amrita Achieving exponential user growth: Marketing in the new age

When I first read Andrew Chen’s essay on how the VP of Marketing role is changing into a role best described as ‘Growth Hacker’, I was sold after the first paragraph.

While I disagree with some parts of his post (they have to be an engineer for example/coder/hacker), there are a few portions that are absolute GOLD. Here are a few excerpts:

 “The process of integrating and optimizing your product to a big platform requires a blurring of lines between marketing, product, and engineering, so that they work together to make the product market itself. Projects like email deliverability, page-load times, and Facebook sign-in are no longer technical or design decisions – instead they are offensive weapons to win in the market.”

“The fastest way to spread your product is by distributing it on a platform using APIs, not MBAs. Business development is now API-centric, not people-centric.”

 “The role of the VP of Marketing, long thought to be a non-technical role, is rapidly fading and in its place, a new breed of marketer/coder hybrids have emerged.”

“…two identical products can have 100X different outcomes, just based on how well they integrate into Craigslist/Twitter/Facebook. It’s an amazing time, and a new breed of creative, technical marketers are emerging.”

Here are my takeaways from his full essay and case-study on AirBnB:

#1: Marketing in the new age a.k.a “growth hacking” is the real deal. If you are a senior marketing leader at a startup at any stage, your sole job should be user growth. After all, in the startup world, and almost any young company, the company needs to ‘grow’. In fact, for a ‘VP of Marketing’ role, the job description should simply state ‘grow users’ or ‘grow subscriptions’ or ‘sustain growth’. This doesn’t necessarily mean the same as ‘grow revenue’… generating money is a whole different ball game, and that’s where the user growth, community etc can help; but growing revenue is the function of whoever owns and determines the business model.

#2: The second big take away – which we all subconsciously know and acknowledge, but don’t always admit – is that good marketing happens when the product itself has virality built in. (I will talk about why we don’t admit this later in the post). Andrew uses the example of how AirBnB built functions like ‘post to Craigslist’ in order to tap into this unique channel with millions of users. I say unique because i) Craigslist has no open API. Like at all. So obviously AirBnB has to hack it to integrate with it somehow. ii) No one had used Craigslist in the way that AirBnB leveraged it. So they were the automatically first-to-market with this channel, and utilizing the way they did, gave it a lot more uniqueness since they were the first to do it.

Now, this was the unique integration that was key in helping AirBnB go-to-market in scale. It wasn’t traditional marketing, but the reverse-engineered pseudo-API that AirBnB built that contributed to their rapid user growth.

So the question becomes – whose job is it to think about stuff like that? Is it the Product team? Is it the Dev team? Marketing? Who?!

Andrew Chen makes the case that this already is to some degree and always should be under the purview of Marketing. While many would disagree, I do think that Marketing should be closely working with the product management, design and engineering teams, and be actively looking for ways to do exactly this sort of thing by providing input in the early stages of product strategy. User growth these days is intrinsically linked to getting this right.

What I don’t believe however is that this marketing leader has to be an engineer or coder or hacker as Andrew suggest. Any technical marketer or marketing technologist as I used to call myself, knows where they can add value and how.

 Here is how I see this working:

  1. Hopefully you have a senior marketing person (perhaps it is one of the founders) that is business minded and knows the marketing fundamentals, but is also equipped with a good understanding of emerging technology and/or has a technical or engineering background.
  2. This person doesn’t have to be a coder, but should be able to speak with engineering teams, have their trust, as well as the ability to brainstorm with them.
  3. They must be involved with and touch all aspects of product development and its evolution (even though the product is not owned by them), and be fully in tune with the feature set being developed and iterated on. While Marketing is traditionally seen as talking to the market, and product management is listening to the market; the new incarnation of Marketing dictates that the VP of Marketing also drive the right features and integrations to be developed, in order to grow users. This is especially important in the early-stages of the startup lifecycle, and can slowly devolve once the company has reached maturity.
  4. The VP of Marketing must know what channels to leverage and how to effectively utilize them in order to reach the maximum audience. In the case of the AirBnB and Craigslist integration, they did not need to know exactly how to make it work, but they should be able to ask the right questions or define the right parameters in order to get the same result. For example, in the case of Trip Advisor, they don’t stop at simple Facebook Connect integration. They go even deeper into the social graph and go well beyond the user’s immediate social circle. In a case like this, I imagine that someone in marketing said “we need to find a way to show our users reviews from their Facebook friends and friends of friends first, in order to achieve a more personalized and trust building experience”. A brainstorm would proceed with product + engineering to figure out effective techniques to tap into Facebook Open Graph. You get the idea
  5. Successful marketing technologists understand the above, and more. They know that even though they might not know ‘how’, they can devise strategies, get buy in from the CEO/ Founder(s) and prompt action. They do this by testing their various hypotheses early on and refining them through trial and error. This is again especially important, but because most good marketers have good instincts, but great marketers are scientific enough and technical enough to actually test the crap out of their hunches.
  6. Lastly, if and when a startup decides to hire staff in Sales, Business Development and Channel management roles, I believe they must almost always report into or have a dotted line into Marketing. I’ve personally always found it to be discomforting and strange when sales teams don’t report into marketing. Why is it ever the other way around? It makes no sense to me. In fact in India (where I’m from) and Europe, Sales almost always reports into marketing – whether that be a VP of Sales reporting into a CMO, or simply that the Marketing department is a more corporate and centralized function, with sales being more regional and invariably rolling up. Before I start to digress, my point is – Marketing is ultimately responsible for user growth, and Sales/ Biz Dev is a channel if you will, that aids in that process. Having a sales team can be a tactic, a strategy, a stopgap measure, a long-term thing or whatever… it doesn’t matter… sales is there to help marketing succeed in their mission. (Disclaimer: there are reasons for the opposite to be true in the case of B2E companies, but here we’re talking mostly about consumer startups).

To summarize, marketing as we know it has changed because the internet tactics which was once the territory of the elite few, are now open to all. The main difference between a marketer ad a growth hacker is that a GH is more technical and understands new technology and APIs much better, thereby allowing them to capitalize on markets and channels available for growth quickly and in a scalable manner. Understanding  APIs and insightful social data and tracking it closely is the only way to be successful today.

he difference Aaron and Andrew contend is that a growth hacker is more technical or understands new technology and APIs better. But if a marketing manager, director of VP works for a technology company, they should understand the market and channels available for growth AND constantly be looking for new markets and channels.

In order to achieve hockey stick user growth, the VP of Marketing has to be fully involved and almost co-own the product/solution/ service with the Founder/ VP of Product, and come at it in a way that expands the usage of their product. In fact, I would tell all startup founders to always give their senior Marketing leaders the title of ‘VP, Marketing and User Growth’. This would keep it top of mind not just for the marketing leader but for everyone at the startup, thereby achieving a level of respect, maybe even awe, which in the right amounts can be quite healthy for a young company trying to grow their user base.

Oh and, needless to say that whoever you’re hiring must really get their title. If they happen not to like it, then you are definitely not the right person for your startup. Worse, if they are still reading Memoirs of a Hi-Tech Hustler, then run fast and run far :)

This TechCrunch article on how Growth Hackers Changed Marketing has a lot of the same themes running through it (with better use of jargon and grammar), and is telling of an industry trend. But don’t get too caught up in terminology. Growth hacking, Marketing, Product Marketing etc, they’re all one and the same when you’re in ‘hustle’ mode.

Good luck my startup friends, I hope you can use some of this. Please share your thoughts on whats working for you!

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One Response to Achieving exponential user growth: Marketing in the new age

  1. amrita says:

    Worth googling the term ’10x hustler’ (a varient of the ‘growth hacker’) who is more focused on building partnerships in a scalable manner and amassing large numbers of users vs. one by one like the growth hacker who relies on APIs and inherent product virality.

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