Digital Marketing vs Growth Hacking: What’s The Difference?

10 Minute Read

Sample Post Description


Since the inception of the Internet, businesses have been forced into developing new methodologies as to how they approach customer acquisition and building brand awareness. 

Once acquired, it would then be up to the sales teams to convert customers and find ways to pull them back in for another purchase, to retain them. 

This age-old customer cycle is better known today as the sales funnel or customer journey. Both digital marketers and growth hackers use it to grow modern businesses. But they go about it in different ways, albeit using similar methods and frameworks.  

So what are the similarities and what sets them apart? Well, in this article we’ll break down the differences between digital marketing and growth hacking. 

What is digital marketing? 

When we talk about ‘Digital Marketing’ as a discipline, we’re referring to the modern evolution from traditional marketing.

If we cast our minds back to the old ways of marketing, the traditional ways, we think about marketing tactics like television, radio, print ads and billboards. These were the channels that marketers would use to promote their products and services, capturing the attention of their audiences to drive sales and brand awareness. 

Fast-forward to the post-internet era and we see these same techniques used in a different manner. Instead of a billboard, we see a banner ad appear on a webpage. Instead of radio, we have promotional audio or video messages on social media or YouTube

What these digital marketing techniques have in common, and the channels they use to deploy them, is they are trying to build brand awareness and engage customers, enticing a direct or future sale (lead generation). 

These two objectives (to attract and engage customers) are known as Awareness and Acquisition. They make up the initial stages of the sales funnel which you can read more about here.

The different roles and tools of a digital marketing team  

The power of digital marketing has grown exponentially over the last decade with more and more companies seeing its immense value and potential for business growth. 

In an era of ultra-competitiveness within virtually every sector, building a strong digital presence is no longer optional for success, it’s mandatory. 

Often, teams will be made up of several specialists, each with their own role to play in achieving business objectives and in 2022, the demand for marketing-related professionals is huge. 

Here are some examples of digital marketing roles you can expect to find: 

  • Digital Marketing Manager - they are responsible for creating, implementing and managing the progress of digital marketing campaigns. Their job is to make sure that a brand’s product or service is being represented and promoted in the best possible way for their consumers. 

  • SEO Specialist - they help businesses rank higher in Google search results organically, ideally putting them at the top of the search engine results page (SERP). SEO also includes the optimization of keywords and content. 

  • SEM Specialist -  they use paid advertising or PPC (pay-per-click) as it’s known, to advertise on search engines. These are the results you’ll find right at the top of a search result page with ‘Ad’ written next to them. 

  • Social Media Manager - they create social media strategies to execute on all of a company's social media platforms, such as Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook. They monitor, measure and report on campaign performance. 

  • Email Marketing Specialist - they are responsible for managing a company’s list of email subscribers and the content promoted through the channel. Email marketing has evolved dramatically over the years as consumer behaviour has changed. Specialists will map out entire customer journeys through email. 

  • Digital Analyst - they are responsible for communicating campaign data into actionable strategies for the wider marketing team and stakeholders. They also help to maintain databases and records as well as audit campaigns for optimization. 

As you can see, digital marketing is far from a one-man operation. It requires a myriad of skills and sensibilities all pulled together to achieve business growth. 

To sum up, common digital marketing strategies are: 

  1. Organic SEO (search engine optimization) and paid SEM (PPC)
  2. Content marketing 
  3. Email marketing 
  4. Social media marketing 

What is growth hacking? 

So if digital marketing is about using online channels to generate awareness, leads and sales, we can define growth hacking as sharing the same objective - to grow a business. The difference then is that growth hacking focuses on iterative processes to rapidly accelerate growth, at every stage of the marketing funnel. It’s heavily reliant on data to drive growth. 

Growth hacking lends itself to companies that embrace the lean startup methodology. In short, this refers to companies that have determined their product-market fit (they have validated the need for their product or service in their market/ industry). This means there’s less guesswork or assumptions, the company already knows who they want to market to and growth hackers use this information to start their experimentation process (which we’ll cover in the next section).

Growth hacking isn’t beholden to just the marketing department either. It can be applied to all departments including engineering, packaging and distribution, sales or customer service. Digital marketers deal tend to work exclusively with marketing departments with little if any, cross-pollination.

The growth hacking process  

Growth hackers aim to rapidly experiment with and test new ideas to achieve massive growth as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. No matter what aspect of the business this falls under. 

Going back to our marketing funnel from earlier, growth hacking applies to each of the 6 stages of the AAARRR or Pirate Funnel. This is the principal framework of a growth hacker used to identify growth opportunities. 

To give a little more detail, these are the 6 stages of the funnel. 

  1. Awareness - How are your customers finding you? And which digital channels are they coming from i.e. social media, email, SEO etc
  1. Acquisition - How many people are visiting your website? Again, what are the channels that drive traffic to the site? 

  1. Activation - How many people are taking the desired action? Figure out the percentage and discern why some customers aren’t taking the next step. 

  1. Retention - How many people are returning to use your product or service? 

  1. Revenue - How many start paying and how much do they pay? 

  1. Referral - How many people recommend your product or service to others? 

Using the pirate funnel, a growth hacker might be brought in to increase sign-ups to a freemium app for example. They would analyse each stage of the funnel, collect the data and formulate a plan to attack the problem. And what’s the form of attack a growth hacker uses you ask? 

The G.R.O.W.S. process

The steps are as follows: 

  1. Gather Ideas 
  2. Rank Ideas 
  3. Outline Experiments 
  4. Work, Work, Work 
  5. Study Data 

Check out this video we made to learn more about how to implement this process. 

Growth hacking skillset 

Unlike digital marketing where there are multiple roles for specialists, it’s very common to see growth hackers with wider skillsets. 

Due to its diverse nature, growth hacking does require a working knowledge of a few key technical areas. This is due to the need to pivot between various stages of an experiment.  Common technical skills for growth hackers are: 

Now it’s not to say that any of these skills couldn’t or shouldn’t be learnt by digital marketers too (the more you know the better!), the difference is that growth hackers are expected to know them up front. 

Digging into the digital marketing toolkit 

So, we can see that growth hacking applies to each stage of the pirate funnel, and the process they use to define growth experiments. The reason growth hacking is often used interchangeably with digital marketing is because they tend to share the same toolkit. 

When a growth hacker has identified a growth opportunity and is ready to implement an idea, they’ll use many of the same channels as a digital marketer to achieve it. These are the marketing types we mentioned earlier, email, social media, SEM, content, etc. 

Do you need a digital marketer or growth hacker? 

For businesses, the choice between hiring a digital marketer or a growth hacker all comes down to what it is you’re trying to achieve. 

If the goal is to promote brand awareness and generate leads across different online channels, then a digital marketer is your best bet! They’ll focus solely on the awareness and acquisition stages of the funnel to drive growth. 

On the other hand, if the goal is to analyse all stages of your customer journey to identify weak areas crying out for growth, then a growth hacker is the number one choice. They’ll pivot between all areas of the customer journey and use their expertise to experiment and find solutions for growth.  

In an ideal world, a business would employ the services of both these marketing types, it all depends on budget of course. 

For the professionals reading this thinking about a switch in career or looking to upskill, both of these roles offer a creative, exciting and high-intensity-high-reward outlet. 

At Growth Tribe, we offer fully-certified online learning modules for growth hacking and digital marketing. Click here to discover our courses and how you can become a marketing pro!