Today's digital landscape moves at a lightning pace, with new channels, tools and technologies being released at a breathless rate every day, week and month. As a business or startup trying to grow, the increasingly saturated playing field of digital marketing can present an extremely daunting challenge. How do you decide which marketing channels to focus on and how do you stand out in the ever-expanding crowd?
The answer, in a word (well, two words), is growth hacking. In a few more words: adopting a data-driven approach to your marketing efforts that aims to test strategies in order to extract definitive answers about what works and what doesn't. Growth hacking as a concept is not just a trend or passing fad, it's an essential part of any startup marketing strategy. If your business wants to grow quickly and gain traction in the digital world then learning how to test and iterate on different user acquisition tactics is paramount.
What is growth hacking, exactly?
Simply put, it's a set of principles and processes that aim to maximize your company’s userbase in the most efficient way possible. It is about thinking outside of the box and leveraging creative but data-driven marketing tactics, such as A/B testing, viral campaigns or SEO optimization, in order to drive user growth quickly and sustainably.
Growth hacking is also a mindset. It requires you to think analytically and strategically, while also being open to experimentation and risk taking. You have to be willing to collect data, analyze results and iterate on your approach accordingly. The idea is that if you focus on testing different strategies relentlessly, eventually one of them will hit the jackpot.
In this article, we'll explore how to develop a growth hacking mindset, how to establish a growth framework in your business, and then go into some ways you can apply experimentation to some of the main marketing channels you’ve probably considered. We will finish by covering how to effectively measure the outcomes of these tactics and how to scale them. By the end of this article, you should have a comprehensive understanding of what growth hacking is, why it’s important, and how to use it to grow your business quickly.
The growth hacking mindset
A good growth hacker is someone who possesses a broad combination of skills and characteristics that covers a range of seemingly opposing disciplines. Unlike traditional marketers who tend to focus on one or two specific areas such as creative or copywriting, a growth hacker needs to have some level of proficiency in all aspects of marketing and technology. This includes areas such as analytics, product development, user experience, coding and design. As such, successful growth marketers tend to exhibit three main characteristics:
- Obsession with data. One of the most important characteristics of a growth hacker is being data-driven, able to use data and analytics to identify opportunities for growth, and to measure the success of their efforts. Growth hackers are therefore skilled at using tools like Google Analytics, A/B testing platforms, and other data analysis tools to gain insights into user behaviour and make data-driven decisions.
- Lateral thinking. Equally as important as data analysis is creative problem-solving. Growth hackers are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to drive growth, and they are not afraid to take risks or tread into uncharted territory. They are able to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to complex problems.
- Pragmatism. Finally, a good growth hacker has to be agile and adaptable. They are able to quickly adjust their strategies based on new information, and they are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They are able to work in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment and are comfortable with constantly iterating and experimenting.
As you can see, the technical and analytic approach combined with creativity and pragmatism makes for a somewhat rare combination. But if you can marry these characteristics and successfully adopt a growth hacking mindset, your business can benefit in a number of ways.
One of the main benefits is faster results. Growth hacking techniques are designed to produce rapid outcomes, and by focusing on low-cost, scalable strategies, businesses can see significant growth in a short amount of time. Additionally, growth hacking can help lower costs by identifying the most effective marketing channels and reducing waste.
But perhaps most importantly, adopting a growth hacking mindset can provide a competitive advantage. In today's fast-paced business environment, businesses that are able to innovate and adapt quickly are much more likely to succeed. By embracing growth hacking techniques, businesses can stay ahead of the competition and drive sustained growth over the long term.
So, how do you go about implementing a growth hacking approach? With a framework, of course.
Establishing a framework for experimentation
A successful growth strategy must be built on a foundation of robust experimentation. To facilitate this, a framework should be implemented to provide the structure and guidance needed to run experiments quickly and efficiently. Here's how to do that.
Step 1: setting clear goals and objectives
The first step is to set clear goals and objectives for your growth strategy. What are you hoping to achieve? Do you want to increase website traffic, generate more leads, or improve customer retention? When setting your goals, ensure they align with your overall business objectives (revenue, profit, fundraising metrics etc) and that each goal is SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. Here is an example:
- A poorly defined goal: "Get more website traffic"
- A well defined goal: "Increase website traffic by 25%, as measured by Google Analytics, within 6 months".
Set a sensible number of goals - say two or three - that relate to your most important strategic objectives for your business at the top level. “Getting more followers on Instagram” is less useful as a goal than “increasing conversions from Instagram within 3 months”.
Step 2: identify Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Once you've established your goals, the next step is to identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) that you will use to measure your progress. These KPIs should be directly related to your goals and should also be specific, measurable, and time-bound.
Again, set a sensible number of KPIs that tie as closely as possible to the goals you have set. If your goal is to increase sales through your website, choose metrics such as purchases and shopping cart abandonments as your KPIs. If your goal is to increase website traffic, your KPIs might include the number of active website users, bounce rate, and the average time spent on site.
Step 3: create a process for prioritizing and tracking experiments
Finally, you need to establish a process for conducting your experiments. This process should include a clear methodology for selecting which experiments to run, as well as a system for tracking and measuring the results. It's important to prioritize experiments based on their potential impact and the effort required to implement them. Here is an example of a process for planning and running growth experiments:
- Start with a brainstorming session. Gather your team and brainstorm potential experiments together, encouraging creative thinking and lateral thinking (which is part of the growth mindset, remember). Tools like Miro are great for interactive brainstorming sessions, especially when your team is remote or hybrid.
- Decide on which experiments to prioritize. With all the ideas brainstormed, the next step is to decide on which ones to go with first. In growth hacking, many companies use the ICE scoring system for this. ICE stands for Impact, Confidence, and Ease: each experiment is assigned a score out of 10 for each of these categories, and the scores are added up to create a prioritization score. The experiments with the highest scores are then prioritized. This scoring system can bring a sense of rationality to the decision-making process but I personally favour a more human approach that balances scientific scoring systems like this with common sense thinking about how ideas relate to goals, each other and the wider strategy. Go with whatever works for your team.
- Add experiments to your project management workflow. A kanban board is the usual way of managing growth experiments. Each card on your board should represent an experiment with its goals, KPIs and status clearly visible. You can use a simple tool like Trello for this, if you don't already have one.
- Track everything with Google Analytics (at minimum). Google Analytics is a powerful - and importantly, free - tool for tracking the outcomes of your growth hacking experiments. By setting up goals, event tracking, conversions and custom reports you can get a pretty granular view of how many users were acquired by each experiment, how much each user cost to acquire and what those users did on the website or app once they found it. It's a data-obsessed growth marketer's dream. You can even set up live dashboards using Looker Studio. For any other metrics that can’t be tracked by Google Analytics, use a spreadsheet or whatever makes sense. The important thing is to have a tracker that works for you, not to get lost in the weeds of different complex analytics tools at this stage.
Once you have your framework in place, you are ready to start running some growth experiments. This is where things get fun, as there are literally hundreds of different tactics you can try, with the limits of possibility constrained only by your imagination. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on a few of the main digital marketing channels and show how you can apply the experimental approach to each. This should give you an idea of how to apply the mindset and you can take it from there.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
While there are many clever tactics and ideas for generating initial traction or getting quick boosts, for long-term sustainable growth SEO is a very important channel to get right. SEO helps build your brand over time by appearing more frequently in results for topics your target customers are searching for, thereby embedding itself in people’s subconscious even if they’re not yet ready to buy. It also means that you don’t have to spend money on ads to get people to visit your website, essentially providing free traffic with upside unconstrained by your media spend budget.
A successful SEO strategy is a long-term project with many different components, but the main ones to experiment with initially are:
- Keyword research. Experiment with different keywords and phrases to identify the ones that drive the most traffic and conversions. Use tools such as Google Keyword Planner and SEMRush to find high-traffic keywords with low competition, and test different variations of these keywords in your content.
- On-page optimization. Test different variations of your website's page titles and meta descriptions to see which ones result in the highest click-through rates. Experiment with different website designs and layouts to optimize for user engagement and conversion rates. Tools like Unbounce can help you easily create multiple landing page variants for testing without disrupting your main website (or, alternatively, can even be your main website).
- Content creation. Use A/B testing to test different variations of your content, such as headlines, images, and calls-to-action. Experiment with different content formats, such as videos and infographics, to see which ones drive the most engagement and traffic from search engines, and remember to take advantage of the secondary search sections like image search by using descriptive ALT tags on your images. Use a tool like BuzzSumo to discover trending content ideas for your industry, and Canva for quickly creating design variations of images across your content.
- Backlink building. Experiment with different outreach strategies to acquire links from other websites - usually referred to as backlinks. Test different variations of your outreach emails and see which ones result in the highest response rates. SEMRush has an excellent link building tool to help with this, and there are plenty of tools like Jasper to help you with copy.
- Local SEO. Experiment with different variations of your local SEO tactics, such as optimizing your website for different local keywords and testing different variations of your Google Business listing. Try ranking in different locations to discover local niches if your product is national or international. Tools like Moz Local can help you manage this.
While organic search is essential for long-term profitable growth, paid advertising is an essential component of almost any digital marketing strategy whether you're a startup or a mature business. There are, however, a lot of different digital advertising channels to choose from and each has its own complex set of tools and strategies that require a huge amount of learning and practice. In the early days of your growth, identifying the one platform that will work for you first, without risking too much of your budget, is critical. To do that, here are some ideas of growth hacking experiments you can run:
- A/B testing social media platforms. Run small-scale ad campaigns on different social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and TikTok to see which platform yields the best results for your target audience. Allocate a small budget for each platform and test various ad formats, messaging, and targeting options to determine the most effective channel for your business. Start with just a single simple ad campaign and replicate it across the different platforms.
- Google Ads vs. Microsoft Ads. While Google Ads is the dominant player in search advertising, don't dismiss Microsoft Ads (formerly known as Bing Ads), particularly in light of Bing's recent resurgence thanks to its implementation of GPT-4. Allocate a portion of your budget to both platforms and compare their performance. Depending on your niche, you may find better results with one over the other.
- Test different ad formats. Within each advertising platform, there are various ad formats available, such as display ads, video ads, or carousel ads. Experiment with different ad formats to see which one resonates most with your audience and generates the highest engagement and conversions. Remember that different ad formats connect with users at different stages of their buying journey: Google Search Ads tend to target people with a higher purchase intent because they are actively looking for something, versus a display ad which might just happen to be shown next to an article they’re reading (in which case they are higher up the funnel).
- Geo-targeting and localization. Target specific regions or cities to evaluate the effectiveness of your ads in various geographic areas. By doing so, you can optimize your ad spend and focus your efforts on areas that yield the best results. Do this in combination with local SEO and you can achieve surprising results, even if your business is global or location-agnostic.
- Test retargeting campaigns on different platforms. Retargeting campaigns allow you to show ads to users who have previously visited your website or engaged with your content. Test retargeting ads on various platforms to identify which one brings the highest return on investment (ROI) and helps you re-engage potential customers. This links back to point 3 of this list, where you can retarget people who engaged with a display ad for example, to try and nudge them down the funnel through repeated touchpoints. They may be more likely to click on one of your Google Search Ads if they have already seen one of your display ads, for example.
- Test different types of sponsored content. For top-of-funnel marketing efforts and/or awareness campaigns you can create and test different types of valuable original content (blog posts, infographics, whitepapers, etc... often called Lead Magnets) to attract your target audience, and promote those in paid ads as an alternative to directly advertising your product or service. Measure the performance of your content marketing efforts by tracking metrics like website traffic, engagement, and conversions. Additionally, consider sponsored content opportunities on relevant third-party websites or publications to reach a larger audience.
Organic social media
Whether you like it or not, having a social media presence is essential for modern brands. Social media can be a valuable tool for sustainable long-term growth when utilized effectively in combination with paid ads and organic SEO. Similar to SEO, gaining traction on social media requires consistent effort for a period of at least 3-6 months. However, there are ways to test and determine the most effective approaches for your brand during that time, including:
- Cross-platform testing. The first and most obvious experiment is to test which social media platform will work best by sharing your content on several of them at once. Measure the responses in terms of engagement, likes, shares etc and focus on the platforms that provide the highest returns over time.
- Content mix. Test various types of content – images, videos, polls, quizzes, infographics, articles, and user-generated content – to find the perfect blend that resonates with your audience. Keep track of engagement rates, shares, and conversions for each content type to identify what works best for your brand.
- Posting frequency. Determine the ideal posting frequency for your brand by testing different schedules – from multiple times a day to just a few times a week. Analyze engagement rates and audience growth to find the sweet spot that keeps your followers engaged without overwhelming them. You can also take advantage of smart scheduling features in tools like Buffer to help optimize this process.
- Hashtag research. Experiment with different hashtags related to your industry, niche, and target audience to increase discoverability and reach. Monitor the engagement and reach of your posts to find the most effective hashtags and keep trialling new ones. Tools like Keyhole can help with this. The key with hashtags is not to overdo it.
- Influencer collaboration. Influencers can be a very powerful way of boosting your brand's social presence, but running an effective influencer strategy is not easy. A bad influencer partnership can cost time, money and reputation. To mitigate and test before committing to anything larger, start by partnering with smaller influencers of different types in different niches to gauge their impact on your brand's reach and engagement. Measure the success of these collaborations by tracking new followers, engagement rates, and conversions. Once you have some idea of what types of influencer will work, scale up to larger influencers gradually, or add more similar influencers to the mix.
- Caption testing. Test the impact of different caption lengths and styles on your social media posts. Experiment with short, witty captions, longer-form storytelling, and various call-to-actions to find what resonates best with your audience. Try adding emojis to see if that resonates. Always consider the language of your target audience and spend time analyzing competitors’ accounts to see what works for them as well.
- Social listening. Consider social listening tools like Brandwatch to monitor conversations about your brand, industry, and competitors. Although tools like this can be a little on the expensive side, they can provide incredible insight into your competitors which can inform your initial strategy and give you excellent ideas for new growth experiments once you have traction on one or more channels.
Content marketing is important for a successful growth hacking strategy, both as part of your SEO strategy and other channels such as email marketing. I would stop short at calling it essential because it depends on the product and target audience you are going after, as well as the resource you have to produce content. However, if you are able to produce valuable content on a regular basis then it is strongly recommended that you do so. Again, like SEO, content marketing requires consistent effort over time, but it's still possible to experiment and test various approaches within the same period. For example:
- Audience personas. Develop multiple detailed audience personas, and tailor content specifically for each one. Analyze engagement and conversion rates to see which personas respond best to your content.
- Content pillars. Organize content into pillars (or topic clusters) to improve SEO and user experience. Track changes in organic traffic, search rankings, and overall engagement to measure the impact of different pillars, and focus on the ones that produce the best results.
- Guest posts & collaborations. Collaborate with industry influencers or other brands to co-create and share content. Monitor referral traffic, backlinks, and social media engagement to gauge the success of each collaborations. This was the strategy that helped Mint.com get to 100,000 users in 6 months.
- Content length. Test various content lengths, from short-form (300-500 words) to long-form (1,500+ words), to identify which lengths generate the highest engagement and conversions. A good mix of different lengths of content allows for maximum reach but also gives you the greatest flexibility in terms of being able to regularly churn content out, depending on your resources.
- Repurposing content. Transform existing content into new formats (e.g., turning a blog post into a video or podcast) and track engagement metrics to identify the most effective repurposing strategies. If a post does really well, try reposting it again a few weeks later to see if it can perform again with people who missed it the first time.
- Posting frequency. Experiment with different content publishing frequencies (daily, weekly, or monthly) and measure the impact on engagement, traffic, and conversions. Try different frequencies for different formats, e.g. blog vs email newsletter frequency.
Analyzing and iterating on results
As mentioned numerous times already in this article, measuring the outcomes of your growth experiments is an essential component of growth hacking. In doing so, it's very important to maintain focus on the metrics that matter and balancing any examination of the data with a human-centric awareness of the overall business strategy and goals. In other words, don't get lost in the weeds and succumb to analysis paralysis.
To that end, what metrics should you measure? Of course it depends on the specific experiment but here are the main ones you should consider:
- Conversion rate: the percentage of visitors who complete a desired action (such as making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter) on your website or app.
- Click-through rate (CTR): the ratio of clicks to impressions, indicating the effectiveness of your ad or call-to-action in attracting user engagement, expressed as a percentage.
- Cost per acquisition (CPA): the average cost incurred to acquire a new customer, often used to assess the efficiency of marketing campaigns. This is usually a simple calculation of total marketing spend divided by number of acquisitions (sales or sign-ups).
- Customer lifetime value (LTV): the projected revenue a customer will generate for your business over the entire duration of their relationship with your brand.
- Return on ad spend (ROAS): a measure of the effectiveness of your advertising campaigns, calculated by dividing the revenue generated from ads by the cost of those ads.
- Retention rate: the percentage of customers who continue using your product or service over time, often used to evaluate customer satisfaction and loyalty. Closely related to churn rate - the percentage of customers you lose each month.
- Net Promoter Score (NPS): a metric that gauges customer loyalty and satisfaction by measuring the likelihood that a customer would recommend your product or service to others. NPS is captured through surveys or similar communications with your customers or users.
Once you have collected and analyzed these metrics, the next step is to decide what actionable insights can be drawn from them. In other words, how can this data inform your decisions around user acquisition strategies? Using qualitative feedback (e.g., surveys) alongside quantitative analysis can also help you draw meaningful conclusions as can good old-fashioned human common sense.
After analyzing your data, take action as quickly as is practical. If an experiment yields positive results, consider scaling it up to maximize its impact. Squeeze as much value from that tactic as you can until it stops working, then move onto a different one. If a result is not as expected, analyze why it didn't perform well and iterate to improve future experiments. Continuously learning and iterating, at a healthy pace, is crucial to building a successful growth marketing strategy.
Ultimately, growth hacking is an iterative process of trial and error—you try something new, measure its performance against key metrics, analyze the results, and then use those findings to adjust your approach accordingly. To grow effectively, it's essential that you embrace experimentation as part of a continuous learning loop and are willing to revise or abandon tactics if they don't produce the desired outcome. As long as you consistently track and optimize your user acquisition efforts, you will always gain value from your experiements, even when they fail.
Growth hacking requires more than just a list of tactics and strategies. It's about taking a proactive approach to marketing, continuously experimenting with different techniques, and leveraging data-driven insights to fuel the growth of your business. By embracing an iterative mindset and continually testing new approaches, you can unlock powerful user acquisition opportunities while also gaining valuable insight into what drives consumer interaction with your brand.
By following these principles, you will be well-equipped to develop effective strategies for acquiring users, boosting engagement, and driving long-term success.