Ethical Growth Hacking

Ethical Growth Hacking
Jesse Heslinga

Growth Hacking is a method for achieving rapid, preferably explosive growth. It is a field with a relatively large overlap with the field of (digital) marketing, when it comes to commonly used tactics and tools.

In recent years, there has been a fair amount of discussion about unethical practices in both Digital Marketing tactics and Growth Hacking. In our opinion, this is justified. Unethical use of Digital Marketing and Growth Hacking tactics brings with it quite a few risks and problems. 

"Just spam those people. If it works, it works. Right?"

In this article, we describe those risks. We describe how you can ensure that you always consider ethics when devising your Growth and/or Marketing strategy, tactics and experiments. Finally, we'll show you how ethical Growth Hacking and Digital Marketing are always more focused on sustainable growth than rapid growth.

The key here is that you always focus on the question: "How can we add as much value as possible in a sustainable way? That is exactly what you achieve: sustainable growth and sustainable value creation. And we think that is what it is all about.

The Problems and Risks of Unethical Growth Hacking and Digital Marketing

The first big problem with unethical Growth Hacking practices is that, if you do it successfully, you can indeed achieve very fast growth on the metrics you focus on, but that growth is not sustainable. And that this growth can even ultimately be counterproductive for the success of your company or product.

In addition, a fundamental problem of unethical Growth Hacking or Digital Marketing is intrinsic: it is dishonest, unethical, morally reprehensible. But what does that really mean? 

As human beings, we find things unfair or unethical if they can have negative consequences, especially for other people. But ultimately also for ourselves.

So what are the risks you can think of? They can be divided into three categories.

Risks for your customers
Unethical growth hacking or digital marketing can have the following negative consequences for your customers:

  • They are faced with a product or service that they did not need or that does not meet their needs. This means a loss of time and/or money.
  • Their scarce attention is sucked up by advertisements or other (digital) expressions, which comes at a cost in terms of time, energy and mental health.
  • Their valuable data is used for micro-targeting, for example, which - in combination with techniques such as Behavioural Design, Neuromarketing, bots, etc. - influences their behaviour in a non-transparent and unfair way.

Risks to the wider society

  • We create a climate of unfair competition in the market but also, for example, in the media, in communications and in the democratic process when these kinds of techniques are used for political campaigns.
  • Smartphone addiction and 'Digital Burnout' are reinforced by the deluge of digital expressions, with all the mental health and social polarisation that this entails.
  • We contribute to and strengthen the consumer society with all its negative economic, environmental, social and psychological consequences.

Risks to your business

  • You can lose employees. More and more people in surveys say they want to work for a company that is ethical; a company that creates value sustainably and does not have unethical social, environmental, or marketing practices. This can also cause difficulties in attracting new employees.
  • Serious damage to your reputation can occur if it becomes public knowledge that your company has engaged in shady practices. This damages the value of your brand.
  • Legal risks: depending on whether your actions are not only unethical but also illegal (e.g. collecting and using personal data for online marketing outside the framework of the GDPR) you may also cause legal damage to your business. And any associated fines.
  • Damage to the value of your brand and the loss of employees will, in the long run, have a very strong negative impact on the financial results and thus the existence of your company.

So, as you can see, marketers, owners, and growth hackers actually have a very big responsibility to consider whether the strategies and tactics they use to achieve growth are actually ethical.

Ethical behaviour in rowth hacking and digital marketing

How does ethical and unethical Growth Hacking work?

Determining whether what you come up with is ethical or not is, in essence, very simple. The key here is that you always focus on the question: "How can we add as much value as possible in the most sustainable way?"

The practice is somewhat more complex.

We start with two examples to show what unethical Growth/Marketing tactics can look like. Then we show how you can use ethical frameworks to ensure that you are always sure that you have thought carefully about the ethics of your actions.

Examples of unethical Growth Hacking practices

A fairly well-known example of unethical Growth Hacking is the story of AirBnB, which at the start of its platform used bots to scour the competing site Craigslist (the American version of Marktplaats) for supply and demand of temporary housing.

In this way, AirBnB not only filled its own platform with lightning speed, but was also able to very quickly attract the market for supply and demand of temporary housing and holiday accommodation.

Why is this unethical?

Firstly, because Craigslist's terms of use clearly state that you cannot use the platform in this way. Secondly, because it violates an (unwritten) ethical rule in the world of business: sneakily (against the terms of use) approach a competitor's customers and get them to use your product or service.

Rap Genius
Rap Genius allows users and artists to interactively share lyrics, using line-by-line annotations that they can read, create and edit. Rap Genius was one of many startups in 2013 that went over to the 'dark side' of Growth Hacking, using spammy SEO tactics disguised as an affiliate program.

Why is this unethical?

Google's terms of service state that any links that are not placed 'naturally' - i.e. from the initiative of a site's webmaster - violate Google's terms of service for SEO. The reason for this is that requesting and even exchanging links placed for the sake of SEO can make the relevance of a web page unclear to a user. And that the user's experience is altered in a non-transparent way.

Indicted, exposed and ultimately punished by Google, Rap Genius' site traffic dropped sharply in 2013. How sharply? From 1,376,535 unique visitors per day, to 234,590 unique visitors, over a handful of days.

Finally, let's look back at an infamous example of growth hacking gone wrong. Circle was a start-up and a mobile local-social platform that was launched in 2010 with high expectations and big investors. For a while, Circle was at the top of the app charts.

But Circle reached that position by using Growth Hacking to hack its users. During Circle's sign-up process, people were asked to tap a button that invited everyone in their contact list to sign up via SMS.

The result? Users spammed friends and family to sign up for Circle. What made it worse was that the tactic was promoted as an update. Recipients were "not amused", especially since many people received multiple invitations.

A few of their Tweets tell the story:

"Invite me to try Circle - The Local Network one more time and I will stab your grandmother."

"Invite me to join 'Circle' and see how fast I will hunt you down."

"The next person who sends me an invitation to the local network on Facebook gets a kick up the arse."

As soon as Circle switched off the invite mechanism in the face of all this public ridicule, it dropped from the top of the charts to 1,473rd place in the App Store rankings. No need to look for it in the App Store these days: the app has long since disappeared.

How to use ethical frameworks to work for growth in a sustainable way

Ok. How do you avoid this? The first and most important question to ask yourself when devising or creating a growth strategy or tactic is the following:

"Does this product or service actually add sustainable value for my customers?"

And then:

"Does this statement or tactic then also add value for my customers?"

In addition, there are a number of ethical frameworks that you can use as part of your decision-making process and your experiment design process:

Ethical Frameworks: Consequentialist Ethics, Duty Ethics, and Virtue Ethics
Brown University provides an extensive article on the three most commonly used frameworks for making ethical decisions. These are:

  • Consequentialist Ethics - focused on outcomes; 
  • Duty Ethics - focusing on responsibilities and risks that should be avoided; and finally - 
  • Virtue Ethics - aimed at adhering to a set of moral guidelines, either universal guidelines or more personal (such as brand values for a company).

In the overview below, you can see the three Frameworks broken down. We have highlighted the important questions to ask yourself when making ethical decisions.

Ethical Growth Hacking Framework

In many situations, according to the authors, the three Frameworks will lead to the same - or at least very similar - conclusions about what you should do, although they will usually provide different reasons for reaching those decisions.

Ethical Growth Hacking & Marketing Checklist

How do you apply these Frameworks? You can use the following checklist to use one or more of the above ethical frameworks when checking a strategy, tactic or experiment on growth:

  1. Recognise the ethical challenge.
  2. Consider which parties and persons are involved.
  3. Gather all the necessary information for an overview of possible outcomes.
  4. Formulate actions and weigh alternatives.
  5. Choose an action and see how you think and feel about it.
  6. Perform the action.
  7. Reflect on the action and the results.

Ethical decision-making requires sensitivity to the ethical implications of problems and situations. It also requires practice. Having a framework for ethical decision-making is essential. We hope the above information is helpful in developing your own experience in making ethical choices in Growth Hacking and Digital Marketing.

What does ethical growth hacking deliver?

So are there any examples of ethical Growth Hacking? Yes there are, and we'd love to share one with you for inspiration.

Hubspot created a free tool that measures the performance of your site by assessing key factors such as SEO, mobile performance, and so on. It then gives you tips on how to optimise your site.

Because this free tool really added value, people shared it, and it got a lot of backlinks and a lot of attention on social media platforms.

The result? Hubspot saw its e-mail list grow and reached 15,000 users with the help of this one tool. Of course, we do not need to tell you anything about the enduring value of Hubspot: Hubspot is one of the most widely used digital marketing platforms and most trusted brands when it comes to online marketing.

#So It Can Be Done

Ethical Growth Hacking & Digital Marketing: Takeaways

With this article, we wanted to give you insight into how you can avoid ethical pitfalls in Growth Hacking and closely related Digital Marketing. And we showed you how you can contribute to sustainable growth by being very aware of the ethical issues surrounding growth strategies.

These are the most important take aways from this article:

  • Ethical Risks to People, Society, and Brand
    Be aware that Growth Hacking can bring ethical risks to your customers, to society, and to your business itself.
  • Use ethical frameworks and checks
    For example, the Consequentialist, Duty, and Virtue Frameworks and the checklist in this article.
  • Ethical Growth Hacks ensure sustainable growth
    At its core, growth strategies should aim for sustainable growth. So the most important question you should always ask yourself is: "Does this add sustainable value for the people I'm doing it for?"

Want to know more?

Do you want to know more about how you can use Marketing Strategy in combination with Growth Hacking as a driver for sustainable growth? And how you can do that in an ethically responsible way? Or how we can help you to incorporate the most important marketing trends into the marketing strategy for your company in a sustainable way? 

Then contact our Director of Sales, Thierry de Vries. During a no-obligation Growth Call, Thierry will be happy to discuss how we can help you further.

Book a no-obligation Growth Call