There is no single definition of growth marketing or growth hacking. Still, activities recommended by growth marketers are not new. What has changed is the marketing function at companies has become so narrow that it is difficult for marketing to be a revenue driver. Growth marketing starts bringing all marketing activities back into the fold.

But…it is not rational to impose all of growth marketing on all businesses.

Back in the “Dotcom Bubble” days billions were wasted on brand awareness campaigns for startups. Today most entrepreneurs understand that brand awareness campaigns are a waste of money for startups.

If you are a startup, you have a short runway before you run out of cash and have to close down. Long-term strategies are not helpful. Brand awareness is a (necessary) long game, but it won’t matter if you can’t survive till then.

The drive towards short-term acquisition seduces corporate executives and sales teams. Most are evaluated and incentivized on short-term goals, like quarterly or every six months revenue or share price. Short-term acquisition at the expense of long-term brand awareness will eventually kill a business.

Businesses have always struggled to balance direct marketing and brand marketing. This aspect of growth marketing is hazardous to non-startups.

Instead of brand awareness, growth marketers focus on brand experience. Now, brand experience at a startup requires less coordination. Any friction related to the service can be discussed and possibly resolved by conversing with the UX designer and one of the software engineers. Getting input from customer support is straightforward at a startup.

But suppose your development team and support team have a codified structure or have separate development and support teams by service or product. In that case, you will need a few meetings to simply do any root cause analysis. Implementation of the division of labor has changed the world for the better. Unfortunately, if you are at a later stage of growth, more co-piloting is required when creating a unified brand experience. You need a multi-disciplinary team from all brand touchpoints to provide the best brand experience.

Brand marketing departments see pod-like teams when working with agencies. The agency usually has an account manager, art director, copywriter, strategist, paid media, and developer assigned to the client.

Over the last few years, many businesses outside of the tech world have tried to improve the brand experience. They call it customer experience (CX). Some brands have chief customer experience officers. Some have a team for customer experience management, and there are many vendors providing support tools. Customer experience may not sound as sexy as growth hacking, but it serves the same purpose: removing all friction.

Googling, a lot of the examples of growth marketing are…simply marketing.

One of the famous examples of growth hacking is how Airbnb automated posting their own listings to Craigslist. Craigslist doesn’t have an API, so Airbnb figured out how the submission forms worked and built a crossposting tool. This example is used to show only a marketer with tech skills (the growth marketer) could conceive this idea and pull it off.

Probably. But any engineer who worked on building a product would view this behavior as abuse.

Funnily, Airbnb views this type of behavior as inappropriate:

Do not scrape, hack, reverse engineer, compromise or impair the Airbnb Platform * Do not use bots, crawlers, scrapers, or other automated means to access or collect data or other content from or otherwise interact with the Airbnb Platform. * Do not hack, avoid, remove, impair, or otherwise attempt to circumvent any security or technological measure used to protect the Airbnb Platform or Content. * Do not decipher, decompile, disassemble, or reverse engineer any of the software or hardware used to provide the Airbnb Platform. * Do not take any action that could damage or adversely affect the performance or proper functioning of the Airbnb Platform.

You know, it’s ok to growth hack on the back of others, but no one should be able to growth hack on you.

Another popular example of growth hacking is Dropbox. If you had a Dropbox account, you could accrue more storage if you got your friends to join up. I could have sworn there is a marketing term for this…what is it? It’s on the tip of my tongue!

Oh yeah, referrals.

I’m not poo-poing the usage of referrals. Dropbox leveraged it perfectly (and still does). But to think this tactic is specific to growth marketing is silly.

To show that growth marketing works offline, Mcdonald’s is provided as a case study. Apparently, McDonald’s building a store at practically every highway exit when the highway system was expanded in the late ‘50s is an example of growth hacking.

It’s like someone forgot the 4Ps for Marketing 101: price, promotion, product…and wait for it…place. You could call it growth marketing or…or you know, marketing.

Growth marketing has the Pirate Funnel: AAARRR for Awareness, Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, Revenue. In the traditional funnel, Activation would encompass Interest, Consideration, Intent, Purchase. Combining both:

Awareness, Interest, Consideration, Intent, Purchase, Activation, Retention, Referral, Revenue.

The funnel may seem more complicated, but it does a better job of distinguishing the different stages.

Part of the pitch for the Pirate Funnel is that marketers pre-growth hacking didn’t care about retention. That’s not true. Grocery stores, retailers, restaurants, insurance agents, and others have always depended on retention. Before eCommerce, local businesses survived on retention. Perhaps the argument is that marketers didn’t have to work as hard for retention because buyers could only go to their local businesses. Sometimes businesses had separate departments for retention.

Part of the purpose of marketing and advertising is purchase validation. The brain wants to be reminded it made the right choice. We know buyer’s remorse exists. Pulling out retention as a separate activity is a good idea. While we all measure retention, highlighting it forces us to attribute marketing spend for new buyers versus repeat purchasers.

I don’t mean to dump on growth marketing here. It is the best approach for startups. I noticed the focus on growth hackers at established businesses when looking for good examples of marketing job descriptions. Needing growth hackers at a non-startup is a symptom of a poor marketing unit. Business units distribute marketing ops if a brand has multiple products or services, sometimes creating dissonance in targeting and messaging. This is a people problem. Depending on leadership and power structures, functions that should be cohesive, well, aren’t. Even if there is one product or service, conflict in short-term vs. long-term incentives muddies the focus of marketing.