By Anjana Arora

A few decades ago, when email was not free, Hotmail did something very different. At the foot of each outgoing email from a Hotmail user, the line ‘Get Your Free Email at Hotmail’ was added. Their existing base of 20,000 users climbed to a million in just six months. It was a viral acquisition move at a time when ‘viral’ was not even a buzzword. An inventive marketing tactic that vastly expanded the technology business, it is a classic example of successful growth hacking—for it demonstrates how growth hacking really sits at the unique intersection of technology and marketing. Growth hacking aims to grow a business using new, innovative methods to derive more value with less outflow, and optimize the per-user acquisition cost or bring it down to zero altogether.

But growth in mere numbers cannot deliver. You can attract big numbers in the short term, through spammy ‘social sharing’ for instance. In 2010, Formspring witnessed the fastest growth achieved by any site ever, primarily by integrating with social media platforms. However, the majority of the visitors to the Q&A website did not return after one or two visits, nor did they engage. Usage started to wane, and the site soon faded, closing after four years. Massive short-term growth takes a hit when faced with poor user experience. A bad product experience makes it harder to get the user to return and worse, the feedback circulates among the users’ social circle, axing a promising growth trend.

Real growth requires real engagement—that is when users trust and like a product, leading them to recommend it to others through positive word of mouth. And that is when users stay.

Most often we see marketing being implemented after a product is ready, with a kind of strapped-on strategy to promote it. But the essence of growth hacking demands an understanding of your users and how they will interact with the product to create features that will resonate with them. When a product is engineered to fill a gap for its market and to provide a great user experience, it will automatically grow.
Growth hacking tactics should be built from the intrinsic features of a product, which can be facilitated by stronger collaboration between marketing, product, and engineering teams. The features of the product and its norms of use can be turned into agents of growth. For instance, LinkedIn built in the scope for growth of the platform with the way its users interacted. A user’s professional credentials will be bolstered with testimonials from colleagues or previous supervisors, and this makes users invite more of their contacts to LinkedIn to join their virtual professional networks.

A growth hacking strategy needs to go beyond simple acquisition and focus on the complete lifecycle of the user, intelligently planning the entire funnel. One way of doing this is by cutting out friction across stages—whether that means eliminating too many steps or clicks, improving user interactions, or enabling ease of sharing. Instagram lets users cross-post to practically any platform—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr— it even enables you to share through Whatsapp. This is a boon for users who like their pictures to surface in various social media circles and can easily post their mobile photos through Instagram. It certainly benefits Instagram by expanding the massive visibility it receives across social platforms without any ads or paid promotions.

If a user’s engagement with a product is made simple, she becomes more responsive to interactive triggers and more likely to use the product and share details of it habitually. Look at how seamlessly a user navigates Netflix—when one episode ends, the next starts to play automatically. For someone already absorbed in watching a show and keen to know how the plot unfolds, this auto-play is a trigger that works perfectly. For Netflix, this means hours and hours of time-on-device, by encouraging binge- watching

For such meaningful engagement, build your product to tap into an inner need of the user—ease of use, speed, an emotional connect, or self-validation. Going back to Instagram, the app doesn’t just let users post their photos as they are; it provides them with a range of filters to add to them—making the user feel in control over their photos and empowered to improve something that was an ephemeral moment, even if they don’t have photo-editing skills. When Uber completes a ride by auto-debiting your credit card, it is saving you the hassles of cash payment; it doesn’t just save precious minutes of your day, it also makes hitching a ride from point A to B a pleasurable experience.

You can truly grow your user base if your product gives users purpose to engage with it. This takes a combination of insightful product engineering with positive user experiences. Your product becomes scalable when the engagement is sticky enough for users to return to repeatedly. Only then can growth hacking deliver sustainable, long-term growth.