Why Sometimes the Best Growth Hack Is Traditional Marketing

By Sean Brown | July 31, 2017

Until fairly recently, marketing didn’t typically top the priority list for most startups. Marketing was not considered the battleground where you could win thousands of customers. A disruptive idea, a killer product, or a substantial investment deal were supposedly how you would conquer the world–not your marketing efforts.

But around 2010, people like Sean Ellis (who coined the term Growth Hacking) were taking note of a new breed of marketer that relies on innovative, unconventional marketing methods to achieve unbelievably high user acquisition. They were applying the hacker mindset to find growth; leveraging the new landscape of social media and extensive user analytics to engineer success.

The successful growth hacker now enjoys a godlike status in the startup community, and to most people, growth hacking overshadows conventional online marketing in terms of prestige. With plenty of success stories like Dropbox’s hack to 4 million users with minimal marketing spend, everyone is looking for innovative ways to increase user growth and expand their market share.

But if you look at the success stories, it’s clear that a myopic emphasis on growth hacking kind of throws the baby out with the bathwater. It’s important to remember why social media is the bread-and-butter of growth hacking, and how this value can be leveraged by traditional marketing.

Most growth hacking success stories revolve around leveraging insight into your target user’s online habits to reach them naturally. Online information dissemination depends on social media; it’s how we make decisions about products, do research, and communicate with our closest friends. Growth hacking is being in the right place, at the right time, with the right message–and captivating content is 90% of this equation.

Content is king–an inevitable truth for both traditional marketing and growth hacking. Many aspects of growth hacking are unpredictable and achieve low ROI, so taking a hybrid approach with an emphasis on creating good content is typically the best option.

What’s the Difference Between Marketing and Growth Hacking?

It’s clear that quality content and social media strategies are key to both growth hacking and traditional marketing, but what about the differences? There are quite a few definitions of the term growth hacking, but they have certain things in common.

Generally, growth hackers are more likely to take a tech-minded approach to marketing. This means they have a greater overview of the industry and put more input into product oriented decisions, are more likely to develop their own tools to achieve growth (programming skills are often required), and typically have a more quantitative mindset when approaching metrics.

Aside from this, growth hackers take a more guerrilla approach than traditional marketers. Hacking platforms and user behavior is the top priority, often with the goal of minimal ad spend. Lowering cost of acquisition throughout the whole funnel is the almost always the aim.

In contrast, the traditional marketers are stereotypically more focused on quality lead generation and conversion rates rather than the metrics themselves.

It’s easy to see how these stereotypes are outdated. It’s not really a question of Mad Man vs Hacker anymore. Like all revolutions, the best practices of growth hacking have been adopted by the mainstream. Things like viral loops, detailed metrics, funnel analysis, and relentless testing are all now part of the traditional marketer’s toolkit.

A Good Hack Doesn’t Automatically Result in Sustainable Growth

When people refer to growth hacking, they’re typically thinking of attempts to hit the viral jackpot. But if you only rely on social media influencers to get your product in front of a niche audience on the cheap, you’re throwing away massive value. Banking on viral strategies for growth is a bad tactic for several reasons.

First of all, hacking is less comprehensive. Paid ads allow you to target in detail and get high-quality data about your target users. Hacks are also harder to visualize and manage. Most ad platforms score high in UX, reducing the time you need to spend in front of a computer and making it easier to measure your results. But most importantly–growth hacks are unpredictable, often leaving you with 100,000 likes from users that simply aren’t interested in your product. A low conversion coefficient can render all those sweet, sweet sign ups or tweets worthless.

Followers Mean Nothing If Your Business Isn’t Ready for Them

Nowadays, growth hacking is more likely to mean prioritization of reach over the quality of leads. This should raise red flags for any marketer, but especially for those working in the environment of an early stage startup.

It’s easy for established companies to scale their content production schedules when their posts start to gain traction with the resulting increase in follower count, but to a newer startup, this can be a major distraction and waste of exposure. If a viral post is not going to result in quality sign ups (or at the very least a new audience you can keep engaged), then you’re not ready for the new followers.

Compared to extremely risky hacking tactics, following a clear plan for your social media growth typically results in higher ROI. If some of your content hits the jackpot that’s well and good, but prioritizing your follower count without the resources to properly maintain can be a fatal mistake for any early stage startup.

Effective Growth Hacking Is Really Just Content Creation

This is good news because it means that hacking growth can be a lot more predictable and deliberate than you might think. Growth hacking is really just good content creation; it’s as simple as that.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other lessons to be learned from growth hacks. When it comes to new tools, relentless analysis, and detecting product-market fit, looking at the habits of successful growth hackers can teach us a ton.

But the fact is, content will always be king, and in this day and age it should still be your top priority.

Customers don’t care about your product or how many people shared your post, they care about their own interests and solving their own problems.

Good content and an even better product is still the most reliable path to finding more paying users. By all means, learn from the successes of good growth hacks, but don’t get wrapped up in the perceived value of rapid, random exposure. We’ve now come to the point where conventional marketing methods are thought of as the more daring choice. Growth doesn’t have to be complicated; experiment with different distribution channels, and always focus on crafting content that speaks directly towards the problem you solve for each individual customer.