Growth hacking vs growth marketing – is there really a difference?

Growth hacking vs growth marketing. 

Two terms often often synonymously. And honestly, I think back in 2015 when Sean Ellis first coined the term Growth Hacking he wasn’t thinking of it as many people do today.  

It’s taken on a different meaning since then. And honestly, I’m not a huge fan of how people refer to it. 

It’s now quite different from growth marketing and you need to know the difference. So let’s get into it.  

What is growth hacking? 

The term has always had a bit of a bad rep because the term “hacking” is viewed through a negative lens. 

While not always true, growth hacking is usually used y smaller, scrappy brands who need to see results fast.

What these brands tend to do is find one key metric that will have a big impact on their growth. They’ll then engineer some form of “hack” to overexpose that element and massively scale the engagement and result of that metric.  

Growth hackers build a system that pulls one of the major levers for growth in a way that gets far greater results than just doing the thing.  

it’s a weird concept to explain and I don’t think I’ve done a great job so let’s look at some examples. 

A few examples of this would include…

BrandKey metric targetedWhy it’s importantAction they took
DropboxSign-upsMore customers = more cashGave users extra free space in Dropbox if they referred a friend.
AirBnBListingsMore listings = more trafficThey built a bot that scraped the information from Criagslist (more popular at the time) and emailed the poster to say “your property can be listed on AirBnB and get up to $500 more”. 
HotmailSign-upsMore customers = more cashHotmail added a link to the end of emails sent within the platform offering others a free hotmail account. Each send effectively became a promo.  

With growth hacking, you pick one key metric that’s important for growth. usually it’s a metric at the front end of the funnel and focused on attention.

If you think of the stages of awareness, a lot of growth hacks focus on problems and solution aware stages.

You identify an action that helps you reach more people who have the problem or want the solution, and then manipulate users to take that action on a huge scale.  

As you’ll see above, a lot of the focus of Growth Hacking is focused around audience and user acquisition for as low a budget as possible.  

Offering freebies or supercharging the end users desired results are common plays for growth hacking campaigns.  

Pros of growth hacking

1. Rapid and Scalable Growth: Growth hacking techniques are specifically designed to achieve rapid and scalable growth for businesses.

2. Cost-Effective: Growth hacking emphasizes using low-cost or no-cost strategies and tools, making it a cost-effective approach for startups and small businesses.

3. Data-Driven Decision Making: Growth hacking relies heavily on data analysis and experimentation, enabling businesses to make informed decisions based on real-time insights.

4. Increased Customer Acquisition: Growth hacking focuses on finding innovative ways to attract and acquire new customers, leading to an expanded customer base.

5. Enhanced User Engagement: By implementing growth hacking strategies, businesses can optimize user experiences, leading to increased engagement and retention rates.

6. Agility and Adaptability: Growth hacking encourages a flexible and agile mindset, allowing businesses to quickly adapt to market changes and test new ideas.

7. Improved Brand Awareness: Growth hacking techniques often involve leveraging social media and viral marketing to increase brand visibility and awareness.

8. Competitive Advantage: By utilizing growth hacking tactics, businesses can gain a competitive edge by outpacing their competitors in terms of growth and innovation.

Cons of growth hacking

1. Limited long-term sustainability: Growth hacking often focuses on quick wins and short-term gains, which may not necessarily lead to sustainable growth in the long run.

2. Potential ethical concerns: Some growth hacking tactics may involve manipulating or exploiting user behaviour, which can raise ethical concerns and damage a company’s reputation.

3. Lack of scalability: Growth hacking strategies may not be easily scalable or replicable across different markets or industries, limiting their effectiveness in achieving sustained growth.

4. Overemphasis on acquisition: Growth hacking often prioritizes customer acquisition over customer retention, which can result in a high churn rate and a lack of focus on building long-term customer relationships.

5. Risk of negative impact on user experience: In the pursuit of growth, some growth hacking tactics may lead to a poor user experience, such as excessive pop-ups, aggressive email campaigns, or intrusive advertisements.

6. Dependency on trends and platforms: Growth hacking heavily relies on leveraging trends and platforms, which can be unpredictable and subject to changes or restrictions by the platform owners, making it challenging to maintain consistent growth.

7. Potential for misalignment with business goals: Growth hacking may sometimes prioritize growth metrics at the expense of other important business objectives, such as profitability or brand reputation.

8. Difficulty in measuring long-term impact: Due to the experimental nature of growth hacking, it can be challenging to accurately measure the long-term impact and effectiveness of specific tactics or campaigns. 

Should you use growth hacking? 

Maybe, maybe not.  

It can and has worked for many before you. 

The thing is with growth hacking you have to be able to see beyond the initial metric you’re optimising for.  

You can’t just scale user acquisition and expect everything to be fine and dandy. If your tool then has poor onboarding, no educational materials, or is simply bad 99% of those acquired users will churn. 

Growth hacking is about massive scale for one metric right now. A little different to growth marketing. 

What is growth marketing? 

Growth marketing is a little different to hacking in that you’re not focused on one of the higher funnel metrics like acquisition.  

In my opinion, growth marketing is just good, effective marketing strategy.  

You’re not trying to overengineer a solution to manipulate a single metric.  

You’re looking to build a system that offers compounding growth over time and contributes to the core metric of any business. 


Growth marketing is built to get results. 

We’re not here to create a great logo, or think about the branding materials. We’re here to get results.  

Growth marketers will run experiments on different channels and through different approaches to continually optimise their approach and results. 

We want more. And we’ll test our way there.  

If you’ve seen the growth model audits I offer here, you’ll know I’m a firm believer that good growth marketing focuses on 4 key areas (the ACER model). 

  • Attract (how you get in front of ideal customers)
  • Capture (get their contact details to follow up)
  • Convert (how you turn impressions into leads and then customers)
  • Engage (how you help them get the most from your offer to keep them around)
  • Refer (how you get them to tell their friends) 

You can implement hacks at any one or all of the stages, but the focus with growth marketing is on the system, not a single metric like user acquisition.  

Pros of growth marketing

  1. Sustainable customer acquisition: Growth marketing strategies focus not only on acquiring new customers, but also keeping them around for longer meaning there’s more sustainable growth.  
  2. Improved customer retention: By implementing personalized and targeted marketing campaigns, growth marketing can help improve customer loyalty and retention rates.
  3. Cost-effective: Growth marketing emphasizes data-driven strategies and is often tied to the payback period and revenue. Thus making it more cost effective (bad growth models don’t pay for themselves, good ones make a profit). allowing businesses to optimize their marketing efforts and allocate resources more efficiently.
  4. Enhanced brand awareness: Through various growth marketing tactics such as content marketing and social media advertising, businesses can increase their brand visibility and reach a wider audience.
  5. Faster business growth: Growth marketing focuses on rapid experimentation and quick iterations, enabling businesses to identify successful strategies and scale their operations faster.
  6. Improved customer engagement: Growth marketing techniques often involve interactive and personalized approaches, leading to increased customer engagement and satisfaction.
  7. Adaptability: Growth marketing is flexible and adaptable to changing market trends and customer preferences, allowing businesses to stay ahead of the competition.

Cons of growth marketing

  1. Resource Intensive: Implementing growth marketing tactics can be time-consuming and require a dedicated team to execute effectively. This can be a challenge for small businesses or startups with limited resources.
  2. Uncertain Results: Despite the investment and effort, there is no guarantee of success with growth marketing. It often involves trial and error, and the outcomes may not always meet expectations or generate the desired level of growth.
  3. Risk of Overpromising: Growth marketing strategies sometimes focus on hyping up products or services to attract customers. This can lead to unrealistic expectations, customer dissatisfaction, and damage to a company’s reputation if the promised results are not delivered.
  4. Potential Customer Disengagement: Aggressive growth marketing tactics, such as excessive advertisements or intrusive marketing techniques, can annoy or frustrate potential customers. This can result in a negative perception of the brand and a loss of trust.
  5. Market Saturation: In highly competitive industries or saturated markets, growth marketing may struggle to make a significant impact. It can be challenging to stand out among numerous competitors, making it harder to achieve substantial growth.

So what are the main differences between growth hacking and growth marketing? 

There’s a lot of similarities between the two.

They’re both results-focused and aim to get more back than what they put in. 

However, growth hacking is more focused on single stages of the customer journey and manipulating that one key metric at that stage. 

It’s smaller in scope and can sometimes lead to the marketers losing focus on other areas of the business.  

The good news is that growth hacking is often super fast and can be quite adaptable.  

Growth marketing on the other hand has a longer-term view.  

It’s about getting results not just now, but also in the future. Ideally results from actions that compound and continue to provide outsized gains. 

While growth marketing focuses on the entire customer journey, it’s not the complete opposite of growth hacking. 

In fact, a lot of the best growth strategies use some form of growth hacks to get better engagement at certain stages of the customer journey. 

The difference is they then also look at the next step and how they can continue to serve that user.  

Growth hacking vs growth marketing – should you use one in your business?

Honestly, I don’t think this is a good question.  

If you’re looking at creating a brand that lasts for a long time (which you should be), you’ll need to have a solid growth marketing strategy in place. 

You’ll need to know how to attract, convert, and engage users in a way that they’re then happy to refer their friends.  

Then you might implement one or two growth hacks to further the results at any one stage. 

Take, for example, the analysis I did on Eddie Shleyner.  

Eddie’s basic model breaks down as…

  • Attract – Social media marketing on LinkedIn
  • Capture – An opt-in for a lead magnet
  • Convert – A simple sales page making heavy use of social proof
  • Engage – A frequent email with value-based tips showing his expertise
  • Refer – Users can share or send the email onto others who would benefit from it

That is a decent growth model. Especially if you have a good social following. 

But Eddie supercharged it by adding in a simple hack.  

He incentivised his audience to go and leave a comment and like on social posts. 

This warmed the LinkedIn algorithm to those posts and made it believe they were valuable enough that other people should see them.  

As more people saw the post, they would enter his funnel and join his email list. Which then gave him more people to seed that engagement. 

Eddie Shleyner engagement loop

It’s a smart hack added into a good model. And it’s the kind of thing you should be looking to emulate. 

Hacks are there to improve the wider model. Not as a single element on their own. 

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