If you want your new product to succeed in today's marketplace, abandon almost everything you learnt in college about marketing. It is arguable if it really worked well in the past but it certainly won't work now. That's the message from author Ryan Holiday in his book Growth Hacker Marketing.
Holiday combines his current role as marketing director of fashion house American Apparel with work as a media strategist.
After dropping out of college at 19 to apprentice under best-selling author Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors, businesses, and multiplatinum musicians. His campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in Ad Age, The New York Times and Fast Company.
The central idea of this book is that traditional marketing, with its emphasis on print ads, press releases and big launches is an inefficient route to market. Through the use of so-called growth hackers, marketers can reach out directly to consumers, tweak products and deliver explosive viral results.
Growth hackers, he says, trace their roots back to programmers – and that’s how they view themselves. “They are data scientists meets design fiends meets marketers. They welcome this information, process it and utilise it differently, and see it as desperately needed clarity in a world that has been dominated by gut instincts and artistic preference for too long.”
Growth hackers, he explains, are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor and email deliverability.
“Their job isn’t to ‘do’ marketing as I had always known it; it’s to grow companies really fast – to take something from nothing and make it something enormous within an incredibly tight window . . . The entire marketing team is being disrupted. Rather than having a VP of marketing with a bunch of nontechnical marketers reporting to them, instead growth hackers are engineers leading teams of engineers,” he says.
The new job title of “Growth Hacker” is integrating itself into Silicon Valley’s culture, he adds, emphasising that coding and technical savvy are now an essential part of being a great marketer.
What growth hackers do is focus on the “who” and “where” more scientifically, in a more measurable way. Whereas marketing was once brand based, with growth hacking, it becomes metric and ROI driven.
Hotmail provides a good case in point. It was the venture capitalist Tim Draper that in 1997 provided the then unique idea of putting a message at the bottom of the screen inviting others to use the service.
The explosive reaction to this piece of inspiration turned a $300,000 investment into a $400m brand within a year.
"That message worked so well because it showcased an amazing product that people wanted and needed. Each user led to new users and crucially this could be tracked and tweaked," he says.
Tweaking is essential in this model as many businesses don't end up anywhere like what they started out as. Witness Airbnb. It started out as airbedandbreakfast.com as a way of the founders turning the living room of their loft apartment into a cheap accommodation option. It then repositioned itself as a networking site for conference attendees when hotels were booked up. Both produced mediocre results.
However, when the founders shortened the name and repositioned themselves as a place for people to rent any form of lodging imaginable from a room to a castle or houseboat, it went viral.
Similarly, Instagram started life as a location-based social network, with an optional photo sharing feature. The add-on became the business.
“Traditional business models invest so much in the big launch approach where marketing is the end of the process but product development and marketing are not two distinct things and the more integrated they are the better. Your product should be pliable, capable of being improved by the feedback of customers.”
Crucially, he adds, marketers take an all or nothing approach, assuming that they need to get as many customers as possible in a very short window of time – and if it doesn’t work right away, it’s a total failure. “Often it’s hard for marketers to admit that they have a flop so they persist with something that’s clearly not working.”
Does he practice what he preaches? Apparently so. In his role with American Apparel, he says he now test markets products in a limited range of stores before pushing the button on a large run. “We’ll get feedback on the colour or a pocket on a shirt before we commit too heavily and we’ll make changes based on that response. If you’ve already manufactured 100,000 items it’s too late to change course.”