20 Retro Growth Hacking Examples To Inspire

Alex Minchin
Alex Minchin

Updated for 2020: Well, not really. These examples of classic growth hacking from our original post in 2014 are still genius. So we’ve left them here for you to draw inspiration from history.

I’m an avid reader of geeky, entrepreneurial things. For some reason I’ve never really connected with fiction due, perhaps, to finding the wait too long to handle.

I love movies, but that’s because they’re over in a few short hours. I now know enough about myself to understand that it’s the impatient part of me that is probably to blame.

When it comes to anything start-up, however, I can lose myself for hours!

‘Growth Hacking’ is a term used to describe startups who generate massive growth/following by using (often) simple techniques that do not necessarily require a lot of investment.

This is mostly about leveraging other, more established, platforms. It’s about allowing your users/followers to do the leg work for you. It’s about finding ways to scale.

Often, in business and life, there are obstacles that confront us that simply require us to think creatively for the solution. Deep down, most of us ‘hack’ in some form or another.

Consider the cheeky motorist who parks illegally on a double yellow with their hazard lights on to avoid getting a ticket (whilst they run in to the shop to buy a last minute birthday card).

Or the smart opportunist who seeks to capitalise on an event, or fails miserably trying (see right). Regardless, the thought was there.

Both were ‘hacking’.

So here is a list of 20 retro Growth Hacking examples to help get your creativity on:

  1. Facebook used email notifications to notify people that a person they know had ‘tagged’ them in a photo. With click-through rates of ~75%, you can see how this genius leveraging of human curiosity and must-see-my-face mentality worked so well for the social media giant.
  2. Airbnb hit a rich vein of traffic when they took full advantage of the the well-established Craigslist. By integrating their platform with Craigslist, its users could reach a tonne of people very easily.
  3. Dropbox generated viral growth through its ‘Refer a Friend’ scheme. By rewarding both parties with free storage space, it was a catapult to what is now a huge user base.
  4. TicketMasters capitalised on using a timer/countdown to encourage its users to purchase tickets quicker. By creating a ‘limited time’ element, and playing on our fear of missing out, these ticket giants gained huge ground. Dr Robert Cialdini covers the psychology of persuasion in his excellent book.
  5. PayPal was a little more maverick in its approach, offering a reward of $10 to each new customer and the person who referred them. The effort to reward ratio was crazy, and saw PayPal explode to millions of users before eventually pulling the offer.
  6. Hotmail used a simple line of text on the footer of all of its emails that essentially invited the reader to get their free email account. In the days where email was pretty awful, Hotmail was able to race ahead of the web-based competition.
  7. Never to be outshone, Google launched Gmail with an element of exclusivity. By making early adopters feel like they were an internet VIP, friends and family were hounding for an invite. Needless to say that it worked!
  8. Twitter worked out that users who followed more than 30 people were more likely to become an active user. They took advantage of this by tweaking the user experience to highlight suggested people to follow upon signing up.
  9. Outside of the tech world, Puma nailed it when Pele made a last-second request to the referee to tie his shoelaces at the 1970 World Cup Finals. The cameras were all on the world’s greatest footballer and, sure enough, the world now knew that he wore Puma King boots.
  10. Clinkle shook the start-up world when its 22 year old founder raised $25m in seed funding from some of the most renowned investors in Silicon Valley. Riding off the back of this, the Clinkle website is a simple canvas with a very simple mission: to capture your email address. With all the hype surrounding the product, they got their addresses. Clinkle went one step further by showing the new user how many people were ahead of them in the waiting list. To jump the queue, the user could perform a range of simple tasks (sharing on social media channels, etc). Brilliant!
  11. Mailbox used a similar model to Clinkle – sign up for an invitation and wait to see where you were in the queue. It worked! Mailbox was acquired by DropBox for a supposed $100m.
  12. Pinterest made use of ‘infinite’ scrolling to keep its users hooked on the platform. By removing the need to browse through pages (complete with loading times, effort, and all), Pinterest were able to deliver visual goodness on tap. Less chance to get bored, less chance to get distracted, and much more chance that you’ll share what you find…
  13. Mint revolutionised the personal finance world by producing a blog that spoke to the young professionals. The people who knew enough to care but didn’t want their soul destroyed by yet another finance website. The use of infographics and popular articles made their way to websites like Reddit and Digg. The rest was history, as they say.
  14. OKCupid (RIP) took a similar approach to online dating. By leveraging their huge amount of user data, they could create fun and engaging posts on dating, sex, and the desires of both genders. These were wrapped up into well-presented infographics that found their way to many a social/email inbox.
  15. Sometimes it’s good to be bad, and YouTube famously took advantage of loose DMCA laws that allowed it to play, what some would consider, copyrighted material. When others were being slapped for uploading shows like Saturday Night Live, YouTube were less fussed and, as a result, the frustrated uploader would send his/her traffic to YouTube instead.
  16. Squidoo (RIP) took off by allowing people to post pages on just about anything without coding knowledge. By allowing its users to earn badges and rewards for activity, in addition to earning revenue from ads/affiliate sales (and being able to donate to charity too!), the growth was impressive! No less than you’d expect from Seth Godin…
  17. The Rich Jerk was probably the first major ‘How To Become An Internet Millionaire’ product that hit the mainstream. After making millions of dollars, it turns out that this was a guy who used to jump over the walls of the wealthy to take photos in front of their houses, by their cars, and lounging by their pools. People brought it, and he’s probably lying beside his own pool as I write this. Dark, but genius.
  18. Rewind to 1938 and the post-war economy was forcing diamonds out of fashion. De Beers were having none of it, and set out to create a marketing strategy that targeted people planning to getting married. The creation of the ‘engagement ring’ played on emotions, suggesting that the size of the diamond was a reflection of the size of a man’s love for his woman. Not to be easily beaten, men everywhere saved for months to afford the biggest and the best diamond(s) that they could get their hands on. It is now so ingrained into western culture, that the overwhelming majority of weddings simply can’t go ahead without a rock of supporting bling.
  19. Computer giants, Microsoft, seemingly turned a blind eye to piracy of their Windows operating system and Office suite with a ‘Not Verified’ option. It’s believed that this was to ensure that it was still the number one platform for users who perhaps couldn’t legitimately afford it.
  20. Spotify allows its users to post the tracks that they’re listening to on Facebook, thus placing their platform in-front of a receptive audience. What’s that? Mainstream music for free?…
  21. I couldn’t leave the post without crediting Napster with another dark use of growth hacking. The peer-to-peer music dinosaur will forever be remembered for fundamentally changing the internet. Napster allowed its users to share music (and other files), for free, bypassing copyright and piracy laws for years. The mission was dangerously simple. Share.

That leads me to conclude this post. I’ve ended the list of growth hacking examples above on a very important word: “share”. In growth hacking, the rewards are found easier by leveraging the effort of others.

Look back through the growth hacking examples above and you’ll see that many of these companies used other, more established, platforms to get noticed, or rewarded early adopters for sharing with friends.

In most cases, there was a transaction taking place between a user and a potential user. The beneficiary, in most cases, is all three parties. Because of this, the hack works!

So, how can you ‘hack’ parts of your life for the better? My advice would be to start at thinking about how you can share more freely to reap the benefits.

Let us know how you get on – we’d love to hear your growth hacking examples ?

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