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Most people who have spoken with me for more than 10 minutes on the topic of marketing know I’m not a fan of the terms “growth hacking” or “growth marketing.” My default state of mind is that growth hacking is bullshit. It has always struck me as a rebranded way to refer to marketing; and while that alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does perpetuate some misconceptions about marketing that I wish our industry, as a whole, could strike down.
To cut to the chase: I think the rise of “growth” as a separate function excuses shitty marketing at software companies. And that’s because creating a divide between the two lends credibility to notions about marketing that, in 2016, are incredibly outdated:
Every single one of these is wrong. And here’s why.
Acquisition marketing means advertising. The idea that advertising and marketing are synonymous – and that business growth requires advertising – stems from a time where advertising was the primary source of information a consumer or customer had about a product. For anyone who has been asleep for the last 20 years, that’s no longer true.
In 2016, earned media and owned media must have the same – if not more – weight as paid media in any given growth strategy.
When it comes to “earned” media, here’s another news flash: the world of journalism has changed dramatically in the last decade. Traditional PR still has a place, but as a modern marketer you also need to focus on developing and leveraging the attention of bloggers, influential community members, and power users.
And as for owned media – a marketer must consider the role their website, social media accounts, and – for software companies – product play in acquiring new users. And yes, I’m viewing your SaaS product as a form of “owned” media. More on that in a minute.
Bottom line, if you think your only option for growing your business is paying for ads, you’re ignoring at least two-thirds of what it means to market in 2016.
Marketing happens outside your software product.
Here’s why I consider your product as a form of owned media: the definition of media is a means of communicating to many people. If you’re selling software, then your packaging, user interface, and in-app messaging opportunities are all examples of ways you can use your product as a “media” vehicle. In other words, your job as a marketer does not stop once someone decides to use your product.
That does not mean you treat your product as a billboard. Or that you view your users as sheep who are just waiting to vomit money for you (to steal a line from a friend of mine that was recently lamenting the sheer volume of shitty marketing out there). It means that, as a SaaS marketer, you share the responsibility for making sure your users are getting the best experience possible from your product.
You don’t need any technical skills to be a marketer. This is the biggest catalyst for the rise of growth hacking as a separate function from marketing. And it’s deeply flawed.
Let’s start with a quick recap of why growth hacking became a thing in the first place: Sean Ellis, who was (among other notable accomplishments) the first marketer at Dropbox, came up with the term growth hacking in 2010 in an effort to describe the role he played at startups and make it easier to identify the skills sets he needed to find in his replacements.
That last point is incredibly important, so I’ll say it again: Ellis had difficulty hiring the right types of candidates who could carry the torch of what he built, as a marketer, at high growth tech companies.
Now, Ellis himself doesn’t have a technical background. But his first job was selling ads to tech clients, and from there his entire career focused on disruptive tech companies – startups that were shaking up the status quo.
So I think it’s safe to say that Ellis had far more exposure to technical concepts than a marketer at a 50 year old consumer packaged good company might have. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that he’s probably a fairly smart guy, based on his resume.
That’s the cocktail we’re working with: an intelligent guy with a marketing background who had an early start in sales and, by the time he joined Dropbox in 2008, over a decade of experience at high-growth tech companies. He held senior management roles at early stage companies, and when he had built a growth engine, he would have looked to hire another a senior replacement with a marketing background.
And it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Ellis had an incredibly unique background. Trying to replace him with a “traditional” marketer would have been a cataclysmic failure. And so he set out to differentiate what he did by defining his role as being singularly focused on growth. Cue fellow growth hacker Neil Patel of Quicksprout observation:
This absolute focus on growth has given rise to a number of methods, tools, and best practices, that simply didn’t exist in the traditional marketing repertoire, and as time passes the chasm between the two discipline deepens.
Ok. I get it. But let’s fast-forward to 2016. That aforementioned cocktail? The marketer with a solid understanding of tech? It’s not quite as rare as it was a decade ago.
In fact, I firmly believe that basic technical literacy is no longer optional for anyone in a marketing role at a software company. Without it, there’s no way you’ll be able to pick the right marketing tools. You won’t be able to work with your engineering team to implement them. You won’t understand how to prioritize the changes you ask of your developers. You won’t be able to make basic changes to web content. You’ll struggle to understand the feasibility of partnering with other software companies to distribute your product. You’ll drive your front-end engineers up the wall with your impossible-to-do changes. You’ll be so intimidated by SEO that you’ll pay a small fortune in consulting fees for the most basic advice. You’ll get stuck trying to hire and retain great talent on your team. You’ll generally move more slowly; capitalize on fewer opportunities; and have a little less respect in your organization than you would if you were a bit more technically inclined.
And you sure as hell won’t have the context you need to drive optimal growth through all the channels available to you as a marketer in 2016.
Therein lies the root of my disdain for growth hacking. It’s about time we got honest with ourselves about the skills and mindset it takes to be a good marketer at a SaaS company today.
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