The Growth Hacker's Dilemma: Process vs. Tactics

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The Growth Hacker's Dilemma: Process vs. Tactics


After conducting nearly 100 interviews with some of the world’s best growth hackers on Growth Hacker TV, I have become keenly aware of a certain tension that is in the growth hacking ecosystem. Some growth hackers choose to emphasize the process of growth hacking while others choose to see growth hacking as a set of tactics that can be applied to various scenarios.

First, let me define the growth hacker’s process. There is no one single agreed upon order of operations, but a growth hacker’s process is based loosely on the scientific method. If you can remember high school, the scientific method is basically the following:

  1. Question - Why do visitors leave our registration flow after the first page?

  2. Hypothesis - They might be leaving because page two has too many form fields present and this scares them away.

  3. Prediction - If we have more registration pages, but less form fields on each page, then our completed registrations will increase in statistically significant ways that could not be the product of chance.

  4. Testing - For the first 2 weeks of September we will run an A/B test, showing 50% of new visitors our current registration flow, and showing the other 50% our new registration flow which increases the number pages but decreases the fields per page.

  5. Analysis - The results show that our new registration flow had 27% more completions than our current registration flow, and this is statistically significant enough to conclude that we should implement our new registration flow.

Here is where things get interesting. Some startups will actually use this scientific method (or something similar) as a means of gaining insights about their product, thereby enabling them to make progress. Others, however, will not have a rigorous process like that listed above, but they will instead use the results of other people’s experiments. Put another way, some startups have a process, other startups just implement the tactics (best practices) that are the results of someone else’s process. If someone read about the above experiment on Quora then they might adapt their registration flow without a scientific process in place to support such a move.scale tradeoffs

The question is, which kind of startup should be applauded and which should be reprimanded? It might seem obvious to celebrate the rigors of the scientific method and side with any startup that uses such a process. However, I think there is a case to be made for both kinds of companies. Obviously, if someone doesn’t run the experiments then we will never arrive at the tactics in the first place. The tactics are the byproduct of someone’s hard work and that should be appreciated, but think about how the scientific community actually operates. The scientific method is a tool that serves the entire scientific community, and the results of that tool are often fair game for the community. Scientists don’t expect each other to run every relevant experiment for their personal endeavors. Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Why can’t a startup simply use the results, as discovered by their fellow entrepreneurs in lab coats, as a benefit of the community?

The truth is, there are pros to both ways of thinking, which I’ll list below, but I don’t want us to view growth hacking as only a process or only a set of tactics and simultaneously miss the community aspect of our enterprise. Here is how I see things:

  • Pros of Process Oriented Startups

    • Without process oriented startups we would have no tactics.

    • They are able to find new growth hacks when old ones cease to work.

    • By understanding the process, their implementation of any given tactic will be more nuanced and effective.

    • They are more self sustaining, able to use the community, but not be entirely dependent on it.

  • Pros of Tactic Oriented Thinking

    • Allows smaller startups, with less funding, to implement tactics very cheaply.

    • It is an entry point into growth hacking which is more accessible than experimentation, even though it might lead to experimentation later on.

    • Not every experiment needs to be ran by everyone. Some best practices are near universal and can just be applied. We all do this to some degree whether we realize it or not.

So, what is the answer to the dilemma? Is growth hacking a process or a set of tactics? Well, both, and here is what that means practically. If you are in an organization that has a growth hacking process in place then see yourself as a part of a larger community. We are grateful for your work, but you don’t need to be pompous about your place in the universe. Share what you find, grow our collective knowledge base, and understand that not every company will imitate you, and that’s ok. If you are in a non-process oriented startup that is still trying to use growth hacking principles then be extremely appreciative of the companies that are supplying these best practices, and consider creating your own process so that you can give back to the community as much as you take from it.

Startups aren’t going anywhere, and growth hacking is here to stay as a robust methodology for growing them. Whether you are in the lab, or reading the research paper that was spawned from someone else’s lab, understand that this is a community, not a zero sum game.

This article was a guest post by Bronson Taylor who is the host and co-founder of Growth Hacker TV, where the experts on startup growth reveal their secrets.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Aug 27, 2013


Here's another missing piece of the equation: assuming that the reason for low sign-up rates is the form. There are a variety of other factors, or assumptions, that need to be defined then carefully proven out as true or false, using the same methodology. It is imperative to look at traffic sources to ensure that those getting to the sign-up form are actually the target audience.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 10:34 AM by Elle Shelley

The "form" example is just that, an example. I'm not arguing for anything related to the dynamics of the form, but rather, I just use it as an example to outline the scientific method with growth hacker content. 
However, I do agree with you. There are a lot of factors that go into to low signup rates.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 10:39 AM by Bronson Taylor


posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 12:26 PM by davood mehrafshar

I think almost by definition a startup(versus a normal small business) challenges one or many assumptions(best partices). If you challenged every best practise you wouldn't be able to get anything done, but if your doing what everyone else is your just a small business.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 3:13 PM by Bob

Good one :)

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 3:16 PM by Rob

I think implementing the tactics is not a bad idea, as long as it is done with some common sense and taking the results with a grain of salt. In other words, it will be better to build upon somebody's work than take it for granted.  
For example, if you are a B2B provider, tactics from a B2C experiment might not apply to you.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 3:27 PM by Rick

Bronson, I really like your core takeaway in principle -- we in the startup community have the luxury of being able to effectively stand on the shoulders of giants given how much transparency around best practices there is from places like Quora, Quibb, OnStartups, Hubspot, KISSmetrics, etc. As a result, when we make new discoveries, we ought to reciprocate -- but how do you justify it as a business strategy without a self-interest component?  
For example, I myself have shared some very helpful growth hacking strategies 'pro bono' on Quora and Medium... BUT, I've also seen that content strategy itself send a lot of traffic and recognition my way as a positive feedback loop. Would I generate more content if that feedback loop didn't exist? Really hard to say. 
There's this interesting reflexive benefit cycle where we share something because it has value to others, because it has value to others it generates attention and conversation, and because a core element of growth hacking is effectively "grow and focus attention and conversation," we keep doing it. In a circular way I'm kind of defining inbound marketing and one of the insights that helped Dharmesh build Hubspot into the powerhouse it is today. 
I'm not trying to be combative and I really enjoyed your post but would you have written it without referencing GrowthHackerTV in a place where it wouldn't get eyeballs?

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 8:40 PM by Chris Bolman

...or for that matter, would I have commented if I came across this in some place that wasn't OnStartups? : )

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 8:42 PM by Chris Bolman

You bring up some great points. 
Honestly, I wouldn't have written this post anonymously. There is something reciprocal happening when I guest blog (or you post on Quora). 
However, I would, and do, share my insights when there is nothing to gain. I probably do it in less time consuming ways (it's hard work to write a decent blog post), but I still do it. 
Today in Starbucks I met an entrepreneur that was trying to figure out online marketing. I gave him as much free advice as I could. Then I gave him a free subscription to Growth Hacker TV, and there was nothing to gain. 
I think the interesting thing to think about is the notion that channels get clogged, and growth hacks stop working, and if we're a business then we need to be at least a little selfish. This may be the case in some scenarios, but not most. 
Remember how in web 1.0 the "idea" was king. Then we realized ideas are cheap and "execution" is king. I think the same is true for growth strategies. I can tell people exactly what I do, and exactly how I do it, and it probably won't keep any of my tactics from working. 
On a similarly note, most other companies are not actually competitors anyways, so I would rather over share to help the startup ecosystem, and possible let a competitor know too much, then under share and impede progress for some truly amazing companies that have the potential to change the world. 
Maybe it's my preference. Maybe it's my world view. Maybe it's reality. Either way, I like helping people grow things :) 

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 9:04 PM by Bronson Taylor

Great article Bronson. I feel it is similar with other highly competitive spaces like for example playing StarCraft. 
There are a lot of people practicing and perfecting the current status quo of what is known and at the same time there are players who try to find new ways of doing things to get an edge. On top of that the landscape/market is moving all the time. 
In a nutshell your post perfectly describes what I believe. There is a lot to gain from implementing/executing best practices (low hanging fruit, local optimizations) as well as staying sharp and understanding how the landscape changes and what you can do to benefit from it (like early facebook game companies used the platform to grow before loopholes got closed). 
Thanks for contributing your thoughts and for all the work you put into the interviews.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 9:23 PM by Thomas Schranz

Broson -  
All great points. Even though I constantly try not to I similarly can't seem to keep myself from trying to help other entrepreneurs. I think there's a lot of comradery in shared experience (suffering?). 
I also agree with you about (1) the true nature of "competition" (e.g., unless you've got Amazon-scale aspirations and a healthy amount of paranoia it's not hard to see 99% of companies out there don't compete with you) and (2) in most channels additional growth hacking practitioners don't compress your own conversion funnel (and in some cases they may actually carves out new channels for you to hack in).  
There are a few channels where I've started to see diminishing returns because low hanging fruit have been arbitraged away --> I think SEO keyword blogging is a great example because now it just takes so many pages being indexed by Google for the incremental traffic to matter b/c everyone else is doing it too, so instead you need to create/write content that's remarkable so it stands out and gets shared. 
At the end of the day as long as you stay creative, keep experimenting and be positive about it with yourself and others, good things will come. This certainly isn't a binary, winner-take-all game we're playing -- there's a lot of opportunity for innovation and value-creation for all of us.

posted on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 9:49 PM by Chris Bolman

One other thing worth mentioning is also, that if you are in fact a small company or newly launched startup still trying to get to product market fit, then you probably don't have enough users in a lot of places to do statistically valid experiments. 
If your sign-up form is only visited by 50 people pr. week it will most likely take several months to get a valid result, so in these cases it is certainly better to go with well-tested tactics or simply your gut.

posted on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 2:21 AM by Mads Buch Stage

Never really understood this before but this article just changed that. Very well explained, I must say! 
Understanding your explanation, I would have to agree that we definitely have to have both. I mean, yes, you can succeed with just the process or the tactics, but if better results come out of having both, then why not? 
Thanks for this comprehensive article; learned a lot! Your post has also been shared on the IM social networking site,

posted on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 10:07 AM by Riza

Terrific post, Bronson! I think a lot of the successful growth hacking companies out there probably started as tactic-oriented teams and then “graduated” to a process approach, for all of the reasons you listed. We’re just entering our growth phase and definitely skew more toward the tactic method for now, but it’s very helpful to get perspective and understand why both are important. Thanks! (Love GHTV, by the way)

posted on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 8:43 AM by Alex Turnbull

Speaking of Tactics - Spent a few hours with Andy Johns (member of Facebook, Twitter & Quora growth teams) here are the top 5 tactics I took away 
1) simple sign-up - drop the noise and just go simple sign or leave 60% 
2) load times - when Myspace opened up its custom user design and musics playing etc - load times exploded and user fled to Facebook. 
3) long tail PPC - low cpm high convert 
4) don't let unique username bottleneck turn away interested onlookers 
5) new users need affinity, a connections - if a new FB user could get 10 people in 7 days they would be great users.

posted on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 6:32 PM by nik souris

I believe a combination of both is essential. It is important to learn from other's but having worked with many companies, the demographic of users makes a huge difference and can yield different results.  
Use what other's have learned and then validate it internally with your own tests - given you have enough traffic to quickly run the experiment yourself. 
Tech savvy users behave differently than stay at home mother's, kids, etc... Don't put everyone in the same basket.

posted on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 12:55 PM by Alex Davis

I saw some videos of growthhacker and is really interesting. 
Anyway I read your post and I understand something I didn't knew it. 

posted on Monday, September 02, 2013 at 7:21 PM by alex be ker

Systems are like strategies. Strategies give your tactics a direction. Tactics bring your strategies forward. They both should be present and collaborate each other.

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posted on Monday, September 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM by Prabal chowdhury

Growth Help is your one stop shop for tactical information on how to grow your start-up in this ever-changing online climate. We want to help you succeed! 
Thanks everyone

posted on Monday, September 16, 2013 at 1:25 PM by Growth Help

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article. For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it. Scientists generally base scientific hypotheses on previous observations that cannot satisfactorily be explained with the available scientific theories. Thanks for sharing.

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