Why I distrusted growth hacking and why I decided to understand it anyway [review].

Laura Conti
5 min readMay 3, 2021

This post is a J’accuse or rather a self-accusation, which is really a rare attitude for a platform like Linkedin where we often behave despite ourselves as at an auction to sell our qualities or those of our company. And instead, starting with a bit of healthy and sincere self-criticism can be useful to others. But what is so unmentionable about Linkedin?

I don’t trust growth hacking.

There I said it! Things that shine too bright have never appealed to me. I’m more likely to trust sincere, humble models that start with the assumption that you need to listen a lot before you speak. And here’s where I was wrong, with a bias probably generated by overly enthusiastic posts about the miraculous practices of growth hacking and how they led companies like Air BnB or Netflix to make big numbers in a very short time.

Growth Marketing, a different story

I didn’t want to stop at this first impression, but to understand why thousands of professionals who work with tools such as SEO, SEM, Digital PR, Email Marketing benefit from these techniques. And it is with this spirit that I approached the courses of John McBride of CXL Institute on Growth Marketing and in particular on the basics of this discipline.

It starts with a very simple premise:

“I know I don’t know.”

And when we admit that, we become better people and better professionals. Growth marketing does not take flight from universal assumptions or from fake users and other mythological figures created in Silicon Valley, but is based on experiments and hypotheses (hypothasis, gr. ὑπόϑεσις, from ὑποτίϑημι “to put under”; the corresponding Latin term is suppositio, from which comes “supposition”) such as those that Newton made lots of time ago.

McBride makes it clear from the outset that there is no “hack” or trick to succeed in marketing: it is instead a process of constant experimentation.

There isn’t one hack, it’s a series of hacks that fold into a broader process about constantly experimenting and learning so that you can accelerate learning and get to the end result and the end goal faster” (John McBride, CXL Institute, Growth mindset)

In traditional marketing we plan a series of campaigns starting from clear strategic objectives, but often trying, as a matter of time and finite resources, only one way. If you fail, you move on to the next campaign, although I must say that I’m lucky enough to have always worked with people who are able to change course and adjust the pitch to make a campaign successful. In growth marketing, the testing process allows you to do micro-tentatives to learn about your target audience and real needs, and eventually scale up if your assumptions are correct.

A/B testing: my best friend since now

Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

When we talk about A/B testing we often think about technicians who work on content micro-variants. Instead, it’s a much more articulated and potentially infinite process that can lead you to redesign your online customer paths with acquisition, activation or retention step by step and improve them.

I like the example McBride gives on email marketing, and in particular on the use of a discount to encourage a second purchase in an online store.

The first A/B Test in this case is to divide the new subscribers into two and send or not send the discount in question, so as to understand if it is indeed the lever that leads to make a second purchase. From this validated hypothesis starts the second experiment to test if a discount is a greater incentive than something else, such as a free gift, and so on.

When you go out of business it becomes a learning opportunity: that half of the budget gone up in smoke is practically reinvested in subsequent campaigns.

A nice to know fact about Automation

And when an experiment is successful? This is where the role of marketing automation is fundamental and phenomenal.

Those who are familiar with email marketing workflows know that a series of conditions are set based on actions (opens and clicks) with a series of scheduled emails over time. So far so clear and “Hurray for automation that does all the dirty work, repetitive and bad”. But if we treat these sophisticated tools as if we were using a very sophisticated Kitchen AID, following step-by-step instructions pre-configured, we will always have the classic risotto Milanese that prepares us the ‘nice lady’ of the demonstrations, or little more.

Instead, when we use the iconic food processor to automate complicated preparations that we know will work (e.g., mayonnaise, gianduja cream, or choux pastry for cream puffs), we make quality dishes and success is assured. However, we will be seen as good chefs. So, if we try a marketing flow that works, like a good Onboarding email sequence for an e-commerce, the next step is to automate it to move on to the next experiment. Let automation do the dirty (but successful) work and create more virtuous flows.

High Five Growth Marketing?

So is “Brand Marketing” bad and “Growth Hacking” good? Absolutely not. Here I suggest you to read the last newsletter by Gianluca Diegoli, co-founder of Digital Update on the concept of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” to reflect on the fact that a failure is not a good reason to ‘throw off the bridge’ everything you did before. Traditional Marketing has a solid foundation and equally important effects to consider. It serves to build a well-defined image of a company and to translate mission and vision into concrete actions that bring the customer closer to the company thanks to the trust conveyed by these actions. Growth marketing, however, gives you a much more open-minded and sensitive to the change that surrounds us and restores a bit of simplicity and authenticity to corporate communication, if applied with a bit of criterion.

In short, what makes me think that delving into these topics is useful, in professional and team terms, is that in the end it’s a discipline that pays a lot of attention to the user’s journey, to the use of data but above all to curiosity. The technical skills you can always acquire, the attitude to be curious and ask questions is something that emerges over time.

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Ok, but why are you telling me all this?

This post is the result of a nice training opportunity that happened to me with a bit of luck. On Linkedin I follow the marketing agency MOCA by Marco Ziero (because they have a nice newsletter, very useful and a way of perceiving marketing that convinces me). From there I saw that some accounts had obtained online certifications from a portal unknown to me. After visiting the site for a few minutes I was already suffering from that strong complex of “I’d like to but I can’t”. To my surprise, without believing it too much, I got a scholarship from CXL Institute, the Academy founded by Peep Laja. A reality that brings together many marketers that I respect and follow for a long time, with very practical courses. There remains the challenge of being able to transform the practical knowledge developed by professionals operating in an Anglo-Saxon context, a bit different from ours, and apply it in the Italian context, which has its roots in very different assumptions.

Wish me good luck!