Not all marketing is growth hacking, and that’s OK

I really don’t like buzzwords or acronyms. Partly because I can’t remember them (I have the memory of a fruit fly), but in many cases because I just like to call a spade a spade. One such buzzword that drives me absolutely bonkers is “growth hacking.”

A few years back when the term was first used, growth hacking actually meant something. It was a blend between marketing, engineering and data science, where clever people did things differently than they have been before to achieve phenomenal results for their website or business (either literally inventing new ways to stimulate growth or using old tactics in new combinations or in new ways). Now pretty much any form of marketing is being referred to as growth hacking and I, for one, think this is wrong.

Case and point – the whole debacle with Rap Genius in the past month. The guys at Rap Genius used a dodgy link building technique to get their site to rank highly in Google search results, which resulted in strong traffic to the website. That wasn’t growth hacking. That was SEO. But guess what the media is calling it? Hmmm.

Don’t get me wrong – I use the term “growth hacking” as well. I just try to be selective about it, but I’m sure I’m guilty of what I’m writing about here. No high horse here :).

Why is there an obsession with growth hacking?

I think it’s similar to what we’re seeing with small businesses calling themselves startups left and right. Even though there is (or maybe it’s “was”) a definition for growth hacking, as the connotation of the word came to include “cool” and “gets results,” marketers jumped on the bandwagon so they wouldn’t fall behind – at least in vernacular. I can’t really blame them. Actual growth hacking is pretty freakin’ awesome so it’s no wonder people want to be associated with it.

Why is overusing the term “growth hacking” a problem?

  1. I think it discredits the actual growth hackers who are doing awesome stuff and achieving results for their businesses. It’s like calling every person who’s ever done a DIY home project a builder. Only a small subset of marketers are true growth hackers.
  2. It creates false expectations from normal marketing tactics. Not everything is going to achieve exponentially higher or better results. Many marketing tactics get marginal results, build over time or need to be used in conjunction with other marketing tactics to work. And that’s OK.
  3. Creating false expectations, in turn, will hurt the reputation of non-growth hacker marketers since not all marketing can deliver the same kinds of results in the same kind of timeframe as true growth hacking does.
  4. It confuses non-marketers who employ marketers. Going back to our Rap Genius example, if a company wanted to increase their SERPs, in the past they’d look for an SEO company. After reading the Rap Genius coverage they may look for a growth hacker and they probably won’t get the best SEO expert because growth hacking includes a whole range of skills, not necessarily SEO.
  5. It hurts marketers who don’t jump on the bandwagon and don’t claim to be growth hackers. When interviewing for a job or a contract (as I would, being a consultant), if you don’t say you’re a growth hacker or know growth hacking well, it makes you look as if you’re not keeping up with the times. The last thing you want to come off as is old fashioned. Mind you, you still know what you’re doing and you can still get results – you’re just not reinventing the wheel.

It’s OK to call a spade a spade

As marketers, let’s be honest with ourselves, with each other and with our customers. Let’s refer to the tactics we use by name and save the term “growth hacking” when we do something truly interesting, innovative or different. And yes, it’s fine to still list that as a skill on your profile and use the term. Just don’t fall back on calling yourself a growth hacker every chance you get.

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Magda Walczak

Always hungry. Nuts for dogs. Love to travel. I write about marketing, food, web, travel and whatever else strikes my fancy.

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