In previous emails I have defined growth hacking as the practice of rethinking marketing from the ground up, using none of the tools, assumptions and practices of the past. Ten years ago it seemed inconceivable that a company could be known globally without spending any money on traditional media. Dropbox ,Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, and Instagram were all built without a traditional marketing budget or infrastructure and have since become essential tools for the growth hacker.

Growth hacker marketing is the practice of baking marketing into the product, attracting the right people and providing the tools for them to become evangelists for you. A growth hacker marketer requires a new skill set focused around marketing, product management and engineering.

A big learning for me was challenging the concept that you go to market with a set product. Going to market with the finished product is a flawed approach and will inevitably lead to disappointment and high money burn. In technology terms the minimum viable product, or MVP, is the beta version of what you are going to take to market. A growth hacker marketer will use this as a springboard to understand not only who is interacting with the product but also how they are interacting with it. The cliché build it and they will come is the antithesis of growth hacking.

Famously AirBnB changed their product several times before it became the service that we know today. Instagram started life as a location-based social network until its founders realised that most users were only using one part of that app: the photos and filters. They abandoned their plan to be the next Facebook and pivoted, building their success on what had seemed at that time a niche area, putting filters on photos.

In his famous 2011 article that brought growth hacking into the mainstream, Andrew Chan coined the term Product Market Fit to describe the process which growth hacking fulfils.

It’s about doing whatever is required to achieve product market fit and during this process nothing is sacred – the product scope, the target market, the customer service; an ability to retain a fluid POV that allows for improvisation along the way. The result is that you understand more about your product and its relationship to the user and are therefore able to engage users more effectively, not having to rely on volume of messaging to attract attention. Naturally, you must avoid broadcasting an inferior product to a wide audience.

When I first started out in advertising, market research was almost seen as the enemy. Researchers were people who destroyed your ideas and got in the way of the creative process. The biggest flaw in that model was that the information was fundamentally historical and could not be acted upon quickly. By the time the post-campaign analysis arrived money had already been spent, the message crafted and broadcast.

These days even market research has been hi-jacked. Instant self-survey tools like Survey Monkey, Wufoo, and Qualaroo make it simple to carry out online surveys almost instantly.

Once you believe you have a product worth marketing then the next step is to get it out to the wider population. There are two ways to do this; the first is buying access to your audience through paid media, search-engine marketing and sponsored tweets, Facebook ads etc. The other way is by attracting an audience organically, where you don’t have to pay to pull people into your site – they go of their own accord because they see the value in your product or service.

In the old world we called them teaser campaigns but from a growth hacker perspective it’s all about getting people interested in the product way before it’s ready.

Dropbox famously created a teaser campaign that asked people to sign up to a waiting list from which they would be invited to join the service. In doing so the founders created an intriguing and amusing video to explain the service that also created a viral aspect to the launch.

One of the biggest mistakes is trying to target too broad an audience rather than selecting a manageable catchment and focusing in on them. For example using audience numbers from the drive-by figures for a billboard or radio station reach both of which are essentially vanity metrics that have no real bearing on who is actually being targeted. The same goes for online where receiving millions of page views or ad impressions is not always the right result. Anyone who has a reasonable following on Twitter will know that the avalanche of spam tweets that come your way can significantly distort your actual follower numbers.

Finding your customers one by one is a valid and viable tactic. A slow build to be sure, however each person will be a real customer not someone pulled in by a piece of advertising that piqued their curiosity momentarily and who has already moved on while you are still considering them a customer.

Many companies encouraged early customers to interact with their site in real time thereby feeling like they had a one-on-one service experience that they would soon tell their friends about.

Growth hacking isn’t about how many people know about you or how they find out about you, it just matters how many sign up.

You need to build a group of loyalists, evangelists if you will, because these whilst overall being a smaller group will be far more valuable than the unengaged. Again traditional marketing would assume that these numbers were too low to be meaningful but when you are building a business from scratch even small numbers are going to be more valuable over the long term.

Once you have customers, the ability to turn them into evangelists becomes your number one priority as a marketer, key to this is making it easy for your loyal band of evangelists to spread the word.

This is where you can really create an emotional connection. It is critical for success that loyal customers who are engaged with your product have the tools to share your story to a wider audience. These tools could be a simple video slideshow or an infographic – anything that allows your customers to bring your story, along with their positive experiences, to their network.

It’s often a good idea to incentivise people to share. This could take the form of special privileges or discounts, whatever it takes to make them feel like the connection between your product or service and them is both real and solid. Give them the feeling that you really do care. If it’s not worth them sharing it’s not worth you doing.

Examples of this have been extra storage on Dropbox, the Apple stickers that come with a new mac and, when they were dominant, Blackberry including the ‘sent from my blackberry’ message at the bottom of every email and since adopted by all the players in the smart-phone space.

Creating social currency for free is vital to growth hacker. This is also the foundation of something going viral. ‘Going viral’ has long been one of the most over-used and over-hyped terms in modern marketing. If you dig into the numbers many viral campaign “successes” are engineered with a lot of traffic and dubious viewer numbers.

Having built an audience the next challenge is retaining them and this is when the vanity metrics can trip you up. If the audience are fundamentally engaged with your product then trying to separate the real fans from casual visitors is difficult. By rights each of these audiences need to be retained and optimized, in differing ways, in the future.

If those you reach are not engaged with your product you face a serious marketing challenge. At best a long and potentially expensive road to convert them. The resources (time, money, energy) then consumed by your marketing to retain and optimise thousands of customers who don’t really want to be retained or optimised brings with it a significant opportunity cost.

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring some of the themes contained here in more depth with practical tips and tricks to take advantage of the new approach to marketing.