Growth hacking is about taking methods that are already known and fully utilising them and, when lucky, finding new ways to combine them for great effect. The term puts a focus on stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning and using new methods in a smart way.
One of the traps we fall into when becoming ‘experts’ in our field is how much we refine skills and knowledge in order to make us the best. Becoming the best means we have actually created barriers to success because our thinking can inadvertently become siloed—this is the antithesis of growth hacking.
Social media was a game changer that shook the confidence of even the most experienced and successful of media executives. Almost overnight the lines between online, offline, journalists, bloggers, SEO, SEM, organic, advertising and user-generated content all became horribly blurred. What’s more, control of results largely resided with algorithms that changed based on consumer ‘fan’ behaviour, over which nobody has much control. The days of a press pack being handed out at a press conference and then showing up in all the right print channels almost letter perfect are gone, as well as diminished in their power.
So how do you make growth hacking work in PR? As the description implies there is a virtual limitless number of ways to make it work. But limitless isn’t very helpful, so here are some guidelines.
- Lose your ego: The most successful growth hackers are those that realise they know very little about how to achieve their goals. I spend a good deal of time educating clients on what they think they know about social media. Sometimes I feel like I am in a "kids say the funniest things" video. But it is good for me too, as I take the time to research my responses to test whether they are really the best answer. I am always learning
- Redefine the end goal: Seeing the end result through a fresh lens is critically important. For PR, the end game is usually a well-crafted campaign and once it is in place, then the work is mostly done. In the old model the last task was just about clipping, to show clients the end results. But growth hacking would have you go a step further. It’s about determining where the fans are, how they are talking, who are the most important, what media performs the best and what tools can be used to get the content out most efficiently and still present as natural inclusion in the conversation.
- Write once post many: Branding is important, and keeping a message consistent across platforms is a well-known strategy. But different people take in information in different ways, and people are doing different things at different times of the day. So it makes sense to create multiple versions of the same message and position it across multiple sites, times and geographies.
- Know your apps: All social-media applications have algorithms running to determine what is going to get pushed into your newsfeed. Each one of these functions differently but has similar characteristics. The most obvious is that YouTube is for video and Twitter is for text. Learning the best formatting techniques, time of day and other little tricks will greatly improve performance. Hint: Use Facebook scheduler for posts to the network rather than a third-party app and your results should have bigger numbers.
- The Red thread: One of the most powerful tools for growth hacking is actually the oldest: SEO or keyword optimisation; or as I like to call it "the red thread". As you "write once post many" and you create messages crafted best for each app, what is most important is the consistent use of high-value keywords, as well as your brand. Keywords are those that, in the simplest description, represent your brand and are the words most people will type into Google, such as "2 carat diamond" or "bargain holiday".
- Engagement: This is what sets social media apart from other media. The ability to have a conversation. A magazine won’t ask you questions, but your Twitter feed will. Once the content is published, the work begins. It’s time to amplify and cross promote. Reward good behaviour such as people who like, comment or share. Ignore bad behaviour and encourage key opinion leaders (KOLs) to repost your content. Keep it moving, as long as your content is in motion it will stay in news feeds. To keep things moving it is best to have some pre-arranged agreement with the client to ensure that activities can move quickly and do not get bogged down in approvals of each click. Also have a response plan for standard questions and management of negative responses. This is good regardless of the project. Clear guidelines on when to say thank you, when to provide additional information and when to contact the client for assistance should always be in place.
- Know your target demographic: Growth hacking done well does not focus on fan numbers alone. Growth hacking is about targeting the correct customer. Being all things to all people is something that Coca-Cola might be able to be, but that is unlikely for most brands. Reaching out to the wrong demographic is a waste for both the short and long term. In the short term, spending precious resources on the wrong people is called spam and can have a backlash effect. In the long term, attracting the wrong people to your social-media profiles creates a lingering burden. Only a limited number of people can see a post and so the more people that don’t care means the less effect your efforts will have.
- Set KPIs and stick to them: Business is business and if you aren’t making money you will soon be out of business. The great thing about digital is that it responds quickly to change. Analyse the work, content, apps, keywords, demographic, engagement and adjust. Those that are good at growth hacking understand change is a constant, not a variable.
For most PR agencies, growth hacking will not be as extreme or ingenious as a brand’s efforts might be (see Red Bull and AirBnB examples below). But don’t take that as a limit. Attempts to change the environment to fit your goals are the right course of action.
Paid media has long been the mainstay to get quick and impressive results. But time has shown diminishing returns are the only constant with paid media. As competition for limited ad space whether on television or Facebook increases, costs go up and results go down. Never before have we had so many media choices, tools to leverage them and access to consumer data. PR winners of the future will be smart growth hackers, even if we still call them PR agencies.
Growth hacking examples
Companies that have used growth-hacking to great effect.
Red Bull energy drink has turned product marketing upside down. The company is on record as saying it effectively doesn't need to spend money on advertising because it is interesting enough, and this seems to be true. Warner Brell, MD of Red Bull Media House N.A., says:
What we do always has to come with some form of pay check, whether advertising, licensing or a coproduction deal.
Red Bull has created the ultimate "pull" where what it creates now brings media, marketers, publishers and consumers to it. It has have created something truly unique, a long-term content strategy that stands on its own and independent of the product, but inextricably linked to the product.
AirBnB is the explosive platform for booking holiday homes, rooms or even a couch. With a valuation estimated at over US$13 billion, the company has clearly demonstrated the value of growth hacking. Two co-founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, back in 2007, unable to pay their rent, came upon the idea that went on to become one of the most talked about growth hacks in the industry.
After raising US$30,000 by selling boxes of cereal at conventions (yes cereal at conventions) they launched Airbed and Breakfast, which we now know as AirBnB. Their growth hack was to tap into an existing base of customers that was already familiar with their business model: Craigslist. Craigslist is the multimillion-subscriber forum for all things to buy, sell, trade and anything else. In the US this was the primary place people went to post houses, apartments and rooms for rent or sublet. By tapping into Craigslist the founders were able to access hundreds of thousands of potential subscribers almost instantly. They built a unique app that auto posted to Craigslist, and persons posting on Craigslist were targeted with an attractive offer: