Every organization wants a bigger audience and a stronger customer base. But consistent growth doesn’t just happen.
Good ideas aren’t lottery tickets, and marketing shouldn’t feel like playing a slot machine. Good ideas catch on when they’re supported by good strategy. No matter how perfect your product or service is, without a well-executed marketing plan, you’ll be stuck waiting for growth that may never come. Because real, sustained growth isn’t about getting lucky.
Enter: growth marketing. It’s not just a marketing buzzword—it’s an area you can’t afford to neglect.
A quick definition of growth marketing
It’s easy to get stuck spinning your wheels in marketing, trying to think of the next big sale, contest, or promotion to bump up this quarter’s revenue. But those short-term solutions and quick fixes aren’t what interest growth marketers. Growth marketing is more proactive than reactive—it’s not about budgetary bandaids and quick fixes.
Growth marketing = using data to rapidly grow your audience (and keep it). It means killing bad ideas quickly and scaling good ones just as fast. It isn’t limited to any particular marketing channel—the whole toolbox is fair game.
Here’s what growth marketing is all about:
Growth marketing goals
Growth marketing is about strategically growing your audience by optimizing your marketing funnel and increasing the number of people who enter it.
The challenge is that when you think about growth and look at data, it’s easy to forget that your audience is made of individual people. So think of optimizing your marketing funnel like approaching a relationship (because, well, it is). Your end goal (gaining customers or users) is like marriage—a long-term relationship built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect that continues to grow stronger and more rewarding over time.
Work with me here.
You’re not going to propose on the first date. You know they aren’t ready. (If they are . . . yeesh. That’s another story.) And there won’t be an opportunity to follow up if you botch your first encounter.
So optimizing your funnel includes identifying places where you’re:
- Being too forward
- Bragging about yourself too much
- Focusing on your own interests, not your audience’s
- Not treating your audience like people
That might seem ridiculous, but a growth marketer has to consider the individual relationships your organization is building with potential customers in order to improve the whole funnel. Because you’re not just developing one relationship at a time: you’re developing hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands at a time—and each one is with an individual person.
So how do you know the best ways to build these relationships? By fine tuning best practices through trial and error.
Experimentation: the secret sauce of growth marketing
With all of the tools available today, there’s no excuse for marketers to not know how people are interacting with their content. Reliable data allows your organization to adapt to your audience, plug holes in your efforts, and capitalize on your successes.
It doesn’t matter how good something looks if it’s not performing. At the very least, growth marketers need to monitor metrics like:
- Landing page conversion rates
- Email open and clickthrough rates
- Ad performance
- Traffic on blog posts
- Free trial conversion rates
But obviously, it’s not enough just to watch those numbers. You need the tools to connect your data to your actions. If you don’t know how the changes you make are actually affecting your results, you’re guessing.
There are a lot of simple A/B testing tools out there that help marketers create the best possible content for your organization. Here are just a few:
Heck, in a pinch, even surveying your audience can be useful.
Whatever tools you use, the important thing is to make sure that significant choices are driven by data. I’d strongly recommend that when you test changes, you measure one variable at a time. It’s fine to have several iterations of a page, ad, or email running at once, but if there are multiple variables at play, it’s hard to pin the success or failure on a single difference.
Also: don’t start a test without a clear objective. A friend of mine always says, “‘Let’s just see what happens’ is a terrible goal, because you’re always going to see what happens.”
Experiments are the key to fine-tuning your marketing efforts. Now let’s look at what growth marketing uses those experiments to accomplish.
Gain new customers
Obviously, growth marketing often focuses on growing your customer or user base. (That’s how most organizations grow, anyhow.) But what makes growth marketing different than, say, direct sales, is the system behind it. Your optimized funnel becomes a well-oiled, automated machine, providing sustainable growth through a steady influx of new customers or users.
By being intimately familiar with your customer journey and the data behind it, growth marketers identify the messaging that resonates best with your audience and obliterates the barriers between potential users and your product.
But growth marketing requires constant innovation. When the status quo is no longer achieving the growth you’re looking for, growth marketing creates new opportunities to talk to the right people. This could be exploiting a new channel or platform, or using your existing channels in new ways.
Through experimentation and optimization, growth marketers find the most efficient ways to gain new users. And that means acquiring more qualified leads.
Acquire more qualified leads
Whether you’re building an email list, collecting phone numbers, or growing a social channel, growth marketers find the most efficient ways to grow your pool of possible customers or users. That means reducing your costs, and choosing methods that can scale.
There are two ways to think about acquiring more qualified leads:
- Get better leads
- Get more leads
Growth marketers are constantly dialing in both. Because growth isn’t about choosing better or more. It’s about reaching as many people in your market as possible, for the most effective price possible.
Better leads mean that a greater percentage of people make it through your funnel to become customers. By injecting more leads into your funnel, you may lower the percentage of people that become customers but increase the overall number. It’s a constant balancing act, and growth marketing uses regular experimentation to turn more of your audience into leads—and eventually customers.
Before you can acquire new leads though, you need to expand your audience.
Increase brand awareness
I don’t mean you should slap your logo on everything you touch and seize every opportunity to talk about yourself. That’s not the kind of awareness growth marketers want to develop. Because people don’t like that. And you shouldn’t either—it reduces every marketing channel to a tiny echo chamber.
Growth marketing is about getting more people to think about and talk about your brand. Coca-Cola is so ubiquitous it almost doesn’t even seem fair to use them as an example. But anyone who says they aren’t aware of that brand is a liar, and I’d say it to their face.
Brand awareness is tricky, though. It’s harder to quantify than leads or customers. And it’s even harder to calculate its value. Still, there’s good evidence that brand awareness plays a role in future purchasing decisions. People first turn to brands they’ve heard of—it helps them bypass the overwhelming decision-making process.
One way to build awareness is through content marketing. You can establish your organization as an authority on something potential customers care about. Or make them laugh. Or make them feel awe, or outrage, or hope, or—anything. Ideally, they’ll want to consult your expertise again or come back for more of that feeling.
Sometimes brand awareness just means doing awesome things people can’t help but talk about. There’s no hard-and-fast-rules of brand awareness. But if you wanna grow, you’ve got to make it happen.
And while it’s easy to focus on new customers, growth marketing encompasses the relationships you already have, too. A blood transfusion is going to be a whole lot less effective if you still have a bleeding wound.
Retain existing customers
Especially in SAAS, it doesn’t matter how much time and money you pour into acquisition if you can’t keep the customers you already have. You can still experience growth with poor customer retention, but it won’t be nearly as sustainable. You’ll be back to spinning your wheels in no time.
Growth marketing focuses on the entire marketing funnel, start to finish.
But to do that effectively, you need both the tools and influence to make changes happen.
Growth marketing is a strategy, not a job
Growth marketing isn’t something you can assign to one person. It has to become part of your company culture in order to make changes happen.
Here’s what happens when not everyone is on board:
I used to work with a company with a relatively young SAAS product. Every single month, about 75% of the people who downloaded our product never actually opened it. They never even started a free trial, even after we’d already done the hard part and convinced them to download. We knew this because they had to create an account and sign in to run the software.
So somewhere between downloading and installing the software, we were losing three-quarters of a highly engaged audience. In other words, our onboarding sucked. We could increase our efforts to fill the top of the funnel with more leads, or work on our free trial conversion rate, but nothing would have the impact of plugging that hole.
We even had a pretty good idea where we were losing people: there were about eight different screens with fields and forms people had to click through before they could sign-in and open the software. It seemed pretty safe to say that it was a bigger commitment than people were expecting to start a free trial.
Customer: “Free trial? What’s the catch?”
Us: “This will just take two hours of your time.”
There was one big problem though: not everyone was on board with fixing our onboarding. It was a classic showdown between marketing and development. One team wanted to plug that hole. The other wanted to continue developing and improving product features.
We spent months with that hole in our marketing funnel because despite being able to identify a problem and present a solution, the marketing team didn’t have the influence or expertise to execute on their solution.
Growth marketing isn’t a task you can pass off on an individual or even the marketing department. It’s a mindset your whole organization has to be willing to embrace. The product itself is part of the customer journey, too.
Now let’s talk about the pieces marketers can actually control.
Growth marketing tactics
To reach the goals we talked about, growth marketing can involve any combination of channels and methods. The point is to leverage whatever you’re doing to grow your audience and customer base.
Growth marketers should always be asking “Why do we do ___ this way?” If the answer isn’t supported by data, and you have reason to believe there’s a better way to utilize that channel or tactic, it’s probably a good place to experiment.
Here are some of the means and methods growth marketing might employ:
Advertising is surprisingly versatile. With the amount of data available today, you can use advertising to increase growth at every stage of your funnel. Just for starters, you can:
- Drive new people to your website.
- Increase app downloads.
- Validate new product ideas.
- Reach people who have already been to specific pages.
- Serve different ads to different segments of your existing audience.
- Show up on the platforms your audience spends time on.
If growth marketing is a priority to your organization, mastering paid advertising should be, too.
Social media marketing
People don’t hop on social media to see what their favorite companies have been up to. (Well, normal people don’t.) They’re there for the conversations. And growth marketers are always looking for new ways to facilitate those conversations.
Every brand has to work within their own guidelines, but growth marketing needs room to experiment and innovate if you want your audience to grow. Some of the best ways to do this are to:
- Make people look good in front of their friends by providing something insightful, humorous, practical, or entertaining.
- Write or create something helpful (like an infographic or how-to article).
- Create a strong emotional reaction—ideally a positive reaction towards you or a negative reaction towards something you’re “battling against.”
If you’re opting out of content marketing, you’re missing out on a huge growth opportunity. We recently looked at 96 companies in the fintech space, and 25% of them didn’t even have blogs. The companies that had blogs had 9.6 times more organic traffic and 3.3 times as many referring domains. That’s a TON of extra awareness.
But content marketing isn’t just isolated to blogging. It’s whitepapers, webinars, social media, email marketing, videos, and infographics, too. Offering a steady stream of interesting unique content creates a rewarding, enjoyable experience for your audience. Done right, they won’t even think of it as marketing.
And the best content marketing is incredibly sustainable. You write or create it once, and it keeps getting attention long after your work is done. You can even automate follow-up content with sequential email campaigns and paid ads, creating a system that makes sure your audience gets a consistent serving of content.
Content plays such a big role in growth marketing that we’re going to talk about it in more detail later.
Email marketing is all about optimization. Like advertising, email is highly data-driven, which makes it every growth marketer’s best friend. It’s easy to experiment with different voices, types of messaging, and audiences to discover what has the greatest impact on your goals. And segmentation lets you leverage everything you know about your audience to provide the most relevant, helpful emails possible.
You obviously don’t have complete freedom to experiment with partnerships, but negotiations aside, it’s important to keep tabs on what’s working and what isn’t. Growth marketing in the world of partnerships means looking for the overlaps between your organization and others. If they’re not in a competing space and they’ve already built an audience you want (and presumably, visa versa), you can experiment with the best ways to lead their customers into your funnel.
Ideal partnerships add value to both organizations and treat customers on both sides with respect. People should feel like you’re giving them something, not exploiting their contact information.
This might mean writing a guest post, doing an interview on their blog, collaborating on a new product, or creating a piece of content on one of your channels that they can share.
Search engine optimization takes a lot of patience, but with the right content expertise, it will give you the best bang for your buck. Growth-oriented SEO uses data to make intelligent decisions about where to invest your time and energy.
This means asking questions like:
- Where is your organic traffic currently coming from?
- What search concepts are most related to your products, services, and audience?
- Are there less competitive concepts you should be going after?
- Are there related concepts you could cover in a more definitive post or landing page?
- Can you produce something better than the competition?
If long-term, sustainable growth is something you’re after (and it should be), SEO needs to be part of your game plan. And keep in mind, SEO isn’t just about looking at existing demand. If you’re truly influencing (or creating!) your market, you’re going to be creating demand.
Maybe you’ll develop a resource, concept, or brand that everyone goes on to search for. Like Brian Dean’s skyscraper technique, which everyone wants to master. Or think about home automation systems. Nobody was searching for that—they didn’t know what it was. But as companies created and educated their market, we wound up with concepts like “home automation” and “smart appliances” which people now actively search for.
If you’re the first to a market, you have the added responsibility of educating consumers and defining the market. If you neglect this piece, you’re going to let your competition snatch up the market. (And they’ll use growth marketing to do it.)
Public relations can be a crafty way to build positive brand awareness. Obviously, to get attention, you have to do something worth paying attention to. This is where growth marketing comes in.
It may mean organizing or sponsoring a buzzworthy event, getting involved in your community, or celebrating your big milestones.
You can’t bank on press releases to inject your audience with fresh people, but if your organization does something you feel is newsworthy, press releases are worth experimenting with. A determined growth marketer will pay attention to how the news covers other organizations, and may even contact local papers to find out what they consider worth talking about.
But press releases aren’t the end all of good public relations. In fact, they’re probably not even the best focus. Good PR should be able to create buzz and interest in your company and its culture by getting it featured by other industry-related blogs, magazines, and media outlets.
Optimization and testing
Every page, ad, email, post, or piece of the customer journey can always be better. Optimization and testing is how you make it happen. Whether you’re testing two completely different landing pages or something as small as a button, there’s a limitless supply of experiments you can conduct if you want to grow.
Sometimes the challenge is deciding where to draw the line.
Part of growth marketing is determining where your efforts are best spent. When you discover something is working—a Facebook ad is performing extremely well or a drip campaign is converting tons of new customers—there may not be a whole lot of room for improvement.
Optimization and testing can increase growth in every channel, but it may have the greatest impact if you focus this magnifying glass on your weakest areas. (Like that pesky onboarding sequence . . .)
Key skills for growth marketers
Not everyone is cut out for growth marketing. It takes a special blend of creativity, analytical skills, and ambition to consistently discover new ways your organization can grow.
Here are some of the skills you should cultivate in your marketing team (or look for in new candidates):
This should be obvious by now. Growth marketing depends on your ability to introduce new ideas—whether that means trying new methods, or implementing old methods in new ways.
Interest in optimization
Some people find it hard to focus on the minute details that make one landing page better than another. Or they lack the patience to test, and test, and test iterations of an ad to discover the changes that have the biggest impact on your audience. Optimization takes work, and growth marketers need to care enough about it to get it right. They also need to know where to focus optimization efforts—and where those efforts will be wasted.
Hunger for data
Data should drive everything a growth marketer does. You can’t produce sustainable, reliable growth with gut feelings or intuition alone. Those can be great starting points to investigate problems or create experiments, but data has to be the deciding factor.
“Hacker” or “learner” mentality
If your organization has any hope of being at the forefront of innovation in your market, it’s going to take self-directed learners to get there. Growth marketers need to be willing to stumble their way through new platforms and methods of using them on their own. They shouldn’t just tell you about new opportunities, they should explore them, try them, and test them out.
Happy playing fast and loose
Some people have a hard time letting go of the rulebook or adjusting their standards to let innovation thrive. Guidelines, operations, and processes all have their place, but if you want to maximize your growth, you need to make it possible for changes to happen quickly.
Growth marketers can’t be satisfied with the status quo. You have to be able to step back and pick apart the way you connect people to your product and identify places where there’s room for improvement. Then you need to determine the right methods to create meaningful change.
If you want to make changes that actually matter, you need to pay attention to your customers. What are they telling customer service? How are they interacting with your product? How did your latest update affect them? What’s consistently coming up in reviews and comments?
Growth marketers need to keep a constant pulse both on what your customers are saying and what’s happening in your market. Listening is a key part of anticipating opportunities and noticing potential problems.
Who needs growth marketing?
Startups have to grow rapidly to survive. Mature businesses tend to maintain slow, steady growth. But all organizations can benefit from optimization and innovation. And growth marketing is about determining how.
Growth marketing for startups
Startups have one big advantage over mature businesses: they haven’t had the time (or need) to develop layers of process and red tape. They can act on new information immediately and let data dictate direction.
The challenge for startups is that there’s also a lot more pressure to grow quickly. This makes it tempting to rely on your gut, letting intuition guide your decisions. But growth marketing doesn’t sacrifice your ability to move quickly—in fact, relying on data helps you anticipate problems and capitalize on early success, so you can adapt even faster.
In the startup world, growth marketing often takes the form of cheap tricks and hacks validated by results. You try everything you possibly can until you find the thing that works.
Growth marketing for established organizations
In exchange for all that red tape and process, mature businesses get a lot more budget to work with, and generally speaking, less pressure to make radical changes. For growth marketing, this means you can afford to buy more tools and utilize better data.
Healthy, mature organizations can see incremental growth without putting in a whole lot of effort. This is how companies get stuck in the rut of doing things a certain way because “it’s the way we’ve always done that.” Over the years, habits and the path of least resistance form grooves in your marketing strategy that can stifle innovation. A growth marketing mindset can dismantle outdated tactics—but only if you let it.
Even if a business has totally saturated the market, there’s untapped growth potential. To help organizations realize that potential, marketers need tools to optimize, information to feed experiments, and influence to act on the results.