by Neal Taparia
I’m elbow to elbow with everyone in a room packed with around 180 people, and all I can hear is the dizzying murmur of words like “SEM” and “User Acquisition Costs.” One person I meet is an engineer at a company that is changing the mattress industry by selling directly online to the consumer. Another person is a communications professional from England who recently moved to New York City to find opportunities as a marketer for startups.
We’re all here, at a GrowHack meetup in New York City hosted by Conrad Wadowski, to hear Sean Ellis speak about growth hacking. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we all want to learn about the little things we can do that can have a dramatic impact on business growth. Sean was the first marketer at Dropbox, Lookout, Xobni, and led marketing teams at companies like LogMeIn and Uproar through IPO filings. He now runs a successful data insights startup called Qualaroo, and is credited with coining the term “growth hacker” in his post, Find a Growth Hacker for your Startup.
Sean revealed unique insights about growth strategies and reassurance to all those working hard every day to grow their business.
First, Hustle to Get Traction
There was natural curiosity about how Dropbox became what it is today. Sean revealed that in the beginning, it was all about hustling. Drew Houston first created a video with some clever tongue-in-cheek humor that caught on with the tech crowd. They also gamed Digg and Reddit to get more exposure. In fact, their efforts landed them on the front page of Digg, which in its heyday, could drive meaningful traffic to a site.
Such hustle is not uncommon among startup stories. Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of Tinder, visited sororities to get girls on Tinder. Shortly after, she went to their neighboring fraternities, which then gladly joined. The founders of Flickr commented on photos regularly in order to create an engaged community.
Our first product, EasyBib, now has 40 million yearly users. We started without any in 2001. We invaded AOL chatrooms to talk about our product, spammed thousands of teachers individually, and sent emails to dozens of publications. We ended up being published on the front page of the business section of the Chicago Tribune.
Optimize Your Product for Marketing
Sean talked about how Dropbox had a strong focus on making their product do the marketing for them. In particular, they introduced the concept of a dual reward: When you invite someone to access your Dropbox, they receive 250MB of free space, and so do you. Therefore, the more people used Dropbox, the more beneficial it was.
But the Dropbox team made their product even stickier. When someone you shared a Dropbox folder with created an account, you would be pleasantly notified that you have more memory. If you’re familiar with Nir Eyal’s hook methodology, such variable rewards keep you highly engaged in a product. Seeing the success of the referral program, the Dropbox team doubled down on the idea by strategically placing prompts to share throughout the product, testing what would make it more shareable.
Do Whatever It Takes to Learn About Your Users
Sean advocated that every marketer should be surveying their audience. At his past companies, he didn’t think on his own how to position the product. Instead, he would ask users how they would describe it to a friend, and what one word they would use to describe the product. Having gained this insight, he would then test and iterate on messaging.
Surveying goes beyond the purpose of understanding messaging. Sean would look at a user funnel and identify where drop-offs existed. He would then reach out to those who dropped off at a particular point to understand why. He cited an example where LogMeIn users from a new channel were dropping off on a free offer. It turns out they they thought the offer was too good to be true. As result, Sean’s team created an option to download a trial of the premium version or download the free version, which increased conversion by the tune of 300 percent.
More importantly, Sean would survey to benchmark whether users found value in the product, and why or why not. He would utilize that information to better demonstrate the product’s value, and survey again to gauge if his changes were improving upon the initial benchmark.
In my experience, talking to the customer is invaluable. When we show someone our new GetCourse product, we ask how they would describe the product, and why they would recommend it to a friend. These questions have helped us understand how we should position the product. To learn more about surveying, ConversionXL has a great post on the best questions to ask.
Think Beyond Content
Sean created a community website to drive conversation around the plethora of great marketing content circulating the Internet. His ultimate goal was to educate readers of GrowthHackers about his Qualaroo product. What’s fascinating is that Sean realized that in order to make Qualaroo stand out, he would have to go beyond pumping out content like all his peers in the space. He could distinguish his efforts through curation and technology.
GrowthHackers exceeded expectations. Not only did it provide exposure to Qualaroo as intended, but the community that rallied around it became so strong that GrowthHackers has the potential of becoming it’s own business. Sean now hosts conferences with the Growth Hackers brand.
Indeed, the future of content marketing is thinking beyond content. Above all else, Sean constantly reminded the audience of the importance of testing your ideas, which is a core tenant of growth hacking. His lessons aren’t textbook, they’re tested.
This post originally appeared on the author’s Forbes column.