3 Growth Hacking Techniques that Could Be Pissing Off Your Customers

Image via lukethomas.com

There’s no shortage of ridiculous, seemingly meaningless phrases that get casually tossed around in the marketing world. These terms include some mind-spinning monikers like “Internet marketing ninja,” “SEO rock star,” and “social media guru.” I would argue, however, that “growth hacker” really isn’t one of them.

The growth hacker is a particular type of marketer with a very specific set of challenges. Their domain, for the most part, is the start-up. They work with almost zero budget and resources, and their task is to obtain maximum exposure for their brand.

Although search engine marketing and growth hacking aren’t the same thing, they aren’t wholly distinct from one another either. SEO and content marketing are but individual tools in the growth hacker’s arsenal. Your typical SEM, on one hand, tends to care about search results, click-through rates, and conversions. Although growth hackers likely care about those things as well, their tactics are oriented more toward a goal of unmitigated growth through clever coding and well-designed APIs. The results can potentially be explosive in terms of ROI.

Even so, I’ve seen that some ill-advised growth hacking tactics can end up costing a company valuable business. Some of them are ostensibly black hat, some are grey, and some are just inadvisable. With that being said, here are three such techniques that could alienate your customer base or ruin your brand.

Image via lukethomas.com

Hijacking Contact Lists

LinkedIn’s “import contact list” feature is one of the most-cited examples of a successful growth hack. It’s one of the pivotal reasons the company grew from a burgeoning social media platform into the professional networking juggernaut that it is today. Of course, when LinkedIN first rolled out this feature more than five years ago, the company was accused by some users of engaging in “interface trickery,” because it would send an invitation email to everyone on your contact list unless you specifically opted out.

Even so, the feature was more or less designed for the mutual benefit of the user (much also can be said for the convenience of this feature) as much as it was for LinkedIn. This was a fairly cynical move, to be sure, but most users who accidentally invited their entire Gmail contact list were willing to let it slide in favor of the potential networking upside.

Another example of this is how the sales referral network, Referral Key, has been building its user base during the past few years. While LinkedIn and other networks allow you to select which people in your network will be invited, Referral Key just imports your contact list (ironically, from LinkedIn) and indiscriminately shoots them an email like the one below:

Image via Imgur

As blogger Jeffrey Doenfeld observed in a 2011 post, Referral Key’s “workflow for adding new account contacts based on existing friend lists from LinkedIn is flawed and misleading.” It should go without saying but, if you really want to avoid alienating potential customers and users, you’ll want to refrain from doing anything to mislead them.

Crossing the Line into Spam

As with most things in our industry, there’s a fine line between a successful marketing tactic and one that’s outright spammy. I would argue that, because their tactics are often employed outside Google’s algorithm, some growth hackers are more inclined toward this behavior than other types of marketers.

Case in point: Billion-dollar start-up AirBnB is often referred to as a prime case study of growth-hacking in action. As Andrew Chen (who presumably coined the phrase) observed in 2012, the company achieved this largely with its “remarkable Craigslist integration.” He continues to say, “They’ve picked a platform with tens of millions of users where relatively few automated tools exist, and have created a great experience to share your AirBnB listing.”

However, detractors in the travel industry like LakePlace.com’s Dave Gooden contend that AirBnB also has been employing spamming tactics to decrease – or otherwise eliminate – the competition.

In a 2011 blog post, he alleged that, after posting some vacation rentals on Craigslist, he reportedly received an email “from a ‘young lady’ telling me about the upside of AirBnB.com (growing site, growing traffic, etc.) and how she really liked my property and wanted me to check out the site.” Gooden further alleged, “When you scale a black hat operation like this, you could easily reach tens of thousands of highly targeted people per day.”

Of course, whether AirBnB actually engaged in these alleged practices is beside the point. Your takeaway from this little controversy should remain the same — if you cross the line into spam tactics and get called out for it, you’re guaranteed to lose at least some business.

Manipulating APIs to Automate Social Media Follower-Gains

Simply put, any tactic that involves manipulating an API to automate follower-gains is just inadvisable. Take the case of Followgen, which allowed users to automatically purchase “favorites” on certain tweets and key phrases. The company’s CEO brazenly even told Twitter that it should shut down his company or give him access to the company’s ads API. Twitter, of course, took his advice as you can see below:

Image via Imgur

The moral of this story: Automating any follower – or fan-based activity (likes, follows, favorites, etc.) – through social media is bad business. Although you can see the repercussions for Followgen, they’re equally as grievous for anyone that’s outed for using such a service. Customers will be less likely to trust a brand that tries to buy its way to popularity. Thus, getting caught up in a debacle like the one with Followgen is a sure recipe for disaster.

So there you have it; we’ve reviewed three growth hacking tactics that could wreak havoc with your company’s image and its customer base. Although we continue to see some of the most innovative marketing practices coming from the growth hacking camp, there’s still a danger of going to the dark side when you’re using these methods. What other inadvisable or downright unethical growth hacking tactics have you seen? Have your say in the comments below.

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