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Growth Hacking - A Startup’s Military Approach

Marketing Strategies for Startups

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don't. Tweet

Robert Benchley

This statement perfectly describes marketing strategies as well as types of people. There are two.

One can be defined as a traditional, comfort zone marketing, when a common enterprise uses traditional channels in order to find the product/market fit and continuously allocates a budget to keep it going.

Another one is used by budget constrained players who don’t follow the traditional approach and try to change the rules of marketing a product. Hence the initial investment allows to scale the marketing efforts and to reduce the cost of acquisition of new customers till $0. Those players are growth hackers.

What is Growth Hacking?

It’s true that growth hacking is a relatively new term, but does it mean the growth hacking techniques are new? Actually, not so much. Many search engine optimizers, product managers and even traditional marketers were using various growth hacking tactics for years before there was an actual term for it. This concept describes a new approach, rather than a new set of techniques used towards growing a customer audience around the product. Let’s focus particularly on startups and MVP, which are more relevant to Lean concepts.

In a nutshell, growth hacking is the Lean version of marketing.

It is a mix of product management, SEO, traditional marketing and coding practices, oriented to drive traffic to your website and make users advocate for your product, all without wasting resources. The term originated in the startup community. It was used to define the way a startup is marketing itself, by using inexpensive channels that lead to great results. The pioneers of growth hacking are companies that don't need an introduction today: Hotmail, Pinterest, Instagram, Skype, Linkedin, Dropbox and Facebook.

The industry-leading companies have permanent budgets allocated to utilize any and all marketing channels. On the other hand, startups have small budgets and don’t even have marketing teams, which constrains them to avoid traditional marketing channels, to innovate and look for out of the box ways to reach their target.

The new growth hacking approach can be described as a loop of iterations that involve continuous development, actions, measurement and pivoting in an effort to grow the lead database. A growth that scales, so the startup won’t have to always pay for each new acquired user, which the traditional marketing does. The scope is to make the lead acquisition go viral and make the leads moving through the customer development funnel steps.

The Growth Funnel

The customer development steps used in the growth hacking marketing include:

Acquisition (visit) - a lead has landing on your website. Any traditional and nontraditional techniques could be used here: SEO, blogging, emailing campaigns, paid ads, PR campaigns, social buzz, etc.

Activation (registration) - the lead registered on your website. The technique of awarding a visitor with something (a free trial, an access to see an exclusive blog or video) is commonly used. The activation event depends on your product: for a web application it could be a sign up, for a blog it could be a simple comment or a tweet from the user’s profile.

Retention - the lead is coming back to your website. Retention techniques, such as access to the product features in a multiple interaction process, or email drip campaigns, are used to stay in touch with visitors while providing something valuable to them. Notorious examples: GoDaddy's user-exist retention offers, Facebook’s event notifications or Linkedin’s “Discover what’s new in your network” emails.

Referral - the lead refers your product to other potential users. Here’s where the most of the ingenuity is used. Allow your existing users do the work for you and grow your outreach. Dropbox’s free storage offer in exchange for a referral, and Hotmail’s free email incentive inserted in the email footer are great yet simple growth examples of building virality and shareability into the product itself.

Monetization - the lead pay for your product. A particular scope of the growth hacking is to make the lead move from one step to another, while analyzing behaviour on each step and using various growth hacking techniques to incite the lead to move through. Worth a mention is Quora, whose custdev funnel tactics example is widely shared on the web. Plenty of tools allow you to thoroughly analyse the user interaction steps funnel, starting with the simple Google Analytics Funnel Visualization tab, and ending with complex visualization screens provided by Mixpanel or Heap.

Minimum Viable Strategies for Minimum Viable Products

Why do most startups fail? Most of the times, because they develop products that users don’t like. Don’t like means the same thing as don’t need.

The Lean principles are applied during a product development in order to provide something people need. You don’t add a lot of features into your product before launching. Instead, you are adding them one by one while being guided by user feedback.

Growth hacking strategies act the same way. They don’t use marketing plans and intuition driven investment. They try out different tactics oriented towards user acquisition and monetization of your MVP. Most of the tactics will fail. But some of them will bring the expected results. You keep investing more in the last ones while continuing to try new tactics. Based on such continuous experimentation and data processing, a growth hacking strategy will outline itself based on a thoroughly measured customer feedback.

A growth hacking strategy is an inherent part of MVP development strategy, because the features for user acquisition- monetization process and virality are usually built into the product itself.

Growth Hacking Tools

In order to experiment with your growth hacking tactics, you’ll need to perform various actions, such as: content creation, UX and A/B testing, search engine optimization, search advertising, social media, buzz, keyword analysis and even PR. The main things to start with are: a website, a blog, a CRM, a notifications and alerts system, an emailing app, a couple of landing pages for conversion, and an analytics tool.

There’s no need for expensive fancy tools to start growth hacking your MVP. The good news about growth hacking tools is that you can get many of them for free, if you know exactly what tactics are you going to use and what processes are you going to set up.

Most of the businesses focused on user growth conceive and sell all needed functionalities in a unique package. The marketing automation software providers are such examples. But if your startup doesn’t have to spend monthly a couple of thousand dollars for access to such a service, you can start building your own growth hacking mechanism by integrating separate parts together. Just to mention here a few “parts”, that will cost you $0: LaunchRock for landing pages (with free forms, docs, slides, etc.), Zoho CRM, as a very decent CRM, which allows a lot of integrations as well, Mailchimp, for email campaigns and templates, Hello Bar, for banners, and Piwick, as an analytics platform.

There are plenty of other free and freemium tools available for launching and growing up your product. Of course, that’s not the same as subscribing to premium plans and to get access to all features. But it is enough to fire up your startup. And even if you subscribe to premium plans and integrate the apps into a system using Zapier or IFTTT, it will cost you much less than buying a complete lead automation software package.

Growth Hacking Techniques for Your Startup: Case Study

Some growth hacking tips have been mentioned above. But let’s dig in and tailor them to a particular startup.

So you created your startup, put together a small team and designed an app that helps marketers easily build awesome graphic ads.

You did the very first steps to promote your application: optimized the website, started a blog with a few niche articles, created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even launched a PPC campaign.

You’ve likely created either a 15 day trial version for your app and a business version, or freemium and premium plans. That’s right, a common growth hacking technique for startups to achieve a higher user conversion is to make the user’s first interaction step to be free.

Don’t expect your product to go viral immediately, you’ll have to reach by your own efforts a minimal threshold of users in order to start growing naturally.

Engage your circles. Your friends and even family members will be your first users even if they aren’t marketers. If you have a team, you get the friends of friends.

Find your niche. Optimize your content and ads for the particular segment that represents your primary user target. Let’s say marketers from small and medium enterprises and agencies providing SEM/PPC services, who are involved in ad creation and don’t necessarily have a graphic designer in their team. The more precisely you identify your niche, the lower cost per acquired user you will get.

A must do step: submit your app to startup listings, such as Killer Startups, CrunchBase and Betalist, most of them allow free submission. Also, get on Craiglist! Don’t forget about adding it to Hacker News, Reddit, Product Hunt and Layervault (the last one is particularly focused on design). There are plenty of growth hacking success stories which started in these particular places. If your listing gets a decent amount of votes during the first hours after submission, you can get a top display and a huge amount of traffic.

Pay attention to miscellaneous ways to expose your product: set detailed signatures for your team and use an appealing “powered by” icon.

Play it on a video presentation that you can use in multiple places. Even Youtube is great for getting organic traffic, because Google loves his child.

Buzz the social networks. Perform a search on Twitter or type a special query on Google to detect influencing bloggers writing about search advertising. Twellow is another free tool ready to help you here. Once identified, get in touch and keep interacting with them via social posts. Detect SEM/SEA and web design related groups and communities on Linkedin and Google Plus. Each of these communities has a special section dedicated to new products where you can expose yours. As for Facebook, you can create a page and launch a simple comment or survey contest. For example awarding the funniest comment about your app with a free account, or offering exclusive trials in exchange for completing your survey related to app features. Spread the word across Facebook groups about your contest. Encourage people to sign up to your contest, to like and share your post. Just be sure not setting like and share as required actions, it’s against Facebook’s policy rules. Ask for mentions from other Facebook pages related to your product. Start from specific lead generation professional’s groups and continue on broad marketing and design related groups. Mention them on your page too. That’s a technique used to get exposed to their audiences.

Share your expertise. Check out on Quora and Stackoverflow for questions that could be answered by mentioning your product, even if they are indirectly related to your product. For example a question such as “What are the best lead generation platforms?” You can mention a couple of platforms, describing, among other features, the ad generation functionality. As an enhanced alternative to this particular feature, mention your product. The more value your answer provides, the more votes and exposure it gets, not just on the Q/A website, but on Google SERPs as well.

Smart sign up process. That’s the key. Design your landing pages the smart way. Emphasize the action you want the user to accomplish on your page. Offer limited access to unregistered users and full access to registered ones. Remove all unnecessary stuff from your landing pages that could distract the user to accomplish your goal. Don’t stop A/B testing with the pages to find the highest converting one. Guide the user with a step by step tour when he is signing up for the product, so you can get all the needed information in a more friendly manner. Make the signup process easy and smart by adding social login option with an automated post on user’s profile about choosing your "very exclusive" product.

Smart rewarding for referrals. Detect corporate email addresses of your users and reward them in exchange for inviting their co-workers to join, like in the case of Yammer. Offer exclusive support. Taplytics offered setup help with their app, which determined many non technical marketers choosing it. You can reward each referral in many clever ways. The easiest one is to give a credit to user’s account for future spendings in exchange for a referred friend, or in our particular case, a referred colleague from the marketing department. Or, give an extra piece of your product for each new referral. For example, an extra account seat for using the product. Or, give a bonus to both referral and referred. That engages both of them and is a win-win situation for all players. Or, just give something nobody can resist to: a t-shirt, as NewRelic did. Get your users to do the job for you. Word of mouth is a powerful yet free referral growth hacking technique. To get that working, ensure they are heaving a great user experience.

Get reviews. Use the same growth hacking rewarding tactics from above to get reviews. Reviews are a crucial factor to determine a user to choose your product. Google loves products with reviews more than other products. Even during a trial period, you can encourage users to try your MVP’s full functionalities in exchange for their feedback.

Nurture your users. Set a drip email campaign. Segment by lists and subscribe your users to appropriate email campaigns depending on user type and action: set one for freemium plan list, another one for premium list, one for inactive leads list, another one for hot leads list. Use each email carefully. Start a survey campaign about what is good and bad for your app to get a direction for improvements. Use Survey Monkey, which also has a freemium plan. An email growth hacking tip: use a “refer a friend” incentive in your email to give the receiver a discount for each new user.

Use clever apps to help you go viral, such as ViralContentBuzz, which had a brilliant growth hacking scheme to reward users for sharing content, or PitchPigeon in order to reach out to journalists.

Generate content: posts for your blog as well as quality guest posts. The best authors for these posts are no one else but people from your team.

The golden rule of growth hacking: don’t stop experimenting with techniques and measuring the results, in order to find, attack and exploit gaps in your market. Keep in mind that today’s growth brilliant techniques weren’t used until a business succesfully put them in action. So, keep looking for out of the box ideas that could outperform some much more expensive marketing techniques. They are just waiting to be discovered.

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