“Growth hacking” is a new term for many branding professionals but a long held practice among the best marketers and product managers in Silicon Valley. With traditional media fading and the onslaught of mass customization and niching on the web, marketing as we’ve known it for the past 100 years is in a stage of transition – which means we have to become more creative about how we approach brand strategy.
Success doesn’t just happen. My start-ups and business ventures haven’t been successful because I was lucky or the timing was right, but rather as the result of thoughtful strategic planning, trial and error, measurement, more trial and error, and above all, a total commitment to the business vision. My field tested “growth hacking” approach is about mastering the shift (or sometimes a pivot) from one stage of business growth to the next. Why? When you know the mechanics behind building movement and tuning growth, you can master the shift. Building and tuning your business engine isn’t an art. It’s about having the right strategy, systems and tools so you can focus on what you do best.
I sold my most recent firm, Decipher, to a private equity firm in November 2014. It wasn’t an easy road. My partners launched the firm in San Francisco in 2000 during the height of the “dot com” boom, only to nearly go under during the crash a few years later when several of their large technology clients went belly up. They didn’t give up. After firing nearly all their staff, they relocated to Fresno and rebooted the company.
I was fortunate to join the firm after (what I hope was) its darkest hour, but not without significant challenges. When I took on the role of President & CMO in 2007, there were some tough questions to answer. How do we differentiate ourselves in a cluttered and commoditized marketplace? How do we inspire brands to ultimately engage with us not as a vendor but as a trusted partner?
Fast forward to late 2014. In seven years we reported double-digit growth annually. In 2013 alone the company delivered nearly 30 per cent year-over-year revenue growth. We were consistently ranked for several years running in programs such as the INC 5000 Fastest Growing Companies, GRIT Top 50 Innovative Firms and the LEAD411 Tech 200 List. Throughout all this growth and numerous accolades, we overcame commoditization on our core services business and successfully launched an industry leading survey software and reporting platform. Between 2008 and 2014, our brand awareness grew from less than 10 per cent to nearly 70 per cent (yes, we tracked our own brand awareness!).
How did we do it? I’m asked frequently what our “secret” was: how we achieved such high levels of growth year after year while rolling out quarterly (and sometimes monthly) functionality or product releases. There’s no real secret. It all boils down to a singular strategy we adopted: a focus on improving the experience rather than solely focusing on the product, and it’s a consistent effort that places importance, day to day, on basic concepts like brand communication, employee satisfaction, development strategy, listening and measurement.
Putting these concepts in practice while still working in the business is challenging, no doubt about it. Here’s what I recommend for staying ahead of the curve:
- Determine your brand purpose. Brand purpose is comprised of functional benefits, emotional benefits and societal benefits. In addition to engaging customers and inspiring employees, a powerful and clear brand purpose improves alignment throughout the organization and ensures consistent messaging across touch points (both internally and externally). According to the Marketing2020 study, 56 percent of over-performing companies who have a clearly stated brand purpose said that their organization’s revenue growth was higher than their competitors.
- Determine your engine of revenue growth: Sticky, Viral or Paid. Sticky depends heavily on client growth through retention. Viral depends on a product that inspires fanatical customers and evangelist clients. Paid means you have some serious cash to put toward your marketing and branding efforts. Figure out what your engine of growth is and throw some muscle behind it. Be prepared for it to change over time.
- Iterate or pivot when required. Brands are in a constant state of flux. Keep a close eye on the development and evolution of your products and services. If sales are slowing, investigate. Iterate. Pivot, when necessary. Run toward change, not against it.
- Avoid vanity metrics. Vanity metrics make you feel (and look) good but they can be misleading. Make sure you’re using business and marketing KPI’s to provide actionable feedback – whether that’s positive or negative. A positive metric means you’re on the right track. A negative metric illuminates opportunities for change.
Whether you’re a business owner or a brand manager within a Fortune 500 company, we’re either entrepreneurs or “intrapreneurs”. Launching a new company? A new product or service within a firm that’s stood the test of time? You can use growth hacking strategies to your advantage.
Business success doesn’t hinge on just one strategy: a great brand promise, an innovative product. It’s not a specific marketing campaign, it’s how your brand speaks to and resonates with your target audience. Above all, it’s a focus on creating a culture, both internally and externally, that inspires and fosters meaningful communication, creativity and trust. Build, measure, learn.