Growth at scale is a beast.
In fact, it’s the fundamental problem enterprises face. As Harvard Business professor Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor put it in The Innovator’s Solution:
“Probably the most daunting challenge in delivering growth is that if you fail once to deliver it, the odds that you ever will be able to deliver in the future are very low.”
In recent years, a single phrase has promised salvation: “growth hacking.” The question is: Can you growth hack the enterprise?
To find out, Johannes Ceh and I put that question to executives from 17 of the largest organizations in the world — roughly $276.96 billion in market value. From ecommerce to apps, manufacturing to social media …
These are 100% original contributions direct from the brightest and biggest minds in business, exclusive to Shopify Plus.
Don’t have time to read the article? No problem …
- Start with Clarity: LinkedIn
- Know Your Numbers: Slack
- Provide Disproportionate Value: Gary Vaynerchuk
- Focus on Customer Led Optimization: Western Union
- Experiment for Disproportionate Growth: BuzzFeed
- Challenge the Conventions: T-Mobile
- Develop a Growth Skill Set: Mercedes-Benz
- Expose Your “Must Have” Value: Dropbox
- Add Growth to Your Product: Guy Kawasaki
- Break the Rules: Tinder
- Extend Your Channels: DCMN
- Be Rigorous about Data: Duolingo
- Unite Key Objectives: Shopify Plus
- Organize Around an Operational Mindset: ClassPass
- Allow, but Don’t Excuse, Failure: Adobe
- Build for the Long Term: WeTransfer
- Tell Authentic Stories: SAP
1. Start with Clarity
Aatif Awan, VP of Growth & International Products at LinkedIn
“I’ve never been a fan of the term growth hacking, despite having done growth for over six years, helping LinkedIn grow from 100 million members to more than 500 million. Often, growth hacking leads people to copy short-term tactics or optimizations.
“My advice is to stay away from the hype and instead invest in developing a clear understanding of your product, the market it serves, and the value it delivers.”
“Once you have product-market fit, then invest in growth. Start by identifying first principles like where your users are, how they receive value from your product, how they currently discover the product, and how you can measure success in a way that correlates with actual user value.
“As you develop this understanding, build growth into the product itself so that existing users bring in new users whether through direct invites or content that draws them in. This is a far superior growth strategy than relying on marketing to drive awareness and acquisition, although that can be used to amplify product-driven growth.”
2. Know Your Numbers
Rachel Hepworth, Slack Head of Growth Marketing
“At the end of the day, growth hacking is about being strategically focused on how to drive more value for the customer at a much more rapid pace.
“If you’re trying to generate awareness, it should be about helping the right customers hear about your product at the right time when they have a direct need. Ask yourself: who are your customers, where is the optimal place for reaching them, and how can you reach them more efficiently?
“Remember that numbers are your friend in the growth world: examine which areas you’re underperforming in and where you could benefit most from an improvement.”
“At Slack, engineering teams were our core early adopters, and they tended to spend time on Twitter. In the early days and even today, Slack spent a considerable amount of time there speaking with customers, answering questions, and generally being available. Many of those early followers spread the word about Slack through Twitter, enormously magnifying our word of mouth.”
“If you’re trying to convert prospective customers, it’s about evaluating how you can remove friction during the buying cycle and positioning yourself in front of the right stakeholders within their company. Have the details they need to make a decision, but don’t overwhelm them with every fact.”
3. Provide “Disproportionate” Value
Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia
“I just don’t understand marketers. There’s one trait they’re all missing. It comes down to empathy. Are you able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes? I know what I want. I know how I want it to be, but the reason VaynerMedia has been so successful is because I haven’t been stubborn about forcing all of my clients, who are multi-billion dollar companies, to do it my way.”
“The number one piece of advice I have for growth is to focus on the end consumer. It’s 51/49. Are you willing to create, engage, entertain, inform, and truly serve your customer and community?”
“You must be willing to provide a disproportionate amount of value upfront with zero expectation of return.”
“Not every piece of creative needs a business objective. Don’t take attention for granted and learn to market in the moment we live.”
4. Focus on Customer Led Optimization
Karen O’Brien, VP of Global Social Media and Brand Engagement at Western Union
“Defining myself as a growth-hacker challenges me to really think from a customer experience perspective and focus on what really matters to them.”
“It sounds basic but my best growth hacking in social media marketing has come by really listening to our customers and creating experiences, content, and campaigns that we believe they will love.”
“Successful growth in marketing for brands requires relentless focus on what the customer wants, how they engage, and constant feedback to optimize.”
“Then, it’s a matter of continuously improving based on results, customer conversations, and feedback. Very few marketers want to practice and master the fundamentals. They skip to the sexy new tactics and miss the magic in the process.”
5. Experiment for “Disproportionate” Growth
Troy Osinoff, Co-Founder of JUICE and Former Head of Customer Acquisition at BuzzFeed
“Too many businesses look at growth hacking as a panacea, a way to beat the system, something to break them through the matrix into explosive growth and user adoption. It’s the belief that growth hacking is a viable hail mary option that gives it an inflated reputation.
“Instead, growth hacking is a series of in-house experiments aimed at finding and exploiting a certain channel for disproportionate growth.”
“Not only are these opportunities extremely difficult to find, they could also disappear in a manner of hours. To make things even more interesting, there is no single blueprint for growth that members of a marketing or growth team can rely on.
“Companies should look at growth hacking as a mindset — rapidly executed experiments to identify the most efficient ways to scale — rather than a handful of actions that guarantee growth. The underlying principle behind growth hacking is an unrelenting desire to see improvement based on iterations.
“The best way a startup or enterprise can approach growth hacking is to institute a culture that makes experimentation and failure okay. Members of your team need to feel comfortable in taking measured and contained risks, without feeling overt pressure to succeed.
“The truth is that only a fraction of growth hack attempts will succeed, and an even smaller number will really knock it out of the park.”
6. Challenge the Conventions
Nicholas Drake, Chief Digital Officer at T-Mobile US
“Growth hacking is extremely helpful — but that’s because experimentation is so important when you’re looking for ways to grow a business quickly.
“When I first arrived at T-Mobile, I set up a team called ‘The Hackery’ whose sole purpose was to come up with fast-fire solutions that helped us achieve bigger and bigger goals.
“Our UberRUSH pilot was just one of the ideas that came out of this team. We started UberRUSH with the ambition of order to delivery in three hours, but we actually beat that target with a fast 23-minute average delivery time.
“Another idea that emerged from that group was fastrack store experiences made possible by personalized conversations with Telesales agents and the functionality to co-browse via a mobile, digital catalog (T-Pop).
“We incorporated all these ideas into a brand new, Human Digital experience called T-Mobile NextGen, which increased web conversion by over 300 percent! More importantly, this initiative reduced the number of customer effort/web clicks by 60 percent.
“Challenge conventions. Question paradigms. Test and learn quickly. If something’s not working, be willing to drop the idea and move onto the next.”
“If something is working, figure out how to scale it and hand it off to the business. Lastly, ring-fence budgets for experimentation. Otherwise, your current metrics and KPIs will prevent you from executing differently.”
7. Develop Your Growth Skill Set
Natanael Sijanta, Director of Global Marketing at Mercedes-Benz
“We are experiencing a very exciting time of transformation and change. The factors that contributed to economic success in the pre-digital era often prove to be innovation barriers in the age of digitization.
“Not only are the products and services of industrial companies significantly different from those of digital companies, but also the organizational structure, corporate philosophy, and the general mindset are fundamentally different.
“Leading a company or a brand successfully through the digital age is a challenging but exciting business. But such a digital transformation is not new, there are historical models (first industrial revolution).
“Even then, entrepreneurs have succeeded in managing their businesses successfully through the times of change.
“Three skills are needed: (1) a latent dissatisfaction with the status quo, (2) a vision of where the journey should go and processes for the journey, and (3) a dose of luck.”
“The latter is not a self-runner, but the qualities in front of it help to cultivate the luck.”
8. Expose Your “Must Have” Value
“The prerequisite for growth is a ‘must have’ product or one that has achieved product-market fit. Growth hacking then helps teams find repeatable ways to drive sustainable growth, which requires understanding and exposing the ‘must have’ value in your product to a growing base of customers.
“This is best achieved by testing across the entire customer journey from acquisition channels through activation, engagement and referral. Using the growth hacking process, cross-functional teams to work together and focus testing on high leverage opportunities.
“Getting started with growth hacking is quite different for enterprises compared to early-stage startups. For example, at Dropbox we were able to instrument tracking and cross-functional testing relatively quickly (we were less than 10 people).
“But for established enterprises, continued growth requires a fundamental shift in culture to drive cross-functional testing.”
“Walmart is driving this change through the acquisition of Jet.com, putting their former CEO in charge of all of Walmart's digital efforts. Other enterprises will need some type of catalyzing event to drive the cultural shift to a cross-functional growth hacking process.
“Cross-functional only works if all relevant functions are on board. I recommend getting all functional heads together for an offsite with the CEO and an outside expert to define and jumpstart the shift to growth hacking.”
9. Add Growth Your Product
Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist at Canva
“There’s a similar attitude with growth hacking and SEO. Basically, Google is in the business of finding good shit. And they have fifty thousand PhDs figuring out how to find good shit.
“You’re not going to outsmart and out game them. So, why wouldn’t you just post good shit and depend on Google to find you?
“It’s similar with growth hacking. The key to growth hacking is [having a] good product and service. That’s 90% of it. At the margin, you can increase. I’m not saying it’s not useful. But, if you said to me: ‘Guy, you can either have a good product or good growth hacking. Which would you rather have?’
“With a good product, you can add good growth hacking, but not the other way around.”
“If you know how to growth hack, but you have a crappy product, you still have a crappy product. Just make a freakin’ good product.”
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10. Break the Rules
Hermione Way, Former Head of European Communications at Tinder
“Growth hacking is the buzzword of now, but that doesn't matter. It’s used to describe a person who is able to grow a sales channel organically.
“You can throw all the money you want at paid ads and get good results, but a growth hacker can get good results by spending nothing — often by employing social networks, apps, and content in an unusual way that most people have not figured out yet.
“Break the rules. Growth hacking is about succeeding in the most unconventional, unruly way possible: doing whatever you can to move fast.”
“It’s not about illegal activity, but more seeing clever ways to use technology. It's about seeing the gaps and exploiting those features so you grow quicker than anyone else.
“Content is still always king. If your content does not connect with people you might as well go home. I see a lot of startups wasting money because their content doesn’t trigger an emotional response.
“Remember, sales is all about trust and being able to garner an emotional response in your target market. Data is important, but heart is paramount.”
11. Extend Your Channels
Matthias Riedl, Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer of DCMN
“Most people are entering growth via niche digital channels to succeed as fast as possible. This is an exciting starting point; however, it is not enough for sustaining growth.
“A lot of growth potential can be gained by wisely integrating traditional channels like radio, TV, and CRM into the plan. Limiting your focus to a single channel is more a specialization than a sustainable strategy.
“If you want to take your growth further and scale as an enterprise, you have to extend your actions to all channels and a holistic understanding.”
“However, this extension of channels is a challenge a lot of growth hackers are struggling with, as the measurability and KPIs of traditional channels like TV are difficult.
“Within companies, a holistic understanding also means not to relegate a single job as growth marketer, but to implement the growth mindset for the whole organization. It is not isolated, single players driving sustaining growth, the whole company needs to live, breathe and act growth.”
12. Be Rigorous about Data
“If approached as a mental framework rather than a magic trick, the concept of growth hacking is very useful. Though the term is often associated with quick tricks and cutting corners, growth hackers learn to prioritize efforts based on an estimated ROI and make data-driven decisions.
“This can help any marketer or project manager decide what is worth pursuing and how to make the most of their resources in a wide range of scenarios.
“The most important part is being rigorous about data collection and analysis.”
“If you can’t accurately measure the impact of your efforts or gauge where you’re losing potential customers, it will be very hard to make improvements.
“At Duolingo, we use Mixpanel for tracking metrics, JIRA for tracking experiment progress, and good ol’ Google Docs for full experiment write-ups and reviews. If you’re overwhelmed by Mixpanel, at least A/B test ASO experiments using Google Play and keep close track of your app ranking fluctuations with App Annie.”
13. Unite Around Key Objectives
Hana Abaza, Head of Marketing at Shopify Plus
“Hacking implies a quick and dirty duct tape solution. And, in some cases, that might be appropriate. But both sustainable and disruptive growth must be approached methodically, with a deep understanding of your customer and product.
“It sounds like Marketing 101 but this is — almost without fail — the one thing people gloss over.”
“At scale, this can become tricky. As you grow, your audience (and by default, your prospective customers) becomes more nuanced, particularly if you’re targeting new markets or expanding up or down market.”
“Segmentation becomes critical. Then, think about how you find the right growth levers for each segment. Some channels that worked well in the past may not scale or work for an adjacent market segment.”
“The last thing I’d add is to make sure your team is oriented around your key objective.”
“Don’t confuse that with a single metric. That’s not what I’m talking about. For example, if your goal is to increase the pipeline, that can be done in a variety of ways. You can increase the number of leads, increase conversion at different stages in the funnel, etc.
“Instead of a single metric, get everyone focused on the outcome. Having that kind of single-minded allegiance to an overarching goal can do amazing things to motivate a team.”
14. Organize Around an Operational Mindset
Joanna Lord, Chief Marketing Officer at ClassPass
“I believe growth hacking is most certainly still helpful, and I look at it as an approach or mindset. It’s thinking with speed and impact in mind.
“Let’s think outside of ‘program and channel improvements’ and instead ‘experience or funnel-based enhancements’ that could make for quick wins. Those quick wins must provide an asset (i.e., more traffic, more emails, more margin, etc.) that my teams can capitalize on toward our growth goals.”
“I think of growth more with an operations mindset. The key is to ask, ‘How can we create the right space and processes to ideate around growth hacking opportunities?’”
“This requires cross-functional sessions between marketing, product, engineering, and analytics. Those four areas must be represented so you can understand …
- What growth assets are most valuable (marketing)?
- What thresholds can create an inflection growth point (analytics)?
- What could be built to impact that asset (product)?
- What is the quickest way to test this build and thesis (engineering)?
“This is done separately from ongoing marketing/product operations and road-mapping. My channels and programs will always have a laundry list of improvements that we can build and that will give us YoY or QoQ wins.
“Growth hacking processes and rhythms are different and done in parallel. They are after MoM or even WoW wins. They involve different stakeholders, more experimentation, and a much faster execution cadence than ongoing marketing operations.”
15. Allow, but Don’t Excuse, Failure
Vijayanta Gupta, Head of Product & Industry at Adobe (EMEA)
“Growth hacking depends on the organizational approach. When it becomes an organizational mindset with focus on long-term, sustainable, and profitable growth, it is helpful.
“When it becomes a ‘role’ or an excuse to try out ‘cool’ things without the focus on the long term, it is hype.
“When it becomes the license to fail without repercussions, it can be dangerous, both for startups and for enterprises.”
“Growth hacking is a collection of tactics to create a test-and-learn culture in an organization — irrespective of their size or longevity. Organizations that get the benefit from this tend to take a longer term, as well as, broader view of growth hacking than just merely use it for short-term growth of key metrics.”
16. Build for the Long Term
Rob Alderson, VP of Content and Editor in Chief at WeTransfer
“In its worst form, there’s a ‘growth for growth’s sake mentality.’ That means the genuine needs and wants of the user are subjugated to getting eyeballs at any cost. With the wrong mentality, growth hacking tips into tricking users, which is terrible for building any sort of relationship.
“As someone with a content background, I think it’s important to build long-term relationships – slow and steady wins the race. Be more tortoise.”
“Just before giving an experiment the go-ahead, take five seconds to think, ‘If a company did this to me, how would I feel?’ It’s bizarre how often people ignore this great market research asset we all have which is, you know, being a person.”
17. Tell Authentic Stories
Jochen Schneider, CDO of SAP Innovative Business Solutions (Custom Development EMEA/MEE)
“There’s definitely a difference between startups doing growth hacking and enterprises going after it. Startups can experiment more, which is a cornerstone.
“Enterprises, on the other hand, have more budget to invest in people and distribution. They also have more structural boundaries to deal with as well as hierarchies that can make moving quickly difficult. DevOps teams are natural in startups; enterprises often have to drive huge efforts to optimize their dev-forces.
“Whatever the landscape you’re facing, growth hacking needs to be approached with a clear understanding of your target audience and through authentic storytelling.”
“What I try to growth hack is not even a real product. It’s more our service on innovative solutions. The struggle is, when it comes to real business innovation, it’s pretty hard for a customer to figure out what’s possible and valuable for them. We have the technology and industry expertise to come up with innovative cases for particular segments, maybe even for particular customers.
“Where growth comes alive is in proving it.”
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Growth Strategies to Scale Your Enterprise
So, what do 17 executives at the helm of nearly $300 billion teach us about growth?
Three key lessons …
- Start with an overarching objective and pledge your organization's holistic allegiance to the numbers and the data.
- Experiment rapidly with new channels and growth levels always leaving room for failure to teach you the way forward.
- Not all growth is scalable; instead, investing in your product, marketing, and content demands cultivating human relationships.
Growth hacking isn’t magic. But — done right — it does promise a way forward for those willing to place growth at the center of their enterprise.
About the Author
Johannes Ceh has been a content and digital strategist for leading brands such as Sport1, Sky, Springer & Jacoby, Jung von Matt, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Ogilvy. Today, he concentrates consulting on the interface between the customer experience, digital culture, and corporate development.