There’s a tendency to refer to any new company as a startup, but when the term was popularized by Paul Graham it had a more precise meaning: a company intended to grow very quickly, funded by external capital, and not necessarily intended to be profitable at first. Just as we apply the concept of a startup more broadly than originally intended, it’s also become popular to think of rapid growth as the most important metric of a business’s success. Hence the rise of the growth hacker—a marketing professional whose sole aim is business growth.
When a single metric is used to represent success, incentives and behaviors can become distorted. For most businesses, growing as fast as possible isn’t the optimal strategy. Excessively rapid growth can kill a business if revenues don’t scale in line with resource consumption—a common cause of failed startups. If growth is a company’s major—or only—measure of success, ignoring other metrics like profitability and customer satisfaction can damage the reputation of what might otherwise have been a sustainable business.
The drive to grow at all costs manifests itself in various ways, but I’d like to have a look at four growth-hacking behaviors that have soured my view of companies and suggest that, although they might drive growth in the short-term, businesses should consider the long-term costs.
Pillaging users’ contacts
When the average user installs an application and allows it to access their contacts so it can “suggest connections,” she doesn’t expect to get angry emails from her friends complaining that the company behind the app is spamming them. And yet, this is a common growth hacking technique.
Companies that put growth first hunger for email addresses, and there’s no richer source of email addresses that the contacts of users who have already shown an interest. But if a new user gives a company privileged access to contacts, does it seem right that that the company abuse that trust? Is it likely to cultivate loyalty?
In 2015, LinkedIn lost a lawsuit, part of which concerned just this technique. If you pillage user’s contacts, you might find yourself faced with more than a few disgruntled users.
Freemium with a tweet
This is a clever and simple growth-hacking technique that can leave a bad taste in users’ mouths, simply because it looks like a bait and switch. The user is tempted by a free tier, and happily uses the service. That is, until the service threatens to cut off access unless they send out a tweet advertising the business.
Unroll.me, a service that filters subscription emails from users’ inboxes, tried this technique, and unhappy users kicked up quite a fuss. You might argue that the users weren’t paying and, as such, there’s no problem with asking for a little help. You might also argue that it works (this was the response of many admiring growth hackers). These points are worth considering, but you should pause for a moment and ask yourself if that’s really the sort of company you want to be.
The black-hat SEO industry has fallen out of favor in the last few years, so many professionals who made a living trying to trick search engines have had to rebrand. They did so by trying to fit it under the label of growth hacking, albeit with an unchanged bag of old SEO tricks.
Rap Genius, a service that had a superb brand reputation, was bitten by this particular variety of growth hacking a couple of years ago.
Trying to trick Google and other search engines with link schemes, paid links, misleading information architecture, and spam isn’t a good idea. You’ll be penalized sooner or later. Google doesn’t care whether you call what you do SEO or growth hacking.
For most online businesses—these are the small businesses that when combined generate far more value and employment than unicorns—growth hacking may not be the best approach to building a solid foundation and sustainable revenue stream.
Instead, think about how to build long-lasting relationships with users and customers. Marketing is absolutely essential to the profitability and growth of any company, but marketing doesn’t have to mean a “hacky” and less-than-respectful approach to relationship building.