“Growth hacker” might be overrated as a professional designation, but many businesses are becoming increasingly aware that traditional marketing alone isn’t enough to stay competitive in today’s changing business landscape.

As a result, the terms “growth marketing” and “growth team” are being thrown around more and more frequently as business goals – even though many of the people using them have no idea what a growth team is or how to build one.

In this article, I’ll break down the difference between growth and marketing, as well as describe what growth teams look like and how to plan for one based on your company’s unique needs.

Growth vs. Marketing

Before we get too far into this discussion, it’s important that we define what the difference between growth and marketing is:

  • Marketing is top-of-the-funnel, and typically involves looking at the impact individual promotional channels have on performance metrics like leads, traffic, email opt-ins and sales.
  • Growth involves a broader scope, encompassing the product or service itself. Sometimes that means changing the offering to better align with what’s needed for effective marketing. It might also involve adjusting the positioning, onboarding or activation workflows, or business structure at a high level to increase the odds of success.

Basically, growth is company-wide and encompasses the full funnel. Marketing is more tactical. As Alex Birkett notes on the ConversionXL blog:

“In the past, marketing teams focused primarily on the very top-of-the-funnel, measuring impressions, mind share, leads, etc. A growth team, however, is largely overlapped with product, engineering, and design as well. A growth team is made up of many different skill sets and can more easily push through ideas and experimentation that crosses traditional silos and boundaries.”

Who’s Who on a Growth Team

Knowing that a growth team should be more cross-departmental in nature than a marketing team gives you some insight into the kinds of roles you’ll find on each. I’ve written about this on the Web Profits blog, but a few of the roles that may be involved in growth teams include:

  1. Growth Lead
  2. Data Analyst
  3. Content Marketer
  4. Social Media & Community Manager
  5. Growth Hacker
  6. Project Manager
  7. Full Stack Developer

Each of these seven roles is discussed in more detail in the original article, but beyond them, your growth team might also involve those in business intelligence, sales, customer service, customer success, design, engineering and UX/UI. Having said that, not all of these roles need to be filled at once – and they don’t necessarily need to be filled by full-time, traditional hires.

One of the things I like to do is work with contractors first. Not only can you let go of contractors more easily if they aren’t working out for you, but there are plenty of situations where contractors can get you faster results (or where long-term employees aren’t really needed).

For example, suppose you’re a Fortune 500 company, and you realize that you need to double-down on your SEO to facilitate growth. You’re going to be doing things like optimizing pages, writing new content and building links. Working with multiple contractors lets you tap into specialized skillsets much faster than you could with traditional employees. And, if you get the channel working eventually, you can always move it in-house.

Another thing I like to do is borrow team members from other departments. If I’m just starting the process of shifting from tactical marketing to broader growth, I might go to my product manager and say, “Hey, can I grab eight hours from you this month?” Or maybe it’s, “Hey designer, I need 10 hours of your time.” This creates a growth mentality internally and gets people to understand and buy into their role in supporting growth (all without adding extra unnecessary cost up front).

One thing you’ll need in all situations is a growth champion. This might be a VP of Growth, a VP of Marketing or even the CEO at a small startup. Regardless of the title, you need someone to lead the team who has more product experience, and who – ideally – has worked with designers and engineers before. You need someone who can explain the intricacies of growth, as well as get ideas actioned.

Once you understand the different roles you may want to consider, as well as your options for filling them, you can plan your specific growth team based on highest impact or biggest bottlenecks.

Finding Your Bottlenecks and Highest Priorities

When it comes to building a team, a lot of people focus on where they want to be. They don’t look at where they are right now, where they want to go, and what kind of people they actually need to get there.

Pierre Lechelle notes that looking at growth may not even be appropriate until you’ve proved that your company has reached product-market fit:

“Being in business is all about focusing on the right thing at the right moment. Before Growth, you should be focusing on understanding the needs of your customers. If you don’t know (yet) if you reached Product / Market Fit, chances are that you need to work a little more on your product before experimenting on Growth.”

So when I’m building a growth team, the first thing I try to understand are the bottlenecks in a business and its funnels. That tells me which growth roles I need to fill first, as well as what it’ll take to create an effective team.

Let me give you an example. At my company Narrow.io, our goal this year is to double growth. Knowing where we want to go, we have a lot of levers we can play with. We have churn, our traffic numbers, our conversion rate, our activation rate and more. Those are all things we’ve been monitoring monthly year after year.

Looking at this data, we realized we don’t really have a conversion problem. Because we don’t offer a free trial and people have to pay to access our tool, our conversion rates have always been pretty high. But what we did discover was that, if new subscribers failed to set up our system correctly within the first 90 days, they were going to churn. And since word of mouth is such a big channel for us, any churn also means a corresponding decrease in referrals.

To figure out where we could make changes, our team started looking at support logs and talking to customers. We offered to look at hundreds of their campaigns for free, which took us about 20 minutes each. But we quickly found a few weaknesses, like a toggle button subscribers were missing or mistakes in the way they were entering search criteria. Changing our onboarding and activation workflows had an immediate impact on churn and referrals.

But let’s say you don’t have this kind of data. Let’s say you’re just starting out, and you need more traffic before you can do anything else. Maybe, where we needed to focus on filling more of a customer success role at Narrow.io, you need to hire a traditional marketing team. You might want to hire a PPC person, an SEO specialist, a social media manager or a marketing generalist.

Once you get more traffic, you’ll discover the other problems you need to solve with new members of your growth team.

Using Experimental Frameworks to Prioritize Your Bottlenecks

In a perfect world, your company’s bottlenecks – as well as their solutions – would be obvious. You’d crunch some numbers, spot the challenges immediately, and either pull internal resources or hire out to resolve them.

Actually prioritizing your bottlenecks and taking action on them is rarely that straightforward in the real world. Instead, you’re likely to face:

  • Multiple bottlenecks, without a clear understanding of what should be resolved first
  • Limited resources to put into product development or new hires
  • Internal team members who are already overburdened and unable to take on new growth responsibilities

Deciding how to move forward can be made easier with an experimental framework like “ICE” (which stands for impact, confidence, ease). I generally focus on achieving the highest impact with the least amount of work, which often means making non-technical changes.

In the case of Narrow.io, after listening to feedback from our customers, we asked ourselves, “What’s the minimal engineering involved?” If customers are stuck in activation, for example, we could have solved it by either reworking the UX to be clearer or investing in better process documentation and support. But one of those options was a lot less expensive and required less time, resources and specialized knowledge to achieve – so we went with better training.

Crunch the numbers to the extent you’re able to. Estimate what the impact on your business metrics will be for each proposed solution to your bottlenecks, as well as what the full costs will be to implement each. Your estimates won’t always be right, but as you gather performance data, you’ll be able to iterate continually by revisiting your experimental framework.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, building a growth team comes down to understanding where your company is strong, where it’s weak, and which of these disconnects must be overcome in order to facilitate sustained growth.

It’s not about doing as many experiments as you can or filling spots on a team because some guy on the internet said you should. It’s about talking to customers, figuring out your bottlenecks, and understanding what it’ll take to fix them. It’s about making the biggest impact possible with the fewest resources possible, tapping into internal or external talent as needed to achieve your goals.

Once you begin operating from that mindset, the ideal structure for your growth team will become obvious.

Have you built a growth team before? If so, what other tips would you add to mine?