Learn from the innovative growth teams behind some of today's most successful companies.
Mailchimp CEO and co-founder Ben Chestnut has frequently told the story of an all-hands meeting with his team in 2014. People were raising their hands and asking, “So what’s the strategy?”
Chestnut brushed it off, replying, “We don’t need no stinkin’ strategy—we’ve got this!” The employees of Mailchimp were not impressed with this cavalier approach. Chestnut reflected on this reaction after the meeting and realized the company actually needed a growth strategy—some type of plan or goal. And the rest is history.
If you’re sitting over there like Chestnut back in 2014, tasked with designing an overall strategy for growth, the examples below should get the wheels turning. Just remember: For a growth strategy to be effective, you need to align the entire organization around the plan. We’re talkin’ engineering, marketing, leadership, design, product management, etc. From there, you can determine your tactics and analyze those efforts to make informed decisions about “what comes next.”
What is a growth strategy?
A growth strategy is a plan of action that allows you to achieve a higher level of market share than you currently have. Contrary to popular belief, a growth strategy is not necessarily focused on short-term earnings; growth strategies can be long-term, too.
As an action plan, your growth strategy should include the following components:
Goal: What do you want to achieve?
People: How is each department impacted by your goal?
Product: Is your product positioned to help you achieve your goal?
Tactics: How will you work toward your goal?
Your growth strategy needs to be communicated across your organization, so everyone is on the same page and can share ideas on the plan. As Mailchimp saw in its 2014 all-hands meeting, teams can become uneasy if they don’t understand the company strategy.
If you’re clear about your growth strategy and the path to achieve it, teams will feel they can contribute to the company’s success. Defining a strategy certainly worked in Mailchimp’s favor: today, the company has an estimated annual revenue of more than $700 million.
Types of growth strategies
You know you need a growth strategy, so... what should it be? There are four classic types of growth strategies, and companies may use one or more of the following.
Product development strategy—growing your market share by developing new products to serve that market. These new products should either solve a new problem or add to the existing problem your product solves.
Market development strategy—growing your market share by developing new customer segments, expanding your user base, or expanding your current users' usage of your product. This strategy is sales-focused.
Market penetration strategy—growing your market share by bundling products, lowering prices, and advertising — basically everything you can do through marketing after your product is created. This strategy is often confused with market development strategy, but the approaches are distinct in emphasizing either sales or marketing.
Diversification strategy—growing your market share by entering entirely new markets. Rather than expanding within your existing market, you’re launching into the unknown with new products or services in a new market. This strategy is often the riskiest but can have huge rewards if successful.
Whew. These strategies are big concepts. You might be reading them and thinking, “Well, these are interesting, but how can I actually apply them to my business?” Don’t worry. We’re here to help!
One approach we like to take is thinking of strategies in the context of the customer lifecycle stages: acquisition, activation, advocacy, and retention. By looking at your growth strategy through the lens of a lifecycle stage, you can focus on specific tactics, such as “How can I apply a tactic to increase customer acquisition and achieve better market development?”
Growth strategy examples
When you first start thinking through your growth strategy, you might find it useful to apply a loose framework from the productivity app If This Then That (IFTTT).
IF you apply a tactic to THIS phase of the customer lifecycle, THEN you expect an impact on THAT type of growth strategy.
We’ve rounded up some examples of companies that achieved growth through a seemingly small tactic that yielded enormous payoff. Each of these examples should be understood in the context of the company where they were executed. While you can’t copy and paste their success, there's a lesson to be learned from each.
1. How Zapier grew signups by writing about other products
Zapier is all about integrations—it brings together tools across a user's tech stack, allowing events in one tool to trigger events in another, from Asana to HubSpot to Buffer. The beauty of Zapier is it sort of disappears behind these other tools. But that raises an interesting question: How do you market an invisible tool?
Zapier leveraged its multifaceted product personality through content marketing. The team takes every new integration on Zapier as a new opportunity to build authority through search and to appeal to a new audience on its blog.
Takeaway: If you have a product with multiple use cases and integrations, try curating your content marketing around each use-case instead of aiming for a catch-all approach.
2. How LinkedIn grew its user base by inviting connections
Remember the days when people used to hand out business cards? (Oh, and then they needed to be reprinted every time your contact info changed). LinkedIn launched an online version of this process to maintain professional contacts while also employing a “six degrees of separation” concept for people to grow their networks.
In the very beginning, the concept of contact importing was new, though it’s commonplace now. LinkedIn aggressively used this strategy back in 2004.
LinkedIn built an Outlook plugin that would sift through users’ contacts. They then used email marketing to reach out to these contacts. If you were an early adopter on the platform, you probably remember being on the receiving end of this strategy: "So I [someone you know] found you while I was looking around the network. Let’s connect directly; I’m happy to help you with requests and forward things incoming. It will probably make both of our networks bigger."
It became a cycle. This email would be sent out to the contacts of new users. Those contacts would sign up, and the email would go out to their contacts, and so on. LinkedIn found that a benchmark of four emails was needed before a user would sign up for a platform. Kind of a FOMO mentality among professionals. It worked: LinkedIn went from 500,000 users in 2004 to 2 million users in 2006.
Takeaway: Look for innovative ways to use your existing user base and draw new users into your product.
3. How Airbnb continued to scale by simplifying user reviews
Airbnb's origin story is one of the infamous growth hacking tales. Founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia knew their potential audience was already using Craigslist, so they engineered their own integration. This connection allowed hosts to double post their ads to Airbnb and Craigslist at the same time.
While this integration got Airbnb off its feet, it’s not what allowed the brand to keep growing. You know how you check out reviews of a product before you buy? The same is true for staying in someone else’s house. The company’s review system became a critical factor in drawing guests to the platform. For 50% of bookings, guests visit a host profile at least once before booking a trip, and hosts with more than 10 reviews are 10X more likely to receive bookings.
It made the review process double-blind, so feedback isn't visible until both traveler and host have filled out the form. This policy not only ensures more honest reviews but removes a key source of friction from the review process.
It enabled private feedback and reduced the timeline for leaving a review to 14 days, making reviewing more spontaneous and authentic.
By making reviews easier and more honest, Airbnb grew the number of reviews on the site, which in turn grew its authority.
Takeaway: Identify barriers to trust and smooth points of friction within your product.
4. How AdRoll used Appcues modal windows to increase adoption to 60%
The Head of Growth at AdRoll wanted to experiment with in-app messaging in order to target the right AdRoll users more effectively. But growth experiments like this require rapid iteration. Engineers are better suited for longer development cycles, and adding in-app messaging would be a distraction.
So the team started using Appcues to create custom modal windows quickly and easily—and without input from their developers. With a no-code solution in place, AdRoll’s growth team could design and implement however many windows they needed to drive adoption of the features they were working on.
One feature that needed an adoption boost was AdRoll’s integration with Mailchimp (Mailchimp is making all kinds of appearances in this article!). The feature allows users to retarget ads to their email subscribers in MailChimp. However, AdRoll found that very few users were actually making use of this integration.
Here's how AdRoll drove adoption for the Mailchimp integration:
The team first used a tool called Datanyze to isolate users who used both AdRoll and MailChimp.
They copied this list into Appcues and created the modal window below, targeting it only to appear to users with both tools who could take immediate advantage of the integration.
AdRoll set the modal to appear as users logged in to their dashboards—a place where users are already poised to take action on their ad campaigns.
5. How GitHub grew to 100,000 users in a year by nurturing its network effect
GitHub began as a software development tool called Git. It was designed to solve a problem its coder founders were having by enabling multiple developers to work together on a single project. But it was the discussion around Git—what the founders nicknamed “the GitHub”—that became the tool's core value.
GitHub's founders realized the problem of collaboration wasn't just a practical software problem—the whole developer community was missing a communal factor. So they focused on growing the community side of the product, creating a freemium product with an open-source repository where coders could come together to discuss projects and solve problems with a collective mindset.
They created the ability to follow projects and track contributions, so there's both an element of camaraderie and an element of competitiveness. This community turned GitHub into a sort of social network for coding. A little over a year after launch, GitHub had gained its first 100,000 users. In July of 2012, just four years after the company was founded, GitHub secured $100M in venture capital.
By catalyzing the network effect, it’s possible to turn a tool into a culture. For GitHub, the more developers got involved, the better the tool became.
Takeaway: Find a community for your product and give them a place to come together.
6. How BuzzFeed grew to 9 billion monthly visitors with their "golden rules of shareability"
BuzzFeed is a constantly churning content machine, publishing hundreds of pieces a day and getting over 3.2 billion content views per month. BuzzFeed's key growth strategy has been to define virality and pursue it in everything they do.
Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed's CEO, shut off the noise and started listening to readers. He found that readers were more concerned about their communities than about the content—they were disappointed when they didn't find something to share with their friends. The most important metrics the Buzzfeed team could judge themselves by were social shares and traffic from social sites.
BuzzFeed created the Golden Rules of Shareability to further refine its criteria and analyzed its viral content to build a formula for what makes something inherently shareable. Having a standard is important because it makes it possible for Team BuzzFeed to take leaps into new topics and areas.
Takeaway: You need to give the people what they want, and that means identifying criteria for what content will attract people to your platform based on data and feedback.
7. How Facebook increased week 1 retention by finding its north star metric
Facebook's active user base is about 2.85 billion monthly active users as of Q1 2021. It's easy to look at the massive growth of Facebook and see it as a sort of big bang effect. But Facebook's growth can be pinned down to several key strategies.
Again and again, Facebook carved out growth by maintaining a steely focus on user behavior data. It has identified markers of user success and used those markers as a North Star Metric to guide its product decisions.
Facebook used analytics to compare cohorts of users—those who were still engaged in the site and those who'd left shortly after signing up. It found the clearest indicator of retention was whether or not users connected with 7 friends within 10 days.
Once Facebook had identified their activation metric, they crafted the onboarding experience to nudge users up to the magic number. Now we’re all familiar with the (sometimes eerie) “Add People You Know” prompt.
Takeaway: By focusing on a metric that correlates with stickiness, your team can take a data-based approach to grow engagement and retention and measuring its progress.
8. How Groove turned high churn around with targeted emails
In 2013, the help desk tool Groove was experiencing a worryingly high churn rate of 4.5%. They had no problem acquiring new users, but people were leaving as fast as they came.
So they set out to get to know their users better. “Your customers probably won’t tell you when they hit a snag,” says Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of Groove. “Dig into your data and look for creative ways to find those customers having trouble, and help them.”
Groove used Kissmetrics to identify who was leaving and who was staying in the app. They compared the user behavior of both cohorts and found that staying in the app was strongly correlated with performing certain key actions—like being able to create a support widget in 2 to 3 minutes. Users who churned were taking far longer, meaning that for some reason, they weren't able to get a grasp of the tool.
Groove was then able to send highly targeted emails to this second cohort, bringing them back into the app. This strategy of proactively reaching out to customers reduced churn to 1.6%
Takeaway: By identifying reasons for churn, you can look for ways to increase user engagement.
9. How StitchFix used algorithms to deliver a personalized shopping experience
We all know the experience of going into a store, looking at mannequins, and wondering, “How would that look on me?” Even better if you have a trusted friend to give you advice. Online styling service StitchFix was determined to find a way to bring this highly personal experience to the masses. But how could personalized recommendations be scalable?
StitchFix starts with a lengthy questionnaire during signup that takes into consideration factors like lifestyle, body type, and most wanted items. This quiz allows the company to gather huge amounts of data that feed into StitchFix’s algorithm, which helps the company understand customers’ preferences.
Even returning customers are continuously presented with choices. They’re given a photo and asked, “Would you wear this?” The company is learning how customer preferences may change, so they can provide future recommendations based on customers with similar preferences.
StitchFix was able to deliver a service that’s based on data yet still feels personal. And there’s still an element of human involvement, as a stylist can override the algorithm. As a growth strategy, the combo of human + machine has worked. StitchFix’s number of active clients has been increasing 17% year-on-year to reach 3.5 million in Q2 2020.
Takeaway: People want to feel your product is meant for them. Find a way to infuse personalization into the experience.
Find the small changes that can lead to huge growth
None of these growth spurts happened by changing a whole company all at once. Instead, these teams found something small—a way in, a loophole, a detail—and carved out that space so growth could follow.
Whether you find a single feature in your product is the key to engaging users or you discover a north star metric that allows you to replicate success, pinpoint a target for your growth strategy and dig into it. Pay attention. Listen to your users. Notice what's happening in your product and what could be better. Learning is your first step in defining your next growth strategy.