The Great White Lie in Marketing

Or, why there ain’t no free lunch for most of the world

Dear Modern Day Marketer,

In your experience, what – among the many scams, outrageous claims, snake oils, and ponzi schemes that float around the flotsam and jetsam of the internet – is the biggest one out there? In my opinion, it’s the term ‘growth hacking’. There, I said it.

While ‘growth’ is something all product professionals, marketers, and CxOs want for their businesses, the word ‘hack’ suggests a shortcut – a clever, clean, straight cut to bypass the snarls of ‘traditional’ marketing and get there quickly – whether with users, revenues, SKUs sold or other growth metrics. Typically, ‘growth hacking’ refers to acquiring users in a very short time for little or no spend for SaaS platforms.

So why is it a ‘great white lie’? Let me make my case by parsing some famous growth hacking stories. Take Dropbox. Their ‘simple growth hack’ was to give free storage for referrals – effectively building a referral network from their user base. Parse – storage that someone paid for. Initial users that were acquired by some means. Even word of mouth takes diligence and effort! Granted, traditional advertising was not done, but then, Dropbox is not a traditional company.

The venerable Hotmail came up with a similar referral scheme that went out as auto inserts in signatures of users. “PS I love you. Get your free Email at Hotmail”, it said. AirBnb’s startup team traveled to host apartments to take stunning pictures of the homes they initially featured. Paypal ingeniously gave money away for referrals – cheaper than billboards or print ads!

The common thread here is that someone ponied up an initial kitty to kickstart the virality. The products were disruptive, the growth ideas were original and ingenious, some of them genius even. Many others helped execute on the ideas – great writers, imaginative video creators, ingenious systems integrators and crafty marketers. Intentional campaigns were planned, calibrated, and deployed in a data-driven manner. They caught the imagination of the users. Ergo, virality. Speedy user acquisition – millions in months, if not weeks. 

But. Not. Free.

Let that sink in. So anyone thinking they can just build a product and get users easy-peasy for free – no time, no effort, no money – needs to wake up and smell the roses. Said roses will decay and stink as investors and VCs demand their pound of flesh when users are not acquired, and fast. 

If you just build it, they will not come. They never have, and never will.

So, what works? Can you go to market without a budget?

Let’s see what the experts say. I pulled up a Hubspot article about ‘Marketing without a budget’. Here’s what the listicle offers, with my editorial comments in square brackets –

Develop a content marketing strategy [Undervalued. Costs money. Needs expertise. Yes, even with ChatGPT and Dall-E and other AI content generators.]
Seek out co-marketing opportunities. [Connections. Time. Effort.]
Invest in your social media presence. [The ‘I’ word!]
Increase community engagement. [Content. Moderators. Time. Effort.]
Offer free trials or free resources. [Who is building these, I wonder?]
Arrange giveaways. [Who’s paying for these?]
Encourage user-generated content. [Hmm, yes. If your MVP is compelling.]
Host a webinar. [Platform? Topic? Speaker? Minimal investment to build the brand, but will it sell subscriptions?]
Invest in SEO.[Hey! The ‘I’ word again!]
List your company on business directories. [Yes, good one.]

A 10-minute Google search will yield more, similar results with similar venerable names. If you look beyond the surface, you’ll realise many of these articles are clickbait content for the ‘names’ themselves. But that apart, much of what they’re suggesting is actually getting down to the brass tacks of modern-day content marketing.

Content – written, video. Short-form video is super hot these days. The algorithms love them.
Social media
Website (owned properties)
Consistent communication
User engagement
Customer success programs

This is hard work. This is a (hopefully, well paid) team that puts out thoughtful content and consistent marketing. Teams need to do this day in and day out. For weeks. Months. Years even, before they taste success.

Don’t get me wrong. Marketing without budgets can happen with small, committed teams executing to a specific plan for MVP validation or initial user acquisition. It helps you go viral or fail fast. Think out of the box, understand your user base, and plan. Execute. Track.

Even after that, many platforms do go viral fast. Some of them do disrupt the marketplace, upend current business models, deliver sticky experiences, and grow speedily. Many fizzle out and fail. What distinguishes the winners from the rest is the consistency of getting the word out. Listening to the users. Tweaking the features and the messaging. Delivering superior user experiences. Capturing testimonials and publishing. A virtuous cycle that you rinse and repeat.

Exhausting. Enervating. Fulfilling? Absolutely, yes. Some sly sort of ‘hack’? NO!

Can we just call it ‘growth marketing’? And, the next time someone (your client, boss, or CEO) asks you to ‘growth hack’, please, tell them there’s no such thing, and ask for a budget, resources, and time.

Let’s grow!

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