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Your Next Growth Hack Won’t Come from You

It’ll come from more and better questions. Success stories like Uber, AirBnB, Dropbox, and Spotify have all made finding the next, great “growth hack” something of a holy grail. The term is now standard fare far beyond the start-up community where it was conceived. You can growth hack email subscriptions, PR, ecommerce, product development, and — of course — analytics.

The problem is, most companies are looking in the wrong place.

Despite the lore and allure, breakthrough growth hacking isn’t an exercise in brilliance, ingenuity, or imagination. The cornerstone of growth hacking is experimentation. As Sean Ellis puts it, “If you’re not running experiments, you’re probably not growing.” But experimentation for the sake of experimentation is an empty path. Not only that, but it’s also time consuming and costly.

What’s the answer?

Measuring Your Digital Brand Impact

Real growth hacking is about crawling inside the mind of your market, discovering what they already want, creating hypotheses about those wants, and–only then–experimenting.

In other words, growth hacking isn’t about creativity; it’s about discovery. And that means your next great growth hack won’t come from you, it’ll come from questions: two, to be exact.

Who Is Your Market?

This might sound glaringly obvious. After all, defining your target is the cornerstone of all marketing, whether it wears the name of growth hacking or not. Unfortunately, the cardinal sin of identifying “Who?” is that most companies do it internally.

BookAll of us are naturally self-referential creatures. We see and view the world through the lens of our experiences. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his masterful textbook on human bias Thinking, Fast and Slowcalls this principle “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI):

“You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it.”

Inevitably, even in a group setting and especially when we’re passionate about an idea, product, or service, we create target markets that are a reflection of ourselves, rather than the people we’re trying to serve and sell to.

Instead of building customer personas in-house, you have to start with the people out there.

Why? Because you are not your own best marketer or developer; the people out there are. As proof, consider the power of user-generated content (UGC), especially as it affects conversion rates. After collecting data from over 200,000 online businesses, Yotpo found that “the average conversion rate of visitors who saw UGC is 161% higher than those who didn’t.”


The reason is obvious: UGC is for your market, by your market. The very same principle is true when it comes to growth hacking.

The lowest-hanging fruit on the “Who” front is social media. Social-media listening (read: eavesdropping) offers a front-row seat into your target market’s unfiltered lives. Most companies, as Adam Schoenfeld notes, use social listening to identify “engagement opportunities and monitor [sic] brand perceptions.”

Word Cloud
From Simply Measured’s listening solution.

Certainly you should map out your ideal audience’s makeup — i.e., demographics and interests — but even more vital is pinpointing their loves and hates: the emotional climate as it relates to your product or service.

Of course, the idea with social media listening isn’t to butt into the conversations taking place, but to begin by following the followers of your biggest competition and paying close attention to the keywords and hashtags connected directly to the problem you’re solving. Alongside demographic data, social media listening reveals (1) whether the problem really is a pain point and (2) weak points in the current customer landscape.

Next, turn your attention to question-and-answer platforms and online hubs. Sites like Quora and Reddit contain direct-from-your-audience content that’s rich with insight for targeting niche markets. Other hub sites — like, Product Hunt, and — make it easy to track popular topics and new developments. Just be sure you go beyond the posts themselves and dig into the comments and user profiles (looking for commonalities), and then work through the pieces they link out to.

Lastly, do not overlook the obvious: existing customer reviews. Review sites — e.g., Amazon, Angie’s List, G2Crowd, Yelp, Google reviews, and more — are powerhouses. This is known as review mining, and it’s the cornerstone of my own landing page copywriting process.


With growth hacking, however, you’re not exactly on the hunt for marketing material. What you’re looking for are user complaints.

Because growth hacking is linked directly to product development and use, the aim is to validate whether or not the problem you solve really is a problem. Collecting verbatim statements from your competitors’ existing customers (as well as your own) is the best way to define who your target market truly is and develop the questions you’re going to ask to test your hypotheses.

What Should You Ask?

Once you define your audience, the next step in discovery is getting feedback: real, human feedback. While your goal at this point isn’t to sell, asking questions before and after a sale — if you’re already up and running — can yield significant insight.

“In terms of customer development research,” explains ex-Googler and CEO of Growth Wizards, Brian Rabben, “success depends on three things: (1) an efficient, non-threatening data capture methodology, (2) a statistically significant sample size, and — most importantly — (3) the right questions. Without these, you’ll waste not only precious resources (time, money, and patience), you’ll start building the wrong solution for the right audience.”

To do this, match what you want to discover — your goals — with both the people you ask, as well as the questions you prioritize.

On the people front, are you trying to generate more first-time users? Then target recent customers or not-yet-adopted prospects. Are you trying to increase retention? Then go after users who are (in the words of Nir Eyal) “habitual” users. If your goal is to maximize acquisition channels, then start with general visitors to your site.

Naturally, your website itself is a powerful vehicle for feedback with all three groups, as long as you make feedback the aim. Rather than use landing pages, popups, and automated emails to simply generate leads, rescue “abandoned carts,” or confirm purchases, deploy them with the express purpose of discovery.

But What Should You Ask?

For wide-end-of-the-funnel discovery, start with generalities. As Wilson Peng, founder of YesInsights, explains, “Open-ended questions are especially helpful early in the feedback process when you’re not exactly sure what people will say and want to collect unbiased responses in your user’s own words.”

Question: How did you find us?

Purpose: Determine the most effective marketing channels for acquisition.


Question: What question or problem brought you here?

Purpose: Segment your market after understanding expectations and challenges.


Question: What is your job title?

Purpose: Find out who’s visiting and whether you’re attracting the right audience.


Question: What is your favorite way to learn: infographics, videos, how-to guides, etc?

Purpose: Produce marketing collateral that resonates and converts.

Note the one question not listed: “What is your greatest desire?” This is not an oversight.

Customers are adept at defining what they don’t like or don’t want, but terrible at knowing what they do want. Modifying your product to minimize pain is therefore a safer bet than fashioning a product that fulfills their supposed desires.

2017 Social Media Planning Template and Checklist

Once someone has entered your funnel — whether they’ve become a customer or not — a mix of open-ended and one-click questions will give you a microscopic perspective.

Here are a few of the best queries Morgan Brown and Sean Ellis were willing to share from their book Hacking Growth (much of which centers on exactly this kind of research).

Growth Hack

For on-site and email surveys prior to a purchase:

Question: Is there anything preventing you from signing up at this point?

Question: What concerns are keeping you from completing your order?

Question: If you did not make a purchase today, can you tell us why not?

Question: What information would you need to feel comfortable signing up today?

Purpose: Each of the above questions is a variation on a single purpose, to unearth exactly what’s holding would-be users and customers back from taking the next step.

For current customers:

Question: What would you likely use as an alternative to [name of product] if it were no longer available?

Purpose: Pinpoint your key competitors.

Question: What is the primary benefit that you have received from [name of product]?

Purpose: Determine what features to highlight both with leads as well as new users during on-boarding.

Question: Have you recommended [name of product] to anyone? Why or why not?

Purpose: Develop a sense for the role word of mouth is playing in your product’s spread.

Sadly, on-site and email surveys have notoriously low response rates.

With on-site, less is more and position is vital. Surveys should be triggered to display at the precise moment your visitor takes whatever action is associated with a question’s intent.

For emails, it all comes down to subject lines. Emotional appeals, straightforward help requests, and brand mentions all negatively impact survey completion. Instead, requests for feedback live and die by a single principle: incentives.


However, even if your online questions don’t yield a sizable response, the good news is you don’t necessarily need a large volume for in-person questions. As Jakob Nielsen famously observed, “Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.”

The same is true of unearthing growth hacks.

Quality beats quantity. It’s better to have a handful of responses to pointed questions than wide-ranging data from scattered, unqualified sources. In fact, qualification is precisely why presenting these questions at hinge moments — top of funnel, middle of funnel, and bottom of funnel — is vital.

Creativity Is Overrated

Writing in the late 1900s, Eugene Schwartz was right: “You don’t have to have great ideas if you hear great ideas. The creativity is in your market and in your product, and all you are doing is joining the two together.”

What was true of marketing then is still true of growth hacking today. Growth hacking isn’t an exercise in creativity, imagination, or ingenuity. It’s about discovery.

And because of this, your next, great growth hack isn’t hidden within you or your team’s intellectual prowess. It’s out there in the real world your market inhabits, waiting to be unearthed.

The only question is, “Are you asking?”

Aaron Orendorff

Aaron Orendorff is a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Business Insider, Content Marketing Institute, Unbounce, Copyblogger and more. Grab his Ultimate Content Creation Checklist at or follow him on Twitter .

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