July 15, 2021
It’s a term that we’re all too familiar with as marketers.
As one of the industry’s most overused buzzwords today, growth hacking was once an exciting term that focused on the intersection between marketing, data analysis, engineering, and design. A growth hacker, therefore, was someone who could build a strategy that leverages all four of those things to drive growth for a business.
Today, that’s no longer the case in many marketing circles.
Instead, “growth hacking” has come to be ridiculed as a catch-all term for hacky, unscalable, one-off wins.
That’s not what success looks like. We aren’t a growth hacking agency. Instead, we use data-driven experiments and scalable processes that demonstrate how to meet a company’s goals over time.
First, what is growth hacking really?
The definition of growth hacking is “black hat” marketing that helps you cheat the system for faster results. Some define it as easy-to-do “hacks” or “tricks” that can instantly solve a business problem.
You can find plenty of growth hacking examples online if you want to find them, and they are as varied as they are abundant.
Some companies have realized quick wins by making slight changes to their marketing assets. For example, you may have heard stories of companies who saw an exponential increase in their conversions just by switching from HTML marketing emails to plain-text emails. Some have seen a huge uptick in social media interactions by taking up social causes or switching to a new post format.
Or, perhaps they added a stock image of an overly excited businessperson pointing to their website’s CTA, which somehow increased conversions by a certain percentage.
These examples are often touted as “growth hacks.” Sure, they’ve shown results, but they in no way represent a scalable version of your marketing efforts. They may not even be repeatable in any fashion, and their effects may wear off over time.
In reality, growth hacking is a term meant to signify an experimentation process in order to target specific parts of the funnel with a mix of marketing, creative, and technology in order to drive scalable growth. Not all growth hacking techniques are bad.
One-off successes are not real “growth hacks.” Instead, they’re throwaway tactics built around a marketing strategy (or lack thereof) that doesn’t scale. You’ll get that giant spike of growth immediately from something like a successful Product Hunt launch, but that traffic and lead gen will eventually slow down.
The real growth hacking comes when you take your Product Hunt success and combine it with clever email tactics, on-siteA/B testing for Product Hunt traffic to optimize conversions, and build lookalike audiences and retargeting audiences based on that traffic.
That’s what growth hacking should be all about: fewer one-off tactics and more concentrated growth strategy.
Unfortunately, growth hacking has become the type of industry buzzword whose definition is no longer what you might find on Wikipedia or in blogs written by true growth hackers. It’s instead started to signify those one-off successes mentioned above.
Growth hacking now survives on one-off success case studies, like cases from Airbnb or Dropbox. But these case studies ignore the real strategy and the real data insights behind their success and how these companies doubled down on that success with a full-funnel strategy.
That’s precisely why we began distancing ourselves from the term. We wanted current and potential clients to understand that data, experimentation, strategy, and process are the cornerstones of everything we do.
We love stories of winning tactics, but a focus on helpful marketing tactics instead of growth hacking strategy and scalability leads many marketers to think that they can do these one-off hacks and build a billion-dollar business.
At Ladder, we don’t like to think that way. We’ll take the exciting and new marketing tactics and execute them when they fit into a full growth marketing strategy for any given month, sure. But those tactics in marketing will always align around a unifying goal for that month. Every tactic we pick, from the most basic to the hackiest, will focus on driving ROI for that goal.
The best alternative to growth hacking is to have a scientific process that is based on an intimate understanding of your funnel economics, ROI-driven experimentation, and to aim for scalable wins.
Our growth process, which has helped us grow both high-potential startups and well-established enterprises, is similar in many ways to the more traditional definition of growth hacking:
“…a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most efficient ways to grow a business.” (Wikipedia)
We think of this as “scientific marketing” or “Growth Science” — a process by which we apply the scientific method to grow a business.
Here’s how that process looks in practice:
First, collect data and information through observation – what does the analysis say? What are your website visitors saying? What can you find using 3rd party audit tools? Perform a comprehensive growth audit– a deep review of the entire business funnel and properties why we identify growth levers.
Create tentative descriptions of what is being observed – what story is the data showing? How does it relate to your bottom line? Build a growth blueprint based on the math that drives your business to truly understand what and where to target.
Form hypotheses that predict different outcomes based on these observations – if you were to pull “Lever A” (e.g. CTA button copy), what do you expect to be the result? Target the right funnel stage and frame your experiments around fixing the biggest leaks.
Design and run an experiment to test your hypotheses – what tools can you use to execute the experiment? Are you testing the right variables? Will your test have an actual measurable impact? Execute in tactical sprints (search through 850+ tactics in the Ladder Playbook).
Analyze the data, drawing conclusions and insights from the results – what did pulling “Lever A” actually do? Did the experiment succeed? Most will not, but as long as you’re learning – failing forward – you’ll hit the big wins.
*NOTE: This process, alongside our custom machine-learning technology, enables us to successfully test and scale growth tactics that boost ROI across 200+ companies.
Historically, marketing has mostly been about guesswork. At the turn of the century, and with the introduction of inbound marketing, much of that changed. Instead of focusing primarily on reaching audiences through advertising, businesses began to better identify their audiences and use personalization to build better customer experiences.
Since then, this process has escalated substantially, and in no small part due to marketing technology.
Companies that aren’t using data-driven marketing strategies just can’t compete anymore. There’s a reason why there is a serious shortage of data scientists right now. Data scientists act as a bridge between decision-makers and the reams of data their companies collect.
Using scientific marketing for business growth is all about applying the hard-won insights drawn from data to produce real business outcomes, such as winning growth marketing strategies. Data can help agencies create better results for their clients, whether they’re developing digital ads, marketing organically over social media, or even engaging in content marketing.
Data is also essential for sales and account-based marketing. With the right tools, agencies and their clients can collect prospect and account data that lets them better align their marketing strategies to specific accounts and build in personalization based on their target’s personal information, such as their role in the company and their relationship with decision-makers.
Of course, the scientific marketing process is next to impossible without the right technology. While some companies may claim to have put in place the perfect technology stack, the truth is that marketing technology is constantly evolving — and fast.
According to a 2018 study by PR agency Walker Sands,just 28% of companiesfelt that their companies’ use of marketing technology was keeping pace with the evolution of available products in the marketplace.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t immediately jump on the latest technology just because it’s new, you need to keep your capabilities up to date so you don’t fall behind. Many growth agencies are aware of this, which is why they stay apprised and knowledgeable of emerging technologies like marketing automation and analytics solutions.
To clarify, marketing technology can be broken down into three layers:
Within each layer can be multiple tools, solutions, and software products, and you need team members with the requisite skills to use your tools.
You can assemble this technology stack on your own and update it as needed, but the ecosystem is only getting more complex. That’s one of the reasons so many companies choose to work with a growth/marketing agency like Ladder — to help them assemble a streamlined (but powerful) set of marketing tools.
Looking for a marketing agency (or trustworthy marketing talent in general) can be a minefield.
Some growth agencies might have the capabilities you need, but they don’t understand your industry. Others can “growth hack,” giving you quick wins, but they just can’t maintain the momentum and provide you with the growth marketing strategy you need. You also need to consider the costs involved and how long you’ll have to wait until you start seeing ROI, especially if you need buy-in from decision-makers at your company.
How to choose a growth marketing agency depends mostly on your business context and what you need them to do. It could be that you just need a new website, or you need some extra help with your content marketing tactics.
But if you’re looking for an end-to-end growth strategy, you’d be better served by ignoring agencies with the quick win, growth hacker mentality and focus on a superior marketing agency that can understand both the evolving role of marketing technology in your industry and the needs of your unique customers.
If you already have an idea of the types of marketing services you’ll need, you can start there. Clearly, you’ll want to eliminate any agencies that don’t have the right capabilities.
For example, we focus on four key services:
While we aren’t a perfect fit for everyone, we’ve worked many different types of companies, from TechStars startups to SMBs to the Fortune 500. We have specialist teams in each category that allow us to provide reliable expertise and proven success.
Regardless, make sure you choose an agency that takes a scientific approach to marketing. If your agency is using guesswork to implement your marketing strategy or their reports don’t lead to actionable next steps (*see remarkable reporting) they are not in the best position to help you grow.
Look for agencies like Ladder that use data science and automated marketing audits to identify weaknesses and set performance benchmarks. If they aren’t testing anything, they aren’t working to help you grow.
Niche industries sometimes call for niche agencies. If you’re part of an industry that’s heavily regulated (like healthcare or finance), you may need a growth agency that can both help you grow and navigate your regulatory environment. They’ll be able to help you avoid pitfalls immediately and they may even have a better understanding of how to reach your customers.
At the very least, consider an agency that has experience working with companies in your industry. Some agencies only do business-to-business (B2B) marketing, while others work primarily with direct-to-consumer startups, for example.
*If you’re interested – across the hundreds of companies we’ve helped some patterns have emerged… namely, that we dominate SaaS, FinTech, and nutrition/wellness/supplement eCommerce. That said, we have seen success in other categories as well. In fact, here are some brands we’ve helped that you might recognize: Nestle, Booking.com, Monzo Bank, Travelex, Current, FitJoy, Le Pain Quotidien, NewsWhip, Cellucor, 8tracks, goTenna, Charitybuzz and more… including Facebook.
You can find agencies that work on a project-per-project basis, but they aren’t typically focused on developing a model for growth at your company. Instead, they’re more focused on completing tasks so they can get paid. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad at what they do, they just have to worry more about the bottom line when getting paid depends on project completion.
The costs of services at growth marketing agencies vary, but most operate on a retainer or subscription model depending on the services they offer. For example, our contracts generally start at $7.5k/mo with a 4-month pilot (though most stay with us much longer). If you’re interested in speaking with a Ladder strategist you can connect here.
Whether you’re a startup or an established enterprise company, there’s no reason to compromise. Even if every marketing company under the sun bills itself as a growth agency, it doesn’t mean they have the chops to back it up.
Instead, look for key characteristics like the following:
Evidence and Social Proof:Most agencies will have testimonials on their website (the more the better), but you can also look up reviews on third-party websites like Clutch. It’s definitely advised to do a little background research into an agency before you sign up for their services.
Furthermore, make sure they practice what they preach. An agency that does “website design” may not be worth working with if their website doesn’t impress you. Any successful growth agency will have applied their growth strategies to their own business. Here’s an example on Instapage.com.
Technological Expertise:If you want to scale your marketing, technology is going to play a big role. Growth hacking agencies that are worth their weight will not only use a suite of technology tools for their own marketing, but they’ll also be ready with recommendations of tools that will work best for you. Many top agencies partner with software providers to make your user onboarding as frictionless as possible (we’re partners with Hubspot, Unbounce, Instapage, Facebook and more).
A Strong Company Culture:While it pays to focus on results, it’s important to remember that you’ll be working with your growth agencies for a long time — possibly years.
Cultural fit is something many companies overlook when procuring marketing services. Internet marketing tends to be remote work, after all. But a growth agency works closely with your team, so it doesn’t hurt to find a company you like on a personal level.
Remember, real growth hacking is less about quick wins and more about developing demand generation & conversion strategies that grow and evolve over time. Any agency that knows what it’s doing won’t try to sell you on cheap tricks or one-off campaigns. They’ll experiment, run tests, and act as a long-term growth partner.
After all, their success depends on your own.
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