Growth Hacking, 2017 Style: How Slack Did It

October 25, 2017

Back in 2010, Sean Ellis and Andrew Chen popularized the term “growth hacker” to describe a hybrid coder and marketer who eschewed traditional marketing for what is testable, trackable and shareable.

Growth hacking was less about branding than pursuing users and growth. A prime tenet of growth hacking is productizing your marketing, which offloads much of the marketing function to the product. The practice traces its roots to 1996 when Hotmail forwent billboard advertising and instead included the line “Get your free email at Hotmail” at the bottom of every user’s email message.

Since 2010 the market has changed a lot. Smartphones were still pretty new then and mobile marketing wasn’t nearly as a big a deal as it is now. Over the past seven years, the principles of growth hacking have also become popularized, so you might assume that they are so widely used that they’re no longer as effective. You’d be wrong though. Case in point: Slack. Slack’s rise offers a blueprint for growth hacking, 2017 style. What the company did proves that these techniques still work remarkably well in our current environment.

A product focus

In four years, office chat app Slack has gone from zero to 4 million active daily users and a $4 billion valuation. At this writing, 77% of the Fortune 100 are using Slack. How did they do it?

Though Slack has done some traditional advertising, its main marketing focus has been generating word of mouth. It helped then that founder Stewart Butterfield was well-known in Silicon Valley since he was a cofounder of Flickr. Leveraging press interest, Butterfield was able to get 8,000 people to try Slack on the first day it was publicly available in August 2013.

That’s not a huge number. If you launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign, 8,000 signups wouldn’t be anything to brag about. But Slack’s rise was less about using external messaging to get people to try Slack and more about making the product so useful that fans became advocates.

How? First, though there were already messaging apps on the market, including HipChat, Skype and Campfire, the category was still under-served. According to Butterfield, some 70-80% of the target customers weren’t using anything for internal communication, or rather they were using a patchwork of ad hoc solutions.

Second, Slack was easy to try. The free version of the app has robust functionality. The signup process is easy and the interface is simple. It works just as well for small groups within a company as it does company-wide, so IT directors can try it out with a few employees at a time before committing to it.

Third, Slack’s team considered the first iteration of the app a minimum viable product, or work in progress, that would evolve based on user feedback. Prior to the launch, Slack had seeded its software to some tech firms (including Rdio and Cozy). The Slack team paid close attention to how those companies were using it and ditched ignored or buggy features. They first chose to focus on search, synchronization and file sharing.

Savvy search and social media moves

In addition to savvy product development, the Slack team took some measures to ensure visibility. For instance, Slack is integrated with tools like Google Drive, Wunderlist and Trello. As a result, Slack’s App Directory page shows up high in organic searches for those items.

Here are some other clever Slack hacks, which Chris Von Wilpert summarized in this epic post:

  • Slack uses its Medium-based blog as its help page, including items like “Set your status in Slack.” More than 50% of Slack’s Medium traffic comes from Medium itself; articles often make Medium’s “Popular on Medium” section and its “Medium Daily Digest” email newsletter.
  • Slack uses Facebook as a means to draw traffic and send it elsewhere, including to its podcast.
  • It uses a call-to-action for its YouTube videos that doesn’t mention what Slack does, prompting curious viewers to click to solve the mystery.
  • It runs a Twitter account, @SlackLoveTweets that feature raves about the product, aiding positive word of mouth.
  • Slack doesn’t oversell customers into trading up from the free to the paid product with follow-up emails. Slack also gives you your money back if no one uses it for 14 days.

Slack marketing

Some Takeaways

Critics might argue that Slack’s isn’t really a rags-to-riches story because its founder was already a known entity. While it’s true that not every founder has Stewart Butterfield’s pedigree, Butterfield’s venture right before Slack, gaming company Glitch, didn’t survive. Notoriety will only get you so far.

Instead, Slack’s rise provides a blueprint for any startup. If you find the right market niche, offer a well-designed product that fills a real need and you make it easy to try and share, then you have a fighting chance. Easier said than done, I know. But Slack’s success shows that the growth hacker model can still work tremendously well.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.