The Toxicity of Growth Hacks

Reading Time: 6 minutes

One of the first things you learn about when you look into building an audience is the existence of growth hacks. You’ll have a hard time finding a Twitter guide that doesn’t mention the concept as a quick and easy way to grow your following.

This is a problem.

It’s not an issue because they don’t work, because they usually do. It’s a problem because implementing growth hacks in your audience-building strategy leads to unforeseen and often disastrous consequences.

Let’s look at what growth hacks are, why they are dangerous, and what you can do about them.

Problems with Growth Hacks

“Growth hacks” is a term that means many things to many people. At its best, it means a way to quickly increase an audience’s size and connectedness. At its worst, it’s about getting as many people as possible to engage with your product, no matter the consequences.

What all growth hacks have in common is the focus on speed. Everyone wants to build an audience quickly. If it can’t be done in seven days, it’s a waste of time. We’re all busy building our businesses and refining our products, so growing our audience needs to happen as quickly as possible, best with little to no effort.

Experience this article as a podcast, a YouTube show, or as a newsletter:

This intense short-term focus presents a danger that most people looking for ways to grow their audience often overlook. Genuine connection with your prospective customers happens over an extensive period of time. Any marketing graduate will tell you about the marketing rule of seven, where customers only buy after encountering your brand seven times. Why, then, do we want to “hack” this to happen much faster instead of focusing on establishing meaningful long-term relationships?

And since we’re talking about “hacks:” what separates a hack from a tactic is its focus on what’s in it for you, and you alone. Where many traditional growth marketing approaches focus —rightfully— on creating something valuable for your potential customers, growth hacks border on —or often are— manipulation. If you run a giveaway where every entrant has to follow you and retweet your tweet, anyone participating lowers their own chance of winning by sharing your message. Ultimately, the only true beneficiary is you, and every person who helped you (excluding the winner) gets nothing.

Hacks like this aren’t valuable: they’re selfish. And this kind of behavior resonates very negatively with any community. After a few attempts of “growth hacking” your way to an audience, you will find that the people you actually wanted to reach have turned their backs on you.

And then there are growth hacks that look like something genuine on the surface. Plenty of growth hack enthusiasts will tell you to make things feel legit. The web3 industry suffers from many seemingly genuine projects that leave trusting participants scammed, cheated, and disappointed. They even coined the term “rug pull” for this kind of behavior because it has become commonplace.

Don’t get me wrong; there are legitimate ways of encouraging people to join your following.

Growth strategies have been at the core of building an impactful social media presence and customer base for decades. If you give your prospects something they need, they will stay with you for a long time. Growth tactics? Feel free to experiment with them to see how you can most effectively find new prospects and empower their lives.

But stay away from growth hacks. People will recognize them for what they are, and their behavior towards you will reflect how they feel.

Trust is slowly built and quickly lost. So don’t waste your time by wasting someone else’s.

Hacks You shouldn’t attempt and why.

Let’s talk about a few growth hacks that look tempting on the surface but often cause more harm than good.

The Giveaway

Most giveaways are very one-sided: you’re encouraged to follow and engage, and only if you win the giveaway, you’ll get something. Anyone else effectively wasted their time participating. Generally, that leaves a bad taste with your followers for two reasons: new followers who came through the giveaway will never forget that their first interaction with you was a lopsided one where they gave you something, and you didn’t return the favor. Your long-time followers will look at the giveaway and sense desperation: why would you need to lure people with the chance to win something? Aren’t you interesting enough all by yourself anymore? Did you lose your edge?

And finally, particularly if you have paying customers already, they will wonder why someone else would get your work for free when they had to pay money for it.

In a way, you’re creating a net-negative situation: only you and the winner of the contest get something out of it, while everyone else, including people who didn’t even participate, walk away at a loss.

There is another danger in giveaways, too, and that’s the quality of people you attract. If you give things away for free, you will attract people who want free things. You will likely attract a large group of people who only want free things. And if you’re building an audience to monetize eventually, this is counterproductive. You’ll undoubtedly grow your following, but you will dilute your potential to make money. And while not all audience-building is about getting people to pay for stuff, having at least a value-positive mindset among your followers is essential.

Automated Twitter DMs

A value-positive mindset is also important for you. When you’re trying to build long-term relationships, every interaction should be an honest win-win situation for both you and the person you’re connecting with. And unfortunately, that goes right out of the window when you start automating everything away.

Twitter DMs are one area where growth hacking by automation has caused much damage. Usually, sending a direct message via Twitter is a great way to build a connection with a person. But once you automate this, the effect is reversed. Automated messages can’t be personal, even if they use the name of the person they’re sent to.

And no first interaction should ever feel impersonal.

Or transactional, for that matter. You can’t build a deep and meaningful relationship with a person based on mere transactions. There has to be an underlying level of alignment that just giving and taking can never sufficiently establish.

So when you ask people to send you a DM so you can send them an info product, consider what that is saying: “I’m not willing to help you without getting a follow in return.” — that is not a very selfless act of community contribution. You could have just posted a link to your website where they can download the file. But you chose to make it all about them following you.

People will remember that.

Stay clear of direct messaging automation. Avoid sending bulk DMs to your existing audience as well. They followed you for your personal perspective and your unique human touch. They don’t want to be part of a list.

You can probably tell by now why I am not a fan of growth hacks: they take the relational part out of building an audience, and for me, that’s the most important long-term benefit of having an audience in the first place. The stronger the bonds between you and your followers, the more opportunities will present themselves.

This means that anything you can do to build a more authentic connection is a good idea, while anything that alienates you from your followers is to be avoided.

Cloning Viral Posts

And nothing alienates you more from your peers than stealing other people’s content and presenting it as your own. I see so many people copy and paste successful viral threads from someone else, hoping to piggyback on their impact and reach.

Not only is it inconsiderate to omit attribution, it’s downright stupid. All it takes is one person to call you out, and the more people you reach, the more likely that gets. So any gains by going viral will immediately be canceled by being called out as a cheater.

Nothing will poison your brand more than being accused and convicted as fraudulent by an internet community. People online are all hobby detectives when it comes to the things they don’t want to happen around them. They’ll go to great lengths to expose selfish actors in their communities.

They will also support and encourage selfless actors. So choose your side.

The Origin of Growth Hacks

All growth hacks are popularized scaled-up versions of manual growth tactics that once worked really well for someone else. Then, over time, they get generalized into some sort of “this worked for me, so it will totally work for you” superficial advice. After that, thousands of marketers try their hands at the hack, which completely loses its novelty and becomes a gimmick.

And that’s what growth hacks are: faded carbon copies of an original growth tactic.

Growth hacks are where functional growth tactics go to die.

What made the original work so well was that it was a genuinely interesting way for someone to directly —and manually— engage their prospects. Growth happened because value was being displayed, and many people felt strongly about the opportunity. The moment others started using automation and “best practices,” the tactic turned into an arbitrary hack, removing the human touch and supplanting it with an overeager thirst for engagement at all costs.

Hacking the Hacks

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid these hacks. Get rid of the notion that hacks are needed for your audience to grow. The best thing you can do is to implement growth habits that —over the long term— will allow you to build meaningful relationships with your peers and attract them organically into your following.

Show up every day. Consistency over time beats every viral burst of attention. The more reliably you show up, the more people will associate you with someone who cares deeply about them and their interests. Hoping for viral spikes is the opposite of being a trustworthy content creator.

Still, keep an eye out for growth hacks, don’t demonize and ignore them immediately. You can understand why the hacks work and then apply that learning to your own strategy and tactics. Just don’t copy them verbatim.

Remember: lies get called out, and there are lots of detectives on the internet. Put trust front and center in all your interactions with prospective customers and followers. Make every encounter a win-win situation. Be there for them, and treat them as a peer, not just as a potential member of a list.

Make things less transactional and more relational. It’s in deep and meaningful connection that you will find the most impactful benefits of building an audience.

Be real and skip the hacks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.