Around the time I was making my final edit to the chapter on building a marketing department in The Professional Marketer, I happened to be part of a number of conversations on the “growth hacker,” aka “growth hacking.”  The job title “growth hacker” wasn’t in the chapter, and I wondered if it should be.

IFor those not familiar with growth hacking, it is “a marketing technique developed by technology startups that uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell products and gain exposure.” The term was coined by Sean Ellis, and popularized in a blog post by Andy Chen called, provocatively, “Growth Hacker is the New VP of Marketing.”

Most marketers looking at the above definition could not be blamed for wondering what’s new. Growth hacking is marketing. The primary tactics of growth hacking are SEO, social media, A/B testing, direct marketing, and viral marketing.  These are all well understood by marketers and marketing teams, and depending on the organization, live in the online marketing and demand generation teams. So why a new role?

Growth hackers point out that what they do is different because they build conversion directly into the product. Hacking, in the positive usage, means clever, agile software development. Growth hackers typically build optimal sign up pages or viral features directly into their products.

The focus on coding sets up engineering versus marketing conflict: Marketers can’t be growth hackers because they can’t code. More than a few blogs and articles throw gasoline on the fire with statement like “formal budgets make marketers lazy” and “traditional marketers are not innovative.”

I agree with Aaron Ginn’s viewpoint below. He recognizes the newfangled title for what it is – marketing.

Growth hacker is a new term for most, but a long held practice among the best Internet marketers and product managers in Silicon Valley.

I take issue with Andy Chen’s statement.

The new job title of growth hacker is integrating itself into Silicon Valley’s culture, emphasizing that coding and technical chops are now an essential part of being a great marketer.

I would agree that knowing your product and knowing your customer are, and always have been, essential to being a great marketer. Suggesting that coding is an essential piece is – I think – pandering to developers fancy themselves as marketers. I have a degree in computer science, but not once did I think that spending time brushing up on Java or Ruby would be more important than thinking about my market and my customers every day.

I think many growth hacking proponents have forgotten that the product itself is part of the marketing mix, just like the other of the Four P’s: price, place and promotion. Creating a product feature that drives adoption is definitely not new.

So how should a VP of Marketing think about growth hacking when designing a marketing team? My thinking is that if you are building a Web, Cloud or mobile product where the goal is to convert thousands or tens of thousands of people, then having a dedicated growth hacker could help. So long as the person understands the product and the market, he or she can be part of the product team, development team, or marketing team.

If you sell to businesses, require fewer conversions, or use online marketing to drive demand for a physical product, then push your online marketing team to drive growth. To the extent you can build features into your product to promote sharing, virality or conversation, do so. Have your product or brand management team specify what I call “growth features” for your development or manufacturing team to build. Growth features are those features designed to drive adoption, rather than deliver utility. You can also create a cross functional “growth team” with representatives from sales, marketing, development and product/brand management.

Thinking about growth, and creating teams to drive growth, is a positive thing. I had assumed most companies think about this every day, but if we are flagging in that area as a profession, I am not against a renewed emphasis on growth to keep the peace and drive prosperity. To that end, I see growth hacking as a marketing mindset, not a marketing function.

What do you think? Do you have growth hackers in your marketing department?

* * *

This post originally appeared in Matthews on Marketing.

[Photo Credit: Observe the Banana]