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What is growth hacking and what can publishers learn from it?

Just over a decade ago, a teenager in the north of Scotland began writing a technology blog. Noting that mainstream media wasn't yet savvy to the emerging world of social networking, the youngster worked tirelessly not just producing a lot of content, but also engaging with influentials on both sides of the Atlantic.

The blog’s owner soon found himself feted as one of the key new voices in the new wave of publishing – which went on to be christened Web 2.0. His name is Pete Cashmore and the blog he started, Mashable, is now a media empire which some media observers have valued at over a quarter of a billion dollars

Cashmore wasn't the only pioneer to understand the value of alternative growth techniques in online publishing. Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc and Nick Denton's Gawker Media both went on to become hugely successful using tactics that we would now identify as growth hacking.

The publishing world has moved on a great deal since 2005 and there is an argument that says that it would be much more difficult for Cashmore to make Mashable a similar sized success if he launched it now. However growth hacking as a discipline should still be something that intrigues publishers.

What is growth hacking?

The first person to mention growth hacking as a concept was start up blogger Sean Ellis in 2010. He argued a growth hacker is ‘a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinised by its potential impact on scalable growth.’ He particularly related it to start up businesses who, due to their bootstrapped nature, have no option but to focus on growth which they achieve with minimal marketing budgets.

The phrase has evolved to mean marketing techniques which use creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to gain exposure, and in website publishing, attract readers and interest brands. 

One really good example of how growth hacking is currently being used by startups is in the sphere of content marketing. Rather than invest in online advertising or more traditional marketing solutions like PR, some companies have generated lots of content which they believe has not just given them a voice, but also attracted customers and enabled them to develop relationships with them.

Other online company CEOs are said to have had a growth hacking mind-set while developing their business, most notably Mark Zuckerberg who famously considered the growth was the only thing that mattered in the early days of Facebook.

So what can publishers learn from growth hacking?

Firstly in almost every sphere of online publishing attracting as large an audience as possible is key – and that means going for growth. A good recent example of this from the UK is the site, which has in the space of a year has attracted more than a million readers per-month. Its publishers made no attempt to monetise the site in its early days preferring to focus in building a loyal readership. There are numerous examples of US sites that have adopted the same approach including the likes of BuzzFeed and Upworthy.

Another of the most important lessons that can be learned from growth hackers is their obsession with data and the way that they try to make every post count. Again the likes of Upworthy and Buzzfeed are notable for their content experimentation especially with headlines.

One classic example of how experimentation can be essential to publishing success is described on

“The headline is such an important part of a piece of content that you can’t afford to leave its success to chance. Upworthy managed to draw 17m views to a YouTube video that originally only had one million views. The difference? The headline. The Iowa House Democrats’ YouTube channel titled its video ‘Zach Wahls Speaks About Family,’ while Upworthy chose the title ‘Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This Is What They Got’.”

Another important lesson that growth hackers bequeath publishers is based around their latest buzz phrase - high tempo testing. Put simply this means coming up with ideas, then moving to prioritising, testing, and analysing them before finally reaching optimisation.

So, for example, a publishing team could generate a massive number of ideas – from key topics to cover and SEO terms to chase through to technical developments and tweaks, and then work as a team to prioritise them. Then publishers could introduce three to five ideas per week and measure what impact they have on website traffic. It is this commitment to experimentation and mining data which has served some smaller independent publishers very well.

Ultimately though, an emphasis on growth hacking won’t work if other external factors work against you. Once the toast of the publishing world, Upworthy’s fall from grace has been spectacular. It lost large amounts of traffic to a Facebook algorithm change and now even its founder acknowledges that it might have taken its click bait headlines a little too far.

Still the concepts that drive growth hacking are starting to take root in online publishing. It will be interesting to see what kind of results their adoption by mainstream publishers achieves. 

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