The pros and cons of growth hacking.
Although ‘organic’ is the trendiest of concepts as far as food is concerned, most organisations are not patient enough for organic growth. They want to grow by leaps and bounds, in spurts and jerks. This is where “Growth Hacking” comes, which is defined as a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business.
Hotmail, once an email service used by virtually everyone, was one of the earliest exponents of a growth hack. Remember that little line beneath every email, inviting the reader to a free Hotmail account? It resulted in an exponential growth in the number of sign-ups, attracting none other than Microsoft to buy Hotmail.
Take Google. They don’t charge a dime for their excellent, in fact unparalleled, suite of web-based services such as YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Maps... you name it. The services are beautifully, seamlessly connected, and all of them act as each other’s growth hacks. Yes, if you use ANY Google service, you are, in fact, using all of them: click on a YouTube link from Gmail and you find yourself logged into YouTube, comment on it and you are automatically signed in to Google+, step outside and you will be tracked by Google Maps. How are they growth hacks? One simple word: Ads. All these services push ads at you and that’s where Google’s billions in annual revenue come from.
There are several strategies with regard to growth hacking. It can be done by simply bootstrapping your product or service on to a competitor’s platform: for example, if you go to a Microsoft site while using Google Chrome, the chances are that you will receive an invitation to install Microsoft’s Edge browser, with a message telling you that: “You could have it so much better”.
AirBnb, the peer-to-peer vacation rentals website, made use of a simple growth hack in 2008. They did not spend much on advertising but managed to grow into a billion dollar company by executing a simple – and awesome – idea: They solicited people who posted ads on Craigslist, and asked them to place their ads on Airbnb instead. Cheeky, risky – but effective!
Oh, and how can we forget Facebook – the octopus in the room, the camel in the tent? I am a proud non-user of Facebook, yet I am safely within their clutches via Whatsapp, as well as videos and posts that show up on my web browser and my Twitter feed, as well as pages maintained by various businesses. Their biggest hack? The ‘Like’ button, which is effectively embedded in each web page visited. Another, recent hack: initiatives started in conjunction with ISPs in various developing countries including Pakistan – that enable people to browse the web for free while Facebook tracks them.
The core competencies of a company should be scalable in order to sustain and capitalise on growth hacks, and an extended period of time is required to homogenise two distinct user bases.
LinkedIn grew from two million to 200 million users by allowing users to create public profiles. This was a brilliant move as it ensured that when someone searched for a person’s name, company or title, one of the first results they saw would be a LinkedIn profile. Cue, success and acquisition by Microsoft!
Speaking of acquisitions, these are possibly the oldest growth hack. Google acquired YouTube, Fiat acquired Chrysler and Microsoft acquired Skype. While many such acquisitions have ended in disaster, one thing is certain: they add millions of users to the acquirer’s business overnight.
Growth, however, should be sustained and handled: millions of new users/buyers can mean additional server load, the need to establish a wider customer support network, increased media exposure, and heightened expectations, which companies that have newly acquired other companies are unable meet.
A case in point is AOL which all but disappeared after acquiring TimeWarner, since it simply wasn’t equipped to develop and sustain a vertically integrated content service. General Motors, becoming the world’s largest automaker through acquisitions, found itself tottering at the edge of disaster, wielding a heavy baggage of non-performing, outdated brands. At one point it started selling Toyota and Daewoo vehicles under its brand (Geo) as a ‘growth hack’ but that did not prove to be successful and GM went bankrupt. They only survived by becoming much, much smaller – ‘a reverse growth hack’ if you will!
The thing to remember is this: the core competencies of a company should be scalable in order to sustain and capitalise on growth hacks, and an extended period of time is required to homogenise two distinct user bases. Otherwise, a company may not be able to handle their growth.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.