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Becoming a growth hacker: what you need to know

Becoming a growth hacker: what you need to know

I thought I was a growth hacker, until I met a real one.

Enter Noah Kagan.

I met Noah at a get-together for fans of AppSumo. As I listened to him talk about quant-based marketing, iterating campaigns and products, tools (he now has his own – SumoMe.com) and metrics, I became aware of a tightening in my throat.

Was it an allergic reaction to my single origin latte? No. It was my body’s way of preparing for the bitter pill I was about to swallow…

I wasn’t a growth hacker. I was a guesser. A hit and hoper. Yes, I’d dabbled in testing. But I’d never gone the whole way — testing every variable in the user experience to find the perfect combination.

Noah on the other hand was in the trenches. Growth playbook in hand. Products by his side. Experimenting. Testing. Prioritising. Then doing it all again.

One thing was clear. If I was going to grow my business and help others do the same, I needed to learn the mindset, skills, and tools of the growth hacker.

The phrase “growth hacker” was coined by Sean Ellis in 2010. He was responsible for the wildly successful referral program at Dropbox (which drove around 40% of all new signups).

At the time, Sean was finding it difficult to source candidates to replace his role. He advertised for marketers but found that their skill-sets didn’t match his. So he decided to create a whole new role.

Fast-forward 4 1/2 years and the phrase ‘growth hacker’ is everywhere. A search on LinkedIn brings up 1,883 results. The term is also polarising – particularly when it comes to the growth hacker’s relationship with the traditional marketer.

Grudge match – Growth Hacker vs. Traditional Marketer 

Let’s get the big one out of the way first – growth hackers aren’t a replacement for traditional marketers. While both roles share some skills and activities, there’s only a minor overlap, which is highlighted in this diagram from Sean Ellis:

Marketing & Growth Hacking

The key difference is their focus.

By most definitions, traditional marketers are generalists. They have a broad range of skills. Yes, some relate to growth, but much of their focus is on difficult to measure activities such as building brand awareness, advertising, networking etc.

In the height of the ‘TV-Industrial complex’ (Seth Godin’s description of the interruption marketing era) these activities were the lifeblood of sales and growth. Even dotcoms spent a fortune on Super Bowl ads.

Then everything changed.

First there was the dotcom crash. Then the GFC. A new set of rules was demanded by cash strapped start-ups who were desperate for growth. These rules required a new playbook. And that’s where the growth hacker stepped in.

The growth hacker is not a generalist. They focus on one outcome – growth.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Archimedes

Great growth hackers move the world. They do it by rapidly evaluating lever and fulcrum combinations until they find the perfect one.

Take Airbnb for example. They were able to achieve amazing levels of growth via a remarkable integration (the lever) with Craigslist (the fulcrum). What makes the integration even more impressive is the fact that there is no public API for Craigslist. The growth team at Airbnb was able to reverse engineer the process and then write a script to make it work. This ‘hack’ gave Airbnb an enormous advantage because there were no other competitors.

Need more proof? Here’s a simple, yet powerful hack. In the late 1990’s Hotmail grew its’ user base by adding this quirky phrase to the bottom of every email sent out by Hotmail users – “PS: I Love You. Get Your Free Email At Hotmail”. They quickly grew to 12 million email accounts over the next 12 months.

Becoming a growth hacker

Here are some of the skills and traits you need to become a growth hacker:

  • Creative problem solving: the ability to think outside the box and to challenge the status quo e.g. Could private drivers provide an alternative to taxis? Why not? Thanks Uber!
  • Big thinking: the best growth hackers are 10X (moon shot) thinkers – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are great examples
  • A scientific approach: the ability to analyse, optimise, and re-test are key skills when it comes to growth hacking. Conversion, engagement, and retention are the main metrics that the growth hacker monitors.
  • Marketing nous: growth hackers think deeply about products and platforms – they’re constantly looking for ways to find growth within the product itself or by leveraging other platforms.
  • Technical know-how: as per the Airbnb case study, growth hackers often require a high level of technical skills (or access to a team who has them).

Like all professions, developing the skills and mindset to become a great growth hacker takes time and practise. The key is to jump in and get your hands dirty.

Growth hacking example

Let’s say for example that you want to grow the number of visitors to your LinkedIn profile.

Step 1: Establish a baseline – get clear on your current metrics* and keep a record of them

Data points to consider:

– The number of times your profile has been viewed
– Where your views came from
– The names, occupations, and industries of people who have viewed your profile
– The number of messages you have received
– The search keywords that led to you profile
– Your ranking for profile views among your connections.

Note: LinkedIn Basic allows you to see general data points via ‘Who’s viewed your profile’ – LinkedIn Premium provides a more detailed analysis.

Step 2: Once you have a baseline of data points to measure against – the next step is to define your focus.

While there are a number of elements that you can optimise, it’s important to limit your focus. I suggest starting with your Photo, Headline, Contact Information, and Summary.

Step 3: Define your variations

To avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’ it’s important to limit the number of variations you are going to test. I’d recommend setting the number of variations to something like this:

– Photos (2-3 variations)
– Headlines (2-3 variations)
– Contact Information (1-2 variations)
– Summary (2-3 variations)

Step 4: Create your variations

Take time to craft your variations of the above elements – use this infographic to help you.

Step 5: Define your testing window

Decide on the timeframe for each test. LinkedIn provides a variety of reports with differing timeframes. The minimum is 7 days, however, this will not provide enough of a trend to draw a strong conclusion. I’d start with 14 or 21 days.

Step 6: Begin the experiment

Start testing each of the variations and check for changes in the metrics. Make sure to document the results.

Step 7: Analyse the results and implement the perfect combination

Once you’ve taken the time to test all the variables and combinations you should have a good idea of the best combination to maximise your profile views.

If your experiment is successful you should see a graph like this:

LinkedIn Profile Views

As platforms and environments are always changing, it’s a great idea to keep monitoring your analytics once you have implemented your growth hack.

The growth hacking journey never ends. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new. And that’s all thanks to a random meet-up in Richmond with one of the pioneers of growth hacking. Cheers Noah.

More reading:

The new skills you need for the digital age
Marketing magic, metrics, and analytics
3 digital disruption lessons from the startup world

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