Growth hacker nerds are cool: what startups and traditional marketing people can learn from each other

on the way to learn about growth hacking

getting directions on the way to learn about growth hacking


Okay – nerd alert!  Guess what I spent a couple of hours learning about the other night?

Growth hacking for startups.

I know, I know, it shocked me too that I could focus on anything with the word “hacking” in it for more than five minutes, but bear with me here.

The event was called “Growth Hacking and Marketing,” and was sponsored by the Lean Startup Circle. It was absolutely fascinating and blew my mind, really. I left the event feeling 1) rather full of myself that I understood even three quarters of what was being said, and 2) absolutely convinced that “traditional” and startup marketers can learn from each other. Here’s what I learned!

What is a startup?

Living in San Francisco, you’d think I’d be an expert on startups. But I have to admit that until recently most of what I knew about them was limited to the caricatures in that Startups: Silicon Valley “reality” show. So – not very much. But I did some of my own research and I think I understand what they are all about now. My education on this subject is by no means complete, so feel free to fill in anything I am missing or share alternative viewpoints in the comments!

My understanding of startups is this – they are unlike other new businesses in that they plan to build a profitable model by relentlessly experimenting around an idea that they love until they find an iteration of their original idea that takes off. They plot to release the resulting product or service on a massive scale and hopefully make a lot of money in the end.

It seems almost everything startups do is based in data and science. There is endless talk of “hypotheses” and “experiments” and “pivoting.”

Of course, you can’t have a profitable business without people to use the product or service. That’s where “growth hacking” and marketing come in.

What is growth hacking?

One of the speakers at the event, Gagan Biyani, defined growth hacking as just one part of marketing a startup. When a startup team is just getting off the ground, they have to acquire users so they can begin the process of experimenting and refining their idea.  They’ll often use highly creative one-off tactics based in data to find and entice people to start using their service or consider buying their product.

These highly creative one-off tactics based in data are “growth hacks.” I struggle to describe one to you, but examples given the other night were things like figuring out crazy and genius ways to get in front of people using Google AdWords, or stealthily piggy-backing brilliantly effective ads on competitors’ sites. And all for very, very little cost.

The thing that sets growth hacks apart from the traditional marketing toolbox is that once a company has a certain amount of users, the spurts of growth generated by hacks would be negligible. Maybe we can think of marketing tactics like gears on a bike. Growth hacks are the lowest gears you use to get you rolling or slog up a hill, but once you’re moving at a certain speed in higher gears, you would never use them. Trying to would only slow you down.

Traditional marketing in startups

Some of the speakers last night recommended that once points beyond “traction” have been achieved (still wrapping my head around what that means, but I think it’s when you know your idea is working and you’re poised for success), that’s when a startup needs a real, honest-to-goodness marketing professional on the team to shift into higher gears.

The startup model of marketing makes sense, right?  Pretty much all smart marketers worship at the altar of data now. Mine. Test. Refine. Data don’t lie.

But something seems missing to me.

What’s missing from some growth hacking / startup marketing models?

Not once at the event did anyone mention positioning or story as a variable in experiments. There was lots of talk of analyzing demographics of clickers and then adjusting the target market toward the often surprising result – everyone salivates over that story, right? “Survey saaaaays … it’s not actually about 18-24 year olds – it’s about senior citizens, y’all!”

But even when talking about what startups should look for in marketing people, the conversation was all about “data” and “entrepreneurial spirit” with a cursory nod to “empathetic.” The afterthought to these discussions of data-driven insight was “oh, and you have to always remember that users are people.”

Maybe they just need a story

One of my favorite lessons about marketing and branding is that the story you tell is just as important as your product or service itself – and maybe even more so.

It was kind of funny that my choice of reading after the event was Seth Godin’s All Marketers Tell Stories.  Basically, Seth’s thing seems to be that if you have a brilliant, resonant idea then you will have no trouble finding people who want to use it. Seth famously calls such ideas a Purple Cow. And in the book I’m reading, his gist is that many times the story is the utility, not the product itself.

So, whereas some traditional marketers tirelessly craft and perfect a story and then create a product or service within it, startups seem to be iterating product or service ideas until they hit on a perfect storm, like hacking the passwords to people’s wants — and hearts. And maybe then they get a traditional marketer involved to tell the story.

Two sides of the same coin?

Both seem to be aiming for the same alchemy and magic.  But what if startups are wasting nights, weekends, adrenaline and millions of bottles of India Pale Ale crunching data and doing A/B testing on their products when what they really needed all along was the right story about their idea?

What if traditional marketers are missing a major opportunity to refine their offerings and define a roadmap to success through relentless experimenting?

I think that both traditional marketers and startup masterminds are operating on two sides of the same coin – success, excellence and stakeholder value are always the goal.

But what if they leveraged the power of both storytelling and data-intensive strategies?

Do you know of any companies that leverage traditional and startup marketing strategies? Let’s talk in the comments!

5 Comments on “Growth hacker nerds are cool: what startups and traditional marketing people can learn from each other”

  1. Ha Vo says:

    Hi Dwayne, thnx for writing the post. I really enjoyed the combination with the story telling. I can’t really tell you about great stories as I’m actually getting into this growth hacking thing myself.

    I do have a question:
    – I know that you said you can’t remember many of the growthackers talking about ideas related to referral marketing / social marketing? Or would you say that most of their ideas are about how to advertize more smartly to unknown users and to optimize with A/B testing?

    I personally think that nowadays with the power of FB and and other networks, startups don’t often enough use the technical networking possibilities of those to be smart in ‘getting new customers in the networks of the existing customers. So I’m curious if social marketing / referral marketing was a part of the examples / discussion.

    Again thank you for taking the time to write the post!

    • I do remember them mentioning social and referral marketing as options!

      There was a difference of opinion between presenters — one recommended working really hard to find your first groups of users in person (sounds labor intensive I know, but free!) so that you can learn as much as you can from them in a qualitative setting. You can then use that information to refine and justify paid acquisition efforts (advertising etc) and create those growth hacks that are incredibly effective for the stage you’re at.

      The differing opinion was to use paid techniques to build as big a user base as you can ASAP so that you can use qualitative techniques to test, generate insight via statistics and refine. Two different ways to get to the same place.

      I am a fan of qualitative, myself. Is there really any substitute for getting in there and talking to your users, hearing the exact words they use to describe themselves and how they use something, and generating insight that way? I think using strictly quantitative methods might allow you to miss some valuable insights.

      Both approaches appear to have worked, though! Thanks for taking time to comment and I hope I answered your question about the event!

  2. Interesting stuff Dwayne – I think you correctly noted a weakness, that growth hacking rarely talks about stories. That’s probably because the folks leading it are more on the data science / dev / engineering end. What I would love to see is what it looks like when an experienced marketer meets a growth hacker and they work well together…it’s a story I’d be curious about.

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