start with something typical like asking your happy customers to invite their friends and get a discount or extra features. In fact, this is how Dropbox became as successful as it is now. They offered extra storage space for any friend invited and increased their signups by 60% in no time!
Contests and challenges on social media are another good way to motivate your customers to talk about your brand to a large audience.
Stage 6. Revenue
This is the number one metric for measuring growth in your company. It shows how much money is left after extracting all the customer acquisition costs (CAC).
You can compare CAC to LTV (customer lifetime value) to understand what needs to be optimized to increase revenue and keep moving forward. Ideally, the ratio of CAC to LTV should be around 1:3.
To improve this ratio, estimate how your product pricing aligns with the target customer, deliver a great customer experience, and look at the whole funnel to find out what stage needs the special focus of your growth hacking team.
By identifying problems at each stage of the AAARRR funnel, you’ll be able to come up with innovative solutions.
And to give you some push of confidence, I’ve created the following growth-hacking funnel example you can use to create your own.
Three engines of growth
I know, AAARRR funnel stages might seem overwhelming… And the truth is, it’s next to impossible to focus on all of them at once!
Instead, you can base your growth hacking on one of three engines: the sticky engine of growth, the viral engine of growth, and the paid engine of growth.
The sticky engine of growth
You can consider this engine of growth if your goal is to retain customers for a long time. Your growth hacking strategy, in this case, will be based on making clients always come back, and the primary focus will be on keeping current customers rather than acquiring new ones.
The viral engine of growth
Here, the key focus is on referrals, i.e., your existing customers telling others about your product or service.
The viral engine can lead to astounding growth results. However, you should be confident about the value and quality of your product. If it isn’t high enough, you’ll hardly achieve growth. So, ensure you know your target audience, improve your offering, and put a referral system in action.
The paid engine of growth
This is the engine most business owners know. It’s based on advertising. You literally buy your customers, so make sure it will pay off. Say, if you invest $10 to acquire 1 customer, you need to make enough to cover the $10 you’ve spent plus other expenses and leave you some profit.
10 growth hacking strategies
You’ll find thousands of growth hacking tips, but it’s an individual process. Something that works great for one company might not be effective for another.
I’ve compiled a list of 10 general growth hacking strategies you can consider as motivators for your growth hacking campaign.
1. Be unique and innovative
What can you bring to your target audience? Research what your potential customers need the most.
For example, if you aim at growing your content potential, look for the questions many people ask but get few to no answers.
Or, if you plan to extend the list of your product features, don’t follow your competitors but look deeper. Find out what their users complain about, what pain points they have, and what they expect. That’s your chance to outperform other companies!
2. Reach out to experts
Ideally, find a growth hacker who will lead your team to greatness. But if you can’t, remember you can always find help contacting experts on professional platforms such as LinkedIn. Ask them questions about the issues you and your team face!
If you are writing a blog, incorporate expert quotes into your posts and cite pundits directly. This will strengthen your content, help you build meaningful contacts, and add awareness to your brand.
3. Use social media
The more channels you use for growth hacking, the better. Social media is the house of millions of accounts that can spread the word about you in a blink of an eye. Use all of your social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter), cross-post, and embed social media posts on your website if they provide social proof.
Give your users a possibility to communicate not only with you but with each other. This way, you will turn your social media account into a community and add a sticky effect to your product and brand as a whole.
Whatever you’re selling, remember that nothing works better than visuals. Illustrations make the message easier to grasp and more memorable.
For example, while writing this article, I came across an interesting post about the importance of visuals and infographics. Here’s an excerpt from it:Paradoxically, there were no visuals in the article. What if the statistics are served in a bit more attractive and memorable way?
If you are running a blog, don’t neglect supporting your text with visuals.
5. Use video content
Did you know that 78% of marketers that use video say it increases ROI? What is more, 90% of users say videos help them make purchase decisions. Following the previous growth hack, videos are probably the best visuals. Video ads, short blog recaps, podcasts — all these will be a good addition to your company’s growth.
Embed videos on your website or in your email. The topics can be different, from new feature presentations to valuable how-to expert videos. Besides, practice live streams. This will create the FOMO effect (fear of missing out). You can inform your subscribers about the upcoming live stream via email or in social media.
6. Encourage your most active customers
Pick those loyal customers who like activity on social media and turn them into your product evangelists — those who will promote it without any financial interest. Give them an exclusive offer or discount, and they will spread the word about your brand even more willingly.
7. Use tag
Keywords are super powerful. Use tags everywhere: in blog posts, social media posts, and Youtube videos. This growth hack will help you appear as suggested content for people you are trying to reach.
8. Build links
Successful link-building is one of the pillars of growth. Just like in life: connections help you solve many of your problems. Find brands with a vast audience that can mention your company somewhere on their platform while you’ll mention them in return, making it a win-win experience for both.
And if you think link-building is tough, we’re ready to change your mind with our post How to organize your link-building outreach from A to Z with Snov.io
9. Offer free tools
All of us love receiving gifts. But while free content is one thing, free tools are much better when it comes to growth. No surprise many SaaS companies offer their free trials here and there!
But as a growth hacker, you are aimed at outperforming others, remember? Why not create a tool your users will be able to use for free permanently?
For instance, at Snov.io, we have a forever-free plan that our customers adore as an opportunity for confident onboarding.
This strategy pertains to every marketer, either traditional or growth. Whatever you launch, test it first!
Don’t get limited to only one variant. Do A/B testing to see what variation brings more conversions. Sometimes, you’ll need several variations of an ad for different channels or several variations of email subject lines for different segments of your prospect list.
Growth hacking examples
If, for a moment, you started doubting your growth hacking possibilities, it’s time to realize that a lot of companies that once were toddlers in the business world have found their way to success owing to growth hacking strategies.
So, I’ll crown my post with five growth hacking use cases for you to get amused and inspired:
I’ve mentioned Dropbox in one of the previous sections, but their example is truly worth talking about more!
These guys invented a clever onboarding strategy by creating an aura of exclusivity and arousing public interest. They’ve identified their ideal customers and launched the product at a business event where these customers gathered. Yet, the access to the service was invitation-only, so people interested in trying Dropbox had to get an invitation from the existing users (Clubhouse has used this same technique recently!).
They didn’t stop there, though. Its CEO Drew Houston made a short demo video about the service and uploaded it to the popular social news network of that time — Digg. Even though it was a formal demonstration, the video included plenty of Digg Easter eggs. As a result, the number of people wishing to try the service has grown tremendously.
Just like in the previous case, Gmail account creation was based on invitations at first. And this growth hacking strategy worked really well! Since each new user had a limited number of invitations, it triggered the already mentioned FOMO effect, and people started auctioning off their Gmail invitations on eBay.
One of the most popular SEO tools has demonstrated growth hacking in action when they hacked the conference with… not a brilliant presentation, not a line of brilliant speech… but with just a 10 cent coffee cup.
That was the best possible ad since most conference members were holding the cup in their hands. This coffee cup worked as a real ice breaker, which drew lots of attention to the brand and initiated relationship building during the event.
Another company I’ve already mentioned!
Known for its great marketing courses, HubSpot proves that creating valuable content is as important as elaborating on an effective growth hacking strategy to make people use it.
When, in 2016, Eric Peters, a growth marketer from HubSpot Academy, created five new courses, together with his team, they decided to promote them in the following way. They implemented a module that showed all the certification badges one could acquire, in grayscale, within Academy emails. Those that have been passed were marked orange. As soon as they expired, they became gray again.
Users were stimulated to pass more courses to get more orange badges. All badges were linked to the list of courses. This way, new certification courses quickly got many users.
Slack is an example of an astounding global growth hacking strategy. It started accidentally when Stewart Butterfield and his team were working on a games app Glitch. They realized how challenging it was to communicate within the organization and what a chance they had to streamline it. So they did.
The success of Slack is based on the following:
- A famous personality as the founding partner. Stewart Butterfield had already had a fan base before he started Slack.
- Intuitive design. The gist of the tool was to ensure people can utilize it like a pro at once, without any tutorial.
- Minimum features. Since the very start, Slack hasn’t focused on introducing many features. The goal was being the best in the niche.
- Freemium hack. Slack offered (and still offers) a compelling freemium model — users can enjoy the tool without limits, while the free plan is quite feature-rich.
- User feedback. Slack chose to rely on pull marketing, i.e., paying attention to what their users say about the service, making surveys, and doing lots of A/B testing.
- Natural referrals. Having a freemium and quite clear rules of the game, Slack allows building a community and inviting anybody to join it.
Adding to this the large Twitter support and word of mouth hack, it’s no wonder Slack has become a runaway success:
Growth hacking tools
No matter how creative and innovative you are, you need to equip yourself with the right software to help you reach your growth hacking goals. Here are several growth hacking tools I advise you to consider:
Snov.io. This is an all-in-one platform for your business growth optimization. It allows you to automate your sales and marketing processes and offers a free CRM for your growth hacking efforts (outreach personalization, link-building, A/B testing opportunities, and many more).
Expandi.io. This tool will work miracles for those companies that plan to run their growth hacking campaigns on Linkedin. It automates your LinkedIn marketing efforts to their fullest (you can automatically view profiles, send connection invites, and communicate with targeted users via LinkedIn messages).
GrowthBar. This tool is a real finding for those businesses that associate growth hacking with SEO. It automatically shows you the keyword difficulty of your search term, similar keywords, most important SEO statistics, and even Facebook Ads from competitors.
Instapage. This service will help you build magnificent landing pages with the best user experience, personalization, and fast page load speed — everything you need to make your brand and product stand out.
Viral Loops. This software is super-handy for those who plan to optimize the pre-last stage of their growth hacking funnel – referral. Viral Loops gives you everything you need to build your referral program (powerful templates, beautiful widgets, dedicated landing pages, and referral campaign reporting capabilities).
Growth hacking is not as difficult as it seems. And you don’t need to hire a guru if your company is making its first steps in the business world. You can be a growth hacker yourself.
Be creative, keen on experiments, think proactively, and don’t be afraid to go beyond the standards. Take every opportunity to optimize your product and develop your brand. Think about who can represent your company, find the right moment and the right platform for doing it.
And as a growth hacker always uses the right growth hacking tools, find the tool that will boost all your efforts, just like Snov.io, which is an all-in-one marketing and sales automation platform you can use absolutely for free.