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The Complete Guide to Growth Hacking for Marketers

August 20, 2020


Growth hacking has made its way from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to professionals in major enterprise companies.

Many specialists in the tech industry who deal with startups are familiar with the concept, but others typically struggle with understanding growth hacking. Let’s dive into the terminology further and discuss why this marketing technique is used widely among thought-leaders and other industry experts alike.

What is growth hacking?

The term “growth hacking” was coined by Sean Ellis. Ellis has helped many Silicon Valley startups to achieve incredible growth despite the fact that a few of them had initial public offering (IPO). Eventually, Sean Ellis became known in the valley as the go-to guy if you need to grow your user base. Ellis’ method was unprecedented and fundamentally different from any other marketing strategy. The secret ingredient to his approach was the exclusive focus on growth and growth only.

The growth hacking approach does not favor building and managing marketing teams or establishing a strategic marketing plan to achieve the main corporate objectives. Instead, growth hacking revolves around making decisions informed by growth.

So, what exactly is growth hacking? Growth hacking refers to the methods, tools, and practices used solely to grow the customer base. Because the concept originated in Silicon Valley with its rich startup culture, these methods are typically low-cost, analytical, inexpensive, and creative.

The concept of growth hacking gave birth to a unique type of specialist - a growth hacker. At the same, it brought forth new professions and businesses, such as SaaS consultants and growth hacking agencies. To really understand the role of a growth hacker, let’s dive deeper into what it means to be a successful growth hacker.

What it means to be a successful growth hacker

Ellis notes that a growth hacker is “a person whose true north is growth”.

A growth hacker is an expert – not necessarily a marketer – who focuses solely on strategies related to growing a business. A successful growth hacker can be a project engineer as much an entrepreneur or a marketer can.

What is the mindset of a growth hacker? Every decision a growth hacker makes is informed by growth and aimed to grow the business. Growth hackers typically ignore expenses, budgets, and conversions. Growth is the main objective and metric they care about.

The job of a growth hacker is to brainstorm innovative growth strategies. Besides, growth hackers' responsibilities include the following:

  • Setting growth priorities
  • Identifying channels for customer acquisition
  • Developing a growth hacking strategies, tools, and methods
  • Testing, measuring, and analyzing the performance of growth hacking efforts

There are three levels of growth hacker skills: fundamental, generalistic, and specialist. Let’s take a closer look at each of the levels to understand what makes an outstanding growth hacker.

  • Fundamental growth hacking skills imply an understanding of the fundamental work forms, models, and growth hacking mindset. For example, understanding how to implement the AARRR framework (which we’ll cover in the next section) is a fundamental growth hacking skill. Technical skills are also fundamental growth hacking skills.
  • Generalistic growth hacking skills refer to the professional skills required in every task you’ll do as a growth hacker. For example, understanding the fundamentals of customer psychology, data tracking & analysis, and visual design are generalistic growth hacking skills.
  • Specialist growth hacking skills refer to the skills required specifically within your company. Specialist skills differ from organization to organization. The common examples are understanding of referral marketing and channel marketing.

Growth hacking vs. traditional marketing

By now you may be wondering what is the difference between traditional marketing and growth hacking. While both categories aim to boost the overall growth of the company, some key distinctions should be underlined.

First of all, traditional marketing generally relies on offline strategies and channels, including snail mail, direct sales, print advertising, radio, and television. On the contrary, growth hacking majorly relies on a broad spectrum of low-cost online activities. These four characteristics will help you understand what diversifies growth hacking from traditional marketing or any other category of marketing.

1. The AARRR pirate funnel

Unlike traditional marketing or brand marketing, growth hacking focuses on a few key growth-drivers, known as AARRR, and ignores everything else.

In 2007, Dave McClure, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur, angel investor, and a former marketing director at PayPal, created the AARRR framework: acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue.

aaarrr framework


AARRR is a way to measure startup growth by tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) outlined by five funnel stages. After McClure proposed the idea, users nicknamed the AARRR framework as “pirate metrics”.

Here's how the AARRR framework works. To monitor the performance of your growth hacking marketing efforts, you can pick a few KPIs for each stage of the sales funnel. For example, if you want to understand how well your acquisition channels work, you can monitor and analyze the number of site/landing page/widget visits.

Technical background

The technical background required to enable growth is another distinctive feature of growth hacking. In addition to identifying problems and finding solutions, growth hackers, unlike traditional marketing experts, must have the tech skills required to implement these solutions without the help of the tech team.

Here are some examples of the technical background growth hackers must have:

  • Front-end coding, including the basics of HTML and CSS.
  • Building and optimizing landing pages (either manually or using the drag-and-drop tools)
  • Web scraping for lead collection.
  • The ability to work with various growth hacking software, including monitoring tools, database managers, extensions, and plugins.


Another distinctive feature of growth hacking is its data-driven nature. David McKinley, a marketing director at Ivory Research, tells a story of how they used GIFs in email marketing to grow their customer base. They created engaging email copies, backed them up with relevant CTAs, and embedded trending GIFs. Everyone in the marketing team predicted the email campaign to be extremely successful as they thought it matched the target audience perfectly.

When the numbers came in, it turned out that they had fewer new clients than before the GIF email campaign launch. As a result, the email campaign was quickly dumped, and all future email campaigns were A/B tested before aired.

There are many takeaways from David’s story, but the most important one is the power of analytics, which leads right to my point. Growth hackers are extremely analytical and use data to inform every step. Every marketing decision, every solution, and every experiment made revolve around data and growth.

Unlike traditional marketers, growth hackers focus on and measure their performance using something that’s called one metric that matters (OMTM). OMTM is a single metric that growth marketers care about during different stages of a startup.

funnel flowchart



Technologies, and particularly the internet, have given the world a new type of products: software products. For hundreds and thousands of years, a product has been a physical object worth exchanging or paying for. Now, customers deal with non-physical products all the time. Banking apps, streaming services, and music subscription platforms are all as much products as groceries, apparel, and cars are.

This transformation of goods from physical to digital requires a completely different way of thinking, the one distinctive to growth hackers. Unlike traditional marketers, growth hackers understand the potential of digital products and the role they can play in their own adoption. Thus, growth hacking enables strategies where product-oriented methods, like referrals, are central.

10 growth hacks to try in your marketing strategy

Now, as you know more about growth hacking, its history, key distinctive features, and skills required to be a good growth hacker, it’s time for you to learn a few growth hacking tips. This section explains 10 ways you can employ growth hacking in your marketing strategy.

1. Break down your goals into subgoals

By focusing on the smaller subgoals that are SMART (instead of more general goals), you can attain the overall growth of your business. The SMART goals framework suggests setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

2. Find a place where your target audience is located

If you’re looking for the growth hacks used by many successful companies, most of them started out by finding a place where their target audience hangs out online. For example, you can market to the members of particular Facebook groups with a messaging that will engage them.

3. Use the freemium model

The freemium model has become the dominant business model used by startupers. By allowing users to try out the premium version of your product before they decide if it’s right for them, you can expand your user base, and as a result, grow your business.

4. Implement a referral program

Referral programs, and other reward-based programs, are a great way to scale business growth. Develop a referral program that benefits both the referrer and the new customer. This way, you’ll create a win-win situation that will benefit your customers and stimulate growth.

5. Leverage influencer market

Social media optimization, and particularly leveraging the influencer market, is another way to scale growth. Before pursuing a partnership with influencers, ensure the influencer of your choice is aligned with your brand’s values, target audience, and product.

6. Employ the invite-only signup system

By implementing the invite-only signup system, you can leverage the fear of missing out (FOMO) that will prompt users to sign up for your service. For instance, you can allow each service user to invite up to five friends who can then invite up to five friends, and so on.

7. Content hacking

Content hacking is another way to scale growth. Wait, what exactly is content hacking? Basically, it's a combination of growth hacking and content marketing efforts. By improving your content marketing game, you can increase the traffic to your website, and as a result, grow your user base.

8. Gamify the user experience

Gamifying the user experience is another way to boost growth. With gamification, every interaction will feel like an achievement, and your customers will actually enjoy engaging with your products. This Ben & Jerry’s collaboration with Netflix is a great example of gamification done right:

ben and jerry


9. Inspire collaboration

Collaboration is what drives the growth hacking process. Different departments of your organization need to be working together and to do rapid experimentations to enable growth.

10. Get creative

The growth hacking method was innovative at a time, and now hundreds of professionals employ it to enable growth. It took a creative (and analytical) mindset to come up with such a concept. Turning your creative ideas into experiments is the essence of the growth hacking process.

Growth hacking examples from companies that have done it right

Now, as you know what growth hacking is and how to enable it, let’s take a look at the big-name companies that have done it right!


Dropbox is a perfect growth hacking case study. They used growth hacking practices to implement an automated referral program that operated on the following idea - the more friends you refer, the more free space you get. This growth hacking method has helped Dropbox to become a multi-billion dollar company with more than 14 million users.




Growth hacking put another giant, Airbnb, on the map. The founders of Airbnb initially used Craigslist, a platform with millions of users, to market to people searching for affordable accommodation. This growth hacking strategy succeeded as Airbnb skyrocketed into becoming the number one app for affordable accommodation with an estimated net worth of about $38 billion.




In 2010, following three months of its original launch, Pinterest had acquired only 3,000 users. To scale growth, the founders started the “Pin It Forward” campaign in which users would make a pinboard and get more invites by getting other users to create their pinboards. The campaign resulted in Pinterest’s rapid take-off, and now the platform has over 360 million monthly active users and is among the most used social media networks.

pin it forward



The bottom line is that growth hacking is not a fixed strategy. Continual brainstorming, analysis, testing, and experimenting is what makes a good growth hacking system that can help your business skyrocket. Following the growth hacking tips will help you put more users at the top of the conversion funnel and stimulate growth. Still, growth hacking is all about a specific mindset cultivated by the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.

The Complete Guide to Growth Hacking for Marketers Growth hacking might be a commonly tossed around phrase in the marketing world, but do you really know what it even means? Learn how to achieve expert-level growth hacking skills and take notes from brands who do it right!
Alyse Falk Alyse Falk is a freelance writer. Passionate about AI, she has extensive experience writing content on data-driven analytics, cloud computing, cybersecurity, machine learning, marketing, and IoT. In her spare time, Alyse enjoys playing tennis and doing yoga on the weekends.

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