"Growth hacker (noun)-one whose passion and focus is growth through use of a testable and scalable methodology. A growth hackers works within the parameters of a scaleable and repeatable method for growth, driven by product and inspired by data. A growth hacker lives at the intersection of data, product, and marketing. "—Aaron Ginn, Head of Growth, StumbleUpon
What is Growth Hacking?
Growth hacking is a method of rapidly and inexpensively growing a company’s user base, sales, or market share. Coined by Sean Ellis in 2010, this low-cost strategy often employs technological solutions such as search engine optimization, website analytics, guerrilla marketing, optimizing user experience and user interface, and leveraging social media platforms to enhance user experience. Since being coined in 2010, the term and its associated marketing strategies have become popular in the tech industry and have begun to branch out into other sectors, leading to the first Growth Hackers Conference in 2013.
Profile of a Growth Hacker
“Many of the growth hacking descriptions on the web are unnecessarily restrictive. I don’t believe growth hackers must be formal engineers when many of the most well-regarded growth hackers don’t code regularly.”—Gagan Biyani, Co-Founder of Udemy, Growth Hacker
A typical growth hacker is tech-savvy, highly analytical, and data-driven. Although many growth hackers are programmers, growth hackers can come from a variety of backgrounds. Though many growth hacking strategies are technical in nature, they often also require outside-of-the-box thinking, creativity, and comfort dealing with qualitative data and ambiguity . According to Aaron Ginn via TechCrunch, a strong growth hacking team typically consists of a programmer, analyst, and a marketer who combine their skills to achieve rapid growth. The web developer manipulates and designs marketing platforms, the analyst analyzes data to expose trends and motivate strategies, and the marketer pitches growth recommendations to clients.
Growth Hacking and Professional Ethics
Growth Hacking Practices: Where to Draw the Line
The term hacking is often perceived negatively because of its use to describe individuals who illicitly exploit security flaws in computer systems. When used in the context of growth hacking, however, hacking signifies developing creative, efficient, and often novel solutions to problems, in this case user growth. Eric Ellis, coiner of the term "growth hacking", emphasizes that "people don’t get caught up on the term “growth hacker” or even a specific definition for it"  , but rather "focus instead on the concepts behind it."  According to Ellis, growth hackers utilize data to find a marketing highway for growth. Though the most critical goal of growth hacking is growth, some companies employ tactics that border on exploitation of current and prospective users. However, companies who utilize more exploitive or invasive growth tactics often experience backlash and criticism. Sometimes these poor growth practices can be attributed to individual growth hackers who focus too closely on their bottom line and disregard to the best interests of the company reputation and customer well-being. Some such unethicaland unprofessional tactics used by these growth hackers include, but are not limited too, taking aggressive action to obtain email addresses and personal information of a target population, spamming, inappropriately slandering competitor products, false advertising,and secretly tracking customer internet habits.  While their tactics may result in temporary praise and apparent growth, sabotaging reputations and customer trust does not benefit the company in the long run. Furthermore, these "bad apples" sour the image of growth hacking as a whole and how it can help companies experience incredible growth and success. Thus, the best growth hackers have an ability to implement effective growth strategies and methods while keeping the users' perspectives in mind. In doing so, these growth hackers bring success to their organizations, maintain a good user experience, and uphold the integrity of the profession.
Today, unethical and unprofessional growth hacking techniques are often used on social media platforms. For example, spamming techniques are common on applications like Tinder, a dating application, and Glide, a video application. These applications allow users or admins to send non-users messages with links to download. Because many of these messages are unsolicited and sent purely to attract people to the site, they border on unethical. These messages cross the line, however, when they trick users who think they are navigating to an advertised site by sending them another site altogether.  Fortunately, there are also successful ethical growth hacking techniques. The most widely-used ethical technique in growth hacking is clever use of data and analytics to optimize a companies site, products, and services to best serve people not currently a part of the company's user base. In the cases of Tinder and Glide, data analytics could have been utilized to pinpoint trends in the target populations instead of inundating users with spam. Growth hacking techniques should thus optimally behave like an attractive side of a magnet: the techniques should entice current and prospective users to click, download, and make purchases on their own terms without being hassled.
Normalization of Deviance
One aspect of professional ethics that pertains to growth hacking is Diane Vaughan's theory of normalization of deviance. Specifically, growth hacking techniques used by companies can fall prey to a gradual slip in ethical standards, especially with user data and information. Companies like Facebook and Google constantly monitor their users' behavior and habits in order to best serve them with ads and provide an optimal user experience. In doing so, however, these companies have occasionally crossed the line in the degree to which they extract user data and personal information. With Graph Search, for instance, Facebook believed they had improved searching for items (people, photos, events, etc) on the website, but in doing so exposed to the public lots of user information that had formerly been private or hidden. Like the theory states, there was a swift negative public response, and Facebook released improvements that offered users more control over access to their content and information. Still, these companies extract and use incredible amounts of data in ways currently not known by the public. With a rise of users and user activity on theses sites and concurrent rise in the amount of data these sites process, more information about how these sites use the data will likely surface. Hopefully they use the data ethically; if not we will likely see another backlash and correction before yet another normalization of deviant data use.
One of the most cited examples of growth hacking was AirBNB's leveraging of Craigslist to rapidly expand its user base. In the two years following AirBNB's 2008 launch, AirBNB's marketing team employed several growth strategies aimed at tapping into Craigslist's then much larger user base. First, AirBNB engineers reverse engineered Craigslist's posting mechanism. In doing so, AirBNB was able to offer its users an option to post a new AirBNB listing directly to Craigslist in the form of a Craigslist post that would then link back to AirBNB. This tactic both enabled early AirBNB users to advertise their listings to a much wider audience and brought many Craigslist users to the AirBNB platform. Though not an illicit tactic per se, Craigslist eventually resolved the vulnerability that enabled external sites to create listings, thus bringing an end to that functionality for AirBNB users.
The second tactic employed by AirBNB was to send messages recommending AirBNB to Craigslist users who posted rental listings similar to those found on AirBNB. This tactic, considered by some as spamming, was detailed most notably by web developer Dave Gooden, who works in the vacation rental industry and was curious about the source of AirBNB's rapid growth . In his 2011 blog post "How AirBNB Became a Billion Dollar Company", Gooden revealed his investigation into AirBNB's growth tactics. After posting a rental listing on Craigslist, he received an email from a random Gmail account recommending AirBNB. He then created his own rental site and listed one of the rental properties from that site on Craigslist, only to receive a similar email recommending he list his rental on AirBNB. So many Craigslist users likely received similar messages from AirBNB after posting rental properties and wound up listing their rentals on AirBNB as well.
Though neither of these tactics were illegal, they both called into question the ethics of growth hacking. On one hand, AirBNB took advantage of another website's existing user base and sent spam. On the other, AirBNB turned into a respectable service that now allows people to rent places to stay in 34,000 cities in 192 countries . Indeed, AirBNB illustrates the importance of attracting users to nascent startups. For many startups, efforts on quality control and expansion come only after some degree of trust in their business models is established, and nothing speaks more to an internet company's success than user base.
Many companies achieve growth by offering incentives to users who refer their friends to the company. Dropbox, for one, gives a user 2 gigabytes of cloud storage space immediately when they sign up. They then offer their users the ability to send referral links to their friends with the promise of 500 additional megabytes of storage space per successful referral free users and 1 gigabyte per referral (Dropbox caps their referral award space at 16 gigabytes for free users and 32 gigabytes for paid users). . And referring a friend is not the only way to receive free space--giving feedback on the site, connecting social media accounts, using Dropbox as a primary photo storage, and linking an iOS mail account will all give users more free space . Thus, Dropbox has created incentives to help bring more users in and also to incentivize current users to invest in the Dropbox ecosystem.
Similarly, Venmo, mobile application that lets users send each other electronically, gifts successful referrals with a $5 addition to their account . Here Venmo has created an incentive that aligns perfectly with the app's functionality--users link their credit cards and bank accounts to their Venmo account, so the addition of $5 to that account provides users a visible incentive to send the app to their friends.
Because growth hacking is a relatively new concept and many of the key growth hacking strategies are still evolving, the ethics of growth hacking will continue to shift. In science and engineering fields, mistakes and poor decisions can potentially lead to loss of life or massive damage to property and the environment. Examples of such mistakes and poor decisions are illustrated by cases such as the Therac-25, Rodney Rocha and Columbia, and Apollo 13. The greatest risks, if they can even be considered risks, currently posed by growth hacking are consumer annoyance (due to spam and similar methods) and possible theft of another company's user base. As growth hacking continues to become more commonplace among tech companies and expands into other industries, we will likely alter our definition and perception of growth hacking, particularly as it pertains to professionalism and ethics.