Why Growth Hacking Isn't Working for You (and What to do Instead)

Growth hacking is all the rage right? Every startup blog, magazine, and forum has at least a dozen posts detailing how to growth hack your SaaS (or any other) startup.

The problem is that most growth hacks only work for the person giving you the strategy.

Sure, you may get a bit of traction if you follow their blueprint to the tee, but you likely won’t get to one million dollars in annual recurring revenue or add another one thousand customers.

There’s a simple reason why.

Unfortunately, no one looks at it when they’re reading the case study or strategy.

Every business is incredibly unique.

Even if you’re in the same industry, have similar business models, and are targeting the same market – your business is fundamentally different.

That’s a good thing. 

Before I continue, I don’t want you to think growth hacks don’t work. They do.

They just can’t be copied wholesale. Instead, think of them as a starting point that you can apply to the framework I’m going to detail in this article.

The A.E.R Framework.

AER stands for Act, Evaluate, React. This is the true basis for growth hacking. When Dropbox started, they didn’t have a fancy referral program to help them grow exponentially. They relied on Google AdWords and paid over a hundred dollars per customer.

At the time, the lifetime value of their customers was just over 90 dollars. They were bleeding money and needed a new path. They didn’t instantly come up with the referral program we see today.

They started by taking action on ideas they had. They evaluated which ones worked, and reacted to the data by either implementing or scrapping it.

Their success was a result of multiple “hacks” tied together to make an efficient system.

One of those many hacks is a conversion optimized homepage.

That’s what the A.E.R framework allows you to do. Incremental change and testing to come build a system that builds your business. Let’s dive into the individual elements.


You know as well as I do that action precedes everything. Without action, you can’t launch your website. Without action, you can’t get your ad campaign set up. Without action, you can’t find your first customers.

Action is the beginning of the process, not the end. The problem with growth hacks is you’re given the actions that produced the end result for a specific business. You’re rarely given the entire process. Both the thought process and the action steps taken to get there are omitted.

In the action phase of A.E.R you take small incremental actions over time. That may come in the form of A/B testing your website. It may be optimizing your email marketing.  You could even be working out the kinks in your Facebook advertising.

Whatever you’re doing, you’re testing ideas and moving forward with your business. This isn’t the place most people fail. There’s no shortage of people who get fired up and take massive action. Most people fail to evaluate exactly what that action is, or what the result will be expected.


This is where the success stories start to be built. Of course, we all measure whether or not our ad campaigns brought in a positive ROI or not. When they don’t, most of us move on to the next one.

Few people ever ask themselves why didn’t this work?

Instead, they go right back to the drawing board. Most initiatives don’t live up to expectations at first. They need to be tweaked until they’re bringing positive results.

This is something I learned the hard way with Facebook ads. I would create a graphic or two, target people on a whim, and pray it worked out. It wasn’t until I started to measure the data that I created my first profitable ad campaign.

For example, let’s say you're promoting unisex jewelry on Facebook. You target both males and females in over twenty five states in the United States. You’re taking action. You spend $100, get fifty clicks, and no one buys.

You chalk it up as a loss and start over.

Instead, evaluate the results you get.

-          Who clicked on your ads (males or females)

-          How old were they (median or average age)

-          Where were they located (city)

-          What pages did they visit?

-          Where did they drop off?

-          What are their interests?

You see, even though your ad was technically a failure, there are a lot of places you can glean insights when for your next attempt. It’s no wonder that the companies with the best performance on Facebook have hundreds of ad variations.

Take action, but before you consider it a failure or a win, evaluate what you did, how you did it, and what you can scale.


The final piece of the A.E.R puzzle is how you react to the data and insights you gain. You won’t build your brand if you know all the tricks in the book but don’t apply them.

Some people call it a pivot, but I call it a reaction to the data. There’s a right way and a wrong way to react. If one of your users tells you they hate your UI, you can probably keep it. If you get annoyed emails every other day then it’s probably time to make that change.

Not all data is so cut and dry. For example, when I was launching a new product last year, people kept dropping off at the checkout page. The average drop-off at checkout is about 69%. Mine was closer to 89%.

I panicked. I immediately implemented two things. The first was breaking my checkout page into two parts and shortening the information fields.

In the first part, I only asked for your name and email. In the second part, I asked for payment information. It was a digital product so I didn’t truly need to know your address. My email marketing software would be able to figure it out for me anyways.

The next thing I did was implement a cart abandonment email series to recapture those interested parties who dropped of at the payment details step. In reality, anything could have happened. Maybe the baby started crying, maybe dinner was ready, or maybe their favorite show came on. I don't know and you don't know. The least you can do is try to bring them back. 

My effective cart abandonment rate dropped to 59% (I say effective because of the people who abandoned but were later recaptured through the email series).

The problem was that I didn’t know what was responsible for the change. What did I do? I tested it before settling on a permanent solution. For the curious, the information I was asking for was a little too much.

The point I’m trying to make is that not all data is actionable. You need to be able to uncover patterns before you react. Feedback from left field isn’t enough for you to implement a change. If many people say it then you may have a winner.

A single isolated marketing test isn’t enough to completely revamp your branding. Establish a statistically relevant sample size before reacting.

Many times, evaluation can give you another income stream you had no idea existed in your business.


Growth hacking isn’t bad. It’s just misunderstood.

Instead of reading an article, implementing the strategy, and getting discouraged when it doesn’t work – take the A.E.R approach.  

Take action with the tactics, evaluate your results, and react to the data as necessary. Let me know your experiences with growth hacking and applying the A.E.R framework in the comments.