How the rise of “growth hacking” is changing the marketing game

Growth hacking is all the rage, but marketing people are letting the techies run away with it

Tractor ploughing a field

Marketing increasingly resembles agriculture, where razor-thin margins drive companies to make tiny optimizations. (Richard Newstead/Getty)

Perched on the dashboard of a modern farm tractor is a device you’d recognize right away: a GPS screen. Except this one isn’t designed to help Old MacDonald find his way home. It’s designed to ensure that, over thousands of acres, not a single row is seeded or fertilized twice and not an inch of land or an ounce of fuel is wasted. It seems like an absurd level of precision, but a farm is a risky, capital-intensive enterprise. Every tiny gain is a step away from disaster. Aggregate enough of those wins, and you might even make some money. In a business where margins are paper-thin and the future is perpetually uncertain, it’s the only strategy that makes sense.

For a lot of marketers, that description will sound uncomfortably familiar. More—maybe most—product categories are growing at a slower pace today than they have in years. The deflationary economic climate makes it hard to compensate by raising prices. And the risk in generating demand or stealing share solely through awareness has become career-killingly unacceptable. Dull and esoteric as it can sometimes make the task, marketing has become moneyball—a game you win by not making mistakes. Enter marketing’s new agrarian: the growth hacker.

Like a lot of what obsesses business these days, growth hacking emerged from the culture of tech startups. Young companies anxious to prove to investors that their ideas were scalable typically couldn’t afford an ad campaign to make it happen. So they invested time instead of money and capitalized on whatever interest they could drum up. Tinkering with everything from search optimization to social media to user experience, they relentlessly minimized attrition on the path from a customer’s first encounter with their brand to the moment she clicked the “buy” button. It rarely generated much demand, but it proved they could excel at monetizing it.

The doctrine of growth hacking has spread like wildfire in the five years since the term was coined, and so has its language. With that, unfortunately, has come an “old-school marketing sucks” mentality (and the insufferable fluffing of LinkedIn profiles). It’s also driven the digital wedge deeper in some organizations, as CTOs use its dependency on technology to wrest more power away from the marketing department. But for all its New Age-y belligerence, growth hacking may indeed point the way to how marketing will evolve in this low-growth age. Brand awareness is becoming too expensive to squander. You have to close the sale.

Case studies are hard to come by because, by definition, growth hacking is invisible. People are meant to notice a Super Bowl ad, but smart information architecture, clever keywords, a snappy email subject—these are manipulations rather than salesmanship. They’re meant to be frictionless, not at all like traditional marketing, and they tend to be the fruit of analysis rather than creativity. That’s why they’re mistakenly characterized as something else, why this role is claimed by tech people and why too many marketers let it happen.

That’s crazy. Marketing is still marketing, even if you have to win in increments. Just ask America’s marketer-in-chief. Faced with the challenges of motivating people to take action on things like pension contributions, getting health insurance or going to college, Barack Obama didn’t roll the dice on a Super Bowl spot. Instead, he created his own marketing department, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. Their job is to advance these objectives not by direct persuasion but by experimenting with how messages are addressed, redesigning forms and letters, and engineering processes that “nudge” people to the desired outcomes. It’s not flashy (and it’s a bit creepy), but it gets results.

And results are marketing’s purpose. As a career, growth hacking is a fad. But as a philosophy, it’s becoming integral to how marketing gets done. For a lot of brands, aggregating small gains might one day become the surest way to put food on the table. Woe betide the CMO who thinks he’s above tending his garden.