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