'Hacking Growth' with Sean Ellis

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Hi All!

Tim O'Keefe and I are excited to share with you a Q&A session we had with the Godfather of Growth Hacking, Sean Ellis.

For those who don't know who Sean Ellis is, Sean is the digital entrepreneur who coined 'growth hacking' and pioneered many of the popular data-driven methodologies in marketing that we see today.

In a nutshell, Growth Hacking is the proverbial lovechild of User Experience, Product and Marketing. The biggest focus is the replicable actions and results from split testing.

Many of the big companies like UBER, AirBNB, Dropbox, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest all use these 'hacks' to create a significant gain to their growth.

Later today, at 4PM California Time - Sean will be joining us online in a forum WAMA session (meaning he'll be answering you directly on the Forum) on this thread.

Please reserve your best questions in a single post, as I will try to keep the thread nice and tidy so we can digest it all easily.

Enjoy the Q&A session! Tim leads the conversation as we go through questions on product, marketing, team management, and his new book co-authored by Morgan Brown - 'Hacking Growth'. You can grab your copy today at 35% discount here:


Happy (Growth) Hacking,

Marcus W K Wong
#ellis #growth #hacking #sean
  • Profile picture of the author Marcus W K Wong
    Hi All! We've decided to open the thread early, Sean will be here to answer questions later today.

    In the meantime, ask away - we'll be monitoring the thread as a judgement-free zone (though we can't guarantee all questions will be answered).
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  • Profile picture of the author lanceonwarrior
    Hi Sean... my questions are:

    - Interest, Signup, Usage >>>> how do you identify the right metrics to follow on each? You mention 'vanity metrics' as a problem and I would like to know how you discovered which metrics were there just for vanity sake.

    - How do you growth hacking trends? I'm in the market of affiliating gadgets (think fidget cube, spinners). But they're most products are based on trends, virility, organic marketing so they have a lifespan of about 4 months at most. I've tried paid traffic but because of the low margins, it's difficult to recycle the revenue to ad spend. Is there a faster traffic method that I can experiment with to bump sales?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi Warlance, Thanks for the questions. I'm going to tackle the first question first. I like to start from the core of the product experience and work outward from there. So you could call that usage but I would take it a step further and say using it in a way that delivers the must-have benefit. If I can find a way to quantify that experience in the form of a North Star Metric (NSM), then that becomes the most important metric. Every other metric should be looked at by how it affects the NSM. Activation is generally a really important lever for increasing your NSM. So activation for facebook would be 7 friends in 10 days. When they cross that hurdle, they are much more likely to be a long term retained user that expands facebook's NSM of daily active users. I could add a lot more to this question, but I better look at a couple others. I'll come back in a bit to answer your other question.
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      • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
        One additional thought here is that vanity metrics like "signups" are not necessarily bad metrics to track. Signups can be an important proxy metric on the way to your eventual goal. I believe the reason people beat up on vanity metrics is because some marketers tout these metrics as accomplishments in themselves. A signup that never uses the product is basically worthless. You might be able to remarket to this person, but they'll likely never return.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Unfortunately for you second question I don't have a lot of experience with this. My approach would generally be to try to find people that consider these gadgets a "must have." If it's riding a trend, it would probably be hard to find these people. If I were you I might think about how you can create a subscription around the gadgets for your target users so that they always have access to the latest/greatest. That might provide something that is an ongoing benefit where you have a higher LTV to support customer acquisition programs.
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  • Profile picture of the author Sprinkles
    Hi Sean,

    You've mostly worked with bigger sites (or at least they seem so now), but I'm interested in how you would start and run a small site from scratch nowadays?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi Sprinkels,

      I've actually spent most of my time at very early stage companies (i.e. Dropbox only had 8 employees when I started there).

      The first thing I always do for a new company is try to drive some users in the funnel to actually use the product. At this point I'm not actually trying to grow, but rather trying to validate that the product is growable. I do this by asking early users how they would feel if they could no longer use the product. I'm honing on in the users who say they would be very disappointed. These users give me the insights to start testing messaging and onboarding flows and eventually starting to build channels.

      Again could be a very long answer, but this would be my starting point.
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  • Profile picture of the author AlphaAlpha
    Hi Sean! With facebook constantly reducing organic reach, do you think social media is still a good acquisition source?

    Internet Marketing newb since 2015

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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi AlphaAlpha,

      Facebook is definitely changing but I think it and other social social media still offer big upside if you can figure them out. But I think as a completely free source FB will never have the impact that it used to have. So it is turning more into an arbitrage channel which is fine if you can generate a positive ROI. In our book we highlight the importance of optimizing the full customer journey to be able to effectively compete in paid channels. Other social media sites are less developed for advertising but many offer more upside if you can figure them out (less dollars chasing attention in them).
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  • Profile picture of the author sb0rg
    Welcome to Warrior Sean! I have a couple of questions for you from the perspective of a designer working heavily within Freelancer.com's growth teams. Hopefully my list isn't too long..

    How important do you think the role of design is in growth hacking?

    What's your definition of good design for growth and how should we measure this? Should it be solely focused on conversion? Would you also consider the quality of user experience to be a metric?

    What are some of your favourite hacks from designers you've seen and wish they would do more of?

    Do you have any tips or trends you've seen for hacking subscription based model sales pages?

    Are upsell banners still a thing? If so.. what's the best formula in terms of content to put in them and when should they NOT to be used.

    I'm sure you've received a lot of nice marketing emails in your inbox over time. What are some of your favourite details of the ones that make you click?

    What are your thoughts on these email types and what are some of the scenarios you've seen them perform the best in terms of resurrection and retention.
    • long form plain text emails
    • short form plain text emails
    • good design with good content
    • crappy/average design but good content

    How heavily would you consider design to be a metric for seo focussed pages?

    Any tips for the best type of content to market in Facebook ads? Should one focus on content that has a virality factor?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi sb0rg - I'll answer these in pieces (so people don't get bored waiting for a reply)...
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      • Profile picture of the author sb0rg
        Thank you for all your replies Sean!
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      I think the role of design is very important in growth hacking. Unfortunately it can have both a negative and positive impact. The negative impact generally happens when a designer is a perfectionist and designs interactions that take a long time to develop. Great growth designers are comfortable with prototype designs that are built quickly to achieve a result and are refined once they show promise (after testing). This idea of a minimum viable test is hard to get right though, because sometimes teams are so productivity focused that no one cares if it actually works. Finding the balance is important.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Not surprisingly (after last answer), my definition of good design for growth is fast design that effectively tests the hypothesis of an idea. More tests lead to more learning and rarely will perfect design push a test in the win column. But once something works, refining design can drive incrementally better results.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Regarding my favorite hacks from a good designer, this may not fit entirely into design, but in our book we write about Airbnb using high quality photographs of properties to boost bookings 2X - 3X. I think this may be less about the simple aesthetics of nice photographs and more about showing a property in the best way to drive interest in booking that property.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      I don't have specific tips hacking subscription based model sales pages but I can suggest that you check out the Price Intelligently blog. They do a ton of testing and publish many suggestions for great pricing pages. But every business is different so the testing process will ultimately be needed to find a strong page for your business.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Re upsell banners, I wouldn't rule anything out as potentially working. The important thing I'd recommend for driving upgrades in a product is to do some qualitative research to try to understand why people aren't upgrading. In the book we talk about Bittorent discovering through a single survey that the issue for them wasn't that the premium version wasn't compelling enough, but rather that people didn't know about it. So by simply merchandising it better, the were able to quickly drive a 90%+ increase in sales. So in their case an upsell banner probably would work well. I often find though that contextual prompts are more effective. At Qualaroo, we got a large portion of our upgrades when people looked at our integration tab and realized that an important integration was in a high level plan.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Re effective marketing emails, I almost never respond to cold emails but I do find re-engagement emails to be effective. For example the Quora emails often bring me back. I have almost a 100% click rate on emails that tell me I have a message in FB or LinkedIn.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Re best performing types of emails for resurrection and retention, I would say I have pretty equal distribution across all of the types you've listed. Email is so easy to test that I think it's pretty situational on which type will work best. Really important to remember to test the from field for example - I can often be more important than the design.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Re design for SEO focused pages - no clue
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Re content for FB ads, video tends to do very well and yes more viral stuff is generally a very good idea with FB ads. With enough sharing and engagement the cost of the ads drop significantly.
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  • Profile picture of the author timokeefe
    I know you don't necessarily like thinking about "Growth Hacking" in terms of "Growth Hacks", but what is the growth hack that has surprised you the most? Either in terms of it's efficacy or its creativity.

    I'm part of the Warrior Forum team, hit me up with any suggestions that could help improve the forum!

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  • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
    Hello everyone, just reading through the questions now.
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Thanks for the great questions everyone. Just did a refresh and noticed there are a bunch I missed. I'll try to come back on later to answer them but need to head out now.
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      • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
        Calling it a night. Sorry I couldn't get to everyone's questions. Thanks for some great ones.
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  • Profile picture of the author Mark Singletary
    Hi Sean, thanks for coming in today.

    How would you grow a service, such as marriage counseling, where the target market may be embarrassed to tell others about the service?

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    • Profile picture of the author neilCheckYo
      Just like Ashley Madison's!
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi Mark, I think embarrassment would primarily affect the referral loop but I'm not sure that anything would necessarily be affected by it. Specifically for the example of marriage counseling, I would probably have a lot of direct conversations with my existing customers and say that "we really want to help couples in need... What do you think is the best way to reach them?" That would probably help uncover acquisition opportunities to test. Another thing is just having some empathy. If people are embarrassed, they will probably try to solve the problem on their own. In that case some helpful content marketed via search will probably be useful for acquisition. And then I would also look at couples that are actively engaged in counseling and try to figure out what their path was to getting there. Did one person in the couple originally reach out and how did they get their partner interested? The more you understand success, the more you can devise onboarding tests that can help new couples get engaged in counseling. Finally, I would try to come up with programs that help maintain healthy relationships after they complete the counseling. This will hopefully keep them from slipping back into old habits. Every step of this lifecycle should involve lots of testing.... Hope this helps - getting late here in California so not sure how well the brain is working
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  • Profile picture of the author mattbarrie
    How did you growth hack the marketing of your new book?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Thanks for the question Matt. The interesting thing with a book launch is that you can't really do much growth hacking pre launch for the book. Until the book is out there you don't have a feedback loop to iterate on. The big goal for book sales is to come out of the gate with a lot of momentum so you start making the best seller lists. This is pretty different from how I would normally approach growth.

      Now that the book is out we can do a bit more iteration, but it is still very difficult to connect a book sale to a specific test. One really good idea I'm working on with AppSumo is for them to subsidize a book purchase (the idea came from their President). The cover price for the book is $29. They'll offer it on their website for only $5 after bulk purchasing 1000 books. For them it's lead gen and we sell more books. It's not finalized yet, but to me it seems like a really good idea worth testing. If they get a positive ROI on the program we could end up selling 1000s of books this way.
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  • Profile picture of the author wartest
    When on the stage of validating a product and the product doesnt seem to be working, when do you decide to pivot/change the product vs improving the funnel and just hammering on improving it
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Thanks for the question. I think the important metric here is retention. If you sign up new people who actually use the product and have a very hard time retaining them, then it is more likely a product problem than a funnel problem. I actually recently faced this issue in my business and made the really tough decision to stop trying to grow our SaaS business until we reached our engagement targets. In the meantime I shifted the non engineers on my team to other revenue generating activities while the core product team iterated to improve engagement metrics. The result is that we now have much better engagement and we were able to build out significant complementary revenue streams in training and talent. I think if we had continued to try to grow our SaaS business we'd be on the brink of bankruptcy. Instead we now have over a year of runway on our balance sheet.
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  • Profile picture of the author aleeciaral
    Hi Sean! What advice do you have for founders who are building an MVP? What common mistakes do startups in the alpha stage do when building their MVP and validating product/market fit?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hi, my advice is to spend a lot of time with prospective customers. Before your MVP is ready really try to understand their current situation. What's the next best alternative to your product and why will your product be better. Show them lots of mockups of what you are building so that you are getting feedback early and often.
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  • Profile picture of the author Ehsan Azizi
    Hi Sean, my question is with everyone moving towards big data and automated marketing, what do you think the future holds for affiliate marketers?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Good question, I think a lot of trust has been lost by affiliate marketers with things like cookie stuffing, but if they can offer marketers a reasonable volume of new customers within their target acquisition cost, then I think there will always be an opportunity for them.
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  • Profile picture of the author jpcs
    Hey Sean, thanks for spending time here today!

    I was wondering what experience you had with mobile advertising, and how that might differ to the rest of the web.

    Additionally, with so many new channels coming out, they are most effective when you can first leverage them. How do you identify these new opportunities?
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Hey, for a long time marketing mobile apps was really hard because there was very limited attribution. But I've been surprise how much better attribution has gotten in recent years. With good attribution, it really isn't that different from the rest of the web. In both cases you are going to be very limited in your effectiveness until you are able to invest a lot of effort optimizing your conversion funnel. Funnel optimization can be a bit harder on mobile, but like attribution, this is improving quickly.
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  • Profile picture of the author mushroomsoup31
    Hi Sean! How can we apply Growth Hacking to E-Commerce? We all know that E-Bay, Amazon and Alibaba are the big fish when it comes to E-Commerce, how long do you think it will take to reach at least 30% of their success?
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  • Profile picture of the author nickjhughes
    Hi Sean! There's always lots of new growth channel popping up, especially digitally - I'm wondering what you think will be the best upcoming growth channels in the near future?
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    • Profile picture of the author neilCheckYo
      This is interesting. I'm curious whether the mainstream brands would go all-in to internet as their main growth channel as a replacement for TV commercials and/or print media.
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  • Profile picture of the author Tushar Titchen
    I have two questions:

    1) Dropbox's strategy of giving additional space for every user you recruit to the product has been *the* standard by which all growth hacks are judged upon. Just wondering, when this idea was introduced to the company, did you get any pushback whatsoever and how long did it take the idea to go from the drawing board to production?

    2) Everybody seems to be chasing 'the next big thing', asking about what new channels will emerge in the future. What are some 'big old things' - channels that still work but people don't chase anymore because its not in vogue?
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    • Profile picture of the author jpcs
      Actually these are 2 phenomenal questions...
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    • Profile picture of the author SeanEllisGH
      Interestingly we started talking about a referral program within the first couple of weeks of me joining Dropbox. It was something that I had tried to implement in my previous company based on some testing a friend did that led him to figuring out that a double sided incentive worked best. There really wasn't any pushback from the team which was really small at the time (less than 10 people). When I was at LogMeIn we talked about an incentivized referral program but we were all worried that it might actually hurt already strong referrals that were happening.

      I think some of the old channels that still work well are search and Facebook ads. Google clearly controls the majority of the intent on the Internet so tapping into that intent (either through SEM or SEO) is still really valuable. And Facebook as 1 billion people per day using it, so it's "old news" but there are so many angles to test on it that if you are persistent enough you should be able to make it work.
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  • Profile picture of the author caveyoufear
    What are some common mistakes and pitfalls you see founders do when they analyze their metrics and funnels
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  • Hi Sean!
    How do you know when its time to start hiring a guy whose sole responsibility is growth?
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  • Profile picture of the author snewlun
    Hi Sean, How would you present an information product to the college crowds?

    Scott E. Newlun

    Do you have something to sell?

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  • Profile picture of the author 440Music
    I'm gong to listen at least one more time because I liked what I heard and I want to learn as much as I can in the next 3 months. I'm excited about my idea and how your talk fits my vision for my plan. I needed to hear what you talked about. Thank You
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  • Profile picture of the author pandit19
    Thanks for your nice knowledge.
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  • Profile picture of the author seyf1981
    Hi Sean,
    I have a serious question and I am looking for a good reply based on your experience, I have a new channel with a quality content and the right SEO(title, description tags..), including call to action to ask people to subscribe and like, annotations, playlist, Thumbnails... and I start by promoting my videos, I found many issues using many tools, here's some details:
    Social media: take a lot of time, and your sharing links are usually deleted by the pages, accounts and groups' owners even more I might be considered as a spam and I finish by losing my accounts,
    Subscribers, views and likes exchange/buys: very risky (bots), untargeted (real) and might harm SEO and ranking.
    Forums: Most of them don't allow links even I introduce myself as an expert and I take my time before posting a link. Signature is also not allowed.
    Backlinks (blog posts, commenting, discussion...): Not allowed to post links by owners
    Sharing videos to your friends: I have only a facebook account (550 friends), untargeted and most of them have no time to watch a video for 4 minutes
    Article submission: not a good source of traffic for Arabic content
    Building a relationship with competitors: they refuse my deals because I have a new channel with no subscribers and views so they cannot take advantage.

    Any help please ???
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  • Profile picture of the author Krazan
    Is there any Growth Hack blueprint for generating leads from website, social media, etc.? Fastest growing companies do have a few
    I know I have been a bit late for this, but looking forward to see your answer
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