The Short Answer
Although marketing and growth hacking certainly have some overlap, they are far from the same thing. Practitioners may share some techniques, but in reality, they have fundamentally different goals. Both growth hackers and marketers work to understand, acquire and retain customers, but their perspectives and approaches differ. Each has a different ultimate purpose within an organization.
Traditional marketer: Someone who aims to sell particular goods and services to their target group.
Growth hacker: “A person whose true north is growth.” - Sean Ellis
Where are growth hackers from?
Growth hacking was born out of this high-pressure startup environment. Startups often have minuscule marketing budgets and are dependent on growth for survival. Over the last decade, these pressures forced many companies to take more innovative approaches, often harnessing the power of technology to find new ways to grow without much expenditure. For some companies, it turned out to be the programmers, not the marketers, that we're able to find the most creative and cost-effective methods for scaling up.
Difference 1: While marketing is all about selling a company’s products and services, growth hacking is a more holistic function. Growth hackers are not just focused on sales, they are focused on business growth - no matter what that takes. It might include creative marketing, but it may just as easily extend to product development and user testing.
Difference 2: marketers try to sell a finished product. Growth hackers help to design a product based on what customers are asking for. Then there comes the technical skills.
Difference 3: While nowadays most marketers have at least some online marketing ability, growth hacker’s skillset will be composed of online data analytics, programming, and automation. But this is not it, they will have experience also with A/B testing, creating custom landing pages, behavioral tracking and analytics reporting (a growth hacker’s skillset is in a t-shape).
Any competent growth hacker should have a good understanding of what tools are available and how they can be used. They also know how to measure everything they do, and use motions of experimentation and optimisation.
Put in a nutshell, growth hackers can track a falcon on a cloudy day. They are the Prince Humperdinck’s of the online world... Ok, that’s not the most flattering description, but you get the point.
By the end of this article, you will have a concrete understanding of the differences between traditional marketing and growth hacking, and in what context each profession is needed. If you work in marketing, you’re going to learn why you need to start incorporating growth hacking principles into your strategy today.
A Different Mindset
Zeroing In On ... What?
Exponential business growth is the holy grail for any growth hacker. Through working in challenging environments and by utilising systematic experimentation, they have learned to find the most effective and efficient ways of achieving growth.
They are accustomed to rolling out high exposure, high-cost campaigns on billboards, front-page ads, and prime time media spaces. Marketers often spend big, but frequently lack the means or the tools to measure a given campaign’s ROI. They aim to achieve maximum awareness, hoping to get on the evening news, but have little idea as to the effectiveness of specific campaigns. The more awareness they drive, the more they feel like they’ve succeeded.
They, on the other hand, are always on the lookout for small but powerful “hacks”: unconventional “tricks” or “shortcuts” with high potential and low costs. Advancements in technology now allow us to get a clearer picture of what exactly drives conversions, and thus tells us what exactly we should focus our time, energy and money on. Growth hackers are only interested in what works, and they’ll keep testing until they find out what that is. They know it is not about the size of their reach, but about its effectiveness. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many people have heard of you. What matters is that the right people know about you: the people with the highest potential to become loyal customers.
Who's Got the Data?
They tend to base decisions on textbook theories and frameworks that have already been tested and somewhat proven, but not always applicable to all company sizes or goals.
They, on the other hand, use a data-driven approach to everything they do. This means there is no room for assumption. Therefore, everything needs to be measurable, trackable and calculable.
How does it work in practice?
For example, many marketers run social media ads because… Well, because who doesn’t run social media ads? However, they often fail to measure key metrics, and thus don’t actually know whether their social campaigns are really worth the time and money invested. Without detailed tracking and measurement, you can never know for certain the key driver(s) of your success or failure.
In opposition, growth hackers don't typically run large, static campaigns, and thus don't work with ROI. Instead, they use Customer Lifetime Value and Cost of Acquisition as metrics to constantly adjust and optimize their marketing channels.
Also good to know:
According to one HBR study, approximately 80% marketers are dissatisfied with their ability to measure the ROI on their campaigns. This proves that there is often a gap between theory and practice, which is where growth hackers jump in.
The Magical P.M.F.
Typically receive a product from a development team and then are tasked with developing a market for it. They usually operate more on one side of the funnel: increasing brand awareness, leading to activation throughout the whole product lifecycle, and will have little responsibility in retention.
They get involved in product development and they work to constantly improve the product over time according to the results of their tests. Through extensive user testing, data mining, and other ways of listening to the market they can help develop or improve the product by tailoring it specifically to what customers are already asking for. They work throughout the whole marketing funnel to trigger what is called product/market fit (PMF) as foundation for growth.
Also good to know:
As a rule of thumb, when at least 40% of your users report that they would be very disappointed could they no longer use your product or service, you probably have PMF. It means that your product - and the market for your product - are perfectly in sync. The growth hacker’s goal is to create a product their customers cannot live without.
They aim for high awareness and higher acquisition. They create the market and bring in the customers. After that, their job is done. Another department focuses on retention.
Again, the growth hacking approach transcends these boundaries.
They are concerned with closing the loop. Most startups don’t have the resources to pour water into a bucket with holes in the bottom. They are concerned with customer's lifetime value. As such, they work to optimise the entire “AARRR” sales funnel (we like to refer to this as Pirate Metrics, first developed by Dave McClure):
- Awareness: How do customers find you?
- Activation: Creating a WOW moment that inspires them to take action.
- Retention: Stimulating them to come back.
- Revenue: Optimising revenue streams.
- Referral: Making customers so happy that they become your sales force.
By measuring each part of the sales funnel, growth hackers can see exactly where your customers are struggling, where they are leaving, and what can be done about it.
A Different Skillset
Moving beyond mindset, there are also big differences in the skillsets of a traditional marketer and a growth hacker.
They associate themselves more with artists. They are concerned with strategy, brand building and sales.
They trace their roots back to programming engineers. But they are much more than that. Data scientist meets marketer meets programmer.
The growth hacking skillset should include 3 essential elements:
- Creative marketing: A growth hacker needs to know how to creatively market products. Having a background in marketing is always an asset. Understanding customer needs and how to fulfill them is essential.
- Data Analytics & Testing: Everything that is done to boost growth needs to be measurable. That means a growth hacker needs to know the tools and techniques for collecting and analysing lots of data.
- Software Engineering & Automation: Growth hacking is often a very technical job. It sometimes involves programming custom APIs, setting up landing pages, or coming up with other creative software-based hacks.
Also good to know:
At RockBoost we know how to leverage each other’s strengths and expertise to ensure we can get anything done. Few people are experts in everything. That’s why having a stellar team is so important. Here is a partial list of skills a typical RockBoost growth hacker should have at least some proficiency in: web analytics, social media marketing, SEO, copywriting, CRO, marketing automation, landing page optimisation, A/B testing, design, data analytics, HTML, APIs, data mining… and more. Check our blog post about what you should be looking for in a growth hacker here.
A Different Set of Channels
One important difference between marketers and growth hackers is the maturity of the channels they use.
TV and radio, for example, are traditionally popular advertising channels for marketers in large companies. They would use more expensive channels, where it would be difficult to track any sort of data, and where you can only hope to achieve a jaw-dropping growth.
They enjoy exploring new channels that few others have experience using. Unexplored territory where the do’s and don'ts have not yet been established are where growth hackers thrive. These channels offer opportunities for pushing the limits in creative ways. Growth hackers are skilled at finding new channels where they can push their products without breaking the bank. Furthermore, the data-driven approach dictates that they will only fully invest in a channel once they have seen that it works – no waste of budget and other resources.
Also good to know:
At RockBoost, we identified 19 innovative channels that businesses can use to gain traction and grow - and not all of them are online. The key is not using all of them simultaneously, but finding the ones that work best for your business at this point in time.
A Different Set of Tools
While there is naturally some overlap, marketers and growth hackers typically use a different set of tools.
Their tools will mostly include more traditional communication methods; from print, to broadcast, PR and even more. But can also make use of other digital tools, they simply use a totally different approach to it.
Their tools largely revolve around measuring, testing, tweaking and optimising online processes and systems - and the tools they use reflect this. They can use dozens of preexisting free and paid tools, or even create their own custom ones. What matters is how those tools can help them grow a business.
Tools that YOU can use
The good news is that many of the tools growth hackers use are not overly technical. That means you, as an aspiring growth hacker (c’mon who doesn’t want to be a growth hacker?), can already start benefiting from these.
An advanced data analyst will typically have a strong statistics education and will use tools like R, SPSS and MathLab. They run lots of A/B tests, understand the fundamentals of confidence intervals, significance levels and are able to produce regression models to better understand customer behavior patterns.
Sound scary? Just because you forgot to get an advanced statistics degree at university doesn’t mean you cannot get useful data and insights about what your customers are doing.
To execute A/B tests, Optimizely and Visual Web Optimizer should be your go to tools. For understanding on where on the website your visitors scroll and click, heat maps, such as the ones from Hotjar will be your best friend.
Google Tag Manager makes it easy to implement lots of these tools without having to edit the code of your website.
These tools are not exactly simple and will take time and effort to learn. But whether you are a business owner or a marketing professional, learning how to use some of these tools is well worth the effort.
When do you need a marketer and when do you need a growth hacker?
Hopefully this article has helped you get a grasp on the similarities and differences between growth hackers and traditional marketers. There are some overlapping focus areas. However, growth hacking involves far greater breadth in terms of the skills required, the tools used and general mindset. So now you’re probably wondering, when do you need a marketer and when do you need a growth hacker?
You need a Traditional Marketer if:
- You have a business that is large, well-established and needs an overall marketing strategy.
- High reach and brand building are your primary focus, and you have the money to spend on big campaigns.
You need a Growth Hacker if:
- You have an idea, concept or business model that is completely new.
- You want to grow aggressively and quickly.
- You can’t afford huge marketing campaigns with unknown ROIs.
Basically, you need a growth hacker if you want to start challenging your company and improving what you are doing. This should be what your company, no matter what its size, aims for continuously.
The Reference Guide
|Growth Hacker||Traditional Marketer|
|Mindset||Data oriented, experimentation is key||
Raising awareness & selling
Help the developers make a superior product that people want
Receive the finished product, and will find the target market
Awareness, Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Revenue, Referral (AARRR)
|Channels||19+ different channels - use whatever works||
Outdoor media, newspapers, TV, radio, Google Ads, Social media
|Skillset and Tools||Creative Marketing, Analytics & Testing, Software Engineering & Automation, Conversion Rate Optimisation (COR), A/B Testing, Conversion Funnels, Landing Pages, Copywriting, Database Querying, Minimal Viable Product, Lead Scoring, E-mail Marketing, Persuasive Design, Marketing Automation, Viral Marketing, Web Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Hotjar, Unbounce, Optimizely, Google Analytics||Creative Marketing, Social Media, SEO, SEM, Brand Awareness & Reputation, Strategy, Lead Generation, Customer Acquisition, UX, Content Marketing, Brand Awareness, Google Analytics, Link Building|
|When do you hire whom||
High growth 20%+ a year
Companies that want to grow fast
Limited budgets & effectiveness of marketing efforts are important
Slow growth ~5% a year
(Established companies, corporates)
High Awareness is important & have marketing budget