Ryan Holiday is a media strategist who started his career as an assistant to Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and was the director of marketing at American Apparel for many years.
Last year I interviewed Ryan about his book, Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. He's got a new book out called Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising, and it's for sale as an e-book on Amazon for $2.99.
Below, an excerpt from Ryan's book.
What Is Growth Hacking?
The end goal of every growth hacker is to build a self-perpetuating marketing machine that reaches millions by itself.
There’s no business like show business. Yet, when it comes right down to it, that’s the industry every marketing team— no matter what business they’re actually in—pretends to be in when they’re launching something new. Deep down, I think anyone marketing or launching anything fantasizes that they are premiering a blockbuster movie. And this illusion shapes and warps every marketing decision we make.
It feels good, but it’s so very wrong.
Our first idea is a grand opening, a big launch, a press release, or major media coverage. We default to thinking we need an advertising budget. We want red carpet and celebrities. Most dangerously we assume we need to get as many customers as possible in a very short window of time—and if it doesn’t work right away, we consider the whole thing a failure (which, of course, we cannot afford). Our delusion is that we should be Transformers and not The Blair Witch Project.
Needless to say, this is preposterous. Yet you and I have been taught, unquestionably, to follow it for years.
What’s wrong with it? Well, for starters: most movies fail.
Despite the glamour and the history of movie marketing, even after investing millions—often more than the budget of the movie itself—studios regularly write off major releases as complete washes. And when they do succeed, no one has any idea why or which of the ingredients were responsible for it. As screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, nobody knows anything—even the people in charge. It’s all a big gamble.
Which is fine, because their system is designed to absorb these losses. The hits pay for the mistakes many times over. But there is a big difference between them and everyone else in the world. You can’t really afford for your start-up to fail; your friend has sunk everything into her new business; and I can’t allow my book to flop. We don’t have ten other projects coming down the pike. This is it.
It was only a matter of time before someone smart came along and said, “It doesn’t have to be this way. The tools of the Internet and social media have made it possible to track, test, iterate, and improve marketing to the point where these enormous gambles are not only unnecessary, but insanely counterproductive.”
That person was the first growth hacker.
The Rise of the Growth Hacker
Since Hotmail’s astounding viral launch in 1996, many others—particularly in the tech space—have begun to push and break through the limits of marketing. With a mind for data and a scrappy disregard for the “rules,” they have pioneered a new model of marketing designed to utilize the many new tools that the Internet has made available: E-mail. Data. Social media. Lean methodology.
Almost overnight, this breed has become the new rock stars of the Silicon Valley. You see them on the pages of TechCrunch, Fast Company, Mashable, Entrepreneur, and countless other publications. LinkedIn and Hacker News abound with job postings: Growth Hacker Needed.
Their job isn’t to “do” marketing as I had always known it; it’s to grow companies really fast—to take something from nothing and make it something enormous within an incredibly tight window. And it says something about what marketing has become that these are no longer considered synonymous tasks.
The term “growth hacker” has many different meanings for different people, but I’ll define it as I have come to understand it:
A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity, and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like “branding” and “mind share,” growth hackers relentlessly pursue
users and growth—and when they do it right, those users beget more users, who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self- sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to belabor definitions in this book. What’s important is we’re all trying to grow our business, launch our website, sell tickets for our event, or fund our Kickstarter project. And the way we do it, today, is fundamentally different from how it used to be done.
Instead of launching products with multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, the growth hackers we will follow in this book began their work at start-ups with little to no resources. Forced to innovate and motivated to try new things, growth hackers like these have built some of these companies into billion-dollar brands. They did it not only outside the enormous edifice of the Hollywood-industrial- launch-complex but also because they ignored it and rejected its tactics. Instead of bludgeoning the public with ads or dominating the front page of newspapers to drive awareness—they used a scalpel, precise and targeted to a specific audience.
The New Mind-Set
Deep down, traditional marketers have always considered themselves artists. That’s fine—it’s an image I aspired to myself. It’s a sentiment responsible for spectacular and moving work. But this sentiment is also responsible for some appalling ignorance and waste. One Harvard Business Review study found that 80 percent of marketers are unhappy with their ability to measure marketing return on investment (ROI). Not because the tools aren’t good enough, but because they’re too good, and marketers are seeing for the first time that their marketing strategies are “often flawed and their spending is inefficient.”4
Noah Kagan, a growth hacker at Facebook and personal finance service Mint (which sold to Intuit for nearly $200 million) and the daily deal site AppSumo (which has more than 800,000 users), explains it simply: “Marketing has always been about the same thing—who your customers are and where they are.”
What growth hackers do is focus on the “who” and “where” more scientifically, in a more measurable way. Whereas marketing was once brand based, with growth hacking it becomes metric and ROI driven. Suddenly, finding customers and getting attention for your product become no longer a guessing game. But this is more than just marketing with better metrics.
Growth hackers trace their roots back to programmers— and that’s how they see themselves. They are data scientists meets design fiends meets marketers. They welcome this information, process it and utilize it differently, and see it as desperately needed clarity in a world that has been dominated by gut instincts and artistic preference for too long.
Ultimately that’s why this new approach is better suited to the future. With the collapse or crumbling of some of the behemoth companies and the rapid rise of start-ups, apps, and websites, marketing will need to get smaller—it will need to change its priorities. When you get right down to it, the real skill for marketers today isn’t going to be helping some big boring company grow 1 percent a year but to create a totally new brand from nothing using next to no resources. Whether that’s a Kickstarter project you’re trying to fund or a new app, the thinking is the same: how do you get, maintain, and multiply attention in a scalable and efficient way?
Thankfully, growth hacking isn’t some proprietary technical process shrouded in secrecy. In fact, it has grown and developed in the course of very public conversations. There are no trade secrets to guard. Aaron Ginn, the growth hacker tasked with rapidly updating the technology behind Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and now director of growth at StumbleUpon, put it best: growth hacking is more of a mind-set than a tool kit.
I promise that when you finish reading this book you will fully grasp the growth hacker’s way of thinking. The chapters in this book are organized to guide you through the process of taking something from one user to a million and possibly to a hundred times that. I am compressing everything I’ve learned in the last two years studying, researching, and interviewing the world’s best growth hackers.
I want to show you the growth hacker’s way and why it is the future. How it’s infiltrating the next generation of companies; how it’s reshaping marketing, PR, and advertising from top to bottom; how even authors are using the principles in their book launches.