The Difference Between Growth Hacking and Marketing

Contributed content / By Oren Greenburg / 30 March 2020

Growth hacking is a popular term, but many business owners are unclear about what it means and how it differs from marketing and digital marketing.

Over the years, plenty of buzzwords have come and gone in the marketing sphere. “Growth hacking” is a term that has skyrocketed into the mainstream and seen its fair share of backlash as a result. However, it’s important to know that growth hacking is a distinct discipline. It’s not just another word for “digital marketing”; growth hacking is a mindset and a set of practices that differ from traditional marketing.

I’m a marketer, a growth marketer, and some would say a growth hacker. It accurately describes lots of the methodologies I use to grow a business. I often work in the world of funded startups and corporate innovation projects — two areas that are well-suited to this new way of acquiring and retaining customers.

In this article, I will explain why growth hacking is different, distinct, and specialized. I will look at what makes a great growth hacker, and when growth hacking is suitable and when it isn’t.

What Is Growth Hacking, and Why Is It Different?

Let’s be clear: growth hacking is part of the marketing world. It’s a specialized subset of marketing.

Marketing is about generating leads and sales — and digital marketing is about doing this through online channels. Growth hacking attempts the same thing: to grow a business. It uses many of the same digital channels but within a more iterative, agile, and experimental mindset and a heavy reliance on data.

Some growth hacking experiments could include trying Facebook ads, interviewing clients for a blog post, and improving homepage copy. It’s all in the marketing sphere but aims for rapid growth.

Growth Hacking Experiments

A growth hacker will run rapid-fire tests and experiments, switching between channels and tactics and doubling-down on the most efficient ones for generating leads for a business and/or new users for a product.

Moving beyond acquisition, growth hacking takes a full-funnel view. It’s about collecting and using data in a smart way to optimize the funnel and improve the customer journey. Growth hacking is supported by the use of new technologies, marketing automation, and analytical software.

In most cases, growth hackers aren’t focused on brand-building. They’re focused on finding the recipe for fast growth in the immediate future. This doesn’t mean that growth hackers ignore brand — rather that they’re used to getting the snowball rolling. Direct response is typically the domain of growth hacking, whereas brand-led marketing activities often take a backseat.

The most important distinction is that growth hacking adopts a scientific approach. We develop a hypothesis and run growth experiments to prove or disprove that hypothesis. We use reliable data to spot the best and worst tactics — and scale activities and investment when the time is right.

In summary, growth hacking is intense, agile, and focused on fast-paced growth.

What Does a Growth Hacker Look Like?

Let’s talk about the character and personality needed within the growth hacking world, and also look at some of the skills and experience needed for this type of work.

Growth hacker

What makes a great growth hacker? Are these qualities the same as what makes a great marketer?

An accomplished marketer will usually — though not always — build their experience up from junior roles to executive, management, and strategic positions. In a traditional marketing setup, this would mean that the marketing leader is only strategic — they will be juggling marketing strategy with team management and account or stakeholder management. So, marketers typically become less “hands-on” as they progress through their career. This isn’t the case for growth hackers.

Growth hacking demands a deep involvement in experiments — mixing strategic vision with hands-on execution and analysis. A growth hacker can’t just sit back and delegate: They need to get grubby.

Growth hacking often occurs at high-velocity startups, so it’s a pressurized environment in which every penny counts. Growth hackers must be able to pivot quickly and be open to learning new things as they go. When experiments are kicking off regularly, results can be unpredictable. Amid the mission to find the most efficient growth channels, bad outcomes need to be identified and killed as quickly as possible.

In terms of skills, experience, and knowhow — I believe the following areas are key:

  • Hands-on experience with marketing technologies, such as CRM and automation
  • A background in paid customer acquisition, such as Google Ads and social ads
  • Data analysis capabilities, using tools to track activity on websites and digital products
  • Experience in planning (though not executing) technical integrations between tools and software
  • Full-funnel experience and knowledge of optimizing customer journeys
  • Knowledge about psychological principles, behavior patterns, and triggers
  • Expertise in product marketing, onboarding, and user retention

Are these exclusive to growth hacking? No, of course not! Marketing professionals benefit greatly from the above qualities. However, this knowledge and experience is essential for growth hacking and should be required if your business is searching for a growth hacker.

Should Your Business Use Growth Hacking?

Criticism of the growth hacking “trend” often refers to when the approach has failed. Unfortunately, lots of startups and established businesses embark on a heavily-funded growth campaign when it’s actually the wrong thing to do — wrong due to their product, audience, or stage of maturity.

As a growth hacker, I choose my clients and partners very carefully. Not all businesses are ready, and not all businesses are suited to rapid experimentation, iterative testing, and data-led campaigns.

Let’s look at the instances when you should hit pause before embracing a growth hacking mindset...

If you’re prior to product-market fit: Growth marketing accelerates the demise of a business that hasn’t established product-market fit. By pumping money into channels before the need is validated, you’re asking for trouble. I’d recommend establishing your product-market fit before scaling growth activities.

If you have insufficient data: Decisive actions must be based on statistically meaningful results. Without a high volume of quantitative data, it’s tough to make an iterative testing methodology successful. You’ll need sufficient numbers in web traffic, user behaviors, and other types of in-product data to power the optimization of growth channels. Otherwise, you’re building on shaky ground.

If marketing budget is non-existent: It is possible to do growth hacking on fairly limited budget, but it’s important to remember that paid acquisition channels are often central to acquisition. These channels need budget, and some tests won’t generate ROI — so you need a bit of space for experimentation.

If the team isn’t set up: It’s important that you have the right people in place. Growth hacking demands a collaboration among different teams: creative, product, data, technical, support, and more. Indeed, it’s a key skill of a growth hacker to bring disparate pieces of the puzzle together under a common goal.

Growth Hacking: Your Way Forward?

Growth hacking is relevant, distinct, and suitable for businesses with a product-market fit that wish to scale quickly. It’s more than just a buzzword — it is a mindset and a set of methodologies.

This fast-paced scientific approach means that growth hacking isn’t suited to every marketer. The brand-building mindset is equally valuable, as is generating steady leads and slower long-term growth. It’s not a case of growth hacking being better or worse — it’s just different.

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