June 24, 2014

Growth Hackers Are Sexy and Shiny But Elusive

By Mark Evans

About a month ago, a client got excited about using AdWords to drive traffic and leads.

“Great idea,” I said. “Let’s hire someone to manage it for us”. This reflects my philosophy of tapping into the expertise of others, while sticking to what you know best. In my case, AdWords does not qualify.

“No,” the client responded. “Let’s do it ourselves”. By “ourselves”, he meant me. First thought, this is not a recipe for success. Second thought, let’s dive in and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the original plan.

mike trout

While I have not become an AdWords expert, things are going fairly well. After some false starts, the client’s campaigns are running and the ads are driving leads, particularly demo requests. In the process, I’m learning more about AdWords by tweaking the dials, reading content and experimenting with some good tools.

Playing around with AdWords got me thinking about “growth hacking”, a term used to describe a startup marketer who, in theory, can do a bit of everything. It’s an attractive concept because what startup, after all, wouldn’t want have a multi-talented marketer.

But is it realistic for a startup to actually have a Mike Trout-like marketer – a five-tool player who can do everything?

Personally, I think it’s a huge stretch because few people can do it all. And even if someone can do it all, does it make sense to give someone so much work and responsibility?

On the surface, growth hacking is sexy because it reflects our fascination with multi-tasking and doing whatever it takes at a startup to get the job done. Maybe there’s a financial angle given a startup can hire a growth hacker for “X dollars”, rather than paying “Y dollars” to two or three people.

Don’t get me wrong, if a startup can discover a growth hacker, hire them. At the same, it is important for startups to realize growth hackers are few and far between.

More realistically, I think it’s possible for startups to challenge their marketing people to do more. While a startup wants someone to focus on their strengths (e.g. content marketing, social media, SEO), it is also beneficial to make people learn new things and stretch themselves intellectually. This is good for them and good for a startup.

My experience with AdWords reflects how you can teach an old dog new tricks. It is not likely I will become an AdWords ninja but there’s a good chance I will learn enough to become competent. This will let me do more for clients and, as important, provide valuable insight into the skills that a startup needs to grow.

This is the key to growth hacking. It’s about having the interest, curiosity and willingness to learn new skills to expand your marketing repertoire.

By learning more, a marketer can do more and, at the same time, have the knowledge to know when to hire someone with better skills or different expertise.

In theory, five-tool marketers are a great idea. But I also believe that playing to your strengths is important and often necessary. As a startup grows, there is less of a need to have a growth hacker. Instead, it is better to have a cohesive team of people with expertise in different areas. This lets people thrive and sets the stage for success.

Personally, the most interesting thing about growth hacking is how it makes marketers get out of their comfort zones. It is important for marketers to expand their skills to grow, thrive and enjoy their work. But it doesn’t mean they have to be amazing at everything or do everything.

How do you define growth hacking? Is it a short-term proposition for startups to have someone who does it all?

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical services – core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation.

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