arrow on road, someone walking on it
Growth hacking goes bad when it's applied without empathy for your customers PHOTO: Gaelle Marcel

Growth marketers are rigorous about letting empirical evidence guide their decisions. But that same quality can also make it easy for naysayers to caricature growth hacking as nothing more than a reductive ‘do x, get y’ formula — the ‘try this one weird trick’ version of marketing.

The truth is that growth is a complex system, and identifying the causes and effects of different growth tactics isn’t always as straightforward as we might like to think. For example, the initial explanation of an experiment’s results didn’t capture all the factors at work. Or maybe the underlying conditions changed. Or consider that a tactic’s effects might even have diminished over time as it was repeatedly applied.

Treat Users as People, Not Behaviors

One glib response to this complexity is that users are people, and people are complicated. And any growth marketer who treats users simply as a collection of behaviors to be manipulated or triggered isn’t addressing their underlying motivations and needs.

There are plenty of growth surfaces — the intrinsic product features that encourage users to broaden their usage patterns — available with a good product. But if handled cavalierly, you’ve damaged the very customer experience you’re trying to sustain.

Lessons From a Growth Hack Gone Wrong

Let’s look back at one notorious example of growth hacking gone wrong. 

Circle was a mobile local-social platform startup launched in 2010 with high hopes and big investors. For a while, Circle was at the very top of the app charts, according to App Annie:

Circle - App Annie chart

How it got there, though, was by turning hacking growth into hacking of the public. During Circle’s signup process, people were asked to tap a button that invited everyone on their contacts list to sign up via SMS.

The result? Users were spamming friends and family to join Circle. What made it worse was that the tactic was promoted as an update, so the floodgates opened all at once. Recipients were not amused, especially since many of them were hit with multiple invites.

Just a few of their Tweets tell the tale:

  • “Invite me to try Circle — The Local Network one more time and i will stab your grandma”
  • “Invite me to join the circle & watch just how fast I will hunt you down”
  • “Next person to send me an invite to the circle local network on Facebook is getting fly kicked”

Test Your Growth Hack Strategies Before Rollout

Once Circle turned off its invite mechanism in the face of all this derision, it plummeted from the top of the charts to 1,473rd in the App Store rankings. Don’t bother to look for it on the App Store nowadays: it’s long gone.

Did this snafu kill Circle? Startups are inherently delicate things, even when they’re making all the right moves. But alienating an audience this way can be a mortal wound, and in this case, it was completely self-inflicted.

That’s why, if common sense tells you that a strategy could be risky, testing it becomes even more crucial. Even Circle CEO Evan Reas came to acknowledge that, “I should have thought it through.”

When Good Growth Hacks Go Bad

While we might be able to attribute Circle’s problems to misjudgment resulting from a mad rush to build a user base, cluelessness about how people react to spam — or both — there are times when growth hacking looks like pure, conscious avarice.

Writer David Rodnitzky recently described his experience with this kind of black hat growth hacking. He had signed up for a free trial of a home exchange club called 'Love Home Swap,' whose landing page promised it was ‘only’ $23 a month to subscribe.

Ten days into his trial, he described receiving an unprompted phone call from the company’s customer support. The real objective of the call, in hindsight? To get users like Rodnitzky to stick with Love Home Swap past the end of the free trial.

But when Rodnitzky actually tried to cancel during his first month under subscription, he discovered not only that he was being billed for the entire year in advance but that he couldn’t cancel directly from the website. Instead, cancellation required an email to customer service, a classic tactic to reduce the possibility a user will follow through on a cancellation by adding an onerous extra step.

There’s a lesson here even for better-intentioned growth marketers. Optimizing for short-term results may satisfy some immediate demands, but can easily destroy the customer experience and growth in the long run.

One Too Many Times to the Well

Even Facebook, which does many things very well, can sometimes push engagement with new features in heavy-handed ways. For example, when the company launched Facebook Live, there were a slew of complaints on social media like this one: “Does anybody know how to turn off livestream notifications on Facebook? That’s basically all I get now and it’s extremely annoying.”

Notifications are an essential part of every growth marketer’s toolkit. Few features drive engagement as dramatically as email, push or in-app notifications. But the overuse of notifications can be counterproductive.

Notification fatigue is a lot like crying wolf: one too many irrelevant, off-putting notifications can mean users will start ignoring them altogether.

There’s a fine line between delivering authentic opportunities for engagement between product and customer and artificial ones. Authentic notifications are based on providing good service and value to the user, whereas artificial ones are pretty transparently about creating benefits for the product’s provider. Given the choice, which notifications will you keep turned on over time?

To Hack or Not to Hack?

Sometimes it may be better not to hack at all. There’s an obvious element of good timing involved in growth hacking which makes knowing when (and when not) to use it means being objective about the status of your product and customer base.

After all, just emulating other successful hacks won’t cut it if you’re not at a similar stage of development.

For example, online inventory and order management provider Lettuce tried the same strategy that had worked wonders for Dropbox by using a referral program to drive growth. Yet Lettuce’s efforts fell completely flat, thanks to two factors its founder later identified as being big stumbling blocks to its foray into growth hacking: “… our product was not yet great, and we did not have a large enough customer base … [however] we were so excited by the chance [to incorporate] a distribution hack into our system that we went ahead and implemented it.”

Here, too, testing the concept on a small scale or researching it with existing users could have worked wonders and generated insights that could have been used on a number of fronts.

Growth Without Empathy Won’t Be Sustainable

There’s a thread running through all of these examples: Growth hacking goes bad when it’s applied without empathy for your users. After all, empathy isn’t only kumbaya, it’s respecting user experience and helping your users accomplish their goals.

Bottom line, it’s tough to go wrong when combining the empiricism of the growth mindset with the empathy-driven goal of creating a great experience that also drives business results.

Editor's Note: Hear more of Josh's thoughts on growth marketing at CMSWire's DX Summit, taking place Nov. 13 to Nov. 15 in Chicago