Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past decade, you’ve probably heard of growth hacking. But, you might not know what all is involved with this technique and how you can best use it to grow your business.
No worries. We’re here to walk you through it all.
In this extensive guide, we’ll cover topics including:
- What is growth hacking?
- How is growth hacking different from marketing?
- How does it work?
- Ways to start growth hacking
- 16 ways to apply this method to your business
- 30 examples of brands growth hacking
What is growth hacking?
It’s basically a buzzword or umbrella term for strategies focused solely on growth. For the most part, growth hacking is generally used in relation to early-stage startups who need to have a huge amount of growth in a short amount of time — and done with a small budget.
If you want a “technical” definition, here you go:
- Growth hacking means you’re gaining as many users or customers as possible while spending as little as possible.
Sean Ellis, founder of GrowthHackers.com, originally coined this term a decade ago to describe the sustainable growth approach used by hyper-growth companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Airbnb. But of course, even before he gave it the name, brands were already using these practices.
So then who is a growth hacker? They aren’t a replacement for a marketer: They are just different. Ellis says:
- “A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.”
It’s someone who uses low-cost strategies to help the business acquire and retain customers. These people are sometimes referred to as growth marketers, as well, and here are some of the things they do:
- Focus on strategies related to growth
- Set growth priorities
- Identify channels for acquisition
- Test innovative and creative strategies
- Analyze what’s working
- Find ways to scale growth
The bottom line is growth hackers are intensely focused on growth, if you haven’t figured that trend out already. People who understand growth hacking are going to have a competitive advantage — whether you’re an entrepreneur, founder, growth lead, or anyone else who is trying to grow a startup.
Growth hacking is for anyone interested in acquiring new customers and retaining existing ones. Every startup is looking for growth hackers. And the reason for that is obvious because everyone wants to grow insanely fast and acquire millions of users and dollars in revenue. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
How is growth hacking different from marketing?
You might think these terms are interchangeable, but not exactly. Traditional marketers have a broad focus. There are several different aspects and metrics they are constantly monitoring and working on. If you’re a marketer, you know how true that is!
And while a marketer’s skills are valuable, they aren’t as necessary in the early stages of a start-up. Think about it: When you’re first getting off of the ground, you’re not looking for someone to manage a marketing team or establish a marketing strategy to help you reach corporate objectives.
No, you’re interested in one thing: growth.
That’s not to say a growth hacker is a replacement for a marketer or that one is better than the other. They are just different, like apples and oranges.
Growth hacker vs. marketer
Let’s break down the differences a little more:
- Growth hackers run experiments, testing which direction works best.
- Marketers focus on one method.
- Growth hackers use the entire funnel.
- Marketers mostly look at the awareness and acquisition stages.
- Growth hackers have some technical skills, like programming, tooling, and automations.
- Marketers might not have these same skills.
- Growth hackers are involved with the product because they have to pay attention to the retention of active customers.
- Marketers are less involved with the actual product (or not at all).
- Growth hackers are data-driven.
- That’s not always the case for marketing departments.
Time to experiment
As we mentioned, growth hackers must experiment. Don’t worry, no beakers or masks are needed.
One of the most important understandings that a growth hacker must have is the realization that nobody knows what will work and what will fail. (If you do, you’re probably already a billionaire and don’t need to read anymore.) This applies to startup ideas, channels, and conversion optimization. That’s why it’s important to experiment.
By trying out a channel or technique in a small environment, for example, you can avoid losing a lot of resources (i.e. time or money). Then, if what you’re testing isn’t working, you don’t have to invest in it. And if it does work, you can continue exploring and figuring out how to expand on that.
With experiments, a growth hacker can ensure a higher ROI by spending time on the most effective channels. And really, that’s what it’s all about.
In the past, many companies worked with budgets that could be spent on whatever they had a good feeling about. Oh, those were the days. That was, in part, because the right tracking tools weren’t available.
However, now it’s possible to measure just about anything you could want with a website or app. So, why would you go with a gut feeling over cold, hard data? Answer: You wouldn’t. And that’s even more true with growth hacking.
A growth hacker continuously monitors the ROI of their experiments and channels. That way, they can always see the biggest opportunities and dangers and know where they can get the most profit. Data is king with growth hacking. You can’t succeed without it.
Technical skills needed
Since growth hackers have to be more involved with the product and data, there are certain technical skills they will need for the job.
If you are dependent on other people (like developers or designers) for each experiment, that will slow you down tremendously. And time is money if you want to grow as quickly as possible. So, it only makes sense that you will need an internal growth hacker (if that person isn’t you) who can handle everything you need right away.
Here are a few important skills you should have as a growth hacker:
- Build websites, including landing pages
- Design and understand colors, branding, fonts, etc.
- Basic HTML and CSS
- Run ads on channels like Facebook, AdWords, LinkedIn, Google Ads, etc.
- Implement tracking tools like Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager
- Conversion rate optimization
- AI in marketing
Of course, there are many more skills they can have, and their specific skill sets will depend on what your brand needs. But, these give you a good place to start. And as you see, a growth hacker has a much more technical set of skills than your average marketer. That’s why many job descriptions will ask specifically for a growth hacker over a marketer, or vice versa, depending on what they need.
With a better feel for what growth hacking is and the type of people who are behind this technique, it’s time to see how it actually works.
How does growth hacking work?
It’s finally time to look at how this marketing practice works. And to do that, you need to take a good hard look at your business and figure out:
- Why does your company grow?
- How can you make that growth happen on purpose?
There are different ways to go about making that growth happen, and here are just two of them:
- Raise brand awareness
- Acquire, activate, retain, referral, and revenue (AARRR)
This AARRR method, also referred to as “Pirate Metrics,” was created by Dave McClure. He was a marketing director at PayPal, and he also started the tech incubator/accelerator 500 Startups. He outlined the stages of the funnel (AARRR), and here’s what each of those actually mean:
- Acquisition: How you get people to know your brand/product by name
- Activation: How to give users a happy first experience
- Retention: How to keep them coming back
- Revenue: How you monetize those people
- Referral: How you get them to tell other people about your brand/product
If you use this method, you can pick out key metrics for each stage to get an accurate look at how your efforts are performing. Here’s a chart with example conversion metrics from McClure:
Based on that knowledge, you can figure out whether your startup idea has traction or you should pivot to something else. Remember: You’ll want to make sure to avoid vanity metrics.
For example, if you pay for a Google Ad but then all of those visitors immediately bounce, this traffic was unqualified to start with. That tells you that you are probably targeting the wrong people and need to go back to the drawing board with your customer personas.
Getting traffic to your site is easy when you use ads. Getting qualified traffic can be a little tougher. But no matter the method, the goal is to get visitors, turn those visitors into users or customers, and retain them as happy, loyal customers.
Ways to start growth hacking
Before you’re off to the races, make sure you have a tested product that people want and are willing to pay for it. Because if you don’t have that, all of the growth hacking in the world won’t help you.
Not only does that make sure you have a good product to bring to the masses, but it also helps you:
- Gather data you can use to create buyer personas
- Create targeted growth marketing tactics based on that data
Just don’t think about it as a one-and-done approach. You’ll want to continue updating your product as you receive customer feedback.
When you look at growth hacking strategies, most will fall into these three main types:
- Content marketing
- Product marketing
Of course, there are a lot of different methods and ways to achieve growth with each of these options — and we’ll cover that more below.
Can large companies use growth hacking?
What we’ve talked about so far has been about how a startup can go from nothing to tons of users and revenue. But, growth hacking is also relevant to large companies.
Many companies see growth hacking as the perfect strategy because you have to be flexible to avoid competitors, quick to take chances, and be data-driven because you don’t want to spend thousands on the basis of a gut feeling.
And those are all characteristics of a growth hacker. So, even more established brands can incorporate these strategies into their plan.
How to apply growth hacking to your business
Now comes the really good stuff. Let’s go into real ways you can start implementing growth hacking techniques into your product or startup.
1. Create a product people actually want to buy.
We mentioned this bit of advice earlier, but for your growth hacking strategy to work, you have to do it. You can throw all of the resources you want at a product, but if it’s not good, you can forget seeing a positive ROI.
Word about new products spreads extremely quickly these days — word of mouth, social media posts, etc. — and you want people to be saying only the best about your product. People trust what other people say (think about how powerful customer reviews and ratings are). And for people to say good stuff about your product, they have to like it. If you have a bad product, the world will know about it faster than you could imagine.
Do you remember the United Airlines passenger who was dragged off of a plane in Louisville, Ky. a few years back due to an overbooking? The man was left bloodied and traumatized. And if that event had happened just a few years earlier, the world might never have heard about it.
Instead, other passengers recorded the incident and posted their videos to social media. Now, those videos have been viewed millions of times. Needless to say, that was horrible PR for United Airlines.
And with your business, if your product sucks, it can disappear in less time than it took you to build it. Blunt, but true.
So, how can you avoid that type of nightmare with your business? Simple: Get feedback. You have to get your product out there as fast as possible to begin collecting feedback and keep improving your product-market fit on a regular basis.
You might think you have the greatest thing since sliced bread, but if your audience doesn’t agree, you better take note and adjust quickly. And here’s a few ways on how to do just that.
How to make sure product hits the mark
- Ask and answer questions — Do that, instead of developing a product that has a great product-market fit. What are people asking you about? Can you dig deeper into that topic to create a product that solves their problem? You won’t be simply creating a product that you think is a good idea. You’ll already know there are people out there who are searching for this type of product.
- Ask for feedback. You have an idea. Great. But now you need to see what people think about it. Don’t wait to show anyone the product until it’s completely finished. That’s just going to make more work for you if there are changes. Ask for feedback each step along the way. Some brands will release a product pretty soon after they had the idea for it — and then release updated versions each month or so.
One way to ensure the product is hitting your target is to validate your product idea. An easy way to see if people want the product you’re about to create is to ask them to pay for it.
For example, you want to create an app showing people all of the best dog parks around town.
You know it will cost $500 to develop, so getting $10 from 50 people would cover the development cost problem for you. Not only that, but you would also know:
- People want you to make this app. (They are paying for it!)
- You aren’t losing your own money if it doesn’t work out.
People pay for things in advance all of the time — think memberships, events, hotel stays. You often pay for things whether you end up going or not. And in some cases, you can just give them back the money if you end up not building it.
Note: We should also mention that “product” no longer refers to only physical items like clothes, cars, or food. Now when we mention a product, we’re also including software products. Facebook is a product, for example. An app is a product.
It doesn’t have to be something you can hold, so keep that in mind throughout this guide. The Internet has given us a new kind of product, and it demands a new kind of thinking.
Because of this redefinition, a product can now play a role in its own adoption. No, really. A product like Facebook allows you to share their product with other friends to make your own experience on their platform better. Clothes, cars, and food can’t do that.
Growth hackers have to understand the hidden potential of software products to spread themselves, and it’s their responsibility to transform this potentiality into a reality.
2. Offer free content.
But what if you don’t have an idea for a product? You can’t really start using the growth hacking approach without one, right? Actually, if you don’t have an idea just yet, you can start for free.
For example, you can:
- Create a blog.
- Launch a YouTube channel.
- Put together an email newsletter.
- Create social media accounts on various channels.
Once you have a place to share your content set up, start creating content around the topic or niche you want to build a business around. You’ll be able to engage with your targeted audience and receive invaluable feedback and ideas.
As a bonus, you’ll also be able to collect email addresses — and we don’t have to tell you how important that is for your growth hacking efforts (very). Start building a loyal base of followers who can’t wait to see your products whenever they launch.
To collect their email addresses, you can offer them lead magnets (ex. ebooks) in return for their address. Or create a quiz or other interactive element that requires them to provide their email address. By doing that, you’ll be well on your way to growing your contact base.
This is by far the easiest way to start a business in today’s world, and it’s completely risk-free. That’s not something you hear often!
3. Target a small minority
This might sound counterintuitive, but you don’t want to target everyone out there at first with your product. For you to reach the majority of people, your product has to first win over the early adopters. These are small groups and communities that you should explicitly target.
In Geoffrey A. Moore’s marketing book, “Crossing the Chasm,” Moore hits on this idea, arguing there is a chasm between the early adopters of the product (i.e. technology enthusiasts and visionaries) and the early majority. To successfully cross this chasm, as he calls it, he said you must:
- Choose a target market.
- Understand the whole product concept.
- Position the product.
- Build a marketing strategy.
- Choose the most appropriate distribution channel and pricing.
So, you need to target that minority of people who will get the most out of your product. But how do you do that?
Create a detailed description
Start by creating a customer profile to identify who you should be targeting. To do that, you’ll need to understand every aspect of your product. Think about who would get the maximum benefit from your product? Describe that person as specifically as possible.
So, instead of saying your ideal initial customer is “American housewives,” go with “women ages 35 to 50 who enjoy walking their dogs on Saturdays, drinking coffee in the afternoon, and prefer takeout to cooking.”
You get where we are going with that: Describe that customer as much as possible. Once you have who they are figured out, you’ll want to target those people’s needs exclusively in the beginning. You want your product to have some buzz before it’s ever launched.
However, that’s less important with software products. Instead of taking a pre-launch approach with software, you could try something like making the service invite-only after it’s launched. Invite-only is a popular strategy because it increases the desirability of a product by restricting access. People can only buy a product when they’ve been invited by the company or someone in the inner circle.
Spotify, Facebook, and Dropbox used this strategy when they started — and so did Google when it launched Gmail and OnePlus. It’s an inexpensive word-of-mouth tactic, so you can use it to create a lot of free publicity.
4. Money is in the list, right?
Most marketing blogs you read will tell you to focus on acquisition tactics or channels and how the money is in the email list — meaning they should get email subscribers to buy their products.
They aren’t wrong, but growth hackers will tell you the money is in the customer list, more specifically. By focusing on increasing your customer retention rates, you can often increase your revenue faster and easier. Though it isn’t true for every business (ex. mobile app companies), having people drop out after their first or second engagement is a bad sign.
5. Scale customer acquisitions
As you now know, growth hacking is all about achieving a ton of growth as fast as humanly possible. That means you want to scale your customer acquisitions. And luckily, there are basic techniques that will work for any product.
Note: It’s nearly impossible to do more of one of these methods at a time, so you need to figure out which one works best for your product.
- Paid: You spend money to acquire a customer who will eventually be worth even more than the initial cost. This method is especially good for non-software companies. You can do this through online ads, commercials, and other forms of marketing.
- Viral: Referrals are your main source of growth. You tap into larger systems and user bases, leveraging the reach of fellow products. You still target your ideal customer (like we mentioned above), but you expand into platforms where everyone can be found.
- Sticky: You create an alluring experience with your product that keeps customers around. You restrict the supply, which in turn will fuel the demand. Think about some of the top social media sites and how long people spend on them: 16 to 24 year olds spend three hours a day on social media. So, these sites are obviously irresistible. These sticky products normally have this equation: high retention + low church + network effects.
Figuring out which method will work best for you just depends on your product and brand.
6. Drive referrals
While you might not be able to create a viral loop of referrals, you do want to drive as many as possible. It takes the right mix of networking, timing, and just having a great product — but you can do it.
These referrals happen when your happy, paying customers recommend our product to their friends, family, and coworkers. The more people you can have talking about your brand and product, the less you’ll have to spend on acquisition. When you’re able to drive these referrals, you’ll be making easy money. And that’s a huge win.
So, how can you start encouraging referrals? You need to make sure your customers not only like your product but love it — so much so that they can’t help but share it with others. There are a few ways to tell how much (or how little) your early customers are loving you:
- Revenue: People love their money. So, if they continue to give you that money, they must love you too.
- Net Promoter Score (NPS): It measures the customer experience to predict business growth.
Obviously, the importance of revenue can’t be understated, so we aren’t going to spend more time on that right here. Instead, let’s look at the NPS.
7. Learn from your Net Promoter Score
“Would you recommend our company to a friend?” That sounds like a simple enough question. It is, but it’s a huge predictor of your top-line growth — and why you need to implement a Net Promoter Score (NPS) into your brand.
A NPS is an extremely valuable metric for growth hackers, fueling both short- and long-term growth. This metric measures the level of satisfaction and loyalty your customers have for your product — as well as how likely they are to recommend your brand or product to others. It’s no wonder brands like LinkedIn have made the NPS a key part of their growth and retention strategies.
You ask customers how likely they are to recommend you and give them a way to rank their answer. Their score ranges from 0 to 10, and here’s how they break down:
- Detractors (0-6): These are the unhappy people who will not only churn, but they will also talk badly about your product to others (in-person and online).
- Passives (7-8): They don’t hate you, but they also aren’t in love with your product. They are just fine with it and would switch to an alternative if given the chance.
- Promoters (9-10): This is the group you want all of your users to be in. They are the people who will recommend your product to others.
To calculate your NPS, you take the Percentage of Promoters - Percentage of Detractors. You can calculate the percentages in a spreadsheet by adding up the total of promoters and dividing that by the total number of responses. Do the same for detractors.
For example, 50 percent of your customers are promoters (meaning they answered with a score of 9 or 10), and 10 percent of your customers are detractors (answering somewhere between 0-6). (You ignore your passives in the equation). So, your NPS would be 40.
If they aren’t giving you 9s or 10s, consider that a loss for growth hacking. You need them to be all in if you are going to see those referrals skyrocket. For the passive people, you want to focus on finding ways to keep them around. Reach out to them and try to save them before they leave for another brand.
Like we mentioned earlier, you need a product that people want and are willing to pay for. Because no amount of growth will help you grow your brand if you’re losing customers because of a poor product. Retention is fueled by product quality, so you need to keep track of it to continue to grow. And that’s exactly what the NPS does.
Your NPS is the single metric you can rely on to tell you exactly how customers feel about your product. This metric can also help you identify any weaknesses that could hurt your product’s long-term growth.
So, what does a high NPS show you? It means your product matches or exceeds customer expectations and has started to make them loyal to your brand or product. Focusing on your NPS will make it easier to get into a retention mindset, where keeping your customers is just as important as acquiring them.
A NPS closely correlates with word of mouth, which can be good or bad depending on how your customers view your product. If you see you are receiving a low NPS across the board, it’s time to make a change before you try to add more customers. Reach out to customers who scored you below a 9 and ask what you could do better. Their feedback is invaluable, so take what you learn and improve.
How do I know if my NPS is good?
Obviously, you want your NPS to be as high as possible. But, when you’re first starting out, you might also want to know it compares to others in your industry, region, or who have customers with similar characteristics.
You can check out this NPS comparison to see how you stack up:
The bigger the gap between you and your competition, the better chance you have to succeed (assuming you’re in the lead). The closer you are, the more likely your product idea doesn’t stand out enough just yet. And that means people will leave you if something easier or cheaper comes along.
8. Use integrations
One of the most powerful growth hacking tools comes in the form of integrations. You can increase your sign-ups by up to 50 percent by allowing people to sign up for your product or service through one of their existing accounts on Google, Twitter, or Facebook.
Integrating so that your service works with another can give you access to millions of potential customers. One example of this is PayPal (and more on them in the examples below). The company was struggling to get in with the majority of the market because few retailers were actually offering PayPal as an option.
So, what did they do? They landed a deal with eBay, which offered PayPal as an option next to Visa and Mastercard — the major players. And guess what happened next? They started growing like crazy. PayPal ended up doing so well that eBay actually acquired them a few years later.
Of course, PayPal isn’t the only service to take full advantage of integrations. Others like Spotify did the same thing with Facebook. If you decide to take this approach with your growth hacking strategy, just make sure your integration makes sense for the users you’re trying to target. Also, you’ll want to ensure your onboarding process works well so that it benefits both parties.
9. Create negative churn
Churn and growth hacking do not go together. However, if you’re able to achieve negative churn, you’re in business.
- Negative churn is when the gain from increasing revenue from existing customers outpaces the lost revenue from old ones leaving.
In an extensive article on SaaS metrics, serial entrepreneur David Skok breaks down two ways to get this expansion revenue:
- Use a pricing scheme that has a variable axis, such as the number of seats used or number of leads tracked, for example. That way, as your customers expand their usage of your product, they pay you more.
- You can also upsell or cross-sell these customers to more powerful versions of your product or additional modules.
Ultimately, churn will dictate how successful your product will be.
10. Improve your conversion rate
Not everything with growth hacking has to be difficult or time consuming to figure out. Sometimes, growing is as easy as hitting the delete button.
It’s no surprise that most of us want to do the bare minimum to get by. Lazy or efficient, you tell us. So, if you delete a few fields from your form on the opt-in page, you’ll see your conversion rate go up.
However, there’s also another aspect to this that can’t be overlooked: credit cards. Sure, if you don’t require someone to give you their credit card information, you’re going to have a much higher conversion rate. But, if they aren’t giving you that information, you’re not going to make any money from them. That could also mean they aren’t serious about your product or service and will either not engage or leave shortly after.
What can you do about that, you ask? You want to make it so qualified leads stick around and complete the purchase. To do that, you need to create your user flow.
11. Layout user flow
Not all leads are created equal. A lot depends on where they came from and their level of interest. Did they Google a question that pulled up your blog post — and then they clicked to read more? Did they see an ad that directed them to your landing page? Or, did they type your brand or product’s name directly into the search engine.
These users all might have ended up on your site, but they did so in three very different ways. You want to optimize the user flow based on the traffic source:
Creating a flow qualifies leads and helps increase your conversion rate.
12. Create a successful onboarding experience
You want the first experience customers have with your brand to be a positive one — and that starts with your onboarding. To figure out what type of onboarding will work best for your brand, you need to look at your data, research, and customer personas.
That will help you figure out a few things:
- Who are your user segments, and what are their unique needs?
- What does success look like for each of these segments?
- How much help will these segments need during onboarding?
- How can you help them find answers/support on their own?
- What type(s) of communication do these users prefer?
Once you answer these questions, you can better define what a successful onboarding experience looks like and what it will take to achieve that goal.
With a self-service approach, you can put together tutorials that walk users through all of the steps to using your product and how to get the most from it. Email these to them like a starter packet giving them everything they need to understand to get off of the ground.
Use the insights you collected early on to design an onboarding experience that requires zero human interaction. You can also add in-app messages to encourage users to take the next best steps.
You can also offer group demos to give users a tour of how to get set up and be successful. It’s best to offer these on a regular schedule, like Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10 a.m. and invite users to join when it works best for them. It’s like setting up a webinar each week.
To take those demos a step further and make them completely individualized, you can offer one-on-one calls. These should be made available for your highest paying customers only. Time is money, you know. And for the most part, higher-paying accounts are going to have more complex needs.
For example, if a subscription is $5 a month, you don’t want to be wasting your time with one-on-one calls. On the other hand, the more expensive and complex the product, the more hand-holding you will need to offer.
On these calls, focus on helping the customer reach their specific goals and metrics. But even with these calls, the ultimate goal is to teach the customer how to solve their problems using the product on their own.
The level of service and attention also depends largely on the product type. No matter what you choose, make sure to provide onboarding experiences that make sense for your brand.
For the most part, the problem isn’t getting your customers to understand the features of your product: It’s getting them to understand how to benefit from those features.
Some brands with really complex products even require users to complete a formal training before they let them loose with the product. That’s not just helpful for the user, but it’s also how you can retain customers for longer.
13. Avoid roadblocks
Once you create your onboarding sequence, continue to monitor it to make sure everything is moving ahead smoothly. What you don’t want to see is a big drop-off between onboarding events.
For example, everyone has figured out how to upload their contact list into your email service provider (ESP). However, there’s a steep percentage change from uploading a list to segmenting that list.
That’s showing you there’s a conversion roadblock and that you need to address that issue. You might think it’s clear how to move from one step to the next, but your customers might not see it like you do.
Some companies like Facebook and LinkedIn — and even Retention.com — will show users what they have left to complete their profile (either by showing the numbered steps or a percentage). Again, you’ll need to test your methods to see what works best for your audience. Because, that’s what growth hackers do.
14. Align messaging with experience
You can also use marketing automation to steer your users back in the right direction. Using the example above, if they don’t complete their profile, send them a tailored message about how to do just that. Or, if you see they haven’t used a certain feature, send them an email about how and why to do it.
You can use an ESP with automation functionality or an automation platform to set up these emails as part of a drip campaign. Set the emails to trigger when they take (or don’t take) certain actions and have different messaging in the follow-up emails that depend on whether or not they took the desired action.
These automated messages are also extremely helpful with retention efforts to keep people coming back for more.
15. How to maintain your growth
Growth hacking isn’t just about adding tons and tons of new users. You actually have to keep those customers around if you’re going to be successful. Not only do you want to keep your customers because that’s the whole point of growth, but existing customers actually are more likely to convert again and spend more.
You’ve probably heard the saying: 10 percent of your customers are responsible for 90 percent of your sales. And that small percentage is going to be your repeat buyers. So, instead of spending the majority of your budget on attracting new customers, shouldn’t you be spending a big chunk of your money on retaining the valuable ones you already have?
It takes a lot more interaction and time to win over a new customer, whereas you’ve already started that relationship with your existing base. Make sure you’re continuing to nurture them and let them be your main source of referrals. Spend time driving new revenue from people who already love what you offer.
16. Never stop improving
Even if you manage to earn thousands or millions of users, it takes most companies years until they are profitable. Mostly, that’s because they either wait too long to start charging customers for their product or the product doesn’t cost much.
That’s why you’ll hear companies on Shark Tank say they have millions in sales but still aren’t making a profit.
To go from zero to hero growth hacker, you’ll need to continuously look for ways to improve your product or service. For example, are your users continuing to engage after they convert? If not, why is that? Or, is there a feature that is heavily used or not used at all? Take note of what your customers are using in your product to see how you can do more of that.
For example, Uber (more on them below) is constantly improving its services and has run these experiments so far:
- On-demand puppy playtimes (yes, please!)
- DeLorean rides in San Francisco
- On-demand ice cream
- Helicopter rides to the Hamptons
- On-demand roses for Valentine’s Day
- Partnership with the NFL Players Associate to promote safe rides for NFL players
- On-demand BBQ in Texas
The company has also done standard promotional efforts, including $10 off coupons and deals like that. But as you can see, they continue to try new things and improve on its current services.
You can’t take a one-and-done approach when it comes to growth marketing. Constantly improving is what’s going to give you a sustainable business.
Examples of growth hacking
While your product and brand are unique, you can learn a great deal from other brands — even if they aren’t in your industry. So, we have put together 30 examples of brands that have used growth hacking and seen amazing growth.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about growth hacking without mentioning Dropbox (we already have!). Dropbox used several of the methods we’ve already covered in its growth hacking strategy (ex. invite-only after their launch, creating short demo videos, going viral, etc.), and the brand also gamified its onboarding process.
They offered existing users more free storage for linking their Dropbox account to Facebook and Twitter and sharing information about the brand on their social sites. That helped them tap into a huge audience of potential new users, which allowed them to grow even faster.
Dropbox also gave users incentives for completing tasks like sharing a file. That got people using their service, meaning it was more likely to stick around.
Most people have heard the story about how AirBnb got its start: Two guys couldn’t afford their rent, so they decided to rent out a few air mattresses and make people breakfast. Obviously, their idea worked because the company now has more than 150 million users — hosting more than 400 million users since it launched.
So, how did they go from two guys on air mattresses to millions of customers? Here’s a fun infographic that shows their steps:
One important aspect of their growth came from their Craigslist hack. When the founders first came up with the idea, they were in need of a customer base and reputation. And knowing their customer persona was someone looking for an alternative accommodation option, often on Craigslist, they offered an option for AirBnb accommodation providers to copy their listing to Craigslist.
They just had to make one click, verify the information, and post it. That gave them immediate access to a huge market of their targeted customers.
Someone likes your product, so they tell their friends about it. That’s a pretty standard referral.
But, what if you require people to share about a product in order to get the deal themselves? Basically, you require a certain number of people to take the deal to get the deal. If they don’t share about it and too few sign up, everyone could potentially miss out.
Oh, and did we mention there has to be enough people signed up before the deal expires?
That’s exactly what Groupon did. They combined urgency with the fear of missing out (FOMO) to get their users to spread the word for them. Groupon also included social share options so customers could let their friends and family know after they made a purchase (social proof).
The company still runs a countdown on its deals and shows how hot of an offer it is, along with of course the savings.
[This is also a tactic HQ Trivia uses with its VIP tickets. If there aren’t enough people who enter, no one can be a VIP.]
When Gmail launched in the early 2000s, it used an invite-only growth hacking approach to drive its growth. Again, this taps into that FOMO, which can be a powerful marketing strategy — assuming you have a product people really want.
As it turns out, Gmail did.
Gmail came out with amazing search capabilities, email management capabilities, and other tools we would be lost without today.
With any growth hacking approach, you need to make sure it’s right for your brand and is working. Yes, Google did a great job with the invite-only strategy with Gmail, but do any of you remember Google+? It was also invite-only, but we all know how that one went.
That’s because this approach works best with open tools and communities. Even though it was invite-only, Gmail users could still email people outside of the email service. Google+, on the other hand, was a closed-off social network, and the strategy backfired.
OK, so following Gmail in our list might seem strange, considering this site isn’t really around anymore — though users are still able to maintain their domains. Even though Outlook.com is now Microsoft’s successor to Hotmail, this email service makes our list because of something simple (yet effective) they did.
Hotmail added a signature line to every user’s outgoing email. Here’s what it said:
- P.S. I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail
That may sound corny now, but it was the first of what is now a common practice. Think about “Sent from my iPhone,” for example. Basically, Hotmail turned each of their users into a free advertisement for their product.
A simple email signature was all engineers needed to growth hack their way to 12 million users in 18 months.
Here’s another brand we’ve already mentioned, but when a company can pull off what Facebook did, there's a good reason for it. In addition to making the site only available to Ivy League students when it first launched, Facebook also used embeds as an early growth hack.
They gave their users the option to show they were on Facebook in other places, like on their websites, blogs, and forums, by creating different badges for them to embed. And badges are still around today. That helped create billions of impressions, millions of sign-ups, and hundreds of millions of clicks each month. That’s hard to beat.
Here’s the number of monthly Facebook users worldwide from Statista to show you what we mean:
Sometimes, the best product idea isn’t your original one. That was the case with Crew when they “accidently” created Unsplash. Crew was trying to start a marketplace for freelancers and were in need of a good photo for their website’s homepage. When they couldn’t find anything good (or affordable) online, they hired a photographer.
They ended up with leftover photos from the shoot and decided to put 10 of them online for others to download for free. That soon exploded, and now they get millions of visitors who come for the free photos, and they redirect them to Crew’s marketplace.
The brand was able to put their unused products (photos) to work for them to reach a new, large market. There’s obviously a market for paid photos (think Shutterstock). But instead of trying to compete with sites like that, they gave away the product for free in an open-source format. Sound crazy?
Sure, giving quality products away might sound absurd. The point of growth hacking is to make revenue, right? That’s true, but by giving these photos away, Unsplash was able to get the attention of millions. Even brands like Dropbox took notice and helped them out. And that big audience is what you’re after so you can then find a way to monetize them.
Unsplash added links to redirect visitors to their Crew, which does cost. And that’s where the true value of this free open-share site comes into play.
8. Uber Eats
With a U.S revenue of $2.5 billion last year, Uber Eats has come a long way since it was tested as an experimental service to broaden Uber’s scope of offerings. And unlike some of the company’s other experiments — think Uber Rush and Uber Essentials — this one is still around and thriving, especially during the pandemic.
Uber continues to try out different models and markets until something takes off. And that’s what a good growth hacker does.
Another brand using the free-tool technique with great success is Hubspot. The brand is known for giving away free information like ebooks, guides, and certifications that will help their users.
To receive all of these amazing free materials, people have to submit their contact information. And in 2015, Hubspot grew to 15,000 users. Now, they have nearly 100,000 in 120 countries and expect a total revenue of about $866 million for the year.
Once they hook users with their valuable content — which also helps them qualify leads and create better customer personas — then they can then market their paid subscriptions to them. If they only offered paid services, they wouldn’t be attracting as many people to their page and services.
10. Dollar Shave Club
You might argue that every good product has been created already. And sure, it may be harder to come up with a completely unique product, but sometimes, it’s not about what you offer but how you offer it.
Take Dollar Shave Club for example. There are obviously some major players in their market, like Gillette, which had been dominating the U.S. market for decades. Most investors might say the market is already saturated and there’s no way to go against such a giant. But, Dollar Shave Club proved that notion wrong.
They did that by creating a video that soon went viral. It now has more than 27 million views, propelling them as a leader in the market.
You can view this example of marketing done right here:
How do we know the video worked, besides the huge number of views? Because the video also brought them more than 12,000 orders within two days. But, their success is about more than a video. Remember, you also need a product that people want to buy and that solves a problem for them.
What they provided was an affordable razor solution delivered right to people’s homes. No wasting money or time to get one. Those might have been problems men didn’t even realize they had until they saw the video, which is even better because they can tap into that market all by themselves.
Whether you have a job, are looking for a job, or just want to network with other professionals, you probably have a LinkedIn account. But before LinkedIn, it wasn’t so easy to connect with former colleagues or get recommendations.
The brand’s initial strategy included focusing on the tech sector in Silicon Valley (a people and place it knew well) to test their concept of business networking. After seeing it worked with the targeted audience, they were able to expand to other sectors and areas — and now it’s available across the globe.
LinkedIn paid attention to what worked so they could scale the brand. That included enabling users to create public profiles that search engines would index. What that meant was that the users would organically show up in search results and get listed on the front page of Google, all without paying a cent.
They also found optimizing their homepage drove more growth than email invitations.
Once they figured out what their users valued, they began monetizing their services. They encouraged users to subscribe for quicker (and more) access to potentially helpful connections. LinkedIn now has more than 722 million users in more than 200 countries, going from $2 million in annual revenue in 2017 to $8 million this year.
If you want to see a growth-hacking company that has truly changed with the times, look no further than Netflix. They went from mailing customers DVDs as rentals to streaming shows, movies, and even creating original movies online. That shows you they paid attention to what their targeted audience wanted and continued to change.
Sure, they still let users watch what they want, but the platform has completely changed since the company started in 1997. One technique the company used when they got started was to split itself into two businesses: one for DVDs and the other for online streaming. Then, they used the profits from one to fund the expansion of the other.
Here are some other growth hacking techniques they’ve used to become the giant company they are today:
- Build a strong social media presence to better connect with people who love entertainment (their target audience)
- Acquire and stream popular TV shows to get audiences to subscribe to them (like how they got The Office)
- Create original content (movies, shows) that’s only found on Netflix to get more people to subscribe
And what they’ve done has worked, considering Netflix now has more than 195 million paid subscribers worldwide — with the United States accounting for more than 73 million of those. Again, Netflix is another example of changing their product to not only meet their audience’s needs, but also changing with the digital times.
Who doesn’t love some free money? Giving referral incentives is nothing new nowadays, especially with banks and other money services. But did you know some of those programs were based off of what PayPal did to grow its brand.
Referrals helped PayPal grow the business by 7 to 10 percent daily. Yes, we said daily. But of course, that came at a cost, to the tune of about $60 million. That money was used to incentivize their existing users to refer their product to others.
Before you gasp at that amount, take a look at these numbers: The company’s eventual valuation was $46.6 billion in 2015. Now, that valuation is more than $128 billion.
Once they began experiencing major growth — acquiring 1 million users by March 2000 and then going to 5 million by that summer — they started to phase out the referrals. First, they reduced the referrals down to $5. Then, they added more verification hoops, like bank account verification, making them more difficult to get. And then eventually, they got rid of them altogether.
Something else to keep in mind is that when PayPal started in the late ‘90s, there was no social media to spread the word. No, they had to rely on word of mouth, instant messaging, blogs, and emails. You know, real old-school stuff. That makes what they did even that much more spectacular.
Slack is known as one of the fastest-growing B2B SaaS businesses, and it reinvented the way companies did internal communication. Like some of the other brands on this list, Slack decided to provide a solution for a problem people didn’t know they had. And that problem was poor productivity and increased stress because of poor communication.
So, they identified a problem and then designed a product to be the solution. They showed companies that Slack could make all of that better. They weren’t selling a software solution. Instead, they were selling a promise. In a memo sent out the to Slack team before their preview release, they were told they were selling:
- A reduction in information overload
- Relief from stress
- Better organizations and better team
- Zero effort knowledge management
- Making better decisions, faster
- 75 percent less email
- All your team communication, instantly available wherever you go
They were selling the innovation, not the product. So, they used those points above to sell what they had, instead of trying to sell a “group chat system.” They defined their own market.
And in just a year, Slack grew to more than 500,000 daily active users. They now have about 12 million daily active users.
One company that took the technique of listening to user feedback is Instagram — or should we say Burbn. That was actually the name of the photo sharing app. That’s because its creativity researcher was a fan of Kentucky whiskey. He originally created a location-based iPhone app that allowed users to check in at particular locations, similar to Foursquare.
Users could also post pictures of their meet-ups. And when the team looked at how people were using the app, they realized they were posting and sharing photos like crazy on it.
So, the company decided to focus on that data and create a photo-sharing infrastructure, throwing out pretty much everything else in the app.
Without analyzing data and getting feedback, Instagram might never have been created. Now, this app has more than 1 billion monthly active users.
A major part of growth hacking is catching people’s attention. So, why not let your users do that for you? With the Shazam app, users must hold up their phones to speakers or sing to it so it can identify what song is playing. In the beginning, that wasn’t something people saw every day, so it was sure to get people talking.
Why were they singing into their phones? Why were they holding it up to their radio? When the user explained the app, they were giving the brand a free referral. Instant word of mouth works.
The app has now been downloaded a billion times and sees 20 million Shazams a day, which is the number of times a user pushes the button to identify a song that’s playing.
Swipe left, swipe right. The Tinder app has created its own catch phrase it’s so popular. This freemium business model started in 2014 with 10 million downloads and finished that year at 100 million. Tinder originally required access to a Facebook account to use the app — which made the sign-up process easier and pulled in some of their information (like interests, photos, etc.). Now, users just have to register with a phone number.
So, how was Tinder able to grow so quickly? They were able to turn dating into a game. Potential dates are filtered by interest and location. Then, users could look through the prospects and swipe right or left, depending on their interest in the person. They took dating, which can be difficult sometimes, and turned it into something fun.
Tesla has sold 318,000 vehicles so far this year. That’s pretty impressive for a luxury car brand. So, they probably have a large advertising budget like most other car brands, right? Guess again.
Tesla says they spend $0 on advertising. That’s right: They don’t spend anything to advertise their products. So, how have they seen such a big amount of growth? For starters, they are selling a lifestyle, not a product. They also use these other strategies:
- Personal approach
- Referral program
Giving customers a unique experience makes them way more likely to tell others about it. So, when Tesla decided to focus their car production on made-to-order only, the company ensured they would have highly personalized vehicles people would want to talk about. There’s the exclusivity and scarcity components, which are both effective tactics to make products seem more desirable.
CEO Elon Musk is also known to answer customer feedback and complaints on social media, which helps people feel special and more connected to the brand. Their referral program is also something that catches people’s attention, ranging from giving the referrer $1,000 to a credit toward a new Tesla.
Since Tesla cars are electric, the brand is also selling customers a way to protect the environment. So, you’ve got a feel-good element, too.
You don’t need to be a video or IT professional to upload a video to YouTube. You no longer have to convert the videos in an Internet-friendly format and have an appropriate plugin before uploading to your website. YouTube handles all of that tricky stuff for you. And that’s part of the reason why this video-sharing platform has performed so well throughout the years.
It wasn’t just a video-sharing site. YouTube also provided a solution to a problem many normal people had: They didn’t know how to upload a video, or it took them too much time.
In the beginning, YouTube also needed a way to scale up its quality content so that it could bring in viewers and advertisers. Competitions provided a means to grow the content creator community.
Youtube offered its own prizes, such as an Ipod Nano for winning videos, but then extended the strategy to include partners. For example, a brand might offer a prize for the best video on a chosen theme.
Each video, no matter where it was posted, also took people back to YouTube when they clicked the link. Now, more than 2 billion logged-in users visit YouTube each month.
Groove was able to build a $5 million a year business in just three years. But things weren’t looking so good for the startup in the beginning, as it almost died altogether. They were only a few months away from running out of cash. To try and save the business, they turned to content marketing.
After reading and learning as much as they could about how to use a blog to drive growth, they had their “aha moment.” They knew they had to do things differently. They realized there were no other blogs sharing real numbers and pitfalls on the path to growing a successful SaaS company.
So, they decided to share their experiences as a kind of case study, and their user base exploded. Groove realized they weren’t that special when it came to struggles, and many others were having the exact same problems. So, when life gives you lemons, you tell others about it and grow a business.
They asked their core customers what they needed information about, and they used that information to create blog topics. They also emailed influencers selectively and asked for permission to share certain pieces of content with them.
The decision to be totally transparent also led to reviews, interviews, and guest blogging opportunities, which all contributed to further email subscriber and user base growth. They did it all with a simple promise:
And from that moment, things were different. The blog had 1,000 email subscribers within 24 hours. (Of course, they wrote content on that.) Then within a month, they were up to 5,000.
Now, more than 250,000 people read their content each month, more than 5,000 customers trust them with their business, and they’re generating nearly $5 million in annual recurring revenue. Content is the only marketing channel they invest in, so it’s safe to say they’ve found their niche. Considering they were about to close their doors before they made this change, we’d say that’s pretty impressive.
If a brand was doing a cupcake giveaway, you’d probably assume they sold cupcakes or other baked goods. However, sometimes the best growth hacks have nothing to do with your business. That was the case with RJMetrics.
They used a cupcake giveaway to bring attention to their SaaS startup. You know, nothing sweeter than SaaS. They spent just $50 on the giveaway, and in return, they got a lot of love on social media from people hoping to win the cupcakes and then from the winners.
The company also experimented with giving away iPads but discovered cupcakes were actually more popular incentives. Other brands, including Advance B2B, also offered cupcakes and improved their signup rate.
22. Grow and Convert
As you’ve seen already on this list, content can be an impactful tool in your growth hacking strategy. Grow and Convert was able to attract more than 32,000 users in five month without having to pay for traffic using content. Here’s what they did.
They started by defining their target audience so they knew who they were creating content for (i.e. customer personas). The brand also searched Google, Quora, Facebook, and other social networks to find the most engaged communities where their target audience was hanging out online.
They then reached out to their audience to see where they thought the brand should promote content to find out the sources they trusted. After that, they joined their target communities and engaged with content there before sharing their one selective and transparently.
Grow and Convert was able to become part of a wider community and attract inbound links from the communities they were a part of (helping with SEO, too).
We all want to be at the front of the line. So, Monzo based their strategy on this applied social psychology that people want to jump in front of the others (even though they don’t like when that’s done to them).
Their mobile-only bank system encourages signups by showing people where they are in the company’s queue — seeing how many people are in front of and behind them. Users can jump the queue by referring others, which in return drives growth for Monzo. They now have more than 4.7 million people with Monzo bank accounts.
Robinhood worked with Monzo and reached a 1 million-person waitlist in the first year. So, what they’re doing works.
Social media can be an extremely cost-effective tool to promote your product. Knudge.me, which is an app that helps people level up their English-speaking skills, used social media and in-product marketing to boost its growth from 100,000 to 1 million users within six months. They also focused on retaining users and optimizing all aspects of the user experience.
The company said one of the key elements of their growth was measuring everything. That helped them analyze the gaps, as well as the trends in the app usage. They would track metrics rigorously and repeat that until they achieved the desired result.
These are some of the key metrics they measured:
- Acquisition: New Installs, channels of acquisition, and Play Store conversions. Tracking Play Store conversions helped them improve it by a factor of more than 50 percent.
- Retention: Day 1, Month 1, Month 2, and Month 3. They focused on improving Day 1 retention, which eventually helped them to improve Month 1, Month 2, Month 3 retention.
- Engagement: DAU (daily active users), MAU (monthly active users), DAU/MAU, Session Duration, No. of sessions/user, and Total Sessions. They focused on optimizing their push notification strategy by keeping an eye on the uninstall rate. This helped them streamline the growth of their daily active users.
- Ratings: Play Store ratings and reviews. A one-star rating would take away their peace of mind for days. So, they did all that they could to compensate for a low rating. After a point, users echoed a similar sentiment, and that helped them improve the product gradually.
- Other: Bite-sized lessons and number of games played.
They focused on doing one thing right at a time until they started getting the results they were after. Of course, that’s been a gradual process of talking to their users, understanding their concerns, and incorporating their viable feedback.
25. Microsoft Teams
While COVID-19 has slowed down growth for several companies across the globe, it’s had just the opposite effect for Microsoft Teams. Last November, the company announced it had 20 active users from growth hacking.
But then once the pandemic hit, they reached 44 million active users in March and 75 million by April. However, Microsoft doesn’t release how many of those new users turned into paying subscribers. And unlike Slack, Microsoft isn’t an independent tool, as it comes with the Microsoft suite.
People have a high level of trust in Microsoft and its offerings, helping the brand to grow its Teams users as such a high rate.
26. Harvest Snaps
Something we haven’t really mentioned yet is using a loyalty program as part of your growth hacking. Harvest Snaps created an exclusive loyalty club for email subscribers, making them feel special and good about being a part of something that wasn’t open to everyone.
The results? After three years, the company had grown revenue from $10 million to $240 million. They also increased their social media audience to 342,000 and gained 95,000 new email subscribers. Talk about brand loyalty.
The brand also used growth hack tactics like working with influencers, social media promotions, and gamification.
Everyone has a blog on their company site. That’s pretty much a must-have for driving inbound traffic to your site. But as Buffer proved, there’s more than simply posting on your own site.
Buffer created an app to help people manage and schedule their social media posts. Through the impact of guest posts on third-party sites written by its founder, the company was able to grow its user base to 100,000. The goal for these guest blogs were to attract views, as well as repeat views.
In 2013, the company hit the 1 million mark for people who had signed up for Buffer. That number has gone above 1.5 million now.
28. OK Cupid
This brand took advantage of the power of the Facebook integration, using the platform to drive traffic to its site. In integrating with Facebook, OK Cupid enabled its users to participate in quizzes, which ranged from politics to music. The interactions were linked to their personality type and profile.
Facebook’s massive audience and reach helped provide a hugely effective distribution method for the dating site. Because, who doesn’t want to know if they are more of a sad country song or headbanger?
And if you’re going to mention quizzes, you have to talk about Buzzfeed. Few can compare with how this site generates traffic out of viral shares. That’s just what they do.
Buzzfeed not only shares bite-sized entertainment pieces on its own website and social media, but it’s also become a serious news platform — covering investigations and politics.
But one of the secrets to Buzzfeed’s success and growth is its understanding of the kind of content that works in the digital age and also how to distribute that content. They do that through fun questionnaires, short articles, or more in-depth pieces. The brand shows they know what content works where and how to get it to the right audience.
30. Poo Pourri
In a similar style as what Dollar Shave Club created, Poo Pourri was able to go viral with their video, “Girls Don’t Poop.” The video doesn’t beat around the bush, or toilet in this case. It’s a no-nonsense video that shows the brand’s comedic side, while also showing people why they need this product.
They also include information on their sales and reviews in the video, showing people this is, in fact, a real product that they also need. Poo Pourri embraces their product and hits on the reasons why people need it. We should also mention their video has more than 43 million views.
Become the next growth hacker
All of the multi-million (or billion) dollar companies we mentioned started right where you are today. So, the only thing holding you back from becoming a wildly successful growth hacker is yourself.
Come up with a product idea people want to buy, figure out who your audience is, pick a growth model that works for you, and you’re already off to a great start!
To see if you’re up for being a growth hacker, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you have a product or service people are interested in? Is it profitable?
- Are you curious by nature? Because you’ll probably need to learn a thing or two via Google or YouTube about data and technology.
- Do you know who your ideal customer is? And will they buy your product?
- Do you have your analytics set up? If not, do you know how to?
- Can you manage your own website? Can you create new pages by yourself and adjust the text, images, and pages?
This practice isn’t out of date, and it doesn’t matter what industry is. You just have to create a growth hacking strategy that checks all of the boxes, and you’ll start seeing results. And if you get stuck, your answer is probably just a Google search away.
You aren’t the first (or last) growth hacker, so learn from the others who have come before you. See what they did right or wrong, and learn from their success. If you find a growth hacker that’s in a different industry as you, see if they would be willing to offer advice or become a mentor. You never know unless you ask.
So, stop making excuses and get into the growth-hacking trenches!