Growth Hacking, pipe dream or genuine strategy for start-ups?

The disruptive ideas of Growth Hackers raise a lot of questions - the incredible growth of certain start-ups, too.

But just what is Growth Hacking?

The term "Growth Hacking" was coined by Sean Ellis1, at the start of the 2010s.Start-ups come and go based on their ability to very quickly acquire customers. Many are doomed to failure and cannot grow as they fail to adapt to the product or market. But even with product/market adjustment, growth is difficult.

Start-ups are under extreme pressure in terms of resources and need to work out how to put the pedal to the metal and let their target customers know that they can provide a powerful market penetration solution.

Fear of failure leads to innovation!

To benefit from fast and significant growth, a start-up must radically change the rules of the traditional channels and/or innovate outside these growth channels. It's difficult to adapt to old marketing rules, we need to reinvent them, dig deep, show creativity, and tirelessly test new ideas. Start-ups that fail to latch on fast will soon shut up shop.Purists would call that marketing.  I'd call it... Growth Hacking!The best growth hacking makes the most of opportunities and innovations available in a connected world where digital experiences can spread rapidly. Since the majority of growth ideas fail, it's essential to test an enormous number of them.There are 5 distinct stages to enable explosive growth: A(cquisition), A(ctivation), R(etention), R(eferral), R(evenue)


The first stage of the work of a Growth Hacker and a start-up is to attract internet users to a service (via different channels: social networks, SEO, SEA, etc.). This is traffic acquisition, beginner stuff! To acquire traffic, the value proposal must be sufficiently attractive and internet users must notice it really fast.Example: "Rent from home-owners for less than a hotel but with a warmer welcome" (Airbnb)


Once internet users have reached the website via a landing page and have spotted the value proposal, internet users need to be converted into service users (customers). One way to measure the level of activation is using subscriptions (newsletter, RSS feed or other). To successfully complete this stage, users need to have an initial satisfactory experience of the product or service. For example, to optimise activation, User lets users track moving cars in real-time. This is known as "onboarding marketing".


The GH needs to make sure that users of the service get active and use it regularly, for example via regular updates, innovations, proposing new features, organising events, reduction coupons, loyalty programmes, etc. It's essential to work hard on retention before even thinking about referrals (traffic from a third-party site, partners, directory, etc.). This retention work is a crucial stage of the product/market mix. Once this stage has been reached, the start-up can be deemed to have successfully created its market or met a pre-existing demand.


At this stage, every effort must be made to make sure active users become ambassadors for the service on their network. This is the heart of Growth Hacking!Virality is what allows the user base to grow exponentially. The Growth Hacker can use a set of actions to increase referral.One of the essential qualities is to be inventive, creative, etc.


This final stage consists of converting active users into revenue. This is an important stage, but only arrives at the end. It's the monetisation phase (advertising, subscription, etc.) - when prospects become genuine customers.This summary aims to explain the philosophy of a Growth Hacker. Initially, they're not looking to earn money. They're trying to increase the number of people using a service. To guarantee sustainable growth, the GH will pay special attention to the quality of users, which is what makes the activation and retention phases so important. It's only when the user base becomes sufficiently big and users have become active that the monetisation work can begin.

How have traditional marketers reacted to growth hacking?

Most traditional marketing specialists say this is just what they do - marketing! But it's rare to find any with experience in developing genuinely innovative programmes and changing the rules to stimulate growth. Most of them don't feel the need to or have the motivation required to change these rules and innovate in new channels. Unlike start-ups, big businesses aren't attractive to fans of innovation and risk-taking.

But some marketing specialists at traditional businesses and agencies took a look at the unprecedented growth rates seen at emerging digital businesses and could hardly believe their eyes!What they wanted to know was: "How can I put together a team of experts at my organisation and achieve similar growth results?" 

I'm certain that this is "the" question that any big team or marketing agency needs to ask.  Big businesses have always looked for ways to improve their ability to innovate like start-ups. It's no surprise that the smartest ones are now looking to reproduce the innovative approaches of start-ups to identity growth.To conclude, here's an example of a Growth Hacking action from the "Retention" phase.

Twitter noticed that a lot of users signed up to the social network but stopped using their account after just a few weeks or even days. Twitter realised (demonstrating the full extent of the importance of analytics) that most inactive accounts belonged to users with fewer than 20 followers. To improve its user retention, Twitter's teams had a really bright idea: suggesting a list of people to follow when users sign up. It proved a success and the proportion of inactive users fell significantly.

By using their product & distribution knowledge, Growth Hackers find ingenious and technological ways to boost growth, which sometimes push the limits of what people expect or even recommend" Neil Patel2

1Sean Ellis is its inventor. Quite simply, he helped several US start-ups to become businesses worth more than a billion dollars! The best-known? Dropbox!

2Neil Patel is co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He helps businesses like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom to boost their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a leading web influencer, Forbes says he's one of the 10 best online marketing specialists, and an Entrepreneur.

Published in My Digital Week