Growth hacking is a term that’s fairly popular today. In fact, interest in this topic has gradually increased over the past few years all over the world, according to Google Trends.

Image via Google Trends

However, it is commonly misunderstood as simply a method of marketing your brand. In reality, there are many differences between growth hacking and marketing.

Before we get into how they’re both different from each other, let’s first try to understand what growth hacking and traditional marketing are.

What is Growth Hacking?

Growth hacking is a fairly new concept, and the term was coined by Sean Ellis, the founder and CEO of GrowthHackers, in 2010. He used this method to grow many popular companies such as Dropbox.

Growth hacking is essentially a set of techniques that are primarily focused on accelerating the growth of your company. It uses many innovative methods, such as viral marketing, to achieve this growth.

It begins right from the early product development stages and goes on even once the product has been launched. Be it guerilla marketing, UX, search engine optimization (SEO), or email marketing, growth hacking uses it all.

Budgets and timelines don’t limit growth hacking. The only true goal is to take the products and brand to the next level.

The basics of growth hacking deal with the optimization of websites to improve user experience. This, in turn, can help boost your conversion rates.

It also involves creating a strong and active presence on social media to engage with your target audience where they are the most engaged.

The customer acquisition strategy in growth hacking involves SEO and content marketing. In addition, A/B testing of landing pages is done in growth hacking to improve their conversion rates.

Lastly, growth hacking places a lot of emphasis on data and analytics. Using the data, steps are taken to optimize the growth of the business.

Examples of Growth Hacking

1. Airbnb

Airbnb is one of the best examples of growth hacking. This room rental service used a very unique growth hacking strategy to grow their business. They found loopholes on Craigslist, a website where you can advertise almost anything. Whenever anyone listed their rooms on Airbnb, they gave them the option to list them on Craigslist too.

Craigslist didn’t allow any integration through a public API. However, Airbnb’s engineers were quick to reverse engineer the forms on Craigslist without any access to their code. Through this method, they got lots of inbound traffic from Craigslist without having to invest in any traditional modes of marketing.

In addition, Airbnb listings stood out from the crowd as they were more personalized with better descriptions and pictures. This instantly made them favorites for those who were looking for places to stay during their vacations.

They reached out to those users who wanted such services and instantly got more customers. While Craigslist did figure out these vulnerabilities at a later stage, Airbnb had already taken advantage of the loopholes.

In fact, Airbnb had about $200 million in revenue in 2013. This number increased to about $500 million in 2014 and subsequently to $900 million in 2015.

2. Dropbox

Another great example, Dropbox, used their product as the distribution channel in their growth hacking strategy. They created a referral program in which their customers could earn more storage for recommending the brand to others.

Every Dropbox Basic account holder could get 500 MB for every referral, up to 16 GB. On the other hand, Dropbox Plus and Professional account holders could earn 1 GB for every successful person they referred to Dropbox, up to a maximum of 32 GB.

This growth hacking strategy helped Dropbox grow rapidly from 100k users to over 4 million users in just 15 months. They were able to double their users every 3 months this way. Additionally, they managed to save on the traditional ad spend that they would have incurred to get customers.

3. YouTube

YouTube was one of the first businesses to leverage growth hacking to their advantage. They did so even before the term came into being. This growth hack was nothing but their embed video option.

Whenever anyone wanted to add a YouTube video to their website, all they had to do was to paste the video embed code. This way, the video would play on their website without any effort.

This was important during those days because uploading videos was a chore and time-consuming. YouTube simplified this entire process and made it easy for anyone to upload or embed a video. This helped them become the household name that they are today.  

Now that you know what growth hacking is, let’s take a quick look at what traditional marketing is.

What is Traditional Marketing?

Traditional marketing is completely focused on selling your products and services. It puts the focus on promoting finished products, which is in stark contrast to growth hacking, which deals with products under development.

The only goal of marketing is to increase the sales of your products or services and generate revenue. While the methods used to do so are similar to the ones that are there used in growth hacking, the goals are vastly different.

Let’s now try to understand how a growth hacker differs from a marketer.

Growth Hackers vs. Marketers

As mentioned above, budget is a major differentiator between growth hackers and marketers. A growth hacker is mainly concerned with the growth of the brand, and the budget is always secondary for them.

But a marketer paces the growth of the business based on the budget that’s allotted for marketing. This way, marketers are always constrained by budgets, while growth hackers are not.

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According to Sean Ellis, the only true north for a growth hacker is growth. Everything that is done by them is only for the purpose of achieving growth. While marketers do focus on growth too, the extent varies vastly.

Additionally, a growth hacker is somewhat of a cross between a marketer and a coder. They don’t need to rely on engineers to implement APIs or even fetch data from the database. But marketers usually need the help of engineers to do these tasks.

Typically, the high-pressure environment of startups requires growth hacking. On the other hand, marketers are usually involved with bigger companies. However, even some larger organizations do have growth hackers nowadays.

A growth hacker is typically skilled in online marketing activities such as creating landing pages, A/B testing, etc. But marketers may not have that level of exposure to such activities.

Growth hackers use rapid experimentation and measure everything that they do to ensure that they are able to optimize output. They rely on data and then turn that data into actionable insights to help the business grow.

Now that we know the major differences between a growth hacker and a marketer, let’s take a closer look at growth hacking vs. traditional marketing.

Growth Hacking vs. Traditional Marketing

1. Uncertainty in Startups

The world of startups is filled with uncertainties. It isn’t easy to identify your target audience when you’re just starting out. In addition, you also need proof that your customers would want to buy your products.

All of this needs to be done in a short span of time, and this proves to be challenging.

It’s due to this environment that growth hacking becomes vastly different from traditional marketing. The main goal of growth hackers is thus to spread the word about the products and the brand to generate sales.

On the other hand, marketers would be focused on the overall marketing of the brand and products for the long haul.

2. The Product Approach

When you’re looking at growth hacking vs. traditional marketing, the biggest difference is the way the product is designed. With traditional marketing, efforts are focused on bringing customers to the products.

On the other hand, when it comes to growth hacking, effort is put into creating a product that consumers will like. This difference in approaches sets both traditional marketing and growth hacking apart from each other.

This is the reason why growth hackers play an important role when it comes to designing and creating a new product. On the other hand, marketers only get involved when the product is ready to be sold.

3. Mode of Promotion

The modes of promotion vary vastly for both growth hacking and traditional marketing. Traditional marketing usually focuses on paid advertising. It may include social media platforms, newspapers, TV ads, etc. Traditional marketers often have preset budgets dedicated to these channels, and they adjust their spending based on performance.

On the other hand, growth hackers are always on the lookout for free or affordable alternatives to promote the products and brand. They usually come up with innovative methods to increase reach and sales without spending a lot of money.

4. Growth Rate

Startups usually grow extremely fast as compared to established companies. Some startups may even end up doubling or tripling their numbers every few months like Dropbox. Growth hackers are usually prepared to handle this sort of growth and target it as well.

On the other hand, marketers may not be able to see the results of traditional marketing instantly. This may also lead to a slower growth rate as compared to growth hacking.

5. Budgets

Budget is a major differentiator when it comes to growth hacking and traditional marketing. While a growth hacker concentrates only on growth, the company’s budget does play a role in their decisions, especially at startups. This is mainly because startups don’t have the same level of funding and resources as well-established companies.

In such cases, growth hackers need to look at cheaper alternatives to achieve their desired growth. While that isn’t as easy as it sounds, professional growth hackers can get the job done with a limited budget.

6. Funnels

Traditional marketing doesn’t deal much with sales funnels. It focuses a lot on creating brand awareness and reputation at the mouth of the funnel.

However, beyond that, the measurable results aren’t many. This is because marketing isn’t as data-driven as growth hacking. Lastly, traditional marketing may end up looking at vanity metrics to figure out the success or failure of the campaign.

On the other hand, growth hacking has clearly defined funnels, and the growth hackers use rapid experimentation to optimize them as well. Firstly, actionable goals are defined, and the campaigns are rolled out. Based on the feedback, hypotheses are formed and prioritized as well.

The next thing that’s done in growth hacking is to use analytics to track the progress towards the goals. Lastly, growth hacking prioritizes optimization through rapid experimentation. In this, the experiment is A/B tested so that the parameters can be optimized to get better results.

Tools Used in Growth Hacking vs. Traditional Marketing

Now let’s take a closer look at some of the best tools used for both growth hacking and traditional marketing.

1. SpyFu

SpyFu includes a whole set of tools that can be used by growth hackers to boost their brand’s growth. As growth hacking uses content marketing and SEO to promote the brand, SpyFu’s set of tools can be extremely helpful.

Image via SpyFu

Their SEO Competitor Analysis tools can help you see where you stand in comparison to your competitors. Using it, you can find new methods to grow your brand.

In addition, it provides keyword research and PPC research tools that can help you find relevant keywords for your brand's campaigns.

You can also track your progress on the search engine results pages (SERPs) using their Keyword Rank Checker. This tool can be used by traditional marketers as well to improve the SEO and presence of their websites.

2. AWeber

AWeber helps you automate your email campaigns, and you can create newsletters using it as well. You can set up autoresponder sequences using this tool to improve your email marketing campaigns. This way, you can deliver professional and personalized emails to your target audience without a lot of effort.

Image via AWeber

This is yet another tool that can be used in both growth hacking and traditional marketing.

3. Optimizely and Visual Web Optimizer

For executing A/B tests, you can use Optimizely and Visual Web Optimizer. These tools make it easy for you to create and run your tests. Additionally, you can get the results of your tests with ease so that you can accordingly optimize your performance.

Image via Optimizely

While some marketers do use A/B testing as well, these tools can be extremely helpful for growth hackers who regularly conduct these types of tests.

4. WordPress, SquareSpace and Other Website Builders

Marketers generally aren’t involved in the process of website designing and development. However, growth hacking often involves this phase, as well. Growth hackers usually come from developer backgrounds and thus may end up creating their custom websites.

However, many of them may not be experts. In which case, a website builder would come in very handy. WordPress and SquareSpace are two of the most popular website builders that can help you design websites with minimal to no coding.

Image via WordPress

As marketers usually don’t deal with website design and optimization, these tools wouldn’t be of much use to them.

5. Survey Monkey, Wufoo, and TypeForm

Tools such as SurveyMonkey, Wufoo, and TypeForm can help you gather customer feedback. They help you do so by integrating different tools on your website. By measuring this feedback, you can make changes to your strategies and optimize your campaigns.

Image via G Suite

Final Thoughts

Growth hacking and traditional marketing may overlap, but they are vastly different from each other. While growth hacking involves looking for affordable ways to quickly grow your company, traditional marketing often requires a much larger budget.

Additionally, traditional marketing involves the promotion of finished products. On the other hand, growth hacking involves the development and promotion of products based on customer feedback.

Growth hackers are often involved in the product development stages and usually have some technical knowledge as well. But marketers have the sole goal of increasing the company’s sales and will most likely not be involved in the development stages.