I recently came across an interesting and thought-provoking blog post from Andrew Chen. The post concerned the increasing pervasiveness of the “Growth Hacker” in Silicon Valley marketing. What distinguishes the Growth Hacker from lesser marketing types is the demonstration of significant technical skill and acumen. This demonstration takes the form of direct data queries, substantive analytics, and in some cases actual software coding to tweak the product, and in some cases the “Internet plumbing”, in pursuit of increased user numbers. Growth Hackers are characterized as:
“engineers leading teams of engineers blurring (the) lines between marketing, product, and engineering, so that they work together to make the product market itself.”
Andrew makes an excellent point, but what I found almost more interesting were the comments that followed. Based on the commentary, the consensus seems to be that the notion of technical marketers is a new innovation being pioneered by the current generation of Silicon Valley start-ups. As someone with over 30 years in technical marketing, I found that a little amusing. Like reforestation, if “new” growth hackers are the wave of the future, then “old growth” technical marketers certainly created the paradigm.
Back in the early days, technology marketing was of necessity a technical discipline because the products and services were being marketed and sold to a predominantly engineering audience. Marketers like me were degreed engineers or scientists with additional training in business and communications – the notion of a “professional marketer” had not yet intruded. In my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to continue through a series of senior roles that side-stepped the generic mass marketing morass and kept me squarely in the domain of technical marketing. But it’s still interesting to see another generation discovering it for themselves.
Back to Andrew’s post, there is also a Conservation of Entropy at work here – in the thermodynamic sense, vs. information science. Specifically, all other things being equal, a system will gradually move towards equilibrium.
In his blog, Andrew references a case study – Airbnb – and their hack of Craigslist to highlight the innovative approach of today’s technical growth hacker. Back in the day, it would have equated to hacking an industry benchmark to favor your product, or exploiting and highlighting a weakness in a competitor. In all cases, the net result was and is to drive new and additional users to your product/platform. But the result tends to be short-lived.
Scrolling down through the congratulatory comments on Andrew’s blog, eventually someone makes an interesting post:
“Looks (like) Craigslist is blocking Airbnb now -> http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3897379”
As a “Growth Hacker”, you can seek to find market advantage thru some reverse-engineered back-door, but the likelihood is high that as soon as it gains traction, your counterpart is going to slam that door shut with minimal effort, restoring the equilibrium or moving back to a lower-energy and disordered state. Over time this becomes a series of moves and counter moves, net zero. The real challenge is to find ways to accomplish the same result without triggering the Internet’s immune system.
The examples in the original post – Pinterest, Zynga, Groupon, Instagram, Dropbox – all gained traction by finding ways to leverage user communities from sources like Google, Facebook, etc. For Pinterest, it was identifying existing key media outlets in specific niches, and getting them on board as sponsors. For Groupon, it was creating a mobile device app for iPhone and Android, and making it go viral by having Groupon vendors help promote it – use your phone to redeem, instead of a piece of paper. For Dropbox, it was connecting with both specific interest groups and major conference and event sponsors; convincing them to use Dropbox for conference presentations, proceedings, notes, etc. Each of these spawned enough traction to eventually create the critical mass Andrew mentions in an earlier post, and trigger the viral phenomenon.
Bottom line, Andrew makes some good observations. But I’ll draw the comparison to programming languages. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were literally 3 to 4 major new programming languages and variants springing up every 12 to 24 months as the next major break-through in CompSci. A lot of it was spawned by academia, wherein grad students were churning out compilers, and undergrads were coming out versed in the latest and greatest language. Anyone remember Algol? ADA? Pascal? PL-1? PLP? SNOBOL? Cobol and Fortran Variants? LISP? Prolog?
So let’s come back full circle to Growth Hackers. One advantage of experience is that it teaches you change is not always as significant or disruptive as it may initially appear. And all too frequently, what is proclaimed as new is actually something that has been around for a LONG time – it’s simply being rediscovered by a new generation. “Technical Marketing” – marketers who understand their products, can hold their own in engineering discussions, and can drive product content to help market itself – have been around since the 1970’s. And integration – of marketing and strategy with product definition and engineering – is a time-proven method for user capture, retention and growth.
While “growth hackers” is simply another evolutionary point in technical marketing, it is still repeating many of the same tired methods that advertisers use to get our attention. For a truly new take on consumer engagement, take a look at Project VRM (VRM is Vendor Relationship Management) and Doc Searl’s new book, “The Intention Economy”. The tricks and hacks in VRM are focused on finding new ways for consumers to control and affect the marketing environment that surrounds them. To me, choosing when to show others my behavior or “intention” is a whole lot more valuable than finding a new hack that gets my product onto additional screens.