Vanessa Camones is the founder and CEO of theMix agency, a full-service marketing and communications boutique.
If we’re to believe the buzz around “growth hacking,” companies should totally toss traditional marketing methods out the window and simply drive growth by leveraging user data, social sharing features, and other tools. While those are important, the emphasis on “hacking” can lead companies to miss some important distinctions:
- While growth hackers may enjoy a measure of hype now, they should prepare for a coming backlash. Social media marketing enjoys about as much hoopla, even when it isn’t always clear how it drives ROI. With growth hacking, however, the numbers (or lack thereof) cannot lie. When those numbers don’t go North, budgets will get cut.
- When a product’s design is good, it will grow organically, because people will talk about it. That reality can be lost on companies which live and die on growth hacking – versus those which strive to build something so good, others want to use it too.
- Finally, this key piece: Successful growth requires communicating effectively with data from growth – call it communication hacking.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
Here’s what I mean by that term:
The downside to data: Poor social skills
Growth and user data is a great way for giving you a broad overview of your product launch and traction, but generally leaves out essential nuances and coloring. Your product isn’t just about installs or clickthroughs – it’s an active topic discussed (or ignored, or celebrated, or hated) on multiple social media channels, including blogs. Nor can your user data surface user comments on multiple app pages, let alone respond to them.
But if you don’t get a closer read on how people engage with your product, or create strategies for engaging with them, you miss opportunities to better communicate your product – and worse, miss the chance to communicate with your user base, and enlist them as your growth allies.
Beyond that, as marketer Dan Kaplan pointed out recently, no amount of growth hacking can help a poor product – and if it’s that bad, any “hacked” growth will soon get undermined by people complaining about it in social media.
Due to social media, growth hacking can even hurt growth: Witness the Twitter-powered outrage against growth hacking gone horribly wrong.
Why sharing all user data internally in real time is key
Another important piece to communication hacking is user data: who on your team sees it, and how often. It’s important that everyone in your team (or at least department leaders) have a clear view on all of it, in as near real time as possible.
Any of these user variables can have an impact on your entire business, and if these data streams are too dispersed or occluded, it becomes very difficult to effectively respond and iterate changes. For example, an A/B e-mail test which successfully drives people to your sign-up page is largely useless if your Web developers forget to immediately tell you they noticed that mobile owners are noticeably dropping off after clicking through.
Or consider the well-known growth hacking case study of Airbnb successfully integrating its service with Craigslist: If Airbnb staff weren’t closely monitoring new usage from Craigslist on their site, it likely wouldn’t have went as well.
Which takes me to my next point:
Unite the product and marketing teams into one
Growth hacking ignores the reality that product teams do not specialize in leveraging data for editorial and social media opportunities. If the product team sits on their data and doesn’t pass it on to marketing and communications, it actually becomes a hurdle to growth.
It’s better to get product and marketing in the same team (ideally under the same roof) and share what they do best by collaborating together. Consider how much traction and mindshare OK Cupid earned by connecting its aggregate user data to a well-executed blogging and social media strategy (while also helping drive organic growth).
Communication hacking: Not just for startups, but enterprises and brands
Much of the buzz around “growth hacking” is driven by startups desperate to launch their product with minimal marketing costs, but established enterprises and brands also need to think about how they can leverage their data and metrics to sustain and build on the user base they already have.
By being responsive to their data, larger companies (even in enterprise), can be as agile as startups. If anything, mid-sized, mid-stage companies are better positioned than startups to grow and maintain momentum with communication hacking, because they already have an archive of user data (past and existing) from which to craft an analytics-based communication/social strategy.
As with startups, however, that strategy shouldn’t start in the company’s boardroom, but on the dashboard of its user server.
Marketing: Learn to communication hack, or die
None of what I’ve written should imply that marketing and communication teams are indispensable for growth – they’re not. As I’ve argued before, tech companies can no longer count on traditional PR.
For communication agencies to justify their future, they must immediately start adding a deep awareness of metrics and analytics to their tool chest, and make them a core part of how they work and plan. This also means working closely with their clients, not just on communication per se, but communications wrapped around product development and analytics, too.