You may have heard of growth hacking but like many others you may not know what it means. To learn what it’s all about and how one can hack some growth, I’ve had a chat with Kieran Flanagan. He is the Marketing Director of HubSpot EMEA, a conference speaker, blogger and NLP practitioner.
Have a listen to the podcast episode which was recorded on 17 July 2015 below, keep reading for a summary and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.
What exactly is growth hacking?
I’m going to give you the way I use it because growth hacking is a term that people use in all different ways at the moment mostly because it’s a such a popular topic. If you write content about it, it’s going to get interest. I’ve seen content hacks, there’s life hacks, there is all different kinds of a hack. The way I see growth hacks are they’re really a result of marketers experimenting with different marketing tactics until they discover clever and original ones that they can use to grow their own brand, accelerate their growth. And generally the way I think about growth hacks as well is that they work for a defined period of time. I think that one of the biggest things around growth hacks is you discover something and we’re so tuned in to sharing everything that works these days because we just want to produce content. That we share something with the whole marketing world, “Hey, this thing works really well,” and you’ll see that everyone will pick that up.
Usually when there’s certain saturation point, those growth hacks don’t work as well. For me, I think if I would distill that into a sentence, it’s really clever and original tactics that work for a defined period of time that can really accelerate your growth as a business. I can give you two of the best known examples. When Airbnb were in their early stages of growth, their real early stages trying to really accelerate that growth trajectory, they had this really cool hack where you actually uploaded a bedroom to be on their platform if you had a room you wanted to rent out. Within that form, you could tick something and choose to have that automatically promoted through Craigslist. If you think about how valuable that is for Airbnb, it gets them immediate promotion for being on Craigslist. It gets a lot of the inbound links back to their site from Craigslist. And it’s also really valuable for the user because they can have their room promoted in two different places.
That was a real growth hack in the sense that I feel it the way that Sean Ellis, who invented the term meant that ex-Dropbox and multiple other companies, it was a hack of engineering and marketing, so that doesn’t work anymore because I think Craigslist banned it.
One of the other ones that are my favourite ones and it’s way back in the day from a company that probably lots of people listening to this the younger marketers don’t know even existed, but a company called Hotmail. Hotmail was one of the fastest growing email providers of all time. One of the things that actually accelerated their growth is really simplistic; it was a signature. I don’t know if you ever used Hotmail; you sent an email, it has a little signature that was automatically populated into that email that just said, “PS, I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.” That was one of things that they said really helped to accelerate the growth of free accounts. There are just two examples, those clever original types of ideas.
Clever growth hack ideas have a sell-by date?
Yeah, and that’s me saying that. I don’t think that’s widely used that they have a sell-by date, but I feel like most growth hacks if they’re shared widely among the marketing community will stop working because they become diluted. If everyone’s doing the same thing the actual impact of it is way less.
Why do companies need to be hacking their growth?
I guess that instead of thinking about it as a company trying to hack their growth, I think for it to be applicable to a wider set of marketers but still as valuable, companies should always be running experiments to figure out what tactics they can use to accelerate their growth. I think experiment is the best way to think about it. Are you copying and pasting the playbook that you used from last year and just rerunning the exact same this year, or are you trying to find out are there other things that you’re not using that could actually really help you to grow faster? There is a really good example of that, and I’ll use an example from something that would have been way back and used way back in the day and then decided that they were bad, and they’ve made a comeback which are popups. I don’t know if you’ve noticed when you’re visiting websites or blogs these days, there’s a lot of different popups that will actually appear.
The popups made a comeback in two different ways. When you actually go to a blog, you’ll see that if you try to exit, you’ll have a large popup that will say, “Hey, do you want this thing that will actually help your SEO or social media,” and forces you to make a decision either click on yes or no. And that’s actually because they figured out by human psychology if you actually force someone to make a decision yes/no rather than just being able to exit out of that, you’re going to get way more signups.
The second type of popup that works really well at the moment is if you offer something free within the . . . a subscription popup to try to get someone to subscribe to your blog or have the monetary value say, “Hey, you can get this free template. It’s worth 197 pounds, dollars, euro wherever you’re from. Would like you get it? Just sign up to the blog.” I’m going to give a lot of credit to Neil Patel who did a lot of work in popups over the last couple of years. He shared that with everyone on how that’s working, and you’ll see them everywhere, and now everyone else is using them. I think for companies it’s how do I experiment with tactics to actually help me accelerate my growth but also because I’ve used those two examples how do I be actually in the leading pack, because again these things will work less over time.
Are growth hacks typically low cost or even free tactics?
When you think of growth hacking, you think of startup marketing. That’s where it has found a place. I think a lot of things that come out are actually low cost, different tactics you can use; not always free. There are a lot of different types of growth hacks I’ve seen through social advertising and a lot of paid platforms. Again it’s just this clever way that someone’s figured out how to use Twitter, Facebook, figured out how to do something with LinkedIn or all these different platforms that can actually help them accelerate their growth before that thing becomes diluted and it no longer works anymore. I don’t think there’s a monetary value that they’re free or not free. I think again it comes down to the idea and that kind of culture of experimenting.
Tell us about the Marketers Guide to Growth Spurts.
I speak a lot of conferences. I’m lucky enough to get to do that. Well, I’m lucky and unlucky because I’m very renowned at being one of the worst flyers in the world. I travel a lot, but I take a lot of volume to do it. It’s a conference I spoke at; it actually may have been in Dublin. I put together what I felt was a good process for marketers to start getting a little bit of experience with this kind of growth hack culture or just even experimentation of how they can use that to accelerate their growth. I think it went down pretty well. I’m actually doing a part two. It’s first time I’ve done a part two of a presentation for our inbound conference in Boston. I’m excited to do that.
What happens in the 1st step – Goal and Targets?
One of the most important things for marketers is actually being able to set out goals and targets. Interestingly enough when you mentioned that I was an NLP practitioner, the reason I actually did a lot of NLP training and people may not know what it is so I won’t go into the description of that because that will take a long time. It’s something called Neuro-Linguistic Programming; it helps with a lot different things. I did NLP training to get better at setting goals and I feel like a lot of marketers the reason they go wrong in things is because they’re not actually good at setting the right goals.
The first step is really how do I set the goal and the target that I’m going to align myself around? What are my most important goals over a defined period of time? Our marketing team is maybe 80, 90, 100 people globally, but we still work on a monthly cadence, and every month we select our most important goals and what’s our target for that goal. An example may be, “Hey, I want to grow my blog. I want to grow my blog traffic over the course of this month and my target to achieve is I want to get a 10% increase in that blog traffic from the previous month,” or it’s going to be something like, “I want to improve the number of people who engage with the second email over the nurture workflow and I want to improve that engagement by 0.5%.”
What you’re doing there is you’re setting really clear goals, very clear targets, but the most important thing is for you to do in that given month that will help you accelerate your growth. I feel like that’s why that kind of growth hack culture works so well in startups because you’ve got a very small team and you want to be really focused on the things that are going to get you the biggest impact over a very small defined amount of time.
So there’s a couple of things that I see marketing teams doing in the goal and target stage where if you’re a small marketing team, what I see small marketing teams do is they work across all of the goals at once. They never really make a big impact on any specific ones. So they’ll work on things around how do I get more people at the top of my funnel, how do I get more people to get through the middle of the funnel, and they’ll never make a real impact in any of those. And I think it’s the opposite of big marketing teams and I’ve worked in big companies before where they spent too much time thinking about best practice. They spent too much time talking about strategy, and they really don’t focus enough on execution. What happens is they’ll just really replicate in the exact same playbook, the exact same tactics each and every year because they haven’t allowed enough time to execute anything and figure out what other things can work for them.
What happens in step 2 – Insight?
What you’re doing in the goals and targets is you’re setting yourself up with a very clear couple of goals and very clear targets where you’ll know if you’re a success or not. Insight is probably one of my favourite parts of being a marketer today specifically like most of my time I spend doing online marketing, where you can pull apart things that work and figure out why they work. I have a team of 12 now. Everyone in my team I’ve hired myself. One of the traits I look for on people is just this intense curiosity of why things work. For example, why a particular brand is so successful. If you go Google Trends, you see, “hey why is this brand getting searched so much over the last couple of years”? Why a particular piece of content has been shared so widely, why a particular page ranks for certain key words. The really best marketers will want to know why all of those different things are the way they are.
An example of that could be using a tool like SEMRush. It’s a great tool to do competitor research. You can actually go to SEMRush, take all your competitors, and figure out what keywords they’re actually ranking for. Not only that, you can correlate that to what keywords they rank for and you rank for, and see are they a higher position than you and then go look at the page, figure out why that’s a better result for that key word. You can go look at what keywords they rank for that you don’t but you should and again investigate like, “Hey, why does this competitor have so many pages ranking for this keyword? Look at my pages. I must try to figure out why they’re not as good as theirs.”
One of the great things about social is we can use tools like Buzzsumo. We can go look to see what content from our competitors is getting shared a lot more than ours, and try to make good assumptions around why that is like break apart their content, try to figure out why it works so well for their audience. Even some of the things you could do is take a piece of content from a competitor that’s got shared really well and run it through Bitly and you can look to see who has actually shared that content, and go look through their Twitter feeds and see what are the commonalities in terms of the content they’re sharing and why that piece of content maybe resonated with them so much that they actually shared with their audience. Insight is a really important step. It’s using all of these different tools that we’ve access to, to pull apart results and see why things work the way they work and use those insights to make better decisions on the type of marketing that we’re going to do to hit that goal and targets from step one.
What’s behind door number 3 – Experiment?
You’ve gathered a bunch of research and now you’re going to come up with a bunch of different ways for me to try to hit that goal. Not everything can be experiment because what tends to happen in marketing is there’s a certain percentage of your traffic leads are just going to come in from things that you know that work. And what you want to try and do is silo aside some of the time for the team to have the freedom to make big bets and run experiments. On my team I’ll make sure that they’re working on projects that we just know historically from things we’ve done actually work; we know they’re actually going to produce good results if we execute on them well. But then I want them to have one or two big projects that we have no idea if they’re just going to bomb or if they’re actually going to be successful because we’ve not really done them before.
When I first joined HubSpot years ago, we started experimenting a lot with video series and all these different types of content formats. Some of them won’t work and it’s horrible when something you’ve invested a lot of time in just has terrible results. I remember I invested a huge amount of time and effort in this great video series for SEO. I thought it was a really great series and we had all these different promotion tactics and they completely bombed, but I learned a lot from that. I learned from the people we promoted to maybe they like the written word versus video and I could make all of these good insights around the different promotion we used and why it didn’t work. So experiments are making sure that you are trying to figure out what are some of these clever, these original tactics that I can come up with that are going to help me accelerate my growth.
In that example, we imagined that our goal was to increase the number of people signed up to our blog and the target was to increase that 5% month on month. Then we may use that insights step to gather a bunch of information that we know that our audience loves SEO. I’ve looked at my own data. I know that they always read an SEO content that’s the highest type of content that gets downloaded. When we put it behind a forum I look on Buzzsumo. I look on all these different tools. I figure out that when my competitor’s most successful content is related to SEO. I will integrate SEO offers, something that’s very relevant for that audience and then I can try a bunch of those different things that I’ve already mentioned.
We can try on-exit popup so that when people try to leave the blog they get this offer and they can grab it if they subscribe to the blog. We can create a number of teaser blog posts that give away some of that content but then ask the reader within the blog post, “Hey, if you want the rest of this, just sign up to our blog.” You can try some Twitter cards to promote that content and make them subscriber gated. We can run a social advertising campaign through Twitter using that content as the hook, trying to get them to subscribe to our blog. We could create a landing page where we have people download that SEO content and when they’ve downloaded it, they are going to get a kickback email and this kickback email is trying to cross promote the blog.
Again, you’re in the experiment phase, you’re trying to figure out what are the things that I can do to really accelerate myself towards that goal. I know I’m probably going to get 70% towards the goal just by doing the things that we know that work, but I want to make up that 30%. I want to discover new tactics that I can actually then rinse and repeat that’s going to work for a defiant period of time to help me grow faster.
Please elaborate on the 4th and final step: Promoting Like Hell.
Promotion for me is one of the important topics in marketer today. If you want to be a good marketer, you need to be like Kanye West, he’s a self-promoter so if you think of your own content as yourself, you have to be really a great promotion of the things that you or your team do. I wrote a blog post about this recently on why it may be time to hire a content distribution team, have a team or a person that’s dedicated to nothing more than promotion because as we live in a world that’s more and more content heavy and more and more marketing budget goes in towards the production of content, it’s going to be important to figure out how we can actually promote that to the people we actually want to see it.
Again this is a bit of a shameless plug, but if they want to go on to my SlideShare, in Boston last year I did a presentation called The Art and Science of Promotion where it had a bunch of different tactics. It’s hard to go through, there’s probably an endless amount of promotion tactics you could go through. It’s hard to go through them on a podcast about growth hacking as a whole. I guess one quick example I’ll share that most people can use is that we’re using this a lot for our own big content assets that we promote is, if you think about promotion of content and the success or failure of that promotion, most of it hinges on a title and a snippet because you don’t get to see the content until you’ve engaged with the promotion.
The promotion has already done its job by the time you’re consuming the content where you’ll usually see within the promotion across social advertising email, across Google organic results, across all of these different places where you promote a large content asset is actually the title and the description. That content usually helps you make up your mind. You want to make that as enticing as possible to your audience, and that’s why upward you have managed to grow a whole brand by just figuring out how to create great titles.
What we do a lot of is before we do our core promotion push, we split test different titles through Twitter, through Facebook, through email to try to collect data on what title and description of the actual content asset works best. And then when we find out the one that works best, we’ll put all of our promotion efforts behind that one, and that tends to get us the best results. That’s one of the tests that are applicable to anyone who is running a promotion.
What are some growth hack mistakes marketers ought to avoid?
I think if you sat a number of marketers down and asked them this question, they’d have a number of different answers. My one is just based upon some of the things that I’ve seen perhaps in these companies and it’s more why they haven’t, not so much get wrong because the problem is they’re not actually trying. And the bigger part is that companies aren’t hiring the people with the right skill sets to actually engrain this culture within the company itself. They need to hire people who are marketers but are also very technical, who are very curious about how things work and how they can make them work better. What tends to happen because they don’t silo time to actually run some experiments and give their team the freedom to fail, that’s a really big one. It’s, “Hey, you guys can run these couple of big projects over the next couple of months or a quarter. We don’t expect any results from them. We just want you to figure out what are some things that we could do that we’re not doing now.”
And because they don’t do that, what they do is they end up with an annual plan they just roll out each and every year, and it’s the exact same stuff. That’s why a lot of companies get left behind their competitors who are working at a different pace.
If the company doesn’t have a culture that’s going to appeal to those people when they get in there, those people are going to leave and go somewhere else. The really big thing is a lot of the reasons that marketers join HubSpot is because they can’t believe for a company that’s quite big now, our sign off process is basically go do it. If you think it’s a good idea, go do it. Whereas another company, you’ll be trying to implement something that has to be signed off by four different people before it ever gets done and it really kills the enjoyment from the people who really like experiment and trying new things.
What companies are doing growth hacking right?
What I would think about how do I learn from all of the great content . . . and that’s one of the things that growth hacking has done. It has really made people step up their game, and I feel the content people are producing is a lot better. I would think that if I’m trying to learn from growth hacks, I would think less around the company and more about the tactics and its thought process, how someone actually came up with that tactic that worked.
I’ll give you a few examples from historical companies that I haven’t talked about and they are still being used today. If you think about Dropbox and PayPal, how they managed to scale really quickly, they used incentives. PayPal had $10 for each new customer account in their early days. Dropbox gave out additional space. Brands like Mint who are a really great brand and even HubSpot also how we grew so fast was when we were in our early years 2006-2007, it wouldn’t be very common for a company like ours to produce so much content for their audience and the same with Mint. That was a really new innovative thing is where you would figure out who are your ideal personas produce great content for them.
One of the stories I love is Udemy, the online learning platform. Back there if anyone gets to read their growth story, you should. It’s online somewhere. Mixergy did an interview with them. Even in their early days, it sounds so simplistic but if you think about theirs as a chicken and egg race because they need to have great content to sell courses but no one is going to create content for them if they don’t have an audience. What they did for the first six months is basically just cold called lecturers and cold called authors and tried to convince them to take content they already have and put them into Udemy as courses.
In terms of people like Noah Kagan, who is ex-Mint, ex-Facebook, AppSumo, SumoMe, where he’s got a lot of these growth hacks into SumoMe, which is a WordPress plugin. He releases really great content. I tend to go to inbound.org and growthhackers.com to look at tactics versus individual people doing it.
What’s going to happen over the next three years?
The exciting thing about this is I don’t have an answer because everything moves so fast now, it’s totally unpredictable. If you think about the amount of value that marketers actually give away by just doing complete write-ups of tactics that have worked for them like here’s this thing that works really well for my company and I’m going to put in the content so everyone else can copy it. I think the combination of that culture now within marketing and the fact that there are so many more people joining marketing from different fields like engineering, I myself studied IT at college. It’s accelerating the type of learnings we have because we have people who are running experiments but then looking at the data and figuring out if they work or not.
I feel like no one can really predict where we’re going to go in the next three years but I feel like it’s going to be the exact same way it is now. There are just going to be a bunch of new tactics people are finding that work, people are sharing. Again when you share with a wider marketing community, you’re going to have to go find something else because if you’re one of the last ones to adopt that, chances are that it’s not working that well anymore.
When I first joined digital, I was in SEO and I could rank sites pretty easily at the top of Google using things that would not work anymore which is horrible because it used to be so much fun. Things just change so fast.
What’s the most successful NLP technique that applies to marketing?
Actually, goal setting is hard to go into. It’s a mindset but I’ll give a quick one that I think is good for content marketers which is this thing I’ve talked before about called chunking. Chunking is something in NLP you use within NLP to think of solutions to problems quite fast. What it allows you to do is think laterally pretty quickly. You’re actually trying to think of solutions to problems you have faster than you normally would. There are two parts of chunking that help content marketers who are in a niche that’s hard to create content for. There’s this idea of being able to chunk up and chunk down then come up with new ideas.
I used to have a pretty successful fashion site then I used this to try to create an infographic that appeals for a wider audience. We had a fashion site that sold sneakers. I call them sneakers because we were mostly trying to sell into the US. What you do is you go, “Okay, I’ve got these product, sneakers.” Sneakers is actually an okay product to create a lot of content on, but if sneakers was a niche product, you could say, “Hey, this is an example of,” and sneakers is an example of fashion. What’s fashion an example of? Fashion is an example of tribalism because, if you think of the hipster thing, it’s very tribal.
Then you go you have this tribalism and then you can start to chunk back down. What is an example of tribalism? Skaters. What is an example of skaters? You could say different types of skateboards. Then you can go, I’m going to create an infographic for sneaker geeks on this type of sneaker works best with this type of skateboard. That’s not the infographic I did, but that allows you to move up and down and get outside of your core audience very quickly.
If you’re in a very specific niche, what you want to come up is chunk up and then come back down and see if you can overlap with other industries that are similar to yours but gives you a broader appeal. I think a great example of this is, and I’m probably going to get the name of it wrong, but there’s a site called Movoto. They’re selling real estates. They’re a real estate agent blog and they went from something like 2,000 visitors a month to 80 million a month. A big part of their thing was how do we appeal to a wider audience. They’ve created things like if you’re a superhero, what would your property look like across the galaxy, appealing to comic geeks. I think that’s a good way to try to get yourself out of this, I talked to a lot of marketers and why can’t I create content in the niche I’m in. That’s a good way to try to get yourself thinking through, actually there are these other audiences that would have some interest in what I’m doing but I can appeal to a greater number of people.