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If you're like most marketers, you're probably operating on a short horizon. One survey of brand managers by LinkedIn found that only 4% reported planning their campaigns on a time scale longer than six months.

While that might work for fast-moving brands that just launched, you're not doing yourself any favors if you're looking toward sustained long-term growth. This is exactly where growth marketing comes in, and why some companies will go so far as to have entire growth marketing departments and teams in place.

What Is Growth Marketing?

Growth marketing is a data-driven approach that focuses on building customer relationships and fostering loyalty over time. Through the use of feedback and iterative processing, it aims to keep new customers long past the traditional campaign horizon of six months.

Think of it as an extension of traditional marketing, with a few extra steps at the end. It follows the usual goals of brand awareness and acquisition, but adds retention, revenue, and referrals to build sustained growth over time.

Growth Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing

Growth marketing and traditional marketing use much of the same planning techniques and marketing software, at least in the early stages. In the first few weeks or months of most marketing campaigns, the two can be hard to tell apart. Where they truly split is in how they're run and measured over time.

Growth MarketingTraditional Marketing
ApproachData-drivenLed by intuition
FocusCustomer baseProducts or services
TimelineLonger-term (6 months +)Approximately 6 months
ActivitiesExperiments to see what will positively impact key growth metrics, looking for compound successes over time.Runs campaigns to see what will increase sales revenue for specific products or services.
MetricsMeasures key growth metrics, such as user acquisition cost (CAC), user retention rate (RR), user referral rate (RRR), and user lifetime value (LTV).Measures key sales metrics, such as sales revenue, sales volume, and market share.
Growth marketing and traditional marketing differ in approach, focus, timeline, activities, and metrics.

An Illustrative Example

Imagine you're in charge of the new marketing push for a popular brand of cat food. If you're using traditional marketing approaches, you might read potential customer profiles and trust your gut to craft an appealing brand message. 

The traditional approach will probably earn some returns fairly quickly, say a 15% increase in sales in your target demographic of young professionals living in cities. Almost as soon as a traditional marketer hits those short-term brand awareness targets, the campaign wraps and planning starts for the next round.

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How Is Growth Marketing Different?

Starting with a data-driven look at the numbers, a growth marketing team might choose a different demographic entirely, such as young adults in the suburbs. Successful growth marketers will then use this demographic insight to craft an approach to new customers that has a track record of success with other brands, such as a heavy social media saturation or video content.

The real difference comes after the growth targets are hit. Instead of moving on to the next campaign, a growth marketing strategy follows these new customers along their journey with the brand and encourages feedback. Ideally, at every stage of the customer journey, brand management will solicit feedback to develop an always evolving picture of who uses the brand and why.

This feedback comes from a variety of marketing channels, and a good growth marketing team will use several. Pro tip: leverage marketing planning software to keep your campaigns aligned across all channels. Typical options include:

  • Email marketing
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Comments under the brand's YouTube videos and channel pages
  • Direct contact with new users via phone or other cold contact
  • Surveys attached to e-commerce pages
  • User experience feedback gathered in traditional marketing channels
  • Case studies and online reviews
  • Market research with focus groups and test groups

Growth Marketing vs. Growth Hacking

This emphasis on sustained growth is what sets growth marketing apart from growth hacking, which is a shortcut to faster expansion pioneered by Sean Ellis, the VP of Growth at Bounce. To be sure, growth hacking has a place—it can be a great start to a new product launch, for example—but it doesn't last.

Growth MarketingGrowth Hacking
ResultsImproves relationships and fosters customer loyaltyIncreases brand awareness, can get your brand name trending
EnduranceBenefits are sustained and possibly permanentBenefits are typically short-lived and temporary
MetricsConsistent, trending upwards over timeHigh and spiky with an initial burst, followed by a decline
Growth marketing and growth hacking differ in results, endurance, and metrics.

Take that cat food brand from before: The twenty-somethings you win over today will be forty-somethings in 20 years. If they're still using your brand, or better yet, if their kids start using the "family" brand of cat food when they're on their own, you've potentially developed a lifelong relationship with groups of new customers who won't show up in the metrics for years.

Key Components of a Growth Marketing Strategy

The details of your growth marketing efforts will depend on the brand you're promoting and the results you're chasing, and there are a few reliable tools:

A/B Testing

Do you like X, or is Y better? It's a simple question, which is the whole point of A/B testing. Instead of presenting customers with unlimited or open-ended branding questions, you can develop a series of simple comparisons.

For example, you might have a dozen ideas on how to talk about your brand of cat food. Instead of laying all 12 ideas in front of your target audience, just give each group two to choose from and ask which one they like better. If messages like "family," "safe," and "love" are consistently more popular than "cool," "modern," or "scientific," you'll know how to pick winning messages overall.

Customer Feedback

The relationship you have with your customers doesn't end when they buy a can of cat food. They will go home and feed it to their cat. After that, they may have valuable insights and ideas, like changing the lid to a pull-tab design.

You can get feedback in a lot of ways. Surveys, direct solicitation, and browsing online reviews of your product are tested approaches that give a partial picture. Something like real-time feedback may come through interactions and conversations on social media. For this, social listening tools are handy.

Multichannel Marketing

TV, print, and radio ads were about all you had 30 years ago. Today's digital marketing platforms are multichannel and resemble a long-distance personal relationship, where the brand engagement doesn't stop.

Instead, keep contact up across multiple platforms to chart the whole customer lifecycle. Say a new customer finds you when a YouTube influencer recommended your cat food to several million subscribers. Your next contact with this customer might be when they tweet about how much their cat likes the food to their 12 Twitter followers.

With good enough automation, your bots will catch that mention, which allows you to answer back with a message of gratitude that your hundreds of thousands of followers will see.

Flexibility and Responsiveness

In the prior example, you were using multiple channels to achieve several growth marketing goals:

  • You increased brand awareness and drove sales.
  • Your responsiveness on Twitter improved your brand's goodwill with a human touch in a public forum.
  • You caught a great customer suggestion for a pull-tab lid.

Flexibility and responsiveness are crucial to keeping customers onboard. A brand that communicates well and is perceived as wanting to do good will almost always move faster and retain more loyalty than a less responsive or slower brand. That translates into a higher customer lifetime value.

Growth Marketing Campaign Types

Once you have an idea what tools you need for your data-driven marketing campaign, it's time to decide what type of campaign to run. As most marketers know, there are a lot of ways to get people excited about your brand:

Loyalty Programs

Loyalty is what growth marketing is all about, so loyalty programs take pride of place in any strategy you adopt. Whether you're gathering long-term customer data to offer discounts or encouraging new users to join your savings club, the existence of a loyalty program encourages retention and lowers churn. 

Referral Programs

Referral programs are a favorite campaign to skip the top part of the marketing funnel and directly recruit new customers. This plan usually offers cash-back or a discount of sorts for existing customers who refer a friend and win the brand a new customer. For example, you could host an in-person event where people bring their friends (and cats!) as a form of experiential marketing.

New Product Development

It's not enough to have a good launch. Growth marketing is in it for the long haul, so you need to be continually making upgrades to your existing products—or developing entirely new ones—informed by your feedback and experience.

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By Stephanie Hood

Stephanie Hood is an experienced marketing professional and Editor of The CMO. With nearly a decade spent as Marketing Manager at Discover Holidays and Executive Editor at VIVA Lifestyle & Travel, she built her career leading editorial and marketing teams and strategies that turn six-figure budgets into seven-figure profits. She now enjoys connecting with the world's top executives to learn their secrets to business success, and shares those insights right here with her community of like-minded professionals. Curious what she’s uncovered? Be sure to sign up for The CMO newsletter.