Grow without 'hacking'

If you’re keeping up with the modern marketing conversation, “growth hacking” is an unavoidable topic. Use analytics. Run A/B tests. Expect 90% of your experiments to fail. Leverage social media. Build your email lists. While some practices are reasonable, too often they drift into questionable territory, and they rarely focus on value for the customer. When they do, it’s only as an indirect side effect rather than a desired outcome. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With Postmark, we’ve spent the last couple of years focusing on growth without relying on tactics that leave us feeling dirty. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t regularly discuss the temptation of “industry best practices” and want to explore these methods that everyone else proclaimed wildly successful, but they just never sat right with us. Instead, we focused on tactics that we felt good about, and it’s working.

A bar chart showing a growth inflection point for Postmark around August of 2015.
August of 2015 (the red arrow) we started thinking more consciously about growth, and as we implemented those changes, our growth curve began to change.

Let’s face it. Growth is a selfish human desire. “Enough” never is. The religion of growth is built into the world of business. As businesses we can all do mental gymnastics to justify growth in the name of customers, but at its core, growth as a goal in and of itself is self-centered. That’s not to say that growth is bad, but when you focus on growth, it’s only ever indirectly about customers.

Some growth hacking tactics accidentally align with customer success, but most are about fishing for improvements to numbers. It’s Macchivellian. You’ll hear people admit that the tactics are less-than-savory, but that you can’t argue with their results. I disagree. A/B testing and related analytically driven tactics can only do so much. Or, as Jeff Atwood put it, "You can achieve a shallow local maximum with A/B testing – but you'll never win hearts and minds.”

That’s not to say you should ignore data, but if data becomes the religion, that’s a problem. When it boils down to it, the most reliable path to sustainable growth is customer success, or the value customers receive from your product. We’re not saying this in theory. It’s what we’ve been doubling down on for the last two years. Of course, a great product first has to exist, and without marketing, nobody would know it exists. But without customer success at its core, it won’t be sustainable growth.

You can play on addiction and try to gamify your product. You can follow people around the web and pester them through retargeting. You can fill their inbox with just enough marketing emails that they don’t unsubscribe. You can set up “partnerships” that are rarely equitable. You can track all of your customers’ activities and behaviors. You can write content for search engines. You can guest post and partner with influencers. At best, though, these will get you small bumps with new customers.

When you dig in and read about growth hacking, you’ll hear that you should expect 90% of your experiments to fail. That’s not necessarily that 90% of your time is wasted, but you very well may feel that way. You’ll still be learning, but you likely won’t be helping your customers. 

What if 90% of your experiments could succeed? If you begin every single one wondering how it will help your customers be more successful, then 90% is a realistic success rate. Now, those efforts won’t immediately turn into growth, but almost every single one will be a success when it helps customers become more successful. That eventually becomes sustainable growth.

Long-term sustainable growth stems from helping customers. Whether that’s removing pain or granting them super powers, putting customers first is your best bet for growth. When you help people and take care of them, they stick around. So why don’t more companies do this? Because they don’t have time. They’re impatient. They want growth today, not tomorrow. When investors are pressuring them for returns or they need an exit soon, growth is all that matters. 

Growth for growth’s sake focuses on creating value for shareholders. Ironically, creating value for customers is where sustainable growth stems from. That’s where we’ll be placing our bets.

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