Growth Hacking Goes Wrong When it Forgets the Customer

Growth marketers are rigorous about letting empirical evidence guide their decisions. But that same quality can also make it easy for naysayers to caricature growth hacking as nothing more than a reductive ‘do x, get y’ formula — the ‘try this one weird trick’ version of marketing.

The truth is that growth is a complex system, and identifying the causes and effects of different growth tactics isn’t always as straightforward as we might like to think. For example, the initial explanation of an experiment’s results didn’t capture all the factors at work. Or maybe the underlying conditions changed. Or consider that a tactic’s effects might even have diminished over time as it was repeatedly applied.

Treat Users as People, Not Behaviors
One glib response to this complexity is that users are people, and people are complicated. And any growth marketer who treats users simply as a collection of behaviors to be manipulated or triggered isn’t addressing their underlying motivations and needs.

There are plenty of growth surfaces — the intrinsic product features that encourage users to broaden their usage patterns — available with a good product. But if handled cavalierly, you’ve damaged the very customer experience you’re trying to sustain.

Lessons From a Growth Hack Gone Wrong
Let’s look back at one notorious example of growth hacking gone wrong.

Circle was a mobile local-social platform startup launched in 2010 with high hopes and big investors. For a while, Circle was at the very top of the app charts, according to App Annie:

How it got there, though, was by turning hacking growth into hacking of the public. During Circle’s signup process, people were asked to tap a button that invited everyone on their contacts list to sign up via SMS.

The result? Users were spamming friends and family to join Circle. What made it worse was that the tactic was promoted as an update, so the floodgates opened all at once. Recipients were not amused, especially since many of them were hit with multiple invites.

Just a few of their Tweets tell the tale:

“Invite me to try Circle — The Local Network one more time and i will stab your grandma”
“Invite me to join the circle & watch just how fast I will hunt you down”
“Next person to send me an invite to the circle local network on Facebook is getting fly kicked”
Test Your Growth Hack Strategies Before Rollout
Once Circle turned off its invite mechanism in the face of all this derision, it plummeted from the top of the charts to 1,473rd in the App Store rankings. Don’t bother to look for it on the App Store nowadays: it’s long gone.

Did this snafu kill Circle? Startups are inherently delicate things, even when they’re making all the right moves. But alienating an audience this way can be a mortal wound, and in this case, it was completely self-inflicted.

That’s why, if common sense tells you that a strategy could be risky, testing it becomes even more crucial. Even Circle CEO Evan Reas came to acknowledge that, “I should have thought it through.”

When Good Growth Hacks Go Bad
While we might be able to attribute Circle’s problems to misjudgment resulting from a mad rush to build a user base, cluelessness about how people react to spam — or both — there are times when growth hacking looks like pure, conscious avarice.

Writer David Rodnitzky recently described his experience with this kind of black hat growth hacking. He had signed up for a free trial of a home exchange club called ‘Love Home Swap,’ whose landing page promised it was ‘only’ $23 a month to subscribe.

Ten days into his trial, he described receiving an unprompted phone call from the company’s customer support. The real objective of the call, in hindsight? To get users like Rodnitzky to stick with Love Home Swap past the end of


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