Growth Hacking Is So Old School

“Marketing is everything and everything is marketing.” – Regis McKenna, 1991

“Everything is marketing: How growth hackers redefine the game.” – Ryan Holiday, 2012

Don’t you just love it when people stumble upon a concept that’s been around for ages, slap a new name on it and call it the next big thing? In case you haven’t noticed, that’s been happening a lot lately. Case in point: growth hacking.

I guess some geeks and self-proclaimed gurus got it in their heads that the digital marketing techniques they were using are unique. Instead of considering that maybe, just maybe, they don’t really know much about marketing, they called it “growth hacking” and declared it to be the future of marketing.

Funny thing is, these so-called hacks have been around forever. They’re nothing new, at least not to the technology industry. It’s just new to them. Which doesn’t make them innovators. It just makes them naïve and self-serving.

That’s right, I did just call growth hackers naïve and self-serving … in terms of their understanding of high-tech marketing, or lack thereof.

So what is growth hacking? If you ask 10 growth hackers, you’ll probably get 10 different answers, but they’ll likely include some combination or permutations of the following:

- It’s about finding new ways to acquire customers and keep them around.

- It’s about marketing and product development working together to build growth strategies into products.

- It’s about using cost-effective, data-driven, analytical techniques to optimize websites, improve user experience and increase conversion rates.

- It’s about finding early adopters to evangelize and drive customer penetration and growth.

- It’s about leveraging existing platforms like Apple iOS, Google Android and Facebook.

- It’s about using SEO, website analytics, content marketing, social networks and open-source platforms to increase exposure and ROI.

- And of course, the ever-popular “Growth hacking is a mindset.”

How did growth hacking come about? According to countless blog posts on the subject, today’s startups don’t have the capital or the experience for traditional marketing techniques so they invented creative and incremental approaches that are more effective and cost-effective than advertising.

Therein lies the rub. This is nothing new. Technology startups have faced those same hurdles since the 70s and 80s.

The way growth hackers talk, you’d think Silicon Valley was in the dark ages before they came along. Maybe the channels, platforms and tools have changed, but high-tech marketers have been using the same sort of tactics and far more innovative strategies to drive growth for decades. And we did it without advertising budgets, Web 2.0, search, social media, blogs and a billion users with smartphones.

It would be quite an eye-opener for a growth hacker to crack open a book by one of the great marketers who helped put Silicon Valley on the map: Marketing High Technology by famed venture capitalist and former Intel marketing and sales chief Bill Davidow, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, or Relationship Marketing by Regis McKenna – who helped launch Apple, Intel, and dozens of other startups – to name a few.

What can I say? As a former marketing veep who knew and was influenced by some of the greats, and used a variety of fairly creative methods to generate his fair share of viral successes back in the day, I simply can’t let statements like “Growth hacker is the new VP marketing” go unchallenged.

The truth is, startup marketers have been successfully launching companies and battling industry giants like Intel, Microsoft and IBM on shoestring budgets for eons. How did we do it? By working together with research and development to define innovative products, co-opting early adopters and key influencers as evangelists, and leveraging widely used platforms to accelerate customer adoption, among other strategies.

I wonder if any of that sounds familiar to the growth hacker crowd.

Don’t just take it from me; a lot of contemporary folks who do this sort of thing for a living are pretty annoyed about the growth hacker hype as well. In Growth Hacking Is Bull, digital marketing consultant Muhammad Saleem does a profoundly effective job of proving his point.

Saleem also points to a popular tweet by a guy who goes way back to the early days of online marketing. Danny Sullivan – chief content officer of Third Door Media and founding editor at Marketing Land and Search Engine Land – posted this last year:

Many have attempted to define marketing, but the best description I’ve heard came from Davidow, who said, “Marketing must invent complete products and drive them to commanding positions in defensible market segments.”

Even while running marketing for some high-profile companies, I spent every day trying to live up to that standard on behalf of our stakeholders. And when we were successful, the fact that I stood on the shoulders of giants never escaped me. A little humility along those lines might do growth hackers some good.