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Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing

13 July 2016
growth-hacking-blog-image | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

‘Growth hacking’ is a term first coined by Sean Ellis in 2010 and is now one of the hottest topics in global startup culture.

At its core, growth hacking is the process of micro testing and reacting to data with the view of achieving explosive growth. It is common in startups and small businesses looking to gain large numbers of targeted subscribers/signups to their service/product in a short space of time.

Considering that 100 million businesses are set up every year (that’s three new businesses a second!), it’s easy to see why those who apply growth hacking to their business stand a better chance of succeeding in an ever-diluted marketplace.

A typical growth hacker does not focus on the wider business USPs as a traditional digital marketer might. Growth hackers instead tend to hone in on one or two parts of the business and then exclusively focus on generating demand from those channels.

NOTE: Growth hacking should not be compared to traditional digital marketing with a view to finding out which is the better approach; rather they should both be viewed as effective methodologies.

Growth Hacker vs Digital Marketeer

Digital marketers tend to set out a set of processes from the outset that they then look to deliver on routinely. Growth hackers do not typically have a marketing blueprint. Instead, they have a hypothesis about what the market wants/needs and then they act to prove/disprove that hypothesis; iterating their product or service as they go along based on the data that they receive back.

“The mindset of a growth hacker is that of a scientist. The experiments that fall down are not considered as failures, rather steps closer to proving or disproving their hypothesis.”

Buzzwords that often crop up in marketing conversations might be:

growth-hacking-blog-image5 | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

Whereas in a typical growth hacking conversation you would hear terms like:

growth-hacking-blog-image4 | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

Growth Hacking in Practice

There are lots of great case studies for growth hacking – take Hotmail for example, one of the first companies to implement growth tactics.

Hotmail, as you may already know, is a free email service that was bought out by Microsoft just 1.5 years after it launched. Now, in order for a company like Microsoft to buy out a business, it needs to either be generating huge amounts of revenue or have hundreds of millions of users.

Since Hotmail is a free email service, it was obviously the latter.

But how did Hotmail go from startup to 8.5 million users in just 1.5 years? It used an invitation-only approach and appended a referral link to every email:

growth-hacking-blog-image3 | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

This simple yet effective technique meant that for every user using Hotmail to send emails, it was referring around 8 new active users.

When you consider that you only need each user to refer >1 other user for your product or service to go viral, it’s easy to see why Microsoft decided to acquire Hotmail. This was all when the internet was in its infancy – internet users were only around 70 million at the time – so Hotmail had on-boarded over 12% of the whole internet market in just 1.5 years.

Now that’s what you call explosive growth!

Growth hackers are now looking at more innovative ways of achieving viral growth. Read this post from Matthew Barby – Global Head of Growth and SEO at HubSpot – for some actionable growth hacking tactics, all of which centre around these core principles of growth hacking.

Let data define the strategy

Most marketers only track three core things: traffic, users and revenue. Whilst most marketers track only these metrics, the most successful businesses out there dig deeper and actually act upon them. Instead of seeing and reporting that there was a spike/dip in traffic, growth hackers begin to understand why those anomalies happened and then look to do more (or less as the case may be) of that.

Create an automated conversion funnel

Creating a conversion funnel that acts as an automated acquisition, activation, retention and revenue machine is invaluable for modern businesses to grow. It helps businesses to understand what each user’s pain points, desires, needs and motivations are through each one of those stages and is how growth hackers really hone in on the user.

growth-hacking-blog-image2 | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

Growth hackers target demographics with personalised content, trip wires and offers that pique their interest and keep them engaged through every step of the funnel. Once on-boarded, they will optimise the experience further to ensure that they upkeep customer retention rates.

Focus on channels that convert

There comes a point in time where businesses need to cut out ineffective marketing channels and put their shoulders behind the ones that convert.

Sometimes this is as simple as keeping a spreadsheet to record the number of hours, associated costs, and sales from each channel.

Nobody likes to waste time, money or effort on things that don’t come to fruition. Marketing is no different.

Run regular A/B tests

A growth hacker is like a scientist: they constantly test hypotheses to see how the subject reacts; recording all the data as they go along and putting emphasis behind the tests that appear to have the best reactions.

growth-hacking-blog-image | Growth Hacking vs. Digital Marketing | Neon

A/B testing is very similar in that sense. It should be considered an ongoing process of testing and tweaking, rather than a one-time task.

If you have an existing website, Optimizely is a great tool for testing existing pages. If you want to A/B test a full website but don’t have one yet, Unbounce lets you build a conversion focused one. If you’re starting out small with some targeted landing pages, then Lead Pages or Instapage might be more suitable.

Tip: All of the above integrate nicely with marketing platforms such as MailChimp, Campaign Monitor and automation platforms such as Intercom, HubSpot, InfusionSoft and Autopilot HQ to nurture and retain customers after they signup.


Growth hacking has only been around for a few years but has existed subconsciously in the minds of innovative marketers for decades now.

There is a huge community of growth hackers sharing ideas and tactics. One place they hang out is at Growth Hackers, whose CEO is none other than the original growth hacker himself; Sean Ellis.

There is no magic formula for growth hacking per se since all industry audiences react differently to certain content and messaging. However, growth in businesses is not accidental. It happens because a dedicated team of growth hackers spend their time putting together a scientific formula by testing their hypotheses, deciphering the data, dropping ineffective campaigns and scaling up the more effective ones – before running new tests.

If done correctly, growth hacking can be the difference between ‘startup’ and ‘industry leader’.

Has growth hacking helped your business? Do you have any useful apps or tools you can recommend? Tweet us @createdbyneon.

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