How Growth Hacking Differs from Marketing

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If you’ve had any involvement with digital marketing over recent years, it’s likely that you’ll have come across the term “growth hacking” or “growth hacker”. However, there remains a lot of confusion about what growth hacking actually is, and how it differs from more “traditional” forms of marketing. 

In this article, I will clearly define the concept of growth hacking, its similarities and differences to traditional marketing, and why you might choose one over the other when planning your business growth strategy…

Growth Hacking Defined

The first thing to say is that, despite what the hype might imply, growth hacking is a form and subset of marketing. Like the traditional marketer, the growth hacker is aiming to boost a specific audience’s awareness of a product or service, acquire new users, retain existing ones, and grow the business.

But there is also a common misconception that growth hacking and digital marketing are essentially the same – but that’s not true. Whilst SEO, PPC, and social media marketing are indeed channels that growth hackers use, a marketer isn’t necessarily doing growth hacking by using them…

Sean Ellis, who coined the term “growth hacker” back in 2010, asserted that, “a growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.” That word “scrutinized” gets close to the heart of the growth hacking concept: it is a data-driven, methodological approach to marketing. And it is focused on increasing revenue.

The growth hacker utilises the vast quantities of data that can be harvested through digital marketing channels to conduct experiments; this then allows them to determine the most effective channels and tactics for achieving super-quick business growth.

Growth hacking and traditional marketing – key differences

Let’s take a closer look at the contrast between the growth hacking approach and the traditional marketing approach.

Guesswork vs. methodology: Growth hackers use a methodological framework to organise their activities – a framework which is optimised to achieve growth. This relates to the “Seven Core Principles of Growth”, which I outlined in my recent guide to growth hacking. The framework enables a growth hacker to design and run experiments, iteratively test channels and tactics, and devise a powerful digital growth marketing strategy based on solid metrics.

Pushing the product vs. developing the product: As we see in this infographic, traditional marketing can sometimes focus on making people want the product, rather than on making a product people want. Lots of businesses ultimately crash and burn because the product isn’t as good as how it gets portrayed.

In contrast, growth hacking is closely aligned to the product development process. Its methodology is not just applied to the initial stages of the funnel – the Awareness and Acquisition stages – but to every stage: a full-funnel approach. A growth hacker will also analyse user responses and actions within the product, in order to develop a solution that people can’t imagine living without.

Approach to channels: With traditional marketing, the approach is often: “how can we use all of the different channels (TV ads, digital marketing, trade fairs, etc.) to market our product successfully?” Conversely, growth hacking asks: “which specific channels will be most effective to promote our product with the most bang for our buck, and how can we double-down on the most efficient channels for customer acquisition? Let’s run some tests and find out!”

As we saw above, the use of digital marketing is not unique to growth hacking, but growth hacking is indeed closely aligned with digital marketing practices. To be effective, growth hackers need to embrace the quantitative and qualitative data generated by their experiments on digital channels. These insights are central to allocating budget in the areas which will have the most impact.

Marketing silo vs. cross-functional team: A marketing department sometimes evolves into a separate “silo” that has irregular contact with, for example, the engineering, data science, or product development teams. In contrast, a key principle of growth hacking is to create a cross-functional team – consisting of representatives from different departments and professional backgrounds.

By heading up this team, the senior growth leader can unite all stakeholders behind the mission for growth. Marketers, data analysts, software developers, designers, customer support, etc. – all focused on creating a world-class product, growing its user base, and retaining as many customers as possible.

Time-frame and cost: Growth hacking aims to drive intense growth over a short time-frame, because startups and scale-ups need to build momentum quickly. The traditional marketing mindset places less emphasis on time. And growth hackers are tightly tuned into financial metrics such as the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) – in order to determine the most efficient and cost-effective channels.

Should You Choose Growth Hacking or Traditional Marketing?

If you’re considering whether to implement a growth hacking strategy for your business or to stick with traditional marketing, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What kind of business do I have?

Generally, growth hacking is best-suited to businesses in the tech arena – due to its reliance on data and digital acquisition channels. If your business is bricks-and-mortar and largely based offline, growth hacking isn’t usually a good fit. That said, the growth hacking mindset can be used to inspire a more methodological approach to marketing products and services. Fortunately, it’s not all or nothing.

  1. What growth stage has the business reached?

If your business is at its very earliest-stage (pre product-market fit), you haven’t validated the need for your solution. Growth hacking would be jumping the gun, and you also won’t have enough data to start in the right direction. This doesn’t mean you should favour traditional marketing over growth hacking, but it does mean that you need to spend more time validating before investing in growth experiments.

Once they’ve proven product-market fit, startups and scale-ups do benefit from growth hacking – which thrives in this kind of intense, fast-paced environment. But once a company has become large and established, you’ll discover that growth hacking can’t deliver the same intensity of growth for the business as a whole. This is when the shift to brand-building activities tends to happen.

Instead, growth hacking principles can indeed be applied to individual projects and new product launches within a large organisation – isolated bursts of growth in their own agile environment. 

  1. What resources do I have available?

Growth hacking can be very cost-efficient overall, but you will need upfront investment to conduct experiments – especially in paid channels. And there are costs for integrating CRMs, automation software, and other tools. Furthermore, you will need to pay for creative and technical expertise. 

Therefore, it’d be a mistake to consider growth hacking as “low cost” – although you can certainly spread budgets much more evenly than when putting all your eggs in the basket of one big marketing campaign. 


There is certainly overlap between growth hacking and traditional marketing; primarily in that many of the same paid and organic channels are used in both. However, growth hacking is a high-velocity approach, driven by iterative experiments, data, and rapid testing of different tactics. 

Growth hacking has evolved from the basis of traditional marketing, but it has taken on a life of its own. The channels might be the same, but the methods and mindsets are very different.  

This is a guest post by Oren Greenberg. Oren is a growth marketer, and the founder of the Kurve consultancy in London. He helps startups and corporate innovation projects scale using digital channels. He has written for leading marketing blogs and has been featured in the international press.

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