On what seemed like a normal day in 2012, Ryan Holiday, then the Director of Marketing at American Apparel, went on with his day like every other marketing executive for the last 75 years: buying advertisements, planning events, pitching reporters, designing creatives, approving promotions, and throwing around terms like CPM, earned media, top of mind, and share of voice. ”That was the job. That had always been the job,” Holiday explains.
According to Andrew Chen, now working on growth at Uber, this was about to change. The so-called ‘growth hackers’, hybrids of a marketer and a coder, were about to disrupt the marketing teams. Chen’s article, Growth Hacker is the new VP of Marketing, explained how the new breed of marketers was answering the traditional question of, “How do I get customers for my product?” Their answer, which was using A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph, was a real wakeup call for Holiday. ”Companies from Dropbox to Instagram to AirBnB were basically attracting millions of users with zero traditional marketing. And my days were built around traditional marketing efforts,” he recalls.
In the absence of big budgets, startups had learned how to hack the system to build their companies. After a thorough look into growth hacking, the pattern started to become clear in Holiday’s mind. Growth hacking had rethought marketing from the ground up, starting from what he calls ’product market fit’ or PMF. In the world of cool buzzwords and acronyms, all this can easily sound like just another gimmick to throw a smokescreen over marketing. Holiday acknowledges that growth hacking can be a bit of a buzzword, but explains that he actually sees it as marketing in its purest form. ”It’s as if you took traditional marketing, direct marketing, product development, business development and engineering, and combine them into one person who’s fluent in all these different fields, but all they care about is what works for this specific product and this specific moment,” he explains.
Getting to Product Market Fit
Holiday summarizes the idea behind PMF with a quote from the 18th-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Many have taken the metaphor literally, with the mousetrap being the most frequently invented device in U.S. history. However, Holiday’s emphasis is on understanding that the product or service has to be put under serious examination for it to become remarkable, and hence marketable. ”It’s not about the product being fine. The product should be amazing,” Holiday insists before continuing, ”Using the data and the tools, we have to figure out what people actually want from this thing so it actually has all the hallmarks that are required for something to go viral.”
A prime example of tweaking a product to fit the market’s needs was seen in 2010 when Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger decided to refine their location-based iPhone app, called ‘Burbn’, around the one feature that saw user traction – photo sharing. Soon after, they rebuilt and renamed the app and Instagram was born.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s always easier to be a smartass about the superiority of business decisions based on a semi-scientific approach. However, collecting and believing what the data shows is easier said than done. ”It’s hard for people to question their instincts or impulses. We don’t like it because we are scared of what we might find, and that we might have to change things or do things that are uncomfortable for us,” Holiday ponders and adds that ”that’s not a good reason to not question what you are doing.”
As nice as the Emerson’s quote would sound for a product development oriented person, hands on experience of getting the word out and a product to sell has shown to many entrepreneurs that the better product alone is rarely enough of a marketing tactic. More often than not, capturing the world’s attention requires relentless efforts to cut through the noise. For Holiday, product development is the foundation of marketing. However, he is also quick to point out that it is only one piece of the pie.
”What a growth hacker is doing is priming the pump essentially,” he says and notes that all sorts of digital and non-digital marketing skills are required to drive traffic, build email lists, and work the media so that the result is increased demand for the product.
So, the question then arises, if marketing is becoming increasingly more digital, how technical does a marketer have to be to drive results?
”It’s not so much can you program, but can you interface and work with programmers? Can you think of how they think about the world?” Holiday clarifies.
Holiday also feels strongly about marketing being an in-house job rather than something to be outsourced. ”Who cares more and is more excited about this product than you?” he asks, and explains how he thinks about marketing: ”It’s not just a job. You’ve got to live and breathe this thing!”
After dropping out of college at the age of nineteen and creating a variety of attention-grabbing media stunts, while working for authors like Robert Greene, Tucker Max, and Tim Ferriss and, of course, the controversial clothing company American Apparel, Holiday rose to internet fame as a marketing protege. Now at the age of 29, his advice for the young aspiring marketers emphasizes the importance of learning to build something from an idea to something tangible.
”If you were a young person trying to make it in the marketing field, I would say don’t go work at an agency. I think you want to go where someone is making stuff. You want to work on something you can take from nothing to something because that is how you learn the whole stack.”
Engaging through content
In the spirit of permission marketing, a concept made popular by the marketing author Seth Godin, Holiday is a big believer in building up marketing assets way before a product is being launched. He underlines the importance of mailing lists and perseverance when creating content, but is also quick to mention that ”the crappiest reason” to do content marketing is that all the others are doing it.
”Content marketing is either very expensive and very unsuccessful, or it can be very cheap and very successful. If you want that latter part, you have to actually like what you are doing,” he says.
Before anyone goes getting knee deep into content marketing, Holiday poses two questions for you to think about:
”What is something only I can say?” and ”How can I reasonably expect this to help my business?”
When it comes to tweaking a piece of content to give it what it needs for it to go viral, he reminds that people share usually because they agree or disagree with what was said, or that it says something about their identity.
Closing the loop
Product market fit, growth hacks, and virality aside, marketing for growth hackers isn’t just about leads. It’s also about conversion. Which is right in line with the basic principles of customer development. In the end, the focus is on improving customer retention.
“You don’t get an award for just getting a lot of traffic,” Holiday emphasizes the importance of getting good outcomes in the acquisition phase to affect the bottom line.
However important the top of the funnel might be, retention trumps acquisition in the mind of growth hacker’s every time. This comes back down to the product itself. If a feature inside the service drives better user adoption and causes them to stick around, it’s marketing. Also, there’s only so much a marketer can do to grow a broken product.
To further highlight the importance of often neglected optimization and retention aspects, Holiday cites a classic study by Bain & Company, along with Earl Sasser of the Harvard Business School, which showed that a 5 percent increase in customer retention leads to an increase in profits of between 25 and 95 percent.
To tackle the highly subjective issue of evaluating “improvement”, Holiday introduces the concept of customized metrics. Key performance indicators that are tweaked to showcase successes in the onboarding process better than just the ones that automatically show up on anyone’s Google Analytics dashboard.
“Facebook’s focus was on users who added seven friends in 10 days. At Dropbox, it was dragging at least one file into your Dropbox folder—not just creating an account.”
In the end, whether the current state of the product or service is bad, great, or something in between, it can always be better.