Many startups and early-stage tech companies — especially ones backed by venture capital funding — are in hot pursuit of “hockey-stick growth,” a term denoting rapid, exponential growth of the business.
And to get there, they often rely on growth marketing.
Growth marketing is a blurry term that’s difficult to precisely define — it’s sometimes referred to as growth hacking — but basically, it’s the data-driven, often-experimental practice of finding and repeating scalable ways to acquire, engage and retain more users of your product or service.
Growth Marketing Definition
Growth marketing can take many forms and incorporate various tactics, such as launching paid advertising campaigns, experimenting with viral video stunts or producing search-engine-optimized content, all in the hopes to capture, grow and retain a customer base.
It’s also worth noting that business growth isn’t strictly placed in the domain of marketing either. In fact, growth marketers often collaborate with product and engineering teams to design and build ways to drive up the company’s North Star metrics.
In any case, forming a growth marketing strategy is key for many businesses that want to launch themselves into the stratosphere of success.
Growth Marketing Strategies from Experts
To get an expert’s perspective on growth marketing, we spoke to Matt Bilotti, product lead, growth and lifecycle at Drift; Rita Cidre, global head of integrated marketing at Qualtrics; and Shane Pittson, vice president of growth at quip. Their responses, from a 2020 interview with Built In, have been edited for length and clarity.
What Is Growth Marketing?
How would you define growth marketing, and how is it different from traditional marketing?
Bilotti: Growth marketing is finding repeatable and scalable campaigns or processes that drive a marketing outcome. Traditional marketing is a little bit more of a one-off, like a webinar or going to an event or sponsoring something. You get this influx of leads and then you’ve got to go do the thing again.
Cidre: The type of marketing that growth marketers do is directly tied to the bottom line of the business. It’s not just about attracting new customers or acquiring new people into your database. It’s about making sure that you’re acquiring the right customers into your marketing program and then that you have the right experiences for those customers aligned to various stages of the funnel, and ultimately converting those customers into paying customers. More traditional marketing is much more focused on the top of the funnel, with loose ties to the bottom line.
Pittson: The essence of a growth marketing path is one that’s more akin to direct response marketing — something that’s very close to the analytics and the near-term effects and results. Traditional marketing still encompasses that discipline and that focus but also tends to think about very long-term effects of marketing, like brand positioning and brand sentiment, and thinking about how that might play out over the course of years.
Growth Marketing for Startups
What is the first thing a growth marketer of a new startup should do?
Bilotti: Measure the funnel and then zero-in on where the biggest drop off in the funnel is. Maybe you get X visitors with Y people clicking on the sign-up button, and then this many people see the form, and then this many people complete the form. You have to map all that out, and then once you map it out, you find the biggest drop-off and try to understand why those people are dropping off.
Cidre: The first step would be understanding what the top of your funnel looks like right now, if you have a lot of people who are coming to your website and demonstrating interest in your products. And then, a step down, do you have a lot of people clicking through on your website or a lot of people who have shown interest in Facebook ads for your product that you could consider a middle-of-the-funnel pool? Finally, how many customers do you have at the bottom of the funnel? Are you finding that it’s a business with a one-time purchase or is it a renewal business where it’s important for you to focus on the bottom of the funnel to ensure that people are renewing their subscriptions?
Do a funnel assessment to understand the health of the funnel and understand where the challenges and the opportunities lie. If you have a ton of funding, growth marketers have seen a lot of success with Facebook ads or paid search. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend, you’re probably going to rely heavily on earned and owned channels.
Pittson: Documenting and setting up a process and a system for tracking is really the foundation you need to test and learn and really double down on efforts that are working and understand what isn’t. Otherwise, you end up like the classic advertising quote: “I know half of my ads are working, I just don’t know which ones.”
Measuring Growth Marketing Success
How do you know if your growth marketing strategy is successful?
Bilotti: What’s important is that you have to go into each of those projects or campaigns with a hypothesis: “We believe, if we make this change on the website, it can result in this many more signups per month.” You set the win condition at the beginning, and you set that based on historical data and perceived potential. Then you can actually just know if the thing works based on if it fulfilled what you believed.
Cidre: If you are a growth marketer for a startup and your boss tells you, “We need to make $100,000 in revenue,” you can take that $100,000 and use very simple math to back out from that number into “How many customers would I need to have?” OK, let’s say I need to have a hundred customers, assuming a $1,000 price point. Out of those 100 customers, assuming a 2 percent conversion rate from the site, how many pageviews would I need on my site in order to get 100 customers?
Pittson: Having multiple points of reference is really critical. Very early on, we were looking at last-click attribution through Google Analytics, looking at native reporting from the platforms or the partners that we were testing with, and then post-purchase surveys directly from our customers. If we only had one of those points of reference, then the channels and the tactics that we would have prioritized would have been very different. Having multiple lenses to view your performance through helps to construct a clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not.
Growth Marketing Experiments
What’s a growth experiment you tried that worked?
Bilotti: Drift is a chat widget that you put on websites, and at the bottom it says, “Powered by Drift.” And so we get a lot of people who click on that and it would just take you to Drift.com with all the info to sign up.
We realized that if you were clicking on that, you were clicking on it because you’ve already semi-experienced the widget and you’re clicking on it because you want to know more about that exact experience — probably because you want to put it on your website too. And so on the page that people would arrive, we A/B tested the homepage versus a completely stripped out version of the website where there was no header, or footer. All there was was a headline of what the thing was that you could sign up for and then the sign-up button. And we saw a threefold increase in the conversion rate, because it enabled us to help the lead not get lost in the website but instead help them on the path that they already wanted to go down.
Cidre: In a previous role, the team worked on landing page optimization. That was an incredibly impactful project. It drove millions of dollars in revenue, and it all came out of a funnel analysis, realizing that we definitely had enough traffic, we just had really terrible conversion rates for that traffic. And so we focused super heavily on the middle of the funnel, and we saw the benefit of that at the bottom line.
Pittson: Our first experiments with audio advertising. Both of quip’s founders are designers, and so we were under the impression that a lot of our traction and success was related to the visual draw of the product, and so we were hesitant to use our test-budget in this channel that had no visual element. But we were really careful in terms of selecting partners and thinking about how to articulate some of those more visual elements of the product in that “audio theater of the mind.” We started really small and consistently tested specific shows using different offer codes. And it was working, and we continued to grow that and ultimately became one of the larger advertisers in the space.
Improve Your Growth Marketing Strategy
What’s an underrated aspect of a successful growth strategy or growth team?
Bilotti: The most successful growth marketers or marketing teams are technical; they have engineering chops. Either there is an engineer on the team or the growth marketer actually can code stuff on their own, because that enables this whole other level of testing and building new funnels for lead generation or developing systems to make even more out of the existing funnel.
Cidre: Most growth marketers are very skilled with digital marketing. But one aspect that sometimes gets overlooked in growth marketing is more traditional media. PR, for example, can be really impactful, especially for a startup that has no budget. I think that’s something that often gets overlooked in growth marketing plans, the public relations and media strategy.
Pittson: Focusing on the customers you have is something that can easily be overlooked. Thinking about growth, not just in terms of acquisition but also in terms of retention and community is really important. One of the things that we prioritized early on was that we weren’t just selling a product, we were selling a broader experience.