Growth-hacking is a science, not an art.

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Customer acquisition relies on conversion funnels. Of the X people you start with, X/10=Y click-through to a product. Of the Y who click-through, Z = Y/10 actually buy something. To get to 50 purchases, marketers may send out 100,000 emails, and sometimes 1 million emails. It is understood that the conversion from an unsolicited message sent out to a purchase is less than 1% in most cases. That is, the growth strategy for most traditional marketers is to assume that the vast majority of potential customers will ignore an email.

Why have people ignored an email? If you run an A/B test on a subject line, the content and the display style, you may find that some messages feel spammier, or more welcoming than others, and that your product itself actually has more “natural” demand than you thought. You may find, in fact, that they ignored the first email, but after the second, or the third, they succumb to the pressure of clicking through, and ultimately do what you hoped.

And then, of course, there is attrition. As any Mailchimp or Constant Contact user will tell you, every time you send out an email, you will lose a handful of people, who have unsubscribed from your service. This is the unsubscribe rate, and of those, there are buckets of “stop emailing me for a while” and “ stop emailing me ever”. It is understood in marketing that you will lose a few in the process of getting a few. These are the basics. Once you start adding complexity, the implications are interesting. Let’s look at LinkedIn as an example.

LinkedIn does a masterful job of growing, understanding that the game they are playing is a quantitative one. There is an email notification for every possible action that happens on LinkedIn, and a user has to manually unsubscribe from every one of them. And for those lists which you stay on (opt-out, not opt-in), they do a slow trickle of emails: every couple of days, optimized for the time of day given where you work, optimized for how many mutual connections you have with the actor which has precipitated the email. If you unsubscribe from one type of notification, they slow your trickle to once a week, instead of every day. They tune it algorithmically to respond to you without your realizing you need responding to, to ensure that they are extracting the best conversion out of you as possible without pushing you away.

They collect email addresses whenever a member OAuth’s one of their email accounts. During the flow of adding contacts, they invite users to pay the “stupid tax”, where they give you the option to add all of your friends to LinkedIn in what I might generously describe as a “less-than-intuitive” UI. A lot of my friends have accidentally added their entire address books this way. From LinkedIn’s perspective, this UX is perfect. It is exploitative enough that every person who does it feels legitimately violated, and likely reminds himself to avoid LinkedIn and warn others against it. But it is just rare enough (say, 1 in 100 of your contacts will do this) that the bitterness isn’t viral, so they can keep getting away with collecting email addresses this way. They have been fine-tuning this process for almost 10 years now, and I believe it is the special sauce that has made them the business they are today. They now have 100M users and a market cap of > $30B.

The best technical marketers are building responsive models that slowly create conditions like LinkedIn’s, and tune them to squeeze the most engagement and growth possible out of users. I know this because at Doostang we tried doing this, but ended up looking more like spam than like LinkedIn. It’s a quantitative science which we incorrectly treated like an art. If you want to employ this type of strategy, you are doing something closer to computer science than to brand-building. The question I have, given this, is this method worthwhile? Is it death to your brand by a thousand cuts? After all, I would guess that LinkedIn’s brand in my network is at best neutral, with a few outliers that are strongly negative (and a few outliers that are strongly positive… reasons for which I’ll save for a later post). Or is it just good applied behavioral science and statistics? After all, $30B market cap is nothing to sniff at. And if you take a quick look at your spam folder, the ‘conversion funnel’ strategy is big business and not going anywhere, is it? Despite having some scars, my instinct leans (sadly) to the latter: bury ‘em (quantitatively) with email, and you will grow and keep growing.

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