Growth hacking gets a lot of buzz. There’s only one problem... doesn’t really work. 

I consult scores of small businesses and start-ups, plus I’m an entrepreneur myself. So, I realise how compelling growth hacking sounds. If there were a way to achieve explosive growth overnight, I’d want to know about it, too! Unfortunately, no magical marketing cheat sheet exists.

Now I know some of you are thinking:

“Growth hacking worked for Facebook and Airbnb — why can’t it work for me?”

It’s a valid question that’s worth exploring. So, let’s do exactly that. 

In this article, we’ll define growth hacking and see why it’s not a sustainable marketing solution for most businesses. Then, we’ll explore what does work to grow your business efficiently and sustainably. Read on. 

What is growth hacking?

Beyond the hype, what does growth hacking actually mean?

Growth hacking is a marketing strategy that focuses on rapid experimentation to scale a business quickly.

Sean Ellis coined the term in 2010 after using growth-focused strategies to scale start-ups in record time. Ellis was wildly successful, later writing Hacking Growth — and attracting a tribe of growth-obsessed marketers in the process. Now, many of Ellis’ growth hacking principles are important lessons worth emulating (so long as you embrace the right mindset); we’ll get to that later. 

But first, let’s explore why growth hacking doesn’t work for most businesses today. 

The pitfalls of growth hacking

If you’re a start-up owner or entrepreneur, you already know growth is the driving force of your business. So, why wouldn’t you want to give growth hacking a go?

Because product/market fit matters

If your product doesn’t solve the needs of your target audience, no amount of “hacking” is going to work. Don’t take my word for it, though...

According to CB insights, 70% of tech start-ups fail. The number one reason? 

No market demand. 

Sure, you could hire a growth marketer to drive traffic through viral marketing techniques. But if your product is underdeveloped or your customer insights lacking, then you risk a flood of unqualified leads that don’t yield meaningful business results. 

Now, let’s say you’re laser-focused on how your product speaks to your buyer’s pain points. You’re talking to your customers each week, and you’ve achieved product/market fit. Should you call in a growth hacker? Probably not — and here’s why:

  1. Every business is unique. The growth hacks that worked for large companies like Facebook likely won’t work for you (unless you’re operating within a similar market and at a comparable budget.)
  2. The most successful start-ups integrate product and marketing — they don’t rely on one person to magically solve their problems to grow their business. So, to drive massive and sustainable results, unify your product and marketing teams, and encourage everyone to embrace a growth mindset.

Growth Marketing: The alternative to growth hacking

While growth hacking doesn’t work for most businesses, here’s what does: growth marketing

I know the two terms sound similar. (In fact, they’re often used interchangeably.) However, I believe there are profound differences between growth hacking and growth marketing — and that the latter can significantly impact the success of your company. 

Here’s what you need to know:

Growth marketing is a long-term strategy; it’s laser-focused on building meaningful customer relationships through ongoing data-driven experimentation. Because you’re using analytics, you quickly ditch what doesn’t work — and scale what does — to optimize your growth and revenue.

With growth marketing, your business sees robust growth — without wasting resources on bloated marketing campaigns that do little to improve your bottom line. 

That said, growth marketing isn’t concerned with quick fixes at the expense of the consumer, and it’s not a silver bullet to business success. 

Here are a few traits of the most successful growth marketers: 

  • Growth marketers are experimenters. They rapidly zero in on what works (and what doesn’t) and increase marketing spend incrementally from there.
  • Growth marketers conduct data-driven experiments; they tap into the metrics that matter to create a highly engaged audience at every step of the Buyer’s Journey.
  • Growth marketers use marketing technology and sophisticated data-testing tools. They set specific objectives and use these tools to measure performance and inform strategies.

How to utilise growth marketing in your business

You’re here because you want to grow your business. So, let’s review a few ways you can use growth marketing to achieve sustainable success:

1. Develop an incredible product that people want

Go back to product/market fit before diving into growth marketing tactics. Just as you can’t growth hack your way to success, you won’t achieve excellent growth marketing results until you’ve dialled in your unique value proposition and offer.

2. Obsess over your Buyer’s Journey 

Do you deeply understand how your buyer interacts with your brand at every stage of their Buyer’s Journey?

Your customer’s pain points change as they progress with your brand. Understand these problems, and you’ll successfully guide them to your offering each step of the way. 

Listen, growth marketing works best when applied to every aspect of a user’s experience with your business. So, understand their journey, then use the AAARRR Framework to apply growth marketing strategies at each stage of your funnel. 

3. Embrace failure

The best growth marketers are not intimidated by failure. Instead, they use failure to identify what doesn't work — and then scale only those things that do. Stay unattached to the results of your experiments; you'll fail quickly but succeed even quicker.

To sum it up

It’s easy to get excited about growth hacking — everyone wants an easy solution to their marketing woes. However, there’s no magic elixir that will automatically turn your start-up into the next Unicorn. 

Swap growth hacking for growth marketing, though, and you will build your business efficiently and sustainably. The difference is subtle but profound — never sacrifice your product or customer for quick-wins and gimmicks.