15 Must-Know Tips from Ellis and Brown's "Hacking Growth"

Written by Monty Hammontree on December 7, 2018

Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success easily made my top 5 list of all-time favorite professional books.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, introduces growth hacking (aka lean engineering) processes, the roles you need to fill on your team, and cultural keys for success. The second, provides detailed tips and tricks for to how to effectively implement growth hacking across all phases of your customer funnel.

Book cover of Hacking Growth: How Today's Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success

I took away the following “15 big ideas” from the book all of which I’ve added to my toolbox and I am eagerly sharing with others.

1. Break Down Business Silos

Marketing and engineering typically focus on different activities and outcomes. Marketing focuses more on acquisition related tasks and engineering focuses more on activation, engagement, and retention. The result of working within respective silos is that top of the funnel customer marketing investments and middle of the funnel product design and engineering investments don’t become optimally aligned.

One of the prerequisites, that the authors call out for effective “growth hacking”, is to pull in team members from across disciplinary boundaries. These cross-functional teams are most effective when they collaborate across all phases of their customer lifecycle funnel.

2. Must-Have Experiences

Very often “growth hacking” teams start out with one idea as to what their “must-have” experience is only to have customer data revel it is something very different than they originally assumed. The keys to driving growth are to understand what your “core value” is or should be for your “core market” and “why”.

Achieving product/market fit is when you align your “must have” experience to your core market.

With your core market and value in mind, you can focus on making investments that attract your target customers toward a faster or more poignant realizing of your core value.

3. “Must-Have” Survey Questions and Thresholds

There’s also a way to measure whether we’ve found our “must have” experience or not. It’s based on a simple survey question:

“How dissapointed would you be if [product or feature] was not delivered?”

  • If 40+% of customers in our core market would be “very disappointed”: We have achieved “must have” status.

  • If 25-40% of customers in our core market would be “very disappointed”: We need to either tweek our offereing or the language we use to describe it.

  • If <25% customers in our core market would be “very disappointed”: We shouldn’t push for growth or we run the risk of disillusioning our core market (This is also one of the deadliest mistakes a “growth hacking” team can make).

4. Combine Qualitative “Why” with Quantitative “What” Research

Customer interviews are the most effective approach to understanding “why” our core market does or does not see our experience as a “must have”.

This early product lifecycle emphasis on getting at the “why” through qualitative research needs to be complimented with quantitative research such as large scale surveys. The integration of the two yields higher confidence in the results of both. It gives us confidence during early concept development that we understand “why” our ideas are (or are not) resonating with customers.

If teams measure what’s going on using quantitative experiments they also need to ask themselves, “why are customers behaving this way?” by using qualitative experiments.

5. Segment On the Distinctive Behaviors of Avid Users

It is the combination of user characteristics and behavioral differences that provides the landscape for identifying distinctive groups or customer segments within which to “probe” for areas of growth opportunity. Identifying the segments for which the core value of your product is best suited is critical to being able to run experiments that have sufficient sensitivity to drive iterative user experience improvements that will fuel growth.

User segmentation or cohort analysis can be particularly useful when analyzing retention rate. It, “allows you to probe more deeply to make discoveries about why those who are staying are doing so - and why others are not”.

One specific form of cohort analysis is to track customers by their initial acquisition date.

You need to track retention from the date your users are acquired. This allows growth teams to spot where, for example, marketing campaigns or yearly business cycles may be producing short term growth spikes that later aren’t sustained.

6. Align Your “One-Metric-That-Matters” With Your “Must-Have Experiences”

In the book, there are multiple cases of where companies succeeded at finding their “must-have experience” then relentlessly drove toward a metric that reliably reflected when customers experienced that core-value.

One such example is the story of Yelp’s journey toward finding that end-user reviews were their true “must-have experience” and then aligning all of their efforts toward driving up the number of end-user: review postings, page views, ratings, etc. They point out that generic user engagement metrics like daily, weekly, monthly active users aren’t as effective a set of indices of positive change or sustainable growth as are measures tightly aligned to your “must-have experience”.

7. Test at a High Tempo and On a Regular Cadence

Alex Schultz from Facebook is cited in the book as having said:

“If you’re pushing code once every two weeks and your competitor is pushing code every week, just after two months that competitor will have done 10 times as many tests as you. That competitor will have learned 10 times, an order magnitude more about their product [than you].”

The book includes a chapter on the stages of a healthy “growth hacking” cycle and instructions on how to conduct each stage. It goes so far as provide a detailed agenda for teams to use for their weekly one-hour growth team meeting at which the team reviews prior results and agrees on the next week’s set of experiments to implement.

8. Things You Need to Know Before Moving to High Tempo A/B Testing

You should not move into “high-tempo” growth experimentation until you know:

  1. Your product is a must have
  2. Why it’s must-have
  3. To whom it is a must have

Without a clear understanding of the answer to these three question, “you’ll either end up with illusory growth at best or market rejection at worst”.

9. “Language/Market Fit” and “Channel/Product Fit” Are the Keys to Acquisition

“Language/market fit” is defined as, “how well the way you describe the benefits of your product resonates with your target audience”. “Channel/product fit” is defined as “how effective the marketing channels are that you’ve selected to reach your intended audience with your product”.

As noted earlier in this review these tasks have historically been handled by marketing teams rather than the engineering team. A core principle of “growth hacking” is to eliminate this divide and to form cross-functional teams that continuously work together to achieve the best possible language/market, product/market, and channel/product fit.

The book provides a number of useful taxonomies for how to discover and optimize the best channels for your product or service using rapid experimentation.

10. Landing Pages Have 8 Seconds to Grab Customer Attention

The average attention span given to new online information is getting shorter over time. Back in the year 2000 the researchers claim the average online attention span was 12 seconds, whereas, at the time of the writing of the book it had dropped to 8 seconds.

“This means that the language you use must directly and persuasively connect with a need or desire they [your customers] have in order to hook them - in eight seconds or less - into giving you a few more heartbeats to convince them of why they should come on board.”

11. Language is a Perfect Fit for A/B Testing

There are a number of great examples of how small language changes had a profound impact on growth. Given the low cost and potentially high impact of language changes why haven’t I spent more time with the teams I work with capturing assumptions, formulating hypotheses, and running experiments about language choice? I don’t have a good answer. Like most, if not all, of the other “growth hacking” guidelines called out this review I deeply appreciate the reminder from these authors and aspire to ramp up our teams efforts in this area going forward.

12. Product Should Hone Language and Language Should Hone Product

There’s a very powerful principle that as you iterate on your “must-have experience” you should continually iterate on the language you use to describe it and the language you use in the experience itself.

As you hone in on the language for describing your core value, that resonates most with target customers, you should reexamine your product for opportunities to better deliver on that resonate value.

“Sometimes the changes in wording you arrive at will lead you to additional changes to make, not only in your copy, but in your overall branding and maybe even in the nature of your product itself…”

13. Increase Customer Rate to the “Must-Have A-Ha” Moment

The point of view that the key to keeping users moving through your funnel is to drive as many users as possible to the “aha” moment about your “must-have experience” as soon as possible is very powerful:

“Remember that all of this experimentation and analysis should be focused on discovering the aha moment you are offering, or can offer, customers. Once the conditions that create that magical experience have been identified, the growth team should turn its attention to getting more customer to experience that moment as fast as possible.”

It’s important to identify all the steps in your customer’s journey to the “must-have” product or feature. Each step can then be analyzed for opportunities to reduce the friction to moving to the next step, to increase comprehension of the value of moving to the next step, and/or to increase comprehension of the cumulative “core value” attained throughout the journey.

This simple equation can help us keep the two primary forces that shape our customer’s journey through the funnel in mind:


14. NUX Conversion Trinity

The authors put forth two simple rules or guidelines for designing and optimizing the new user experience (NUX) for your product or service. Their first recommendation is to treat it as a product of its own. One that warrants crafting its own special experience for it. One benefit they cite of making it its own experience is that it makes it easier for the growth team to conduct experiments on this experience without having to manage inner dependencies with other aspects of the customer journey and without impacting the experience of current users.

The second rule of thumb is that the first page of the NUX experience must accomplish three fundamental things: communicate relevance, show the value of the product, and provide a clear call to action. They credit Bryan Eisenberg as having coined the term the “conversion trinity” to refer to these three factors. I found the following definition they provide for each of the factors to be useful.

“Relevance stands for how well the page matches the intent or desire of the visitor- is this what they came for? Showing value is immediately answering the visitor’s question ‘What’s in it for me?’ clearly and concisely. Lastly, the call to action provides a compelling next step for visitors to take.”

15. When Exploring New Ideas For Growth Use ICE to Prioritize Them

ICE, a simple acrostic is recommended as a way for teams to rate and then rank the best ideas they have for achieving a growth objective.

After working together to generate candidate ideas for growth, teams are encouraged to then rate the ideas on a ten point scale in terms of expected impact, confidence the idea will produce the expected result, and ease of implementing the idea. Impact, confidence, and ease translate into the achronymn ICE. Armed with the initial rating teams then put all of their ideas as rows in a table and add the three scores into columns. They then calcuate the average of the three columns and add the averages as a fourth column. The average score is then used to stack rank all of the candidate ideas.

One of the potential pitfalls of using a simple scoring approach like this is that some team members can put to much weight on the scores. Left unchecked this can lead to dogmatic reactions and infighting within the team.

“It is important that the team not get bogged down in trying to fine-tune the score too much. The score is to be used for relative prioritization and will not be perfect….It’s better for the team to use the score as a valued guide, rather than the be-all and end-all for test prioritization. When there is uncertainty or concern about a score, the growth lead should use her best judgment and act decisively to keep the team moving. “

Once tabulated the scores are then used by each team member to nominate a set number of ideas to include in that week’s growth hacking meeting and subsequent test cycle. Two ideas are cited as being a healthy number for each member to nominate. At the growth meeting each person presents the ideas they are nominating. The team as a group then chooses which ideas are moved into the “Up Next” queue and prepared for testing.