Growth Marketing


This advanced handbook explains how to acquire customers for your site/app, and how to entice them to purchase.

It is widely recommended within Silicon Valley because it actually teaches growth marketing to a professional level. It doesn't waste time on self-evident, nonsense advice. 

If you're skeptical of marketing advice, know that I am too. This handbook is unique in that I have years of diverse data: I've run thousands of experiments for clients like Microsoft, Imperfect Produce, Perfect Keto, Webflow, Tovala, Clearbit, and others.

This intro page explains which growth strategy makes sense for your startup.

Who should read this

This material applies to companies of every size and vertical.

I cover both introductory and advanced B2B and B2C tactics. Marketers of every skill level will encounter new material.

If you're brainstorming startup ideas+

It's important you learn growth hacking before deciding which idea to work on.

It will save you years of going down the wrong path. You should start by assessing whether your idea is actually suited for profitable and scalable user acquisition. 

In this handbook, you'll learn which ad channels you can expect to succeed for your business, and how to increase customer purchase rates.

When you're done reading this, if you can’t foresee these strategies working for the startup idea you're considering, you should consider scrapping your idea.

If you're a manager+

It's critical that managers know what growth entails so they can facilitate it.

Don't treat growth like a black box powered by your engineering and marketing departments. It's your most important business function.

This handbook helps you prioritize growth marketing projects based on their likely profitability and ease of implementation. Plus, it sheds light on a growth marketer's skill set so you can effectively assess hiring candidates.

(Many companies unknowingly hire “growth experts” who are brand marketers experienced only in creating brand voice and generating buzz. Unfortunately, brand marketers often lack knowledge of user acquisition and conversion optimization. This handbook will help you avoid unintentionally hiring them.)

Growth hacking definition

Growth hacking is simply data-driven revenue maximization.

Growth "hacking" is a silly term. (It also goes by performance marketing and growth marketing.) I use it because it helps this handbook rank higher in Google.

Practice what you preach.

In reality, growth is not a series of "hacks." It's a rigorous methodology consisting of experimenting, collecting data, and leveraging human psychology. All in pursuit of directly maximizing revenue — not raising brand awareness or generating buzz.

Growth hacking versus traditional marketing+

Growth marketing (which is the term I'll be using) differs from traditional marketing in that growth primarily focuses on clearly measurable and directly profitable marketing initiatives.

For example, growth rarely starts with billboards, radio ads, conferences, and other difficult-to-measure channels. (Try attributing a customer to the billboard they saw. Now try doing it when you have multiple billboards in a city. You won't know which is worth keeping.)

Growth hacking knowledge

Growth marketing works through continual optimization of every step in the customer's journey.

This journey includes the ads people see, the website and sales experience they then encounter, and the product they ultimately buy and use.

In other words, growth marketing involves four key disciplines:

Growth marketers must be familiar with all four disciplines. Or, at minimum, your team of growth marketers must collectively address all three.

They will also need to possess a few skills.

Growth hacking skills

A growth marketer must be:

Let’s elaborate on that last point. Resourceful entails being aggressively proactive:

This handbook will help hone all three skills.

When to hire brand marketers

Counterintuitively, "brand marketing" is typically ineffective at shaping a brand. And, as mentioned, it's typically inefficient at increasing revenue growth.

So, what is it good for? 

A few things, including keeping your messaging measured and consistent. 

However, most companies don't need to exercise that restraint early on. Because long-term public perception is more the result of having a product people love than blasting them with messaging. 

Consumer love is what begets organic brand building via word-of-mouth, and word-of-mouth supersedes the messaging your company proactively pushes through brand marketing.

So before you hire a brand marketer, hire another product manager to make your product so enjoyable that people can't stop talking about it.

Later, once you've established a working growth strategy, consider hiring a brand marketer to maintain the aesthetic and voice of your brand. It'll help you stay singular and differentiated in a crowded market. 

But, before then, brand marketers typically slow your growth with arbitrary constraints. It's not uncommon for a brand director to dictate that all marketing materials must have red backgrounds with white text, as one example. 

Well, pile enough rules like that onto one another, and growth marketers won't feel empowered to experiment with different ad designs to uncover what the data says is the best aesthetic to get ad clicks that lead to purchases. 

Isn't that what matters?

Ultimately, what’s the difference between brand marketing and growth marketing? Brand marketing increases the potential energy for revenue. It primes users to convert at a higher rate in the future. Growth marketing, on the other hand, converts that potential energy into kinetic — it gets purchases.

Who's Julian Shapiro?

I spend thousands of hours deconstructing complex topics. I compile my insights into free handbooks (like the one you're reading). Over a million people read them annually. Insights that don't make it into handbooks get shared on my Twitter.

I'm also the founder of Demand Curve, a company that trains startups in growth marketing and helps them find great marketing contractors and agencies.

You can read more on my about page.

The growth funnel

Before you dive into this handbook's tactics, let's develop an intuition for which growth tactics will likely succeed for your company.

To do this, I must introduce the growth funnel. It's the journey a customer takes through your advertising and product experience:

Acquisition → Conversion → Engagement → Revenue → Referral

I. Acquisition

An acquisition "channel" is a place you source potential customers from. For example, ads, content marketing, and sales are all acquisition channels.

Channels separate into two broad categories:

This handbook teaches the most popular paid channel: Ads

It also teaches two unpaid channels: Content Marketing and Sales. As I explain below, many companies find that only unpaid channels will ever work for them.

II. Conversion

When visitors are intrigued by what you're offering (on your website or in-person), some of them "convert" into registered users or paying customers.

"Conversion events" are the business-critical events along your product's funnel. 

For example, a website visitor may first convert into a registered user. Then, after using your app for a while, they might later convert into a paying customer.

You'll learn conversion optimization through Landing Pages, A/B Testing, and Ads.

III. Engagement

At the point of Engagement, we've already acquired users and converted them into registered users. 

But now we need them to engage if they're ever going to pay us.

Many businesses will handhold a user to teach them how the product works. Because educated users are more likely to become purchasers.

This handbook teaches engagement through User Onboarding.

IV. Revenue

Your revenue per customer can be maximized through cost reduction, conversion rate optimization, pricing optimization, cross-selling other products, and retention.

Unfortunately, this topic is outside the scope of this handbook.

V. Referral

You need to make your product so good that customers do your selling for you. It's the most cost-effective way to scale your business in the long-term.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a viral consumer app to accomplish this. Many B2B companies grow exclusively through word-of-mouth.

This handbook teaches referrals at the bottom of the User Onboarding page.

Tip — See the bottom of your screen for quick navigation links.

Growth funnel loops+

The growth funnel's linearity — for example, going from Acquisition to Referral — doesn't mean the user's journey must also be linear.

Their journey may consist of repeatedly looping from advertising to in-app engagement before finally reaching the point of purchase conversion.

For example, if a user fails to engage with your product, you might show them new Instagram ads directed at your educational content. You can do this repeatedly until they're given the right content that finally motivates them to the next step.

I call this the Retargeting Loop. (I'll talk more about retargeting later.)

Here's another loop: the Ecommerce Repurchase Loop. After a user goes from Acquisition to Revenue, you then email them a steep coupon to compel them to purchase yet again.

In other words, you're prompting them to repeat earlier steps in the funnel.

If you can trigger the Repurchase Loop repeatedly, you may have a subscription business.

The key takeaways are:

Succeeding at acquisition

This handbook focuses on the first two steps of the funnel: Acquisition and Conversion.

So let's introduce the cold reality of acquisition.

Succeeding at paid channels

Most companies never get paid acquisition channels to work. If they did, more companies would be successful. 

Specifically, most companies are unable to profitably acquire paying users through ad networks such as Facebook Ads, Instagram Ads, and Google AdWords. 

If they do get one or more of these channels to work, it's a holy grail if paired with strong word-of-mouth: Paid channels let you scale big and fast while (unpaid) customer referrals reduce the average cost of customer acquisition.

Why is paid difficult to make work? Here's the criteria that determine success:

To succeed with ads, your product must cross a threshold for all three criteria:

You won't definitively know whether your product crosses these thresholds until you've spent a statistically significant amount of money on each ad channel. This is often around $1,000-$2,000 USD per channel.

(On the Ad Channels page, I'll walk you through each.)

If you fail to pass these three thresholds and ad channels are therefore not viable, you'll instead be relying on word-of-mouth, content marketing, PR, sales, and other unpaid channels that cost less per customer acquisition.

That's completely fine. Succeeding at paid acquisition isn't a necessity. It's just helpful because it lets you scale easily. And the only other easy channel to scale is virality. So if you can't make either work, you're in for a longer growth journey.

By the way, here's my podcast interview in which I dive much deeper into this.

Succeeding at unpaid channels

Here's the success criteria for the four most effective unpaid channels:

Tip — Browse this handbook using the links at the bottom of your screen.

Don't just focus on paid acquisition

Even companies that do get ad channels to work don't often get them working at scale for more than a few months. 

Eventually, audiences may saturate and diminishing returns can kill profitability. So, you should plant seeds for other channels to succeed in the long-term:

We're ready to introduce the minimum viable growth plan everyone should pursue.

The minimum viable growth plan

  1. Build an amazing product that naturally encourages word-of-mouth. 
  2. Kickstart word-of-mouth with paid ad traffic. Even if it's temporarily unprofitable.
  3. Now, spend the majority of your marketing resources optimizing your growth funnel: At every step, A/B Test conversion on the traffic you're paying for.
  4. Once you have a profitable and streamlined funnel, it's time to scale. Aggressively test every potentially viable channel.

The right growth tactics for your company

With our growth plan in hand, we're missing one thing: What my experience running growth for 40+ companies suggests is the best tactic for your business.

B2C businesses

If you sell to consumers:

Don't be overwhelmed by all those links. You can ignore them for now. This handbook will walk you through most of them over the coming pages.

B2B businesses

If you sell to businesses:

Again, here's my podcast interview in which I dive much deeper into these topics.

If you want professional training

My team and I will train you or your startup in modern growth. See the programs over at Demand Curve. We also run our own growth agency:

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