B2B Marketing Buzzwords: Growth Hacking Vs. Inbound Marketing

If you’ve been in the b2b marketing world for very long at all, you know that it’s full of buzzwords.

What you may not know is what the heck growth hacking is.

This post will compare two buzzwords: Inbound Marketing and Growth Hacking. If you would like to access a comprehensive list, check out my growing list of b2b marketing and sales buzzwords.

So let’s dive in…

Barry White is more than passé, he is a symbol of times long gone. While there are always people who enjoy living in the past, most people find his music laughable.

Most people today want someone a little more relevant, someone like Usher. Usher is younger and slicker (and a lot less creepy) than his forefather Barry. But at this point, Usher has been around for a while and the kids are looking for something new.

Who’ll be the next pop star? Well we all know how pop culture is trying to answer this question, but many of us don’t like that answer: Justin Bieber.

Bieber’s fans tend to be flocks of raving pre-pubescent “Beliebers”, while the rest of the world is a little put off by another child star gone wrong. While many of us find Barry White laughable, we also find the Biebster in need of a little maturity.

If traditional marketing is Barry White, inbound marketing is Usher, and growth hacking is Justin Bieber.

inbound marketing

Where did it come from?

It’s something that has been around the marketing world for a while. Since HubSpot’s cofounder, Brian Halligan, coined it in 2005, it has made its way pretty well into the no-nonsense world of b2b marketing. If you know MLT, you know we’re pretty crazy about it. Brian Halligan and HubSpot have kept a pretty good grip on the term, using it as the theoretical backing behind their software.

What is it?

If you didn’t already know, advocates of inbound marketing contrast themselves with practitioners of “traditional marketing” (tv, print ads, cold calling, and spammy emails). Inbound is more techy and slick, and mainly takes place on the internet using websites, social media, blogs, email marketing (that’s not spammy), and so on. It prides itself on being unobtrusive and helpful, and points out how traditional marketing is neither.

Growth hacking

Where did it come from?

Compared to growth hacking, inbound marketing is so five years ago. Actually, exactly five years ago. Growth hacking was coined in a 2010 blog post by Sean Ellis, a former marketer for Dropbox, Eventbrite, and LogMeIn. Your typical b2b marketer may or may not roll their eyes at the term. For better or worse, it has been associated with tech rock stars like Mark Zucherberg and Steve Jobs.

What is it?

Growth hacking is the use of out of the box thinking and technology to achieve massive growth in a short time. The creator of the phrase calls a growth hacker: “A person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth” (quicksprout). The growth VP at Facebook considers “the greatest growth hack of all time” (wired.com) to be Hotmail gaining 12 million users in 18 months by sending emails with “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” At the bottom. While inbound marketing is easier to define because of the relative monopoly that HubSpot has on the word, growth hacking has not been monopolized by one person or company and seems to be more up to interpretation.

What’s the difference?

Growth hacking’s literal meaning is very very similar to inbound marketing, but it has a host of different associations. While inbound marketing emphasizes using know how and technology to make a company attractive to new business, growth hacking emphasizes using similar methods to obtain massive or viral growth. Growth hacking seems to describe cases where inbound marketing-esk behavior has catapulted a company into stardom. As fate would have it, most of the companies that achieve cultural stardom through inbound marketing are tech startups. Thus growth hacking means more in the tech startup world than to the average b2b marketer.

Which one’s more popular?

According to Google Trends, “inbound marketing” has a larger audience. While “growth hacking” is growing, it still hasn’t fully broken into every day life like “inbound marketing” has.

growth hacking vs. inbound marketing


Growth hacking attaches “hacking,” a negative term associated with technical expertise and criminal intent and pairs it with a very positive business term: “growth.” Maybe computer geeks have found a place in the world after all.

You can see that over time, the emphasis has shifted from the identifier of “growth hacker” to the process of “growth hacking.”

This seems to show that people are less interested in dubbing people who have achieved celebrity status with the title “growth hacker” and more interested in applying the practice of “growth hacking.”

Could this mean that people aren’t as caught up in the who’s who quality of the word any more, but are now trying to apply the concept of “growth hacking” to their own work? If so, the word could be becoming less polarizing and more meaningful.

“Growth hack” never really went anywhere. It sounds a little like an insult (“What a freaking growth hack!”).

growth hacking variations google trends
Growth Hacking hype?In 2014, Wired.com’s David Rowan asked the question: “is growth hacking really a new idea, accessible through an almost scientific “toolkit” that any business can adapt? or is it just conventional marketing repackaged in hype?”

Great question David. In order for growth hacking to leave the world of trend and become a useful word, this question must be answered.

While the term is very similar to inbound marketing it does have a more techy emphasis and shows how technology continues to become a bigger and bigger part of the marketer’s life.

According to Andrew Chen: “Growth hackers embody the hybrid between marketer and coder needed to thrive in the age of platforms.”

Marketing is becoming more and more a science, but is not requiring any less creativity. The word seems to indicate that yesterday’s computer hackers are today’s marketers.

So will b2b marketers follow tech startup giants like sheep to the slaughter and start touting the phrase?

A Real World Example

Well, it seems they already have, and for good reason.

Shopify is a ecommerce platform (a b2b company) that went from 13,000 paid customers to 130,000 in three years.

On HubSpot’s Podcast ironically dubbed “The Growth Show“, Craig Miller, the CMO at Shopify says the following about Shopify’s growth:

“When I joined the company there was an existing small team of people that did marketing… When I joined, a lot of them didn’t really know what they were supposed to do. They knew they were supposed to do marketing, but they didn’t know what that actually entailed. So early on I made the effort of rebranding the team internally and instead of calling it a marketing team we became ‘the growth team.’ And as part of that it also made sense that you didn’t necessarily need to have a marketing background to be a part of the team… The second person we added to the team was actually a designer, the third person a developer, the fourth person an analyst. So it became a very atypical marketing team very early on, simply by us rebranding the team.

The rebranding effort was really to make sure everyone knew exactly what we were trying to do day in and day out.

When you call it a marketing team no one knows exactly what your supposed to do… When you call it a growth team you know exactly what you need to do everyday.

“In most typical companies there’s this weird line that exists between marketing and product, and marketing gets people to the website, it gets them to sign up and then at that point it becomes entirely product. To me it’s this weird sort of demarcation point that I don’t think actually should exist.

People on the growth team today at Shopify have full access to the product and are regularly changing things inside the product, again with that singular goal of growth, but there’s no demarcation point.”

More Observations…

Craig’s rebranding of the marketing team only uses half of the term “growth hacking”, but Craig’s words and example are a resounding “No” to David Rowan’s question. According to Craig, the rebrand wasn’t just a meaningless repackaging of the marketing team in hype, it was a decision that transformed the productivity of the whole company times ten.

The term was obviously birthed in the tech world and has meaning and substance mainly in the tech world. But tech is growing exponentially, and is turning other industries into tech industries like a zombie in a hospital. Already, b2b companies that would have had little to do with Sillicon Valley a few years ago are finding that they need a website and thus crack open the door to marketing automation, CRM software, and the need for inhouse or outsourced computer geeks to help them stay relevant.

Whether you like it or not, you need growth hackers at your company. You will have to learn to accept the Justin Bieber of the marketing world.

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