Home How Is Growth Hacking Different From Traditional Marketing?

How Is Growth Hacking Different From Traditional Marketing?

“Growth hacking” has become a favorite term of startup entrepreneurs, angel investors, marketers, and digital gurus everywhere. But at its core, growth hacking doesn’t seem terribly distinguished from a conventional marketing strategy. 

Is there something that sets it apart? Or is growth hacking just a glorified term for a certain type of marketing? 

Even more importantly, is growth hacking the right strategy for your startup to grow? 

What Is Growth Hacking? 

Let’s start with a basic definition of growth hacking. Growth hacking is often categorized as a subfield within marketing, but it employs a collection of different marketing, sales, and advertising strategies all focused on one ultimate goal: fast growth. 

More than that, growth hacking relies on a form of exponential growth, accelerating the acquisition of new customers while maintaining a current audience and tapping new markets with existing customers via referrals. It also relies heavily on an ongoing cycle of experiments and innovation. 

There are many tactics that can be used as part of a growth hacking strategy, including guerrilla marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing, and even customer reward programs.

Growth hacking is commonly used by small, emerging startups who need to build an audience as quickly as possible to compete in a certain industry, or to achieve a scale that can support profitability. The bottom line is fast growth – all other considerations are secondary.   

The Key Differences

So what are the differences between growth hacking and marketing? 

  • The origins. First, you need to think about the origins of the strategies. Traditional marketing has, in some ways, always been around. Since the early 20th Century, most marketing strategies have depended on mediums like print, direct mail, radio, and video – all of which are somewhat limited in terms of reach. Growth hacking emerged in part because of the boundless power of digital marketing; if you have the money and time to spend, you can generate more value. The scalable nature of startups also made it more necessary to engage in growth hacking techniques. 
  • The pace. It’s also important to address the pace of these strategies. In the traditional marketing world, the pace isn’t usually important; fast strategies are advantageous, but not strictly necessary to succeed. But in growth hacking, speed is everything. You need to get started as soon as possible, start generating new customers as soon as possible, and start growing at a rapid pace. 
  • The overall approach. Growth hacking centers on experimentation. A traditional marketing strategy usually has a definite beginning, middle, and end, with research, planning, and execution handled in a straightforward way. By contrast, growth hacking forces you to try a wide variety of different tactics, utilizing different channels. If something doesn’t work, you toss it. If something does work, you double down. 
  • Dependence on data. Traditional marketing often utilizes data to inform and improve the campaign. But for growth hacking, data is an absolute necessity. Data is the map that allows a growth hacker to navigate; without it, there’s almost no hope for an effective strategy. 
  • The pirate funnel. In traditional marketing, there are really only two phases to consider when it comes to reaching new customers: awareness and acquisition. Your sales and customer service strategies might complement this, and you might have a bigger sales funnel to consider, but as far as your marketing strategies are concerned, this is it. Growth hacking relies on a broader funnel, known as the “pirate funnel” due to the acronym AAARRR: Awareness, acquisition, activation, retention, revenue, and referral. It’s not just about finding and attracting new people; it’s also about keeping those customers and using them to find even more customers. 
  • Skills required. Traditional marketers need to think creatively. They need to control costs carefully, plan campaigns with the future in mind, and identify failure points so they can improve. Growth hackers need these skills, but they also need to be skilled at measuring and interpreting data, launching and evaluating experiments, and picking up new tactics regularly. 
  • Departments involved. While growth hacking is typically considered a marketing approach, it actually involves a number of other departments. If things are running smoothly, your growth hacking engine will involve people from sales, marketing, advertising, customer service, and even product development. Everyone needs to be working together for the common goal: growth. 
  • Channels involved. Traditional marketing can manifest in a number of different channels, but most companies that engage in traditional marketing end up focusing on one or two primary modes. Additionally, traditional marketing channels typically include things like print, radio, and TV ads. In growth hacking, it’s vital to work with a number of different channels simultaneously both for experimental purposes and to broaden your reach. Typically favored channels in the growth hacking world are ones with high ROI and high potential to scale, like content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), and social media marketing. 
  • Tools involved. To growth hack effectively, you need the right tools. Notably, tools that aid in data analytics and automation are key. Experimentation and analyses are the core of any growth hacking strategy. Accordingly, you’ll need a suite of tools to help you plan and launch new experiments, as well as analyze your past efforts. In addition, it’s exceptionally helpful for growth hackers to have access to automation-focused tools. Automation sharply reduces the manual effort required to manage a campaign, reducing costs, and makes your overall campaign much more scalable. 
  • The recursiveness. Growth hacking can be considered to be a “recursive” strategy, in the sense that it builds upon itself. The information you glean from your growth hacking tactics can be used to build, replicate, refine, improve, and change those tactics. After a few months of self-sustaining transformation, you can end up with a radically different (and more powerful) growth hacking vision. 
  • The budget. Traditional marketing often operates with a fixed budget and attempts to use that budget as wisely and efficiently as possible. By contrast, the ultimate goal of a growth hacking strategy is growth; and if that means spending a lot of money to do it, so be it. The streams of incoming new customers and high rates of user retention are designed to sustain this aggressive spending model. 

Is Growth Hacking Better? 

There are many advantages of growth hacking, when compared to traditional marketing. But does that mean that growth hacking is strictly better? 

Not necessarily. Growth hacking is suitable for some types of businesses, but not all businesses. You’ll need to consider: 

  • Product scalability. Growth hacking is better for companies that have a scalable product. In fact, it’s downright vital for them. If your product or service isn’t easily scalable, all the new customers you generate with growth hacking will be unsupported. By contrast, scalable product models are dependent on their ability to attract new customers fast. 
  • Long-term business plans. What are the long-term plans for your business? If “growth” is somewhere in your list of top priorities, growth hacking is advantageous for you. If you’re more concerned with building the right reputation, making an impact in a specific area, or evolving to offer the best possible product, growth may be a secondary concern. 
  • Current stage. Typically, growth hacking is an early- to mid-stage strategy. It serves as the bridge between your company’s humble beginnings and its peak as an engine of profitability. If your company is already effectively attracting new customers and retaining them, growth hacking may not be especially valuable. 
  • Budget limitations. Growth hacking often requires exhaustive spending. Growth hacking strategies tend to be intense, demanding, and persistent – and there are many strategies to manage across multiple channels. If you’re trying to operate as lean as possible, minimizing your budget, growth hacking isn’t the best move. 

Growth hacking isn’t the right approach for every startup, but if you’re looking to snowball your number of customers as quickly and efficiently as possible, growth hacking could be ideal. If you understand that growth hacking isn’t an automatic guarantee of success, and you’re willing to invest some serious time and effort into developing an effective strategy, you can make it work for your business. 

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Nate Nead
CEO & Managing Member

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.

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