Please Shut Up About Growth Hacking.

All of a sudden, growth hacking is the new Carly Rae. I’m so completely bored with this boomlet because growth hacking isn’t anything special.

Point one: growth hacking isn’t new.

Let’s posit that growth hacking is finding channels (sometimes new) that work, then jamming everything you can at them until they stop working. Essentially it’s getting in front of Andrew Chen’s law of shitty clickthroughs. The newest new thing I know here is Gchat spam. You find an inefficiency or underexploited channel, you rush to get there before your competitors do, they flood in, the channel gets bid up, the ROI dries up, and you go on to the next thing. That’s just arbitrage. Just cause you’re doing it online doesn’t make it new.

Furthermore, you know who has been doing this for more than a decade? Affiliate marketers. Folks like Jeremy Shoemaker and Zac Johnson have been building landing pages, writing reams of copy, testing ad networks/formats/placements/CTAs/whatever since they were 15. You want to hire a growth hacker? Go to Affiliate Summit and hire a speaker.

Point two: growth hacking doesn’t work if your product sucks.

PayPal paid both sides $5 for signing up, but Yahoo PayDirect paid $10. Everyone else gives away more free space than Dropbox. Friendster started getting really aggressive with email once people were jumping to MySpace and Facebook. Dropbox’s videos and Mint’s blog posts shot up Digg for free, launching a million paid submissions, but no one remembers who did the paying. The original NCAA game on Facebook led to Zynga on Facebook, and then everyone else’s Facebook spam, none of which worked as well as Zynga’s did. Everything autoposts to Twitter. And there are a million untold stories for products that nobody’s ever heard of. Because they sucked.

Plus, there’s no evidence that these dedicated growth hackers - magical unicorns who can market and code (designers who can code, you had your 15 minutes) - can reliably identify and exploit new channels over and over again. A supposed professional growth hacker may be lucky to find one great new channel, but finding three? That’s a James Simons-level of consistency. If someone really can do that, go forth, find her, and pay her the equivalent of 5 and 44.

Point three: growth hacking accelerates traction; growth hacking does not create traction.

Let’s say you find a magical new channel that’s cheap (or free!) to exploit. Then you shove a bunch of users at it. Then they sign up. Then they leave because your product sucks. You know what that is? A best case scenario because you’ve managed to snooker some investors into giving you cash before the bottom falls out. More likely, you won’t find a magical new channel and you’re going to have to rely on people organically sharing your product with the world. It’s called word of mouth. It’s been around for about 5,000 years. (Yeah, even before Delicious bookmarks and Facebook Likes and Tweet buttons and Pinterest pins.) Word of mouth still works pretty well for products and services that people like. And it’s free. Once you see enough word of mouth, or an organic hockey stick, or a 40% very disappointed, or a 50%+ DAU/MAU number, or whatever else the metric flavor of the month is, then you have traction, and then you can think about hacking some additional growth to accelerate your organic traction. Doing it before then is dumb. That’s because growth hacking is just about getting people into the beginning of the funnel, not about making them happy customers.

Lookit, a product manager should be doing inbound and outbound messaging. If the product owner/manager/CEO/whatever doesn’t know when to market, who to market to, how to market to them, and what to say, then your product probably isn’t ready to be marketed. Dedicating precious engineering time to marketing experiments prior to sustained and repeatable traction is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

Frankly, I think that all this talk about growth hacking is the result of the Valley’s ridiculous inability to recognize and discount survivorship bias. Sure, I’m as happy as anyone to recognize and celebrate the success stories and buy successful people beer to gain some wisdom. But taking them as proscriptive is learning the wrong lesson. So stop worrying about growth hacking and get back to work building something useful.

 
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