Interview: Why Sean Ellis sees growth hacking and marketing agility as bedfellows

The channels through which we acquire clients change so quickly, that if you don’t have a really agile team and process in place to move in and out of those and coordinate efforts across all customer touchpoints, you’re going to have a really hard time staying the same size, let alone growing.” For the same reason, Ellis sees the modern concept of marketing agility as a “close cousin” of growth hacking. Growth hacking just brings together those two movements and is more focused on the long-term customer growth side of things.” Taking responsibility Growth hacking has more traditionally sat within or alongside the product function. “What you have seen in business in recent years is both the head of growth and head of marketing becoming a lot more accountable for actual growth. “If you truly understand a growth process and can follow it, and have the drive to keep working towards a result, you can be more successful as a marketer than in the past, where it was so much more about creative and campaign development. Uber is the exception; in most cases, if the product owner and engineering are not on-board with growth initiatives, it’s hard to find success.” According to Ellis, the most powerful levers for growth sit in things like improving customer engagement and retention, referral programs and monetisation experiments. “If you get a doubling of conversion rate or retention, it’s just as powerful as putting twice as many people into your customer acquisition funnel, which is where traditional marketing organisations focused,” he says. “What growth teams are taking is a qualified approach and bringing it to the rest of the company, to try and increase experimentation and be more scientific,” Ellis says. “Understanding customer needs and principles of behaviour are very powerful. This is a key metric that employees make decisions on, and that can be communicated organisation-wide. A lot of times, companies will change this [north star] metric two or three times before they find the right one and embrace that.” From a tools perspective, what’s also helping growth hacking initiatives is the shift from event-based tracking to more person-based tracking, Ellis says.

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It’s been seven years since Sean Ellis coined the term ‘growth hacking’ to describe a process by which early-stage companies could align themselves for fast customer and market growth. And the former marketer for Dropbox, LogMeIn and Eventbrite and now CEO of GrowthHackers.com, agrees its application is changing over time.

“The idea has evolved from my initial thinking, which was I wanted to define something for an early-stage company that couldn’t do everything a marketer can do and had to be focused on things that had a direct impact on customer acquisition and growth,” he tells CMO during a recent visit to Sydney.

“It’s now something that’s more applicable to companies of any size, and it overlaps with the need for a lot more agility. The channels through which we acquire clients change so quickly, that if you don’t have a really agile team and process in place to move in and out of those and coordinate efforts across all customer touchpoints, you’re going to have a really hard time staying the same size, let alone growing.”

For the same reason, Ellis sees the modern concept of marketing agility as a “close cousin” of growth hacking.

“The difference with growth hacking is you’re taking it deeper into the full funnel,” he says. “Through testing, iteration and metrics, you’re trying to move forward in a direction that defines progress, growth and success in the business. Growth hacking just brings together those two movements and is more focused on the long-term customer growth side of things.”

Taking responsibility

Growth hacking has more traditionally sat within or alongside the product function. What’s helping bring it and the modern marketing function closer together is the onus on accountability and entrepreneurial thinking, Ellis continues.

“It’s interesting when you start to define a head of growth role, versus a head of marketing. The minute you call it head of growth, you’re essentially defining the role by an outcome, whereas marketing is often defined by an input,” he says.

“What you have seen in business in recent years is both the head of growth and head of marketing becoming a lot more accountable for actual growth. When that happens, the profile of the marketing role changes from one largely like the mad men days that’s highly creative, to one that’s more entrepreneurial, where you’re taking on an entrepreneur-type of risk.”

Ellis believes the most successful marketers are the ones taking on risk, embracing accountability and thriving on it.

“As things become more trackable, and expectations become more focus on heads of marketing and growth, there’s a lot more pressure and not everyone will be able to handle it. It’s similar profile to what an entrepreneur should have,” he comments.

Ellis admits plenty of marketers won’t like this shift very much, but that it’s inevitable.

“The best part about it is that it’s a lot less talent driven than it used to be,” he says. “If you truly understand a growth…

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