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How to think like a startup - whatever your size

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Growth hacking is having a mainstream moment. It’s a phrase, and an activity, that started in the startup world. But what is it, and why are people outside of the startup world starting to pay attention?

What is growth hacking?

Put simply, growth hacking is using scalable, repeatable and predictable tactics to grow your business. Because the term derives from startups, where budget is usually lower and there’s a need to prove your place in the market - and fast - growth hacking can be viewed more practically as finding clever tricks to grow your audience or customer base quickly and cheaply.

With growth hacking, instead of putting all of your budget into trying one big idea, you spread your time and money across various experiments to see which is the most efficient way to reach your business objectives. It’s maths and creativity in equal measure: find the methods that work, and perfect these until you can calculate exactly how much money you need to spend to reach your target.

But what does growth hacking look like in practice? Here are some examples of growth hacks that really worked - and played a big role in getting these companies transcend the startup ranks.

  • Airbnb auto posted their ads to CraigsList’s (the US Gumtree) house-hunting board - directly reaching their target audience
  • Dropbox got you to refer the service to your friends by offering you both free storage - low cost for them but huge value to you
  • Hotmail ended all users’ outgoing emails with “Get Your Free Email at Hotmail” - turning emails into adverts

Why should you think about growth hacking if you’re not a startup?

Growth hacking originated from startups who needed big results without having the big budgets to match. But it’s evolved since then. The term is now synonymous with data-led application of budgets.

The startups of today are the big brands of tomorrow, and these are the tactics they’re using to become market leaders, sometimes overnight. To stay relevant and keep growing, and to remain a key player - traditional companies need to evolve.

Even companies like Uber and Airbnb who mastered growth hacks to take them to big brand status still use growth hacking tactics - because they know they work.

How does growth hacking outside of startups work?

For big companies, growth hacking is less about specific tactics and more about key principles.

Make data your guide

Do you ever notice that something looks a bit different when you’re browsing a website you regularly use? That’s because it probably is. From the placement of every button, to the calls to action displayed by each product - big ecommerce companies are always testing and tweaking to make sure you make a purchase. This is even easier for big companies than startups as you already have years of customer behaviour data to work with.

  • Amazon have tried all sorts of advertising after 25 years in business, but they’ll never stop moving the ‘buy it now’ button and creating new calls to action to make it as likely as possible that you’ll make a purchase.

Make your users your advertisers

Why spend money on huge advertising campaigns when you’ve got a whole host of happy customers ready to sing your praises? Sometimes they need a good incentive to share, and other times a campaign is too strong not to. A recommendation from a trusted friend is the best marketing you can get.

  • Charity campaigns like #nomakeupselfie and the ALS Ice Bucket challenge can be considered growth hacks. For the charities, these were low-cost to set up but had built in virality: every person who took part shared the campaign with their friends, allowing it to grow naturally.
  • B2B software companies have been offering ‘referrals campaigns’ for years. If their products or services are paid on an annual subscription, companies are offered huge savings for recommending the service to other similar companies. Before this was word-of-mouth, but automation has made it even easier.

Make existing audiences come to you

Every time you see two companies with similar audience demographics working together and forming a partnership, that could be considered a growth hack. They’re both able to reach a new audience that they’re certain will also like their product, just by partnering up.

  • MAC has brought out lipsticks with Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Those celebrities have huge audiences that MAC instantly gets to connect with, and can convert them into long-term fans.

Make what you have work harder

Many startup growth hacks seem to focus on initial email data capture, because email is such a successful tool for making sales: 66% of online consumers have made a purchase as a result of an email marketing message. Existing companies already have the email addresses, so they can jump right ahead to testing which emails drive conversions.

  • A huge number of travel companies force you to give them your email ASAP, with multiple email forms around the site, pop-ups with incentives like “20% off” and even email-gated areas. They’ll then send regular emails - tested to the highest level - that lead to the desired action.
  • Websites like Twitter and Facebook have been around for over 10 years, and they have a series of emails that get sent to new or dormant users to reactivate them.

How can you start now?

You already have data and probably a more significant budget than any of the big startup growth hacking success stories could dream of, changing your mindset to that of a growth hacker can make it your marketing budget go further than it ever has before.

Evolve your company culture

Testing variables, analysing results and adapting your practice is the basis of growth hacking. Encourage your workforce to embrace this - in every department. Be aware that testing more things means bigger successes but a greater chance of failure. Companies who adopt a growth hacking mindset must change their employees’ outlook so that failure isn’t something to be afraid of, it’s something to learn from.

Change your infrastructure

Make a growth hacker your next marketing hire, or ensure that the departments who examine your customer data sit closer to sales and marketing. These are just two small changes that can impact the success of the company as a whole.

Work with what you have

You already have social media networks and email lists, and years of data. Don’t be afraid to look at these in a new way, or try new things. From adapting email campaigns and encouraging social referrals, to analysing site data, make sure departments know the goldmine they’re sitting on, and use the new growth hacking culture to exploit that.

Create new opportunites

Growth is best built into products as early as possible. If you can’t quite gear your existing products towards accelerated growth, building new products that have growth at their core will help accelerate the rest of your company with a new level of engagement from your customers. The Ideation service at Despark can help your idea evolve into a successful product - get in touch to find out how. 

Growth hacking isn’t a quick or easy win - especially if you’re a big company with deep roots in traditional marketing. But if you take the time to experiment and examine data - the very fundamentals of growth hacking - there’s no doubt that it’s more effective, and your company’s bottom line will reap the benefits.

You can watch Vincent Dignan's insights on growth hacking at our latest Ignyte event here. 

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