Over the past few weeks, we’ve covered how growth hacking can help startups scale rapidly. We’ve also covered several strategies in use by various entrepreneurs, from Instagram Influencers to gamified platforms.
Today, we want to showcase some of the success stories. And we’ll present the real cases where growth hacking has impacted a company’s bottom line.
Growth Hacking Examples to Inspire Your Own Business
“Google tracks you. We don’t.” DuckDuckGo used this single quote when they launched their campaign against the king of search engines. They were throwing down the gauntlet as a means to differentiate themselves. While Google collects data on online searches, DuckDuckGo would be built on the promise of privacy. Theirs ensured that searches were completely anonymous, which was a unique value proposition.
The campaign resonated. In 2019 alone, DuckDuckGo broke 10 billion searches for the year – a major milestone. On average, the search engine sees 46,303,892 searches each day. DuckDuckGo was able to carve out a niche for itself, though it has only ten years of experience (compared to Google’s 21). And it continues to grow even bigger.
What can explain this massive growth? You guessed it, growth hacking. Founder Gabriel Weinberg attributes DuckDuckGo’s rise in popularity to certain channels of growth and something he calls the “Bullseye Framework”.
Weinberg identified 19 marketing channels that can contribute to a startup’s growth (in no particular order):
- Targeting Blogs
- Unconventional PR
- Search Engine Marketing
- Social and Display Ads
- Offline Ads
- Search Engine Optimization
- Content Marketing
- Email Marketing
- Viral Marketing
- Engineering as Marketing
- Business Development
- Affiliate Programs
- Existing Platforms
- Trade Shows
- Offline Events
- Speaking Engagements
- Community Building
Each of these channels can help companies acquire more customers. But this is not a checklist. Nor should each of them be implemented concurrently as the pathway to growth. Such an effort would be a waste of time and money.
Instead, Weinberg advocates using the Bullseye Framework to narrow it down to just one channel. The “bullseye” in the model is the channel that will give your business traction to grow to the next phase.
The Bullseye Framework is comprised of three parts:
The Outer Ring: What’s Possible – Step one, brainstorm every single channel that is a viable opportunity for your company. Do not dismiss any channel. This step will help you overcome channel biases and generate fresh marketing ideas.
The Middle Ring: What’s Probable – Next, put your theories to a test. Experiment with the channel ideas that are most likely to bring value to your company. Results should yield measurable improvements. For example, specific channels might motivate higher sales of your product.
Make the best use of your time by experimenting with multiple channels during this phase. By the end of the experiment, you should know how much your channel will cost, how many customers you can attract, and whether they’re the ideal customer for your brand.
The Bullseye: What’s Working – Testing should run around one month to determine the best performing channel. Focus only on viral marketing If you found that viral marketing was the most effective channel. Do not even consider implementing the second and third best channels. They will only distract your efforts. Ideally, the bullseye channel should be the only one employed until it is no longer effective or sustainable.
When DuckDuckGo started, it was focused only on SEO. But this focus led to efforts that helped them rank for keywords like “search engine”. Soon enough, the platform generated 10,000 visitors.
Recently, the company has shifted its’ focus back to existing platforms. Their efforts include initiatives to get DuckDuckGo installed first on Apple Safari, then on Mozilla Firefox. DuckDuckGo also formed a strategic partnership with Apple Maps for local searches earlier this year.
DuckDuckGo continues to grow because of its willingness to experiment while keeping sight of its unique value proposition: valuing customer privacy. To this day, DuckDuckGo does not store, sell, or share your personal information.
Airbnb was the market disruptor that overtook the hospitality industry. They gained bookings that would normally be gobbled up by the world’s top hotels. So It’s hard to believe that this international phenomenon was started by three roommates, an air mattress and a website.
Today, there are over 7 million listings worldwide in over 100,000 cities. But the company wasn’t always as successful. In reality, the founders initially struggled to make the company profitable.
Early on, the founders came up with a unique plan to raise money. They bought hundreds of boxes of Cheerios and Captain Crunch leading up to the 2008 presidential election. The boxes of cereal were turned into “Obama O’s” and “Captain McCain’s.” with a little photoshop magic and a hot glue gun.
Each box of cereal cost $40. CEO Brian Chesky estimated that 1000 boxes were sold, which earned enough money to keep the company in operations. The stunt was also highlighted on national television and created buzz around their brand. Soon after, the company was accepted into Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup accelerator program.
But Airbnb came to be known for yet another initiative in 2010, dubbed the “Craigslist platform hack”. With just a small user base, Airbnb knew it had to find a way to reach more people quickly. So Airbnb began to post listings on Craigslist as well.
The company used bots to automate listings on Craigslist. By featuring higher-quality photos and more detailed descriptions, Airbnb converted more users than the Craigslist listings. Over time, Craigslist users migrated to Airbnb entirely, preferring their platform and listings.
The second half of the Craigslist hack involved poaching customers from Craigslist. Users began to notice that whenever they posted a listing on the website, they would receive an email from a user recommending Airbnb’s platform.
Could it be considered spam? Likely. But was it effective? Absolutely. Due to their unconventional methods, Airbnb has grown to a valuation worth over $31 billion over the past 11 years. The company has now come a long way from using the Craigslist hack to build a user base or crafting political cereal boxes.
Dropbox was one of the first companies to set the standard for cloud storage. Other companies restricted storage behind expensive tiers of subscription memberships. But Dropbox offered every user 2GB free under a freemium plan. Once users joined, Dropbox rewarded users with additional storage for promoting the service or engaging more deeply with the company.
There are three ways users can earn more free space:
- Completing the Dropbox getting started checklist
- Refer your friends, family, and coworkers (sharing folders doesn’t count)
- Contribute to the Dropbox Community forum
The Dropbox Getting Started Checklist
New users are encouraged to immerse themselves in Dropbox’s service, teased with the possibility of earning extra space for each completed task. Tasks range from taking a tour to installing Dropbox on other devices.
These tasks are simple to accomplish. But if users need any support, they can simply hover over the item for immediate instructions. Even though the additional storage is only 250 MB, the checkmarks and list smartly encourage users to take part in these simple challenges.
Referring friends and family
Want to earn more space? Better start inviting other people! For every referral, you can earn an additional 500 MB, capped at 16 GB. Users with the Dropbox Plus or Professional accounts can receive 1GB per referral, and earn up to 32GB total.
There is a verification process in place to ensure that referred users do not abuse the system. They must open up a referral email, accept the invitation, install the Dropbox app, sign in, and verify their email address. However, the process is intentionally user-friendly to ensure that more users make it through to the end.
With an easy sign up/onboarding process, Dropbox referrals have become an effective way for the company to grow its user base while still providing value to its users.
Contribute to Dropbox community
Storage can be earned by supporting other users in the community. Users can post their questions or issue to a community board, allowing others to respond. Solutions that are utilized will be marked by users. In turn, you are rewarded with a “Mighty Answer” badge, netting you 1GB of additional space.
This technique not only encourages users to build a more social and cooperative community, it incorporates gamification to turn the process into a fun activity.
By giving users a reason to further engage, connect, and advocate the brand, they are effectively doing the marketing for Dropbox. Gamification can also make mundane tasks, such as inviting others to join, a far more enjoyable experience.
Dropbox isn’t the only one to have used a referral system to grow its audience. Back in the early 2000s, PayPal became one of the earliest online startups to incentivize customer referrals. But instead of additional space, PayPal was giving out free money.
Users would receive $20 for signing up. They would receive yet another $20 if they successfully converted one of their friends or family. Within a month of their website launch, PayPal had amassed 100,000 customers.
As the number of referrals increased, PayPal decreased the incentive to $10, then to $5. It was then limited to payment merchants, before being removed altogether. But PayPal grew despite the initial cost. The referral campaign turned out to be far more successful than traditional advertising.
In addition to referrals, PayPal benefitted from partnering with some big companies. Back in 2003, eBay had acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion. This had obvious financial benefits. But it also meant that all of eBay’s users were now using PayPal as their primary transaction platform.
In 2015, the two companies split. But PayPal continued to have a sustained partnership with eBay through mid-2020. eBay still accounted for more than 30% of PayPal’s revenue, and more than 50% of its profits. Today, PayPal is worth $102 billion while eBay is valued at $42 billion.
Founder Wade Foster had a daring idea: what if two products or software applications could “talk” to each other? Enter Zapier, the platform that allows different apps to integrate with one another. Want Google Drive updates on your Slack channel? Done. Or maybe you want Salesforce to update your Trello boards. No problem.
Wade Foster and his friends built the first Zapier prototype in just two days. But it wasn’t as intuitive. Foster had to Skype clients to understand their needs, and then manually hook up the integration himself.
Marketing efforts were also iterated and focused on outreach through company forums. But the traffic that was generated through this methodology was still minimal. What was encouraging however was that conversion rates were high – at 50%.
Zapier caught the attention of the companies hosting the forums as they built their reputation. This was important as it allowed Zapier to leverage partnerships to create link building opportunities. Their SEO began to improve as more brands mentioned their name. “Through this, we got to know the staff at some of these companies early on,” Foster says, “because they were like, ‘hey, that looks like a cool product, can we do anything together?’ And that was the beginning of partnerships for Zapier.”
Zapier gained more authority in the marketplace through SEO. Specifically, they created a new landing page for every possible integration. Hence, Zapier would be the first listed in search results if somebody googled “Groove and Jira integration”. As brand awareness grew, the company sought to expand efforts by outsourcing SEO to remote workers. Their first support hire, Micah, was based in Chicago. (At the time, Zapier had moved to San Francisco after being accepted to Y Combinator.)
Eventually, they would turn to content marketing for their strategy. They began to develop a blog based on apps, tools, and productivity. It took roughly 18 months to find authoritative content and to develop a strong voice for their blog. Today, Zapier’s blog attracts nearly 250,000 monthly readers.
Zapier continues to grow rapidly, without having spent a dime on a television ad or billboard. Sometimes the partnerships you form can be more valuable than the amount of money you have in the bank.
Growth hacking isn’t reserved for large or wealthy companies. Nor is it limited to technology brands. Growth hacking is about thinking outside the box, about finding creative solutions to attracting members. There is no predefined way, not a template for companies to follow, only examples and success stories to take inspiration from. How will your company find novel ways to grow?
Want to learn more about the various growth hacking strategies used by startups? Be sure to read last week’s post.
Some startups manage to surpass the usual hurdles of early growth and end up with a valuation of over $1 billion. Learn more about the mythical unicorn startups.