Growth Hacking.

What Is Growth Hacking? A Guide.

Growth Hacking Definition

Growth hacking refers to any combination of user activation, marketing or product strategies intended to provide quick and constant growth. Most growth hacking strategies are created with the goal of acquiring as many new users and customers as possible while limiting costs, making them ideal for emerging startups in need of massive leaps in growth.  

What is Growth Hacking?
Growth Hacking Strategy
What is Growth Hacking?
Vector image of two men in suits speaking in front of graphs, charts, puzzle pieces and an arrow trending upward

Growth hacking involves going beyond traditional marketing strategies and techniques to deliver rapid company growth. With growth hacking, stakeholders ensure every decision is made to prioritize growth and focus efforts on producing strategies that go after the most valuable opportunities. Growth hacking is fundamentally based on flexibility and adopting new strategies as opportunities arise, with a goal of not relying on any single tactic for growth but adopting multiple efforts for collective growth. 

A strong focus on data and an understanding of audience behavior is essential to successful growth hacking and will lead to the discovery of unforeseen opportunities ripe for exploring. A growth hacker’s responsibility is to think holistically about growth throughout every stage of audience interaction, engaging in rapid experimentation and consistent product updates to ensure products continue to align with audience needs. 


Origins of Growth Hacking

Growth hacking emerged somewhere around 2010, when Sean Ellis, now founder of, coined the term in a blog post. He defined a growth hacker as “a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.” Growth hacking was further expounded upon by blogger Andrew Chen, who stated “Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing...a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of ‘How do xI get customers for my product?’ and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.” 

Shortly thereafter, books and conferences on the subject of growth hacking began popping up, including 2013’s “Growth Hacker Conference” hosted by Gagan Biyani, featuring growth hacking experts from forward-thinking companies like Linkedin, Twitter, and YouTube. emerged in 2015 and the practice became ripe for adoption by companies across industries.


Differences Between Growth Hacking and Traditional Marketing 

Though growth hacking was only recently defined, its origins can be traced back to the roots of marketing itself. One often-cited example is McDonald’s decision to rapidly expand during the 1950s and open stores along newly built interstate highways, banking on the idea that interstate travel would soon become a haven for sales. McDonald’s took a gamble on an untraditional idea, an idea that had the potential to create massive growth for the company and it worked — a clear example of growth hacking tactics.

While modern growth hackers often utilize traditional marketing tactics like SEO, content production, social media, and email marketing but in order to remain focused on growth over time, they prioritize whatever techniques have the potential to pay off in the most growth. Traditional marketers may focus on singular goals and campaigns at a given time while growth hackers remain focused on the company’s overall growth.


The Growth Hacking Funnel

When searching for opportunities to provide growth, growth hackers focus on the full “Pirate’s Funnel,” created by Dave McClure. The stages of the Pirate’s Funnel are meant to demonstrate a user’s journey from product discovery to conversion, with unique growth opportunities presented at every step along the way. The six stages of the funnel include:

  • Awareness – Consumers are first introduced to the product
  • Acquisition – Consumers begin interacting with the product
  • Activation – Consumers become customers or users of the product
  • Retention – Customers/users continue to interact with the product over time
  • Revenue – The product’s stakeholders receive income from the customers
  • Referral – Customers begin engaging in lead generation for the product

By thinking holistically about every stage of the funnel, growth hackers have the opportunity to decide where the largest opportunities to grow revenue reside at any given time while marketers focus only on the awareness and acquisition stages. 


Benefits of Growth Hacking 

Growth hacking has the potential for exponential growth and leaving lasting impacts on an audience. Tactics don’t necessarily have to be repeatable but can have the ability to cement a brand’s legacy for years to come. By embracing growth hacking, companies will be able to set measurable goals with a high potential for paying off, perfect products through constant experimentation, find a more thorough understanding of their data and build stronger overall brands.


Successful Companies Built Through Growth Hacking


  • Dropbox – Dropbox was able to successfully hack growth and expand greatly by “gamifying” its onboarding process. Dropbox presented existing users with free storage upgrades for linking their social media posts and sharing posts about Dropbox on their feeds. Different types of messages would offer users with varying amounts of free space upgrades, with tasks ranging from simply linking accounts to posting photos of the Dropbox platform. This tactic led to massive amounts of exposure, helped retain existing users and brought in new users at a minimal expense. 
  • Airbnb – Airbnb is one of the most famous and influential examples of growth hacking. The company knew that in order to compete with the leading provider of alternative accommodation, Craigslist, it would have to build a user base, a customer base, and a reputation that could compete with Craigslist. Airbnb found its solution by using its competitor’s platform to its advantage and provided users with a way to copy their Airbnb listing to Craigslist with a single click — taking advantage of Craigslist’s massive audience and perfect selection of targeted users. 
  • Gmail – Gmail’s launch was accompanied by a feature that would allow users to send a limited number of invitations to other people. Invites were the only way to join Gmail at the time and provided a sense of scarcity, exclusivity, and fear-of-missing-out to both the sender and the recipient, adding value to a product that shared similarities with many of its competitors. Buzz around Gmail skyrocketed and some users even auctioned off invitations on eBay. Limiting accessibility to a product is always a risky strategy but has the potential to pay off with massive results.

More Companies Practicing Growth Hacking

  • Dollar Shave Club
  • Groupon
  • Netflix
  • Facebook
  • Slack
  • Hubspot
  • Instagram
  • Linkedin
Growth Hacking Strategy
Vector illustration of several people working in front of a cellphone, gold coins, a dollar sign, and an arrow trending upward

Most modern growth hacking strategies are used by highly scalable businesses leveraging their digital power and multiple marketing channels to achieve successful growth. Because of their inherent structure, businesses like SaaS products and cloud storage space providers, can conduct experimentation quickly and with less overhead than traditional storefronts or other types of businesses. This enables companies to add value and adapt swiftly to audience feedback. However, products and businesses of all kinds can utilize emerging media, multiple marketing channels, experimentation and viral tactics to discover opportunities that could lead to massive growth for their brand.


Growth Hacking Methods


  • Technical Marketing – Understanding the technical side of growth is a crucial skill for any growth hacker. Landing pages, websites and paid search advertisements are all viable channels for growth. In order to grow efficiently, these channels must be optimized and tracked, therefore, growth hackers should possess some combination of programming, design, advertising, conversion rate optimization, API and advertising expertise in order to maximize growth potential. 
  • Viral Marketing – Viral marketing is any marketing strategy that creates an incentive for users to share the product with other people. Viral strategies have the potential to pay off in massive amounts of traffic, attention and revenue. One common example of viral marketing is sending users a referral code that offers discounts or free products when another user signs up with their code.
  • Data-Driven Decision Making – Data is the most valuable tool for a growth hacker, paving the way for making more informed decisions and implementing features that provide real value to users. Data can come in many forms, including common metrics like user totals, new users, sessions, revenue and a variety of daily averages, and can lead to insights that establish clear pathways to growth.
  • Rapid Experimentation – Maximizing growth is only possible by staying consistent with changing market needs and insights from audience feedback, adjusting products over time to maximize value at every point in the product’s life cycle. Experimentation provides the data and experience needed to implement new features, and when done rapidly, creates a product that will continuously evolve to meet audience needs.
  • Continuous Updates – Products must be up to date to provide value to customers. Issues with compatibility or market fit will immediately render a product obsolete and eliminate any pathway to growth, therefore, products must be continuously updated and improved to fit market needs.


Growth Hacking KPIs


  • Traffic – The best way to measure growth hacking success is by tracking how much incoming traffic is generated by any piece of content or new marketing execution. 
  • Conversion Rate – Conversions occur whenever a visitor accomplishes a set goal on a website, whether that be creating an account, submitting an email account, making a purchase, signing up for a trial, interacting with a specific piece of media, or viewing a specific page. Conversion rate is measured by dividing the total number of conversions by total traffic over a certain period. 
  • Viral Coefficient – Viral interactions are never a given on any single piece of content, however, every activation is a chance to build buzz and form connections with audiences. Successful viral tactics can be determined if the viral coefficient is a number greater than one. A viral coefficient is defined by growth blogger David Skok as “the number of new customers that each existing customer is able to successfully convert.”

Growth Hacking Tips

  • Have a product that fills a clear need.
  • Employ constant feedback throughout the entire product lifecycle.
  • When designing a product, securing support from a variety of stakeholders ahead of time facilitates experimentation and leads to more useful data, as no single stakeholder has to fear massive losses in the event of failure. This also helps validate or invalidate ideas before work begins.
  • Proper targeting is crucial to the success of growth hacking. The opportunities with the highest growth potential present themselves when a product can serve the needs of an intersection of audiences. Knowing how to target these audiences, and present a product to them, is crucial to reaching the product’s maximum value.
  • Offering a product for free and utilizing marketing channels like social media and video streaming can help gauge audience interest and feedback while skyrocketing traffic and sign-ups, creating viable paths to market.
  • Have incentives for pushing users further down the funnel to combat conversion decline.

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