Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growth Hacker vs VP of Marketing

Just a brief follow up thought related to the idea of the growth hacker concept referenced in the link in my previous post. The core premise behind the growth hacker is that startups in earlier stages need to be focused on growth -- dynamic, agile, and even experimental. Often, when people think of qualifications for a VP of Marketing, they think grand plan, strategy, and years of experience in a specific industry. What this may also translate to is limited adaptability outside of a focus industry and correspondingly, a less agile, less dynamic engine for growth -- someone who just wants to replay the classic hits.

I suspect that the right fit actually falls somewhere in the middle. A good marketing pro doesn't just repeat the same formula. Every business, every situation, every moment is different. While the idea of a growth hacker relentlessly experimenting, trying to crack the growth nut is a compelling image that captures a sense of necessary urgency, for me it underplays the importance of fluency in a broader vocabulary of the practice. First and foremost, before you can ever begin to conceptualize and hack growth programs, you need to have a strong understanding of those same programs and the language that their constructed from. You can't play guitar simply by watching music videos and you can't hack a .php form by simply browsing the web a lot or even reading stories about code injection.

Beyond vision and program execution, there is an equally important aspect to having a grander vision -- an understanding that some growth vehicles have a dark side and not all hacking is white hat. Look at Zynga and some of the other social game companies profiled in the Techcrunch Scamville series. While Zynga was able to ride these questionable practices to an IPO and, theoretically, some operational reforms, several of the companies that used this approach got burned. The recent stories about JCPenney and some of the more noteworthy SEO manipulation highlight kind of issue. Understanding the risks and being able to weigh those against the potential benefits requires some conceptual understanding beyond simply figuring out an execution path.

Ultimately, whether you're a VP of Marketing or a Growth Hacker, the bigger problem is that often people simply want to repeat a lightning strike. Sometimes, beyond time and space, there is some luck involved. Just because Twitter took off at South by Southwest, doesn't mean that going there is a strategy. And yet, simply understanding how something like South by Southwest has impacted a number of social networking software startups should be part of your marketing vocabulary. In that way, I would thing that the job description should probably read something like, "creative, experimental problem solver with a broad marketing background and a solid vision of the big picture needed..." But somebody like that can probably also solve the problem of what title that they should have.

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