Startup Marketers, Stop Calling Yourself “Growth Hackers.” It’s Making Us All Look Bad.

A lesson lost on many growth hackers and their advocates: playing a game of cat and mouse with major tech companies typically only leads to one result: big tech winning. Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Opening up my LinkedIn feed today, I came across this post from Sofie Segercrantz who (at the time I’m writing this) is the Performance Marketing Lead at Supermetrics.

Sofie posted the following:

Stop trying to hire marketing ninjas/rockstars/wizard/gurus instead of managers/strategists/specialists/coordinators. To me, these” fun” titles show that the companies using them don’t see marketing as a vital business unit but a flighty art and crafts department. They also signal that the company doesn’t really know what tasks the role will entail and/or that the pay is on the smaller side. Or do the same companies also hire law superstars, human resource ninjas, and finance wizards? AND while you’re at it, stop trying to make one person have all the skills and tasks of a mid-sized marketing agency.

Although I never know whether LinkedIn echo chambers actually have any possibility of changing thinking beyond the people who already (the people who needed to read this post: many small startup founders) I welcomed the opportunity to click the like button.

I would never even think about responding to a job post looking for a “rockstar” (or permutation thereof) for precisely the reason that Sofie outlined: it’s a strong indicator that the company doesn’t take (or pay) marketing seriously.

And in a field in which even specialized content marketers can easily find themselves grossly underpaid, it’s important to steer clear of the less productive parts of the market. That’s self-preservation.

I added my own two cents also.

Growth marketing is problematic because it’s often us marketers using the appellation to describe what we do and creating the fiction that most conventional marketing is a bloated waste of time and budget.

Much like freelance writers who affirm that writing is easy and a boatload of low volume churn can be produced for almost no budget and time, when we assert to the world that there’s an offshoot of our professional that is dedicated to “hacking” growth, we further the notion that marketing as a whole just isn’t the valuable.

What Growth Hacking Tells Non-Marketers About Marketing

Growth hacking succeeds in communicating the following to non-marketers about marketing.

And everybody who works in marketing ends up dealing with the fallout from the kind of mistaken expectations that these ideas convey:

  • Growth is something that can be hacked and doing so is a sustainable alternative to traditional marketing. Let’s start with the fundamental flaw at the heart of the growth hacking title. If one of marketing’s core duties is to pave the way for growth, then “growth hackers” tell anybody who doesn’t want to pay marketers properly that there’s a cheaper way to buy the value they can contribute. You can buy the real software or the pirated version. For those who simply want quick results at low cost — and that’s a prevalent breed in the startup sector — growth hacking sounds like an instantly appealing proposition. Those hiring full time growth hackers are presumably putting their trust in growth hacking as a long term value-add to their businesses. Otherwise, they’re looking at growth hacking as a Band Aid solution to marketing that’s underperforming. Either way troublesome information is being conveyed about how the business views marketing (it requires quick fixes or can be “hacked at” indefinitely). Here’s the truth about marketing. Working on the marketing communications and public relations side of the divide, I know that true value takes a long time to build up. But I see it as investing — for brands. Suggesting that a miscellaneous assortment of algorithm-circuiting hacks (in my experience, what most “growth hacking” amounts to) to replace that activity is encouraging short term thinking.
  • It tells non-marketers that isn’t a serious field. If you required brain surgery, would you consider subjecting yourself to surgery at the hands of a non-doctor who had watched a few YouTube videos and described himself as a “brain hacker” (literally!). The surgeon might affirm that he or she had concluded that most of the ways in which formal brain surgeons had learned to apply their knowledge were over the top and unnecessary and that with a few quick “hacks” the same results could be achieved for far less time and money. You wouldn’t. You’d likely regard that as ridiculous hubris and I would agree with you. It’s probably a good idea to assume that anybody who has dedicated a career to working in a field knows enough about it to have come across the various “hacks” as they are developed and promulgated by their enthusiasts. Occasionally, we might recommend them to our clients as non-traditional approaches with attendant shortcomings. But we also have the basis of knowledge to typically affirm that focusing on short term gimmicks isn’t the right way to build long term value. When there’s an entire pool of marketers out there trumpeting this field, the results feed back to everybody working in the field.

“Growth hacking” isn’t a replacement for marketing.

At best, in my experience, it’s a loosely defined catch-all used to described a series of “tricks” that represent nothing more than temporary ways the industrious have devised to “get ahead” of things like social algorithms.

A (bad) go to market plan for those who are obsessed with quick results? That’s a lot more accurate than calling it a career, in my opinion.

The gaps growth marketers exploit are almost inevitably closed and in a cat game of cat and mouse with major tech the growth hackers will almost never emerge victorious.

Predicating a go to market upon non-owned platforms and things you have no control over (other people’s algorithms) is typically bad strategic sense too.

Intercom’s Growth Team Director Ben McRedmond and Stephen O’Brien (Engineering Manager) do a refreshing and excellent job of contrasting an actual systematic approach to user growth with “growth hacking” to help elucidate the differences.

The above is my slightly toned down version of the title (toned down because I have some self-proclaimed “growth hackers” in my professional network and this is my attempt to reduce collateral damage).

If you want to get a mature perspective on why — as the title suggests — growth hacking is by and large a silly field for short term thinkers (and companies who don’t understand the value of mature approaches to marketing), it’s highly worth a watch and listen (there’s also a transcript for those who would rather consume the discussion in textual format).




Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things.

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things.

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