petri dish
Like an organism in a petri dish, apps and cloud services take an opportunistic approach to extending their footprint

Growth surfaces. The term sounds like it sprang from a microbiology lab, and that’s actually an apt analogy.

Here’s why: like an organism in a petri dish, today’s fastest-growing apps and cloud services take an opportunistic approach to extending their footprint. It’s part of their DNA to leverage any and all openings to expand engagement with users. 

Occasionally, that growth can be a sudden burst in a new direction, but more often it’s an organic process of spreading on multiple fronts. And if the conditions are right, it can lead to a dominant position in the environment of the petri dish — or marketplace.

Relentless Experimentation + Pragmatism

Traditional approaches to marketing often presuppose a linear, controllable recipe for driving demand (for example, the classic marketing and sales funnel). In contrast, growth marketers understand their evolution of the species requires a large number of experimental mutations to find the adaptions that thrive. 

Relentless experimentation and pragmatism are among growth hackers’ major contributions to the modern marketing toolkit.

Growth surfaces are a key part of that adaptive mindset. They provide multiple fronts for testing new ideas and creating the opportunity for increased engagement and revenue. They’re among the most efficient means of growth because they fundamentally are about getting your existing customers to deepen their interaction with your product and to expand the mindshare they give you.

Defining a Growth Surface

Growth surfaces help advance your cause among customers in two basic ways: use the product more often and use it new ways. If we want to get a little more formal, here’s how I’d define the concept:

A growth surface is a feature or interaction that’s intrinsic to your product and that drives business growth by encouraging users to increase use of the product, to broaden their use with new interaction patterns, and perhaps even to extend their engagement into additional product lines.

“Intrinsic” is the operative word here. Unlike classic marketing efforts such as advertising or promotions that gin up demand from the outside, growth surfaces build the means for driving growth into the product itself. Because of this, apps and cloud services built with growth surfaces in mind have tremendous flexibility to evolve over time and adapt to how users change the ways the see and use the product.

That single fact has a far-reaching impact on how a company organizes how it builds, markets and manages products.

Recognizing Growth Surfaces in the Wild

The growth of social networks into today’s dominant platforms for news and media content is a classic example of this dynamic. 

Facebook's Evolving News Sharing

Consider Facebook. When the company noticed its users often used its core “share a status” feature to include links to articles on news websites, it quickly began to experiment with different ways to enhance that experience — and to turn link sharing into an opportunity for growing user engagement. 

So it added link previews. It began to differentiate the concepts of shared news articles from other status updates. It highlighted other, related news stories popular among users below the post. It created space for trending news stories as an additional, separate feature. Eventually, it even began to encourage news publishers to publish articles directly on the Facebook platform.

In retrospect, it's clear Facebook has become as much a news platform as it is a social network. But none of this was done all at once — each new aspect of how Facebook incorporated news content was treated as an experiment and a slight evolution of an existing feature. 

What was constant, however, was the recognition that “news sharing” was a growth surface for the company, and as such, Facebook’s team made every effort to increase user engagement with news, to expand the ways users viewed news on the site, and eventually launched a separate product for publishers to create content specifically for the Facebook platform.

You Can Anticipate Growth Surfaces

Because the free-to-use — or sometimes free-to-try — model is so entrenched in modern apps and cloud services, it’s critical these products are designed to evolve when growth surfaces are identified. Sometimes, as with the Facebook news feed, the mutations are discovered in the wild, so opportunistic flexibility and agility are paramount.

At other times, those growth surfaces might be anticipated from the start. 

Take the classic example of video games. Users get hooked on a free-to-play online game, then find themselves willing to pay a la carte for the weapon or armor kit that will make them more competitive. Or consider free business accounting or CRM platforms that aim to become integral to users’ workflows, to open these customers up to increasingly sophisticated features or extra capacity that comes with updating to a “Pro” version subscription.

These intentional monetization strategies are fine ideas in theory, but unless products are designed to adapt to the ways users actually interact with growth surfaces within the apps, those upgrades are going to remain undersubscribed. For apps and cloud services, growth tends to be the product of experimentation, adaptability and natural selection — not deterministic intelligent design.

Growth Surfaces Further Blur the Lines between Product and Marketing

All aspects of growth marketing require close collaboration among marketers, product teams and testing and analytics experts. But exploiting growth surfaces deepens that collaboration, and demands they work in even closer harmony.

growth hacking in the middle
Why? Because designing growth surfaces into products requires these teams engage in continuous experimentation, observation and iteration. 

A product launch is just the first step in an ongoing journey. Developers can't simply hand it off to marketing and move on to the Next Big Release in the pipeline. And marketers and analysts can’t support it at launch and then turn their attentions to another product, either.

To keep your user base engaged, new features or engagement options may have to be added, or old ones optimized or updated. Plus, you’ll need sustained interaction with your user community to audit and anticipate their needs and spy out new opportunities. Over time, new growth surfaces arise that the team may not have imagined back when version 1.0 was put together.

Ideas for Growth Surfaces

What typical surfaces can software leverage? Remembering that growth surfaces are intrinsic to a product, this question cannot be considered in a vacuum. Each service’s primary growth surface is inseparably intertwined with its core value proposition and use patterns.

core product

Having said that, just about any service can engage these common surfaces:

  • Status updates to encourage frequency of use
  • In-app and email notifications, including transactional notices about billing, usage or community events, that are creatively deployed to inspire deeper engagement
  • APIs and integrations
  • Sign up thank-yous or rewards to deepen user engagement and usage
  • core product and complementary product

  • Requests for ratings, reviews and testimonials
  • Content and tutorial support
  • Social media integrations
  • In-app purchases of core or non-core elements or add-ons
  • Subscription upgrades to paid versions with enhanced feature sets
  • Community-building invitations, newsletters, announcements and events

Good CX Is Critical to Successful Growth Surfaces

There are very few inventive or creative limits on capitalizing on growth surfaces. But restraint is just as important as innovation here. Growth surfaces should extend a great customer experience, not get in the way of one.

That leads us to some very sensible guidelines for how you might leverage growth surfaces:

Ensure your product delivers function and value right here, right now

Don’t put the cart ahead of the horse, and don’t allow a focus on growth surface(s) to compromise the usability or value of your product. 

Need an example? Check out some of the lower-rated apps in the App Store or Google Play. Read the reviews by people frustrated by usability barriers solved only by mandatory upgrades or in-app purchases, demanded well before they’ve received what they consider to be minimum value from a product.

Don’t confuse growth surfaces with paygates

Too many upgrade prompts, in-app purchases or pay-to-play features intended to drive growth end up limiting it. They get tiresome in a hurry and will build negative word-of-mouth just as quickly.

Be flexible, but also understand your goals

Growth can be measured in many ways. Greater user engagement? Referrals? Revenue? Opportunistic adaptation is awesome, but also be sure to understand which factors actually matter to your business.

Design growth surfaces as an extension of natural use patterns

Successful growth surfaces aren’t disruptive of a good user experience. They enhance that experience, if done right.

Don’t succumb to gratuitous feature creep

Make sure any extensions, expansions or additional features you offer users don’t cause software bloat or cause the product to wander too far from its core utility.