Brace yourselves; another Silicon Valley confection is on its way, the 'growth hacker'. These self-appointed experts promise to amplify the impact of your online marketing by several orders of magnitude.

Why hire a 'growth hacker'?

As you might expect, their happiest hunting ground is in startups because they have the greatest growth potential and give the hackers plenty to brag about if they're successful. The question for you is whether your own organisation would benefit from a growth hacker's skills and knowledge or, indeed, whether you can assemble the same set of skills from existing employees. If you have products or services (let's just call them 'products' from now on) that need a boost and you can reach your prospects online, then it's quite possible that your organisation can adopt their methods, even if you baulk at the 'growth hacker' job title.

Gleb Brichko is senior director of digital marketing and operations for Nutanix, a rapidly growing web-scale infrastructure provider that makes plentiful use of growth hackers. Or 'builders', which is the term he prefers. (Others may bestow some kind of marketing job title once they've secured their services.) According to Forbes, "Nutanix has reached 'unicorn' status in Sillicon Valley in just four years, raising a $101 million Series D funding round." This valued the company at a shade under $1 billion in January 2014, which is the minimum needed to earn it the unicorn accolade; a subsequent round of Series E funding which ended in August 2014 valued the company at more than $2 billion.

What makes growth hackers special?

A recent Nutanix job advertisement for 'a growth hacking, Marketo-wielding ninja' lists these desirable attributes:

  • Experience with enterprise-level marketing automation systems, web and CRM integrations, and partner portals;
  • Thorough understanding of marketing automation, nurture and drip campaign processes;
  • Experience with Salesforce.com and Marketo;
  • Ability to collaboratively work with various team members across the organization;
  • Ability to manage multiple projects at once;
  • Willingness to 'roll up your sleeves' to get projects done; and,
  • Keen eye for world-class web and email marketing design.

This gives a flavour of the sort of people you'll need to drive both growth and retention of your customer base. It also helps if your products are digital rather than physical, because they can play an active part in their own growth. HotMail was probably the first to do this by adding the "Get Your Free Email at Hotmail" tagline to the foot of each outgoing email. However, physical products can still benefit from growth hacking techniques, as we shall see.

Growth obsession

Neil Patel and Bronson Taylor published The Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking in which they said: "Those with an accurate notion of how people move about online will have growth advantages that are hard to imagine." If anything in this article stimulates your interest, I recommend you read this 103-page book. It is full of real examples that highlight the innovative thinking and execution that lead to serious growth. Yes, they're mainly in the world of online startups, but it's quite easy to spot the lessons that you can apply to your own situation. And, as they themselves say, "eventually, growth hacking will be a part of fortune 500 companies."

As their title implies, they're obsessed with growth. Usually this boils down to a simple and measurable goal such as, "grow the customer base." Any company worth its salt would insist on some kind of scale. In any event, a growth hacker would be monitoring this, among many other metrics as they try to figure out which techniques work best at which stages of the capture – purchase – retention 'funnel'. The continuous feedback through analytics drives the growth hacker, highlights where change is needed and provides concrete evidence of success. Or temporary failure.

A team approach

Despite the 'hacker' name, quite often these people are not coders but they do know what they want. A typical setup would be a back-end programmer, a front-end programmer and the hacker. None of them can achieve results individually but, collectively, they can work the necessary magic. The front-end programmer will know all about attracting interest and clicks, the back-end programmer will know all about integrating with other systems, whether through APIs or 'back doors', and collecting the metrics. The growth hacker will know what they're all trying to achieve and will be obsessing over the analytics and using them as a guide to what's working and what's not. They will determine which events to measure at which times. Just as a body-builder works on different muscle groups, so a growth hacker will turn their attention to different parts of the customer capture funnel as each needs to be toned.

Customer capture and retention is a very dynamic process that involves a lot of experimentation because no two organisations are the same, not least because their customers are different and respond in different ways to the various methods used.

If you're worried about the 'back door' remark earlier, it's a legitimate approach to reaching your prospects, although the owner of the back door might close it when they realise you're using them as a piggy-back to new business. Or, worse, if you're effectively 'stealing' their visitors.

AirBNB is a room rental business that asked its users if they'd like to appear on the Craigslist classified ads site. On the face of it, this was a good thing to do; it helped the users and it drove traffic to Craigslist. Since Craigslist didn't have an API to facilitate this, the growth hackers figured out how to automatically fill in the necessary forms for a Craigslist entry. Of course, when AirBNB started appearing, this triggered masses of clicks from Craigslist visitors and AirBNB's growth kicked off.

The hackers knew it couldn't last and by the time Craigslist blocked them, they had already started using other methods to boost AirBNB's growth.

Push and pull

Fundamentally, prospects are captured by being pulled or pushed and the sources of pulling and pushing could be offline, online or the product itself. An example of a 'pull' might be a sharing of knowledge that may mention the product once and an author attribution that would include a company link. The aim is to help and establish authority, thereby creating interest. A 'push' is usually an interruption of whatever the user's doing – an advertisement before they can watch a YouTube video, for example. Or the ads that appear at the top or sides of a Google search. We've already seen one example of a product-based capture, when emails carry a bit of self-promotion. Offline pushing could be speaking at a conference or an advertisement in a magazine, for example.

Whether push, pull, product or, more likely, some kind of blend, the aim is to get visitors to engage by giving you an email address in exchange for a guide or white paper, by registering (with more details) for a free trial or by placing an order.

Use existing staff?

Many techniques are well known to marketers, especially the digital savvy ones, already. If existing techniques still work, or you have a valuable resource like a mail list or a popular blog, keep using them. Growth hacking should be seen as a complement to what exists rather than a replacement. You might find that, collectively, you have the skill sets to create a growth team without going outside your company. It's largely an attitude thing. If you have a marketer who obsesses about product quality and the funnel, a coder that obsesses about the user's web experience and another coder that loves integration and creating analytics from events, then you're on your way. Call them whatever you like, or whatever they like, it's the attitude and dedication to growth that matters.

Your products

You have to have products and support activities that users love and are happy to recommend. If you don't have them, you're just putting very expensive lipstick on a pig. Reality has to match or exceed your claims and promises; otherwise your carefully mapped growth plans will stall. Or, worse, negative stories will start to appear and we all know they travel further and faster than positive stories.

Be where your prospects are
Assuming you have something they will value, you need to make sure your prospects know about you. This is another area the growth hacker will obsess about. They will know how your typical prospect behaves, whether they're Google-first, or belong to particular LinkedIn groups, or whatever. That's where they'll place your useful articles and posts and tiny hints about how to find you or learn about your product. Hopefully, if questions are asked in these tight and highly relevant communities, you'll have internal specialists on-tap and willing to reply.

They will also know what kind of devices your prospects favour. A push ad on a large computer screen is a minor irritant compared to the same thing on a smartphone. Have you noticed that your impatience increases as your working screen gets smaller?

Although this article is about growth hacking, you probably need to be careful about hiring anyone who calls themselves a growth hacker on their CV. It probably sounds tons better to their mates than any title containing the 'marketing' word, but it is a modern marketing phenomenon. So, if you decide you don't have the requisite skills in-house, use as much diligence in your search for a growth hacker as you'd use for any other senior position.

Above all, make sure your company is ready to support this essentially outward- and forward-looking perspective. If it's introspective and traditional in its outlook, then this development might prove to be a cultural step too far.