It turns out I have been a Growth Hacker since 1979.

growth hacking

First, what is “growth hacking”?

Growth hacking is a term and practice beloved of Silicon Valley startups. It’s anti-traditional marketing. Some of its advocates go so far as to suggest that marketing ideas should come from the engineers, and not from anyone trained in marketing.

There are numerous definitions out there, but for the sake of brevity, here is how John Elman describes growth hacking, “This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”

Wanting to learn more, I have just finished reading an excellent book by Ryan Holiday, Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising.

It’s a reasonably short book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In large part because I am a fan of any smart thinker who beats up on the old school of marketers. Those are the marketers who believe they can succeed by throwing bucket loads of money at campaigns designed to persuade people to buy stuff they probably don’t want anyway.

You should read it. It’s a smart book.


And this is where I am liable to find myself up to my knees in all kinds of trouble. After all, nobody likes anyone who gets all smug and says, “I already knew all that!” about the good work of others.

But here goes, without absolutely no disrespect intended.

The thing is, although reading this book was my first exposure to the concept and practice of Growth Hacking, it taught me nothing that I haven’t known since 1979.

Why? Because 1979 was when I began my career as a direct response copywriter…a direct marketer.

And the ideas behind growth hacking seem to me to be pretty much perfectly aligned with the existing art and science of direct marketing.

You might be throwing your hands up in the air right now, because your perception of direct marketing is all about hyped-up language, pushy copywriting, outrageous claims and so on. Well, that’s OK. That’s what the regular advertising guys used to say about us 30 years ago.

But you’re wrong. All that stuff is what you might see on the surface of a narrow slice of the direct marketing world. Beneath the surface of direct marketing there is a whole lot more going on.

To illustrate and support my point, I‘m going to walk you through the process of creating and marketing a new product – direct marketing style.

This is the process I use when developing a new information product of my own. And this isn’t just the way I do things. This is how every smart direct marketer works. Keep reading, and then – if you are already knowledgeable about growth hacking – you tell me whether growth hacking is the same as direct marketing, or not.

Here we go…

Step one: Come up with a product or service idea.

For this example, my product idea is to create and sell an information product – a course or program for growth hackers, teaching them the technical skills of direct marketing.

At this stage I’ll just outline what the course will include. And I’ll write down only what I can fit on the back of an envelope. No more than that.

Step two: Find my best audience, and figure out where they hang out together.

I don’t want to try selling my product to people who don’t already see themselves as growth hackers. I don’t want to have to persuade people, or even educate them much. I just want to give people what they already know they want.

Also, I don’t want to do all the hard work of building an audience. I want to leverage the hard work of other people who have already gathered these people together.

I’ll use Google to find existing communities of growth hackers. I’ll find them on Facebook and in Facebook groups. I’ll do some hashtag searches on Twitter. And so on.

Step three: Research my audience

This takes up a big chunk of time. I’m going to spend several days finding out what growth hackers say within these communities.

In particular, I’ll be looking for two types of discussions.

First, I’ll look for the emotional triggers. I want to know what makes them super happy, and what pisses them off. This is important, because way down the road, when I put this product up for sale, I know that my conversion rates will be hugely influenced by emotion.

Second, I’m going to look for “how to” discussions. I want to know what growth hackers want and need in terms of “how to” skills. When I know this, I’ll know what it is the audience wants, and create my product accordingly. Yep, I’m going to create my product so that it aligns as closely as possible with what my audience actually wants.

One last thing. I’m also going to take note of their language. There are phrases and references that are going to come up again and again, and are often unique to particular communities. I want to know what they are. This will help me write to that audience in a way that feels familiar. I don’t want to sound like a stranger.

By now I have a pretty good handle on my audience. I know where to reach them. I know that they care about. And I know what they want.

Step four: Write the sales materials

Hang on, you say, you don’t have a product yet. You haven’t written the course.

No, I haven’t. And I won’t until after I have written the sales material.

Based into my research into what my audience wants, I’m now going to write an online sales page that addresses all their wants head-on. (How about what they NEED? Ha! Never! People don’t buy what they need. They buy what they want.)

And if I’m half way smart, I’ll write that sales material unencumbered by any existing product. When I write the sales material I don’t want to have to “accommodate” the product. I don’t want to have to shoe-horn in information that is there in the product, but not precisely aligned with what my audience wants.

So first, I write all that sales stuff. I put my ego to one side. I resist the temptation to try selling people what I think they need, however much they seem to need it. Instead, I give them what they want.

Step five: Now I’m ready to create my course of program.

Will I write the entire program at this stage?

Maybe. If I have a very high level of confidence.

But if I’m having a smart day when I make this decision, I’ll probably write the complete outline, then write the first two chapters or sections, and launch the product before I complete it. This means I’ll be selling the course in chapters or sections over the course of several weeks or even months.

How come? Because I’m going to build in a feedback loop. Maybe with a membership site or a Facebook group. I’ll going to solicit feedback from people as they work through the first two sections of the course. Specifically, I’m going to ask them what else they want to learn. What they found really useful. What’s missing so far. And so on.

Armed with his feedback I can make the remaining chapters even better, even more useful.

Will I have to work hard to do it this way? Sure I will. But I won’t be the first. A direct marketing friend of mine did it exactly this way, before the arrival of the web. He was soliciting feedback from his buyers by pre-paid postcards, writing like crazy all week, and faxing out new sections of his course to his buyers each weekend.

Step six: Launch my new product

This won’t be a big media launch. This will be a highly targeted launch, aimed only at people, groups and communities that have a declared interest in growth hacking.

Actually, thanks to Facebook advertising, and the amazing features of their Power Editor, I can create Facebook ads and updates that are targeted only to the people who Like the leading experts and gurus in this field, and/or who have a declared interest in growth hacking. In some cases, I can even target the friends of individual growth hacker gurus.

I like Facebook advertising for a few reasons. First, because of its amazing targeting potential. But also because I can track everything. Exposures, clicks, money spent and, best of all, my cost per conversion.

That’s another thing about direct marketers. We are addicted to the numbers. We don’t want awards or high-fives for creating cool campaigns. We want to study the data, and then circle back to adjust both our marketing and our products to improve the final sales figures. We never stop testing, challenging, improving and testing again.

Actually, this product, and most of the products I have already created, are never “done”. I’m always adding to them, updating them and improving them based on ongoing customer feedback.

Does this process always work?

Of course not. And that’s why I decided to write only sections one and two of the program before launching it.

After working hard to sell my product, it may turn out that the early sales are weak and the whole project looks like it might bomb.

If it looks like this might be the case, there are three questions I should ask myself. 1) Have I failed to find the right audience of potential buyers? 2) Do I have the right audience, but have failed to create a product they really want? 3) Do I have the right audience and the right product, but have written a terrible sales page?

Before abandoning the project, I will seek to answer those questions, and take remedial action.

(I know a direct marketer who went through this exact process, identified the list of prospects as the likely culprit, and finally found his best audience on the third try. That business is now worth tens of millions of dollars.)

If I still can’t get the sales I want, I can abandon the project and repay my early customers. Disappointing…but at least I let it go before putting in all the work to write the complete program.

And that’s it. That is the process I use, and I learned it from all the direct marketers who came before me. I used it before the arrival of the web, and I have used it ever since.

BTW – direct marketing on the web is like offline direct marketing on steroids. In the old days of print I often had to wait weeks or even months before receiving the data on an A/B split test. In other words, I might test two different creative executions of a piece of direct mail, and then wait months to find out which one did the best. Today I can achieve the same online within just a few hours and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

What I have described here is a simplified and abbreviated version of how I go about creating and selling an information product. There’s a lot of other stuff I might do. For example, I might create a short, free, or almost free “pre-product” first…before committing to the full course. This will give me insights into how viable the full product is. It will also allow me to build my own list. And having a list will allow me to write a series of per-launch emails to warm up my prospects.

So…is growth hacking the same as direct marketing?

If you’re a growth hacker, let me know whether my process is the same as the growth hacker process.

As I said at the outset, my intention here is not to beat up on anyone, or show any disrespect.

But if I’m right, I think we could learn a lot from each other.

NOTE: You can find information my own consulting services for small business and startups here.

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

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1 thought on “It turns out I have been a Growth Hacker since 1979.

  1. Wow! You’ve outlined one of the most complete, powerful processes for product development, marketing and online success that I’ve seen. Thank you for walking your talk – I’m inspired!

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