A growth strategy isn’t just a set of functions you plug in to your business to boost grow your product—it’s also the way in which you organize and rally as a team.
If growth is “more of a mindset than a toolkit,” as Ryan Holiday said, then it’s a collective mindset.
Successful growth strategies are the product of engineering, marketing, leadership, design, and product management. Whether your team consists of 2 co-founders or a skyscraper full of employees, your growth hacking strategies will only be effective if you’re able to affix them to your organization, apply a workflow, and use the results of experiments to make intelligent decisions.
In short, there's no plugin for growth. To increase your product's user base and activation rate, your company will need to be methodical and tailor the strategies you read about to your unique product, problem, and target audience.
What is a growth strategy?
Before we dive into specific examples of growth strategies, let’s take a moment to establish a proper growth strategy definition:
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. Let's keep that in mind with the following examples.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are typically 4 types of strategies that roll up into a growth strategy. You might use one or all of the following:
Product development strategy—growing your market share by developing new products to serve that market. These new products should either solve for a new problem or add to the existing problem you product solves.
Market development strategy—growing your market share by developing new segments of the market, expanding your user base, or expanding your current users' usage of your product.
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.
Diversification strategy—growing your market share by entering entirely new markets.
Below, we’ll explore 21 growth strategy examples from teams that have achieved massive growth in their companies. Many examples use one or more of the 4 classic growth strategies, but others are outside of the box. These out-of-the-box approaches are often called "growth hacking strategies".
Growth strategy examples
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 onto your own unique product, there's a lesson to be learned and leveraged from each one.
Now let’s get to it!
1. How Clearbit drove 100k inbound leads by giving away free tools
Clearbit's APIs allow you to do amazing things—like enrich trial sign-ups on your homepage—but to use them effectively, you need a developer's touch. Clearbit needed to get developers to try their tool in order to grow. Their strategy involved dedicating their own developer time to creating free tools, APIs, and browser extensions that would give other developers a chance to play.
They experimented with creating free APIs for very specific purposes. One of the most successful was their free Logo API which allowed companies to quickly imprint their brand stamp onto pages of their website. Clearbit launched the API on ProductHunt and spread the word to their developer communities and email list—within a week, the Logo API had received 60,000 views and word-of-mouth traction had grown rapidly.
Clearbit made a bite-sized version of their overall product. The Logo API represents Clearbit at large—it's a flexible and easy-to-implement way for companies to integrate data into their workflows.
Offering a bite-sized version of your product that provides value for free creates an incredible first impression. It validates that what you're making really works and drives testers to commit to your main product. And it can be an incredibly effective source of acquisition—Clearbit’s free APIs have driven over 100,000 inbound leads for the company.
2. How Segment increased conversions by experimenting with paid acquisition
As a customer analytics tool, Segment practices what it preaches when it comes to acquisition. The Segment team has developed a data-driven, experimental approach to identify its most successful acquisition channels and double down on those strategies.
In an AMA, their head of marketing Diana Smith told the audience that they'd recently been experimenting with which paid channels worked for them. “In a nutshell, we’ve learned that retargeting definitely works and search does not,” Smith explained.
Segment learned that their marketing efforts were more effective when they reached out to users who'd viewed their site before versus when they relied on users finding them through search. So they set out to refine their retargeting strategy. They started customizing their Facebook and Twitter ads to visitors who'd viewed particular pages: to visitors who'd viewed their docs, they sent API-related messages; to visitors who'd looked at pricing, they sent free trial messages.
By narrowing your acquisition strategy, you can dramatically increase ROI on paid acquisition, increasing conversions while minimizing CAC.
3. How Tinder tripled its user base by reaching target users in person
Tinder famously found success by gamifying dating. But to get its growth started, Tinder needed a strategy that would allow potential users to play the game and find a willing dating pool on the other side of the app.
In order to validate their product, people needed to see it in action. Tinder's strategy was surprisingly high touch—they sent a team to visit potential users and demonstrate the product's value in person.
First, they helped groups of women install the app, guiding them past initial install friction.
Then they did the same pitch to a group of men. Both cohorts were able to see value quickly because the app was now used people who had something important in common—they all went to the same school.
To find the right growth strategy for your product, you have to understand what it will take for users to see it working. Tinder's in-person pitches were a massive success because it helped users see value faster by populating the 2-sided app with more relevant connections.
4. How Zapier growth hacked 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 that it sort of disappears behind these other tools. But that raises an interesting question: How do you market an invisible tool?
Zapier's strategy was to leverage its multifaceted product personality through content marketing. The team takes every new integration on Zapier as a new opportunity to build authority on search and to appeal to a new audience.
This strategy helped their blog grow from scratch to over 600,000 readers in just 3 years, and the blog continues to grow as new tools and integrations are added to Zapier.
If you have a product with multiple use cases and integrations, try targeting your content marketing to specific audiences, rather than aiming for a catch-all approach.
5. How Twitter strengthened their network effect with onboarding suggestions
Andy Johns arrived at Twitter as a product manager in 2010, when the platform already had over 30 million active users. But according to Johns, growth was slowing. So the Twitter user growth team got creative and tried a new growth experiment every day—the team would pick an area in which to engage more users, create an experiment, and nudge the needle up by as much as 60,000 users in a day.
One crucial user growth strategy that worked for Twitter was to coax users into following more people during the onboarding. They started suggesting 10 accounts to new users shortly after signup.
Because users never had to encounter an empty Twitter feed, they were able to experience the product’s value much faster.
Your users’ first aha moment—whether it's connecting with friends, sending messages, or sharing files—should serve to give them a secure footing in your product and nudge your network effect into action one user at a time.
6. How LinkedIn growth hacked connections by asking a simple question
LinkedIn was designed to connect users. But in the very beginning, most users still only a few connections and needed help making more.
LinkedIn's strategy was to capitalize on high user motivation just after signup. Nicknamed the “Reconnect Flow,” LinkedIn implemented a single question to new users during onboarding: “Where did you used to work?”
Based on this input, LinkedIn then displayed a list of possible connections from the user’s former workplace. This jogged new users’ memories and reduced the effort required to reconnect with old colleagues . Once they had made this step, users were more likely to make further connections on their own.
Thanks to this simple prompt, LinkedIn's pageviews increased by 41%, searches jumped up 33%, and users' profiles became richer with 38% more work positions listed.
If you notice your users aren't making the most of your product on their own, help them out while you have their attention. Use the momentum of your onboarding to help your users become engaged.
7. How Facebook increased week 1 retention by finding its north star metric
Facebook's active user base surpassed 1 billion in 2012. It's easy to look at the massive growth of Facebook and see it as a sort of big bang effect—a natural event difficult to pick apart for its separate catalysts. 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. They've identified markers of user success and used those markers as North Star metrics to guide their product decisions.
Once Facebook had identified their activation metric, they crafted the onboarding experience to nudge users up to the magic number.
By focusing on a metric that correlates with stickiness, your team can take a scientific approach to growing engagement and retention, and measuring its progress.
8. How Slack got users to stick around by mirroring successful teams
Slack has grown by watching how teams interact with their product. Their own team was the very first test case and from then on, they’ve refined their product by engaging companies to act as testers.
To understand patterns of retention and churn, Slack peered into their user data. They found that teams who'd sent 2,000 or more messages almost never dropped out of the product. That's a lot of messages—you only get to that number by really playing around with the product and integrating it into your routine.
Slack knew they had to give new users as many reasons as possible to send messages through the platform. They started plotting interactions with users in a way that encouraged multiple message sending.
For example, Slack's onboarding experience simulates how a seasoned Slack user behaves. New users are introduced to the platform through interactions with the Slackbot, and are encouraged to upload files, use keyboard shortcuts, and start new conversations.
Find what success means for your product by watching loyal users closely. Mirror that behavior for new users, and encourage them to get into a pattern that leads to long-term retention.
9. How ConvertKit grew $125,000 MRR by helping users switch tools
In early 2013, self-employed e-book writer Nathan Barry publicly set himself an unusual resolution. He announced the “Web App Challenge”—he wanted to build an app from scratch and get to $5,000+ in monthly recurring revenue within 6 months.
Though he didn't quite make it to that $5,000 mark, he did build a product—ConvertKit—with validated demand that went on to reach $125,000 in MRR per month.
Barry experimented with a lot of growth strategies over the first 3 three years, but the one he kept turning back to was direct communication with potential customers. Through personalized emails, Barry found tons of people who loved the idea of ConvertKit but said it was too much trouble for them to think about switching tools—all their contacts and drafts were set up in their existing tools.
So Barry developed a “concierge migration service.” The ConvertKit team would literally go into whichever tool the blogger was using, scrape everything out, and settle the new customer into ConvertKit. Just 15 months after initiating this strategy, ConvertKit was making $125,000 in MRR.
By actively reaching out and listening to you target users, you’ll be better able to identify precise barriers to entry and come up with creative solutions to help them overcome these hurdles.
10. How Yahoo doubled mobile revenue by rearranging their team
When Yahoo doubled their mobile revenue between 2012 and 2013, it wasn't just the product that evolved. Yahoo had hired a new leader for its Mobile and Emerging Products, Adam Cahan. As soon as Cahan arrived, he set to work making organizational changes that allowed Yahoo's mobile division to get experimental, iterate, and develop new products quickly.
First, he encouraged elements of a startup environment. Cahan brought together talented individuals from different disciplines—design, product management, engineering—and encouraged them to work like a founding team to focus solely on developing mobile products that would grow.
Cahan maintained that collaborative environment even as the division grew to 50 members. By making every member of the team focused on user experience before all else, he removed some of the bottlenecks and divisions that often build up in a large tech company. He gave the team a mission to discover how to make Yahoo better for customers, even if that meant dismantling the status quo or abandoning older software.
In 2 years, Cahan grew Yahoo's mobile division from 150 million mobile users to 550 million. By hiring the right people and enabling them to focus on solving problems for users, he had opened the doors for organic growth.
11. How Stripe grew by looking after developers first
Payment processing platform Stripe always knew that developers were the key to adoption of their service. Founders John and Patrick Collison started Stripe to address a very specific problem—developers were sorely in need of a payment solution they could adapt to different merchant needs and match the speed and complexity of the buyer side of the ecommerce interface.
Merchants started clamoring for Stripe because their developers were raving about it—today, Stripe commands 15.34% of the market share for payment processing. That’s in large part to Stripe’s strategy of prioritizing the needs of developers first and foremost. For instance:
Code could only get Stripe so far—so in order to drive adoption, they focused on creating clear, comprehensive documentation so that developers could pick up Stripe products and run with them.
There's a “Try Now” section where users can see what it takes to tokenize a credit card with Stripe.
Know your audience. By focusing on the people that are most directly affected by your problem, you can generate faster and more valuable word-of-mouth.
12. How Groove turned high churn around with targeted emails
In 2013, help desk tool Groove was experiencing a worryingly high churn rate of 4.5%. They were acquiring new users just fine, but people were leaving as fast as they came. So they set out to get to know these users better. It was a strategy that would allow them to reduce churn from 4.5% to 1.6%. “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 examine customer data. They identified 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 and helping them achieve value.
By using analytics, you can identify behaviors that drive engagement vs. churn, then proactively reach out to customers when you spot these behaviors in action. By getting ahead of individual cases of churn, you can drive engagement up.
13. How PayPal paid users to growth hack for them
PayPal was growth hacking referrals before it was cool. When PayPal launched, they were introducing a new type of payment method—and they knew that they needed to build trust and authority in order to grow. Their strategy involved getting early adopters to refer users to the platform.
As users grew accustomed to the idea of PayPal, signup bonuses were decreased to $10, then $5, then were phased out—but by that time, their user base had started to grow organically.
“We must have spent tens of millions in signup and referral bonuses the first year,” says David Sacks, original COO at PayPal. But that initial investment worked—PayPal's radical first iteration of their referral program allowed them to grow to 5 million daily users in only a few months.
Incentivize your users in a way that makes sense for your business. If users adore your product, the initial cost of setting up a referral program can be recouped many times over as your users become advocates.
14. How Postmates reached 1 million deliveries by baking growth into engineering and product
With growing demand, Postmates focused on developing products that are highly accessible and easy to use. At the same time, they gathered funding. In October 2016, they gained another $140 million investment taking their post-money valuation to $600 million. But to cope with this growth in valuation, Postmates needed to scale their growth team.
According to Siqi Chen, VP of Growth at Postmates, the company had “an incredibly scrappy, hard working team who did the best they could with the tools given, but it's very hard to make growth work at Postmates scale without dedicated engineering and product support.”
So the team shifted to include engineering and product at every level. Now, Postmates' growth team has 3 arms of its own—“growth product,” “growth marketing,” and “user acquisition”—each one with its own engineering support.
By connecting their growth team directly to the technical decision makers, Postmates created a team that can scale with the company.
15. 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 9 billioncontent 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 their criteria, and analyzed their viral content to create a formula for what makes something inherently shareable. This is important, because it makes it possible for Team BuzzFeed to take leaps into new topics and areas.
BuzzFeed's focus has followed its social crowd and has been able to adapt to changing reading patterns and platforms. The company has also upped its political arm, and has made big investments in branded video.
The lesson? To go viral, you need to give the people what they want, and that means striking a balance between consistency and novelty.
16. 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, allowing hosts to double post their ads to Airbnb and Craigslist at the same time.
But it's their review strategy that has enabled Airbnb to keep growing, once this short-term tactic wore out its effectiveness. Reviews enrich the Airbnb 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.
They made the review process double-blind, so feedback isn't visible until both traveler and host have filled out the form. This not only ensures more honest reviews, but removes a key source of friction from the review process.
They also 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. You can growth hack your shareability by identifying barriers to trust and smoothing out points of friction along the way.
17. How AdRoll used Appcues modal windows to increase adoption to 60%
AdRoll has a great MailChimp integration—it allows users to retarget ads to their email subscribers in MailChimp. But they found that very few users were actually making use of this feature.
Peter Clark, 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. His engineers were better suited to longer development cycles, and he didn't want to disrupt the flow of his organization.So Peter and his team started using Appcues to create custom modal windows quickly and easily—and without input from their technical team members.
With a code-free solution, AdRoll’s growth team could design and implement however many windows they needed to drive adoption of the features they were working on. Here's how it worked 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.
They set the modal to appear as users arrived logged in to their dashboards—the core area of the AdRoll tool, in which users are already poised to take action on their ad campaigns.
This single experiment yielded thousands of conversions and ended up increasing adoption rate of the integration to 60%. The experiment is so easy to replicate that Clark and the team now use modal windows for all kinds of growth experiments.
18. 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 that 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 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, 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. Find a community for your product and give them a place to come together.
19. How Yelp reached 176 million unique monthly visits by gamifying reviews
It’s relatively easy for a consumer review site to get drive-by traffic. What makes Yelp different, and allows it to draw return visitors and community members, is that it has strategically grown the social aspect of its platform.
This is what has earned Yelp 176 million unique monthly visitors in Q2 2019 and has allowed them to overtake competitors by creating their own category of service. Yelp set out to amplify its existing network effect by rewarding users for certain behaviors.
Yelp judged reviews based on several factors, including level of detail and how many votes of approval they received. All of these factors helped to make Yelp more shareable. Essentially, they were teaching loyal users to be better content creators by rewarding them for upping the quality of Yelp's content.
By making reviews into a status symbol, Yelp turned itself into a community with active members who feel a sense of belonging there—and who feel motivated to use the platform more often.
20. How Etsy grew to 42.7 million active buyers by empowering sellers
Etsy reached IPO with a $2 billion valuation in 2015, ten years after the startup was founded. Today, the company boasts 42.7 million active buyers and 2.3 million active sellers who made $3.9 billion in annual gross merchandise sales in 2018. Not too shabby (chic)!
The key to their success was Etsy's creation of a “community-centric” platform. Rather than building a simple ecommerce site, Etsy set about to create a community of like-minded craft-makers. One of the ways they did this was by boosting organic new user growth by actively encouraging sellers to share their wares on social media.
First, Etsy's strategy was to focus on the seller side of its user acquisition. They gave their sellers tons of support but also tons of independence to promote and curate their businesses—which ultimately gave sellers a sense of ownership over their own success. Thanks to this approach, Etsy sellers were motivated to recruit their own buyers, who then visited Etsy and got hooked on the site itself.
Etsy's seller handbook is basically a course in how to operate a small online business—hashtags and all. Vendors create their own regulars, and drum up their own new business through social sharing, while Etsy positions itself as the supportive platform.
If your product involves a 2-sided market, focus on one side of that equation first. What can you do to enable those people to become an acquisition channel in and of themselves?
21. How IBM created a growth hacking team to spur startup-level growth
As cloud-based software has taken off, traditional hardware technology companies have struggled. IBM has been proactive in their efforts to redefine its brand and product offering for an increasingly mobile audience.
Faced with an increasingly competitive, cloud-based landscape, IBM decided that it was time to start telling a different story. This legacy giant began acting more like a nascent startup, as the company aggressively reinvented its portfolio.
Their strategy for reinvigorating growth and achieving startup-like mentality has been to take a product-led approach.
In 2014, IBM created a growth hacking team. Already a large corporation, IBM didn't need to climb the initial hill of growth to get its product off the ground. But by building this focused team, it aimed to grow into new areas and new audiences with “data-driven creativity,” by using the small business strategies it was seeing in the startup scene.
IBM now essentially has startup-sized teams within its massive team, working in a lab style with the autonomy to test marketing strategies
No matter what your team looks like—whether it's a nimble 10-person startup or an enterprise with low flexibility—you can turn your organizational structure into a space where growth can thrive. Of course, that achievement is not without its struggles. But as Nancy Hensley, Chief Digital Officer of Data and AI at IBM says:
“There’s always pain in transformation. That’s how you know you’re transforming!”
Listen up before you get loud
None of these growth spurts happened by changing a whole company all at once. Instead, these teams found something—something small, a way in, a loophole, a detail—and carved out that space so growth could follow.
Whether you find that 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 your area for growth and dig into it.
Pay attention. Listen to your users and notice what's happening in your product and what could be happening better. That learning is your next growth strategy.
Margaret Kelsey is the Director of Brand & Creative at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.