Is Growth Hacking Dead? The Truth About Growth Hacking in 2021

is growth hacking dead?

As a digital marketer, I’ve never really understood the term “growth hacking.” Fast-paced experiments, growth, acquisition, referrals, and other metrics are KPIs for most modern marketing teams — not just a job for one team member with a catchy title.

While the distinction may have made sense when the term was first coined in 2011, it might be about time to retire it. So, is growth hacking dead? Let’s find out. 

Where did the term “growth hacking” come from? 

In 2011 Sean Ellis, then marketing manager of PayPal, coined the term when he placed a vacancy online for a “Growth Hacker.”

Sean was looking for someone to fill his shoes as the marketing manager. But, “marketing manager” didn’t quite sum up his role. 

Essentially, Sean was looking for someone with knowledge of data, product, tech, and marketing. He needed someone who could:

  • adapt quickly to the latest technological developments
  • prioritize speed over perfection
  • be open to other problems and solutions
  • make decisions based on data (not gut reactions) 

A key point for Sean was that his successor needed to have a high level of digital intelligence. They needed to be able to handle new tools, try new techniques, and hop on YouTube for some self-education when necessary. 

So, because “marketing manager” didn’t suffice, Sean needed to invent a new title. And, in retrospect, we should be thankful that he didn’t just tack on “ninja” or “jedi” to the job description. No — instead, he went with the title of “growth hacker.”

Side note, can we all agree to dial it back with the insane job titles? These are all real job titles: Innovation Alchemist, SVG badass, Tax Wrangler, Meme Librarian, Digital Prophet, Wizard of Lightbulb Moments, and my personal favorite: Security Princess. 

But I digress. 

Sean’s definition of a growth hacker is one that could really apply to any modern digital marketer. To be successful, most digital marketers need to be curious, have a love for data, be tech-savvy, proactive, and open-minded.

So what does a growth hacker do that’s so different from a digital marketer?

Good examples of growth hacking

Typically, instead of relying on standard digital marketing tactics like:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Pay per Click (PPC)
  • Email Marketing
  • Social Media Marketing (SMM)

Growth hackers need to get more creative to achieve more rapid growth. They cross into territory usually reserved for the product, sales, or support teams. 

In 2021, these growth hacking strategies include tactics like:

  • Building and offering free tools
  • Leveraging the latest features of social platforms, like Instagram’s new automated messages
  • Promoting viral contests
  • Using HARO for press opportunities
  • Creating a viral waiting list

Let’s take a look at some iconic growth hacking examples.

Example 1: Airbnb

A great (perhaps overused) example of growth hacking is Airbnb’s growth strategy. Early on, the founders of Airbnb realized that people who were looking for alternative accommodation often searched on Craigslist.

Craigslist was the perfect place to find the pool of people who had already put their places for rent. So, what did they do? They emailed those people who had already put ads for renting out their places on Craigslist and asked if they would like to list on Airbnb too. 

And, as we now know, it worked. Airbnb received tons of traffic to their site and converted the visitors into users. 

After finding success in doing this manually, they created a script that would automatically email all new listings on Craigslist and notify them about Airbnb. That gave them the scale they needed to grow even faster. 

Example 2: Dropbox

Dropbox is another common example of growth hacking. In the beginning, DropBox was spending way too much on PPC ads – far more than the $5/month subscription-free they earned from each new signup. They needed a way to onboard many more people for free. 

So, here’s what they did. First, they created a referral program that gave the referrer and the referee 500 MB of bonus space each. 

dropbox growth hack example
Dropbox growth hack example: referral marketing

Then, they took it a step further and “gamified” the referral process. For each social share, the user got 125 MB of extra storage space. 


So yes, these are clever and creative ways to achieve rapid growth. And, maybe in the past, these wouldn’t be typical tactics used in marketing. 

But today, things look a lot different than they did when Sean coined the term growth hacking. Digital marketers, good ones at least, are expected to implement strategies like this.

In fact, anyone leading a product/marketing strategy in 2021 should be thinking this way.

Differences between growth hackers and marketers in 2021

In the late 1990s, tech startups were spending money on traditional marketing and advertising channels just like everyone else. But after the bubble burst, startups didn’t have the resources to continue with the same traditional methods.

They started treating user acquisition like it was a programming problem, finding creative ways to achieve growth with a limited budget. At the time, this was different from the mindset of a traditional marketer. But these days, the two are far more similar. 

Today, it is the role of a marketer to find the right channel, place, and platform to target people in the most cost-effective ways. If short-term growth is the business goal, it’s the marketer’s job to help strategically recommend the most effective way to get there.

Marketing is no longer just a revenue tactic. It’s not just about reach and frequency — and it’s not just about click-through rates either. Modern marketers are interested in tactics like lifetime value (LTV), customer acquisition costs, net promoter scores, and much more. 

Today, the concept of marketing is more holistic, where marketing, sales, support, and product teams need to be aligned. Modern marketers need to be proactive learners, quickly adapting to new tools, methods, and market trends. 

In fact, Sam Ellis believes that “effective growth companies work to understand all steps in the customer creation process from consideration, to onboarding and activation, to optimizing referral and engagement loops and finally optimizing monetization.”

Final thoughts: is growth hacking dead? 

To wrap it up, the growth hacking mindset is very much alive and well. It’s just that anyone leading a digital strategy in 2021 should have the skills Sean Ellis was looking for back when he coined the term in 2011. 

Times are changing, and the silos between sales, marketing, product, are breaking down. Team leaders need to work cross-functionally to achieve growth. 

A successful company is one that doesn’t put the responsibility of growth on one team — or one person for that matter. It’s one that keeps the entire organization in sync to achieve growth together.

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