Growth Hacking and B2B Startups

09/10/2012

The first time I heard the term “Growth Hacker” I got a little excited. I have often said we need a new term for marketing – one that separates the good metrics-driven marketers from the bad “spray and pray” ones.  So suddenly there’s a new term that describes me perfectly: a person that has a technology background (me: Systems Design Engineer, check), a person that deeply believes in testing, iteration, and data as the basis for good marketing (see point about being an engineer, yup), and sees marketing as something that reaches from product to marketing to sales (you might call that product marketing and hey, that’s me too). For a while it looked like I could be a growth hacker. But then I kept reading and it became clear that growth hackers weren’t worrying about the same things I was worrying about.

Discussion around the premise for first creating the term is what first started to make me question it. Growth hackers keep saying that they are differnt from “traditional marketers”, where “tradition” means – “measures nothing.” The TechCrunch series on growth hacking for example describes traditional marketers as being allergic to data and overly focused on PR/promotions without closing the loop back to growth. I’ve seen marketers like that for sure, but I wouldn’t say they were “traditional”, just lousy at their jobs. Certainly there’s no “tradition” of startup marketers that look like that – at least not at any of the startups I’ve been with. We tended to get rid of those folks pretty quickly. I could get into my opinions about how marketing operates at bigger companies but we’re talking about startups here. So where are the startups with this tradition of inattention to measuring results?

I’ve spent my career working at B2B companies rather than consumer-oriented ones. Perhaps in B2C startups, the tradition is more mass-media branding-based and less metrics-oriented (heck, maybe after I fired those puffball marketers they got jobs at B2C startups in the valley – I always wondered what happened to those people). That would make sense given the different dynamics of working to get a massive subscriber population on board quickly in order to make money from it. The more I read, the more I understood that the “growth” in growth hacking stands for B2C user growth and not necessarily revenue growth. The TechCrunch series on growth hacking for example, never mentions the word revenue once and most of the specific examples mentioned (i.e. the Facebook growth team) are focused on driving user signups not growing a (paying) customer base. I can only assume a different group at Facebook worries about the growth in paying customers.

Does Growth Hacking apply to B2B? I believe that it could. But B2B growth hackers would speak a different language. If I were to talk about it there would be a much, much bigger emphasis on customer learning than I’ve seen in what’s been written about growth hacking so far.  I can’t hack B2B growth without getting a deep understanding of who my customers are (and they aren’t everyone), who the buyers are (and there are often more than one per deal), and how the buying process works. Most of my early experimentation is oriented around figuring this out. Experiments around channels and referrals and spread work much, much better if you are basing them on what you know about your targets and how they buy rather than just trying random stuff based on intuition. That is a very B2B view of the world where the universe is segmented into folks that are likely to pay you and folks that aren’t. Most B2B startups aren’t in a “f@#$ing landgrab” as the Facebook growth team describes it. We are in a targeted f@#$ing landgrab. It’s different.

I’m starting to feel that the debate around growth hacking (the TechCrunch comments show that startup folks either love the term or hate it) is more a debate around styles of marketing. For B2B folks, the whole measure, iterate, learn part doesn’t look all that different from what we’ve been doing for a while now (at least us folks that don’t suck at our jobs), while the B2C folks see data collection as something new that they can finally do at scale. On the other hand B2B folks look at all the focus on users and wonder where the revenue is while the B2C folks hope that revenue comes after the user base is large enough to make money from it (or to sell the company to someone who can).

So what the heck do we analytic, B2B, revenue-oriented marketers call ourselves so we can get some respect, huh? Marketing doesn’t do it justice but we aren’t just hacking growth for growth’s sake either. We’re smart folks, surely we can come up with something?