What Is Growth Hacking?

Posted 4 years ago

Full disclosure: I run a growth hacking service called Followme.io.

I hear it a lot, I see it everywhere. Growth hack your userbase! Growth hacks for more followers! Growth hack your way to success! But is it real, and does it work? The short answer is yes, it works. But the how and why may not be palapable to everyone.

Growth hacking can be used by anyone from a teen on tumblr to your Series D funded startup with $200M in the bank. Growth hacking refers to getting more users in a cheap manner. More users to follow you on Twitter or Tumblr, more likes on your Facebook page, or more paying customers. It is not always about monetary gain but, for some, more users do lead to more paying customers. But the most popular growth hacks, and perhaps the Age of Growth Hacking, are centered around getting more Likes or more Followers, usually as cheaply as possible.

While the buzzword, 'growth hack', is new, the concept is not. People have been using hacks to get more users since the pre-SEO days. And gray and black hat individuals always try to remain one step ahead of the curve to exploit popular systems to get more users. But in 2010, Sean Ellis coined the term on his blog, and a trend was born. Wikipedia cites mega startups like Dropbox, Twitter and Airbnb as employing growth hacks, and offers these examples of growth hacks: An early example of "growth hacking" was Hotmail's inclusion of "PS I Love You" with a link for others to get the free online mail service. Or Dropbox offering more storage to users who referred their friends. The former a clever marketing gimmick and the latter a solid referral plan, neither of these could be called a hack.

Jon Yoongfook offers a much more actionable plan for growth hacking. In it, he suggests submitting to news aggregators, maintaing blog content, making your content accessible, working with partners and affiliates, and a few other helpful ideas. While this is excellent advice, I would call this marketing and not a growth hack.

The 'hack' portion of growth hacking refers to your methodolgy being a step above the obvious, outside the ordinary. It isn't part of a Web Marketing 101 course, and odds are, it won't be available forever. Hacks get shutdown very quickly, and new routes and methods often need to be found. As was the case when Google released the Penguin update in 2012.

You might be thinking, "what is real growth hacking and how can I do it?" First start with a goal. Your strategy for growth hacking on Tumblr will not be the same as growth hacking on Facebook or Twitter. You will need to consider each network as a unique problem, and create unique solutions. For our examples, we will work with Twitter.

Let's take Sally, who runs a fashion blog. Whenever she posts a link to her blog on Twitter, she gets a lot of views, and this makes Sally happy. Sally has a couple hundred followers on Twitter, and so far her follower base has been growing slowly and steadily. But now she wants to get serious with her blog. She wants to build a fashion community, and she wants to get the word out on Twitter. She wants to produce more content, and she wants to attract more followers. But Sally is only blogging on the side, and has a very limited budget for marketing. Sally searches 'get more twitter followers'. 

Growth Hack #1

Sally finds a site offering to sell her 1000 followers for $100. She figures that isn't a ton of money for 1000 new readers of her blog, and gives it a shot. She pays the company and within two days she has received hundreds of followers. By the end of the week she has over 1000 new followers. At first she is happy. But then she notices her blog traffic never picks up, none of the new followers are going to her blog. She decides to look at her new 'followers'. All the accounts are fake. Most of them have already been suspended by Twitter, and the ones which are still active have phony photos or no photos at all. 

So while it looks like Sally has over 1000 new followers, she really won't benefit directly from them. Other people might see her 1000+ followers and think she has more influence though. 

Hack grade: D-

Growth Hack #2

Sally finds another site, offering to get her more followers. This one says they have a 'secret technique' to acquire more followers, and comes with a free trial. Sally joins the service, and it requires her to connect her Twitter account. Sally has no idea what is going on, but within a couple of days she starts getting more followers. She is delighted, until she logs on to Twitter one day and it turns out her account is suspended. Sally freaks out and emails Twitter. Within a few hours they unblock her account, and tell her she violated Aggressive Following practices. It turns out the service Sally signed up for makes Sally's Twitter account follow a bunch of other Twitter accounts. But then it makes Sally go and unfollow all the accounts. This effectively spams all those Twitter members with an email saying 'Sally followed you!' And sometimes they will go and follow Sally back. However, Follow/Unfollow is prohibited by Twitter. Sally got some followers for a short while, but then had a run in with Twitter staff, and had to halt the practice.

Hack grade: C

Growth Hack #3

Sally decides to give it one more shot. She finds another site. This one promises more followers too, and also comes with a free trial. Sally is suspicious because it sounds a lot like hack #2, but her friend insists it works. This new site works by favoriting, not following. And this time, Sally has to enter terms related to her content. Sally enters some terms into the service: fashion, nyc fashion, fashion blog. And within days she starts getting more followers.

This time it's different. She looks at the followers. They are real people, they are already engaging with her over Twitter. She takes a look at her favorites, and the site is favoriting tweets related to her blog. All of a sudden she is getting legitimate followers who are interested in her blog. Sally does feel a little bad because a website is favoriting tweets for her, and people think she is doing the favoriting herself. They thank her for favoriting their tweets, but she has a machine doing it. But Sally responds to everyone who talks to her. And soon she finds she is building meaningful, lasting connections with her readers.

At the time of this writing, favoriting is not against Twitters terms of service. However, it is up to Twitter how long this hack can continue.

Hack grade: B+ 

And that is just for Twitter. If you wanted to growth hack Tumblr, or Instagram, you could use similar principles, but you would need to build your logic to be specific to those networks.

Growth hacking is more than just posting on Reddit and having search engine optimized blogs. It is a real inspection of how these social networks work, and then an intelligent, if questionable, exploit of their internals for your benefit. Like all hacking, it's ethicality remains in question. It's effectiveness, however, cannot be questioned. Growth hacking is becoming more and more popular everyday, and we are just beginning to see the tip of this massive grey hat industry.

About the author

Dev/Code/Hack is a technology and business blog by me, Par Trivedi. I'm a software engineer and I've been writing code and managing teams for over a decade. This blog serves as a way to share thoughts and ideas about the tech/startup community, and also to educate newcomers to software development.

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