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While the term "growth hacking" may inspire visions of mad scientists, it's driven by authentic social relationships PHOTO: Andrew Robles

I’d like you to be honest for a moment about your first thoughts when you read the words ‘growth hacker.’  What ideas came to mind?

I hope ‘empirical’ or ‘data-driven’ were at the top of your list, but I doubt it. It’s very likely that your first thoughts ran more toward ‘mad scientist,’ ‘hustler’ or ‘wizard pulling levers behind the curtain.’

Growth Marketing Is Data-Driven

Those are all understandable images because skeptics like to caricature what growth marketing is all about. And some growth hackers themselves bear responsibility for overhyping the machine-like capabilities of their work.

Certainly, data-driven decision making is an essential quality of any growth framework. It’s reflected in the ideas companies often use to define success: growth surfaces, the intrinsic product features that encourage users to broaden their usage patterns; hacking customer churn, namely finding ways to engage and retain your existing customers; and optimizing customer experiences to hit so-called ‘magic numbers,’ the key CX metrics that make a brand’s customer interactions go viral.

Data-Driven, but Empathetic and Authentic

But I’d like to suggest that — despite the data-driven essence of the growth function — it’s hardly a cerebral machine. Instead, growth marketing applies tools like experimentation and measurement in service of creating great customer experiences.

That goal suggests that empathy and authentic connections are core qualities of a successful growth marketer’s approach.

Engaging Beyond Spreadsheets

And it means that, despite any notion of machine-like reserve, growth marketers actually need to make a down-in-the trenches, almost DIY commitment to the work involved.

That includes having an open-mindedness and objectivity about options, a willingness to challenge every assumption — especially your own — and the ability to forge incredibly close and authentic connections with your users.

And I mean really down in the trenches. Forget any idea you might have that growth marketing means hiding behind spreadsheets. Eye-level, hands-dirty engagement is essential. Without it, you’re at an incredible disadvantage in today’s marketplace.

No More Lab-Coat Authorities

Once upon a time, brands and marketers were like preachers on a mount. They stood above their audiences and addressed them from a position of assumed authority.

That dynamic depended on the notion that the engineers at GM or IBM, or the food scientists at Kraft, had exclusive, lab-coat knowledge they could dispense to the masses, whether it took form as a ’57 Bel Air, a System 360 or a brick of Velveeta.

Participants Over Pundits

Whether that was ever really a valid model is debatable. In any event, that world is long gone, made obsolete by forces like ubiquitous computing tech and the internet.

In business, this has leveled — even inverted — the relationship between marketer and buyer.

Who are we listening to now? Trusted friends or colleagues, informed influencers or advocates who authentically share their own hands-on experiences with the same issues and problems we face?

That’s right. Today, we respect participants over pundits.

Empathy-Driven Insights

Growth hacking is one force driving this change. The feedback mechanisms we use can capitalize on measurable behavior and reinforce those ground-up inputs. Without direction, those impulses might become simple reactivity.

But what distinguishes successful growth marketing from searching for a needle in a haystack is developing empathy for our users’ needs and then acting on those insights to adapt to and address those needs.

Is There a Recipe for Virality?

At a product level, that means emphasizing user-focused design and an authentic understanding of how your products are experienced. And for marketing, it means understanding that product engagement and word-of-mouth sharing from users is more important than traditional messaging or top-down advertising channels.

It’s no wonder that today’s growth frameworks incorporate virality as an essential quality of dynamic product and business models. Virality is notoriously tough to bottle, but at a minimum, it requires something of value to share and a delightful experience that sparks the sharing impulse, together with the social connections and currency that enable sharing.

Most product and marketing teams spend a lot of time and effort on the first two, but the last — social currency — is sometimes overlooked. Social currency can’t be forced, but it can be earned.

Delivering Value Without Expectations

Social currency can’t be acquired by pay-to-play. Buying followers? Paying for links? No way. And though give-a-little, get-a-little can be a start, lasting connections rarely begin with raw horse trading.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression ‘paying it forward’? Well that idea is the foundation of any genuine social connection. It starts with your willingness to go the extra mile, to meet a potential audience on their terms and in their preferred venues — whether it’s a virtual social platform like Reddit or a real-world hackathon — and investing the time to develop bona fide relationships.

It also means delivering real value without expecting anything in return.

Playing by Reddit’s Rules

Meeting your customers on their turf means doing away with familiar old-line strategies and tactics, often to a discomfiting degree for conventional marketers.

Let’s take Reddit as an example: Countless ideas have launched off the site and taken hold in the broader world. Even the Reddit platform’s own growth has been built on its social quality. So it’s no surprise that lots of marketers want in on the game — but most who’ve tried have failed miserably and visibly.

If there’s ever been an example of how social connection must be genuine and not forced, the norms of the Reddit community are it. The rules you follow there are great proxies for building social currency in growth marketing:

Put relationships first

Great content and authenticity will drive Reddit traffic, but it starts with the actual connections that come from being a productive participant in conversations and adding value, not self-promotion.

Respect the norms of every subreddit

Reddit is a community with many subcultures, each with its own local culture and norms.

Integrate Reddit content judiciously with other channels

If your Reddit content is authentic, linking to it from your social media channels can reinforce the value of the dialogue. But don’t try to game the system. Bald-faced promotion, even if you think you’re being clever, won’t work. Pilot Pens sure learned that lesson the hard way.

Share your ideas

Share, not with the intent of selling, but of getting feedback. This oft-cited example from browser extension Honey is a classic: Honey pitched an idea to the Reddit community, got upvoted by 93 percent of voters and received over 500 overwhelmingly supportive comments. For a growth hacker, that both validated a new product idea and built connections with a key audience.

Social currency is its own reward

Don’t expect to translate social engagement into a traditional sales funnel. Most will never convert — and even those who may become customers would rather continue the conversation on their own turf and terms. Deal with it. Building social currency is a never-ending effort, but when it works, it’s because of your authentic participation.

Showroom Versus Backyard Marketing 

Reaping success from social marketing is not a matter of simply initiating a strategy like this in one place, like Reddit, for a limited amount of time. It’s a sustained commitment to engaging these communities wherever and whenever they exist, in support of however many products you’re offering or building a user community of your own by following the same rules of authenticity and open dialogue.

Think of this as the difference between ‘showroom’ and ‘backyard’ marketing. Which, do you think, is more likely to get you closer to the sale in this upended new marketing topography: shouting at passersby to browbeat them into your store, or having the exact people you want to engage welcoming you to hang out with them and their peers in their communal backyard?

Get Some Skin in the Game

It’s hard work for any of us to come down off the mountain and do what it takes to get close to customers. Yet the payoffs for any growth hacker can be absolutely enormous.

After all, you’ve now gained access to an objective and responsive community where you can bench test product ideas and uncover new growth surfaces and unforeseen product directions — while generating true blue evangelism. Sure, it’s hard work and your hands will get plenty dirty. But building authentic social connections is the core foundation for any growth marketing strategy.