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shutterstock_113080816I’ve spent the last two years learning everything I can about “growth hacking.” I co-run the Growth Hackers Conference with Erin Turner, led efforts to build Udemy’s user base, and consulted/advised companies like LyftWedding PartyTenderTree and Sokikom. Over that time, I’ve worked with some amazing marketers. Recently, we’ve been discussing a new “formula” for growth hacking that has helped us achieve extraordinary results.

Specifically, this strategy led to growing Udemy consistently 20 percent almost every month for the last few years, helping Lyft’s launch in LA be more successful than San Francisco, and a host of other successes that are not yet public.

What made us more effective than other growth hackers? We applied lean startup methodology to marketing (“Lean Marketing”). Of course, we’re not the only ones to do this, but somehow the art of customer development has been largely lost in the fad that is growth hacking.

To be an effective marketer, you can’t just be great at running and analyzing large swaths of data. That’s table stakes these days. Everyone knows how to A/B test, what the cost/benefits of each channel is, what viral marketing is, and the basics of LTV/CAC analysis.

With all of our obsession over quantitative (“performance”) marketing, we’ve forgotten one of the core ideas of building brands. Brands are built by understanding the customer. The better you understand the customer, the better you are at everything growth hacking:

  • Copy and calls to action are more compelling. You pick words that convert the highest because you understand why customers will buy your product and what triggers their curiosity to learn more.
  • Images convert better. You know who your customer is, what they look like, and what they’re attracted to.
  • Better channels. You understand what your customer reads, where they eat, and who they follow on Twitter.
  • Improved targeting. You’ll be able to create personas of your ideal target customers and use those to build better targeting on your ad spend.

The problem is that most growth hackers spend too much time in spreadsheets and not enough time out of the building. They obsess over numbers and prefer to work behind a screen. That’s a necessary skill set for effectively building viral loops and optimizing performance marketing campaigns, but it is not enough. Even the best marketers could be better if their initial tests were better. Say you have 50 ideas for copy that could work on a Facebook ad. How much time would it take to A/B test all 50 ideas? How much money?

What if instead, I could tell you what the top five of those ideas were with a reasonable level of reliability? All of a sudden, I’ve saved almost all that money and a hell of a lot of time. The best marketers know how to pick those five, and you can be one of the best too. Just get to know your customers better.

What’s the best way to know your customer? Meet them. Go out and do real user research — just like UX designers or lean startup entrepreneurs. Steve BlankEric Ries and Janice Fraser provided us with an incredibly good framework by which to do said research. Apply the same thing to marketing.

Three methods for success:

  1. Interview your customer. Get out of the building and pick up the phone. Talk to your customers — at least five of them — and make sure they are fairly representative of your user base or target market (I usually find that after five, it’s repetitive).
  2. Pitch your customer in person. Take what you learned from step 1 and start testing copy by pitching customers in person. If you are a food app, set up shop at a farmer’s market. If you are a payments company, go pitch startup entrepreneurs at a tech event. Whatever you’re selling, go to where people are buying and convince them. Iterate on your pitch constantly, and by the end of the day you’ll have an incredible understanding of your prospective user. This is often faster and far more cost-effective than A/B testing. Now you have a shortlist of amazing phrases that you can then A/B test the shit out of online.
  3. Repeat periodically to “refresh” your understanding and test new ideas. Just like with Lean UX or Lean Startup, this process doesn’t end. It continues indefinitely — you and your team should constantly be bringing in users to interview them and understand their motivations for buying.

Ultimately, marketing is part art and part science. As a startup community, we’ve done a great job recently of perfecting the science. However, the best marketers are good at both. You can be too; just get out of the damn building.

Gagan Biyani is an entrepreneur and growth hacker. He co-hosts with Erin Turner the Growth Hackers Conference, which is on May 3, 2013 in San Francisco. Also, he has led marketing at marketplace startups Lyft and Udemy. You can follow him on twitter: @gaganbiyani.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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