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Setting the record straight: Growth marketing vs. growth hacking

Laura Colton
Laura Colton
Content Communications Specialist
8 min read
21 November 2022

Over the years, the terms “growth marketing” and “growth hacking” have evolved from buzzwords to widely recognized and established marketing terms.

The trouble is that while these concepts may seem and sound similar, they have very different definitions that set them apart. So when you hear marketers use these phrases interchangeably, it’s important to note that these approaches are not the same.

Which leads us to what exactly is growth marketing and growth hacking? We’re here to set the record straight, define both concepts, and address some of the most noteworthy distinctions.

Growth marketing explained

Growth marketing is a full-funnel approach that combines brand (upper-funnel) and performance (mid-to-bottom-funnel) marketing strategies for a holistic customer experience.

Unlike traditional performance marketing, growth marketing is a long-term strategy that focuses on every step of the customer journey: from attracting new customers at the top of the funnel, to engaging and educating them at the middle-funnel, and finally to the stage of buying and creating life-long customers at the bottom of the funnel.

Growth marketing goes beyond driving awareness, engaging customers, and completing the buying process – it also focuses on the experience after converting a lead into a customer.

Growth hacking explained

On the other side of the coin, “growth hacking” is a term created by entrepreneur Sean Ellis in 2010 as an approach usually associated with early-stage startups that lack time, money, and resources and therefore require rapid growth and experimentation to acquire and retain customers.

Growth hacking is also often seen as a cheaper and more unreliable shortcut to explosive growth and turning a quick profit. The trouble with growth hacking is that while it may yield faster results, it doesn’t consider the big picture or focus on sustainable growth.

Difference #1: Growth marketers make data-driven decisions.

Growth marketers heavily emphasize data management and activation, where metrics are constantly being collected, tracked, and utilized to create a more seamless and personalized customer journey.

They know the importance of tracking the metrics that matter and use those insights to strategically align the marketing strategy with broader company goals. Successful growth marketers also know how to leverage all available data to help build an informed approach to attract and retain customers and boost customer lifetime value.

Growth hackers, on the other hand, play it a little more fast and loose when it comes to making strategic decisions. Rather than honing in on specific metrics, growth hackers focus on growth as their primary metric to increase profitability: more web traffic, more conversion rates, more sales, and more revenue.

Let’s look at how a growth marketer and a growth hacker approach data in acquiring and retaining customers.
A growth marketer leverages data and customer information to increase their understanding of their customers and provide a consistent customer experience to drive engagement and conversions. Growth marketers measure growth metrics (like churn rates and customer lifetime value) and performance metrics to build a single view of the customer and to nurture the customer relationship at every stage of the funnel. They utilize this data to make the most seamless customer experience across channels and all touchpoints–helping drive conversion, retain existing customers, and maximize ROI (return on investment).

A growth hacker wants to quickly gain as many new customers as possible while spending as little as possible. The problem with this is that many growth hackers tend to rely on their intuition to generate growth and are often (metaphorically) just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Growth hackers promise big wins but they typically aren’t measuring correctly, optimizing, or investing enough to find the best way to increase growth or reduce customer churn. They get too wrapped up in measuring vanity metrics (such as social media likes and website visits) that may appear impressive on the surface, but don’t provide insight into the true performance of campaigns and don’t show meaningful results.

Growth hackers also have a difficult time narrowing in on one channel – and showing success in that channel – before moving on to the next one. A recipe for disaster is when a marketer has $50k a month and wants to invest that in every channel. Instead of trying to be everywhere at once without a coordinated strategy, marketers should dedicate themselves to a channel, obtain at least six months of data, and then take that data and optimize their activities within that channel. Only when you are successfully executing in one channel, such as paid search, should you expand your budget and apply more to a new channel, like paid social. Growth hackers lack the commitment, patience, and dedication to stick with a channel for six months to a year in order to really yield actionable insights.

Difference #2: Growth hacking is about fast results and rapid growth, while growth marketing is all about sustainable success.

Growth marketers play the long game and rely on data-driven research, investing in growth drivers, building the brand, and investing in full-funnel strategies to create scalable, sustainable growth.

Growth hacking is about growth by whatever means necessary in a short period of time, meaning they often lose focus on the brand. Growth hackers are more interested in quick wins and place a more significant emphasis on new customer acquisition, which gives them revenue in a shorter time.

A growth hacker wants to achieve short-term success across as many metrics as possible using low-cost marketing strategies and tactics that are creative and often unconventional. The key to growth hacking comes down to speed, constant testing, and the ability to quickly scrap any idea that isn’t producing immediate results.

On the other hand, growth marketers leverage proven processes to nurture long-term brand building and use full-funnel marketing strategies and activities together for a holistic customer experience. They also understand the six pillars of growth marketing and how those fit within their overall strategy. Unlike growth hackers, growth marketers don’t just focus on the quick wins of customer acquisition. Instead, they focus on creating a loyal and engaged customer base made up of brand evangelists.

Difference #3: Growth marketers care about building a sustainable brand, while growth hackers aren’t concerned with long-term brand building.

A growth marketer thinks about where a brand wants to be five to ten years from now, while a growth hacker cares most about where it can be tomorrow without putting much stock in brand equity.

Growth hackers fall into DEPT’s Growth Marketing Maturity Index™ (GMMI) Laggard stage. The GMMI evaluates brands based on six pillars that respondents self-assess their capabilities within to determine the brand’s overall marketing maturity level. The index has five levels that range from Laggard (least mature) to Disruptor (most mature), and a brand is given one of the five-level rankings based on how it scores within the six pillars in the assessment.

A brand that scores as a Laggard is in the least mature state. Brands in this category typically:

  • Are novices just starting out or in the very early stages of digital marketing.
  • Have no defined strategy.
  • Have either limited or no metric tracking, resulting in uncoordinated strategies and few actionable insights.
  • Have very limited support and management buy-in, no specific digital marketing skills in-house, and no agency support.

Growth hacking undercuts growth marketing’s main goal: to build a powerful brand over the long term. The downsides of having tunnel vision on revenue and valuing short-term gains over sustainable growth? No overarching strategy, no actionable insights, and no cohesive messaging. The result? A diluted brand experience and weak buying journey that fails to motivate consumers.

Unlike growth hackers, growth marketers have the patience, strategy, and support to build a brand. This is something that takes time, but it’s extremely worth it in the long run. To build a memorable brand that has staying power, marketers need to make a powerful impact and deliver on their value propositions and messages consistently across all consumer touchpoints.

Growth marketers know that a brand is always evolving and needs an unshakable foundation to stand the test of time. Growth marketing is the long-term approach that focuses on building brand awareness with sustainable and scalable growth by:

  • Prioritizing the customer journey.
  • Providing a consistent experience at every touchpoint for more engaging customer experiences.
  • Delivering personalized and cohesive messaging.
  • Fostering strong relationships with customers to create loyal brand advocates.
  • Having a deep understanding of the type of content that customers find relevant and valuable at each point of the funnel.

You may be tempted to adopt a growth hacking approach for quick wins. While this pressure to produce fast results might be appealing on the surface, don’t fall victim to it – your brand won’t be able to stand the test of time.

Interested in learning more? Take our proprietary Growth Marketing Assessment to understand what you’re doing right, how you can improve, and what you need to do to build a brand that inspires consumers and drives long-term, sustainable success.

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Content Communications Specialist

Laura Colton