Sean Ellis of Qualaroo: the Science of Growth Hacking and Content Marketing

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Sean Ellis, left, is the CEO of Qualaroo and coined the term growth hacking. (Image source)
Sean Ellis, left, is the CEO of Qualaroo and coined the term growth hacking. (Image source)

Sean Ellis is a man who has worn many, many hats.

His Wikipedia entry describes him thusly: “entrepreneur, angel investor, and startup advisor. He is the founder and CEO of Qualaroo. He is also known for popularizing the term product/market fit, and coining the term growth hacking.”

He is also the CEO of, runs the Startup Marketing blog and coaches his daughter’s soccer team (the importance of which becomes clear in clip no. 3 below).

In addition, last year he organized and hosted a growth hacking conference in London, featuring content marketing all-stars like Moz’s Rand Fishkin.

Ellis took the time to sit down with Engage Magazine to discuss content marketing, the role growth hacking can play, what marketers should look for when hiring growth hackers, expectations, the future and more.

Below each clip is a transcript of the relevant exchange — there were a few edits to the clips and those edits have been noted in the transcript. We’d like to send a big thank you to Sean for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his valuable insights. We appreciate the thoughtful, insightful replies and look forward to seeing what he achieves in 2015 and beyond.

1. Distribution Mistakes, the Problem with the 80-20 Split and the Future of Distribution

Stephen Zorio (SZ): “For my opening question, when it comes to content distribution, what is the biggest flaw in the way people go about it now?”

Sean Ellis (SE): “I think for content distribution, probably the biggest flaw is they think that one, content will distribute itself or two, that they focus entirely on distribution and not on great content. So usually somebody’s in one camp or the other camp, when they need a sort of holistic, systematic approach. To be effective with content marketing, you need to create great content and they need to be very systematic about the frequency with which they’re creating it and amplification and needs to be part of a much bigger process, and not a one-off thing.”

SZ: “Agreed, sir. In that same vein, in terms of content distribution, putting aside the sort of wishful thinking that people engage in, what do you think we do better now with distribution than we did previously and what do you think we’ll get better at in the future as technology improves in this area?”

SE: “I think that probably people are getting better at focusing on quality content now and what they will do better going forward is being actually more scientific about how they create quality content. So using things like BuzzSumo or Google Trends to kind of figure out areas of interest, kind of minimum viable content releases. Put a tweet out about a subject, if the tweet gets retweets and interest than you know that something’s there. I think there’s a lot more testing and kind of analysis that you can do or even using something like Qualaroo to say, ‘What would you like us to write about?’, rather than sort of guessing what somebody wants content about.

Do a bit of research, find out what’s popular, what’s getting shares and then write to those needs. So I think that’s where things are heading more, but right now I think there’s a lot more of a recognition now that quality content [matters]. There’s so much junk out there, you just can’t shine if you’ve got junky content.”

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2. Content Distribution Solutions, the Truth About Content Marketing Hacks and How Growth Hackers Can Help

SZ: If I were someone right now facing a challenge with distribution, are there things I could do tomorrow and next week and the next few months to improve that?

SE: So, for content distribution?

SZ: Precisely.

SE: I think that there’s a ton of content about content distribution, I think it’s a challenging subject and any time there’s a challenging subject, and people are curious about how to do it, [the] better people are creating content about it. I know that on, content is one of the top topics that’s on there. And then there’s that’s entirely about inbound marketing and so there’s going to be a lot of information about how to be effective in content distribution. It doesn’t take that much work to read what you need to do, it takes a lot of work to actually do what you need to do and that’s sort of the biggest adjustment people need to figure out.

Content marketing — the idea of kind of hacks for content marketing — I think there’s little accelerants that you might be able to put on, but at it’s core to be effective with content marketing or inbound leads, it’s a lot of hard work. But the good news is that’s it’s probably, as far as marketing goes, it’s probably the one area that, if you are very systematic about it and work hard, then you can drive more predictable results than just about anything else you can do in marketing.

SZ: Are there any skill sets in particular that growth hackers bring the table that would allow companies to solve some of these distribution challenges?

SE: I think that growth hackers might be … probably the biggest thing that a growth hacker is going to bring to the table is very much a testing mentality and being really good at being laser focused about the things that they should test and probably more integrated in their approach so that you’re actually driving … you’re driving content and tools that tend to act like content and you’re integrating them with a set of goals and a conversion process that probably goes deeper into the company. But I think that content is a very specialized skill set that most people who are growth hacking oriented are probably not thinking that much about content and probably shouldn’t be.

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3: How to Vet Growth Hackers, the Hiring Challenge Marketers Face, Why Data Matters, A/B Testing & the Future of Marketing Roles

SZ: And recognizing that growth hacking per se may not be a specific role, for content marketers, or marketers in general, that recognize what growth hacking can do and want to get into that effort, how would you go about hiring a growth hacker and who might you look to within the organization that exists that might help fill those roles?

SE: So that’s a hard question, the hiring piece. I think hiring for marketing in general is actually really hard, so whether it’s a GH or anything else. Unlike a developer, who you really can assess the skill set, if they’re good enough, you can give them tests or an accountant you can see, do they know how to do it? A lot of the things that it takes to be successful as a marketer or a growth hacker are softer skills like tenacity, like problem solving skills.

One of the things I tend to do is ask people about creative things, whether it’s in business or in life, kind of life hacks in general. What are some things you’ve wanted to accomplish that you took a very non-traditional approach to accomplishing?

And just hearing some of the stories, you can kind of find, you tend to find people who are … you know I’m a soccer coach for my daughter’s soccer team and I’m very data driven in how I set up lineups for her soccer team. I’m constantly A/B testing lineups and realizing which ones create vulnerabilities in our back, like how many shots are against us, where are those shots coming from, why do we have that vulnerability, mix it up. OK, now we’ve got it to where we really don’t have shots taken against us when we’ve got this mix and now I’m experimenting with the forwards.

I didn’t even play soccer much as a kid, but, you know, to me it’s that sort of understanding strengths and observing and A/B testing and using data to make better decisions there. You tend to see that mentality bleed into lots of areas of people’s lives. A young single person might be doing a bunch of experimentation on Tinder for example, like that might be the thing … or in fantasy sports, you know, being data driven and just the whole sort of tenacious process of achieving a result through experimentation, does tend to carry over.

I think that ultimately marketing roles are going to move to a point where people onboard in much more kind of temporary roles until they validate that the marketer or growth hacker is passionate about the opportunity and starts to demonstrate an ability to move the needle. Things might start as a three-month role and then kind of take off from there. I think that’s the right model, if things move in that direction, but until then I think what you’re going to find it is very trial-and-error and most marketers and growth hackers don’t tend to work out for companies, particularly if they’re tasked with achieving specific results and measured against those results.

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4. The Importance of Bad Ideas, How He Stays Up-to-Date and How He Approaches the CEO Role

SZ: Excellent, and then in closing*, how do you personally keep up to date with the latest GH trends, who do you read, what events do you go to, who do you follow, that sort of thing?

*Edit: Not really, there’s one more question after this.

SE: It’s become a lot harder since I became a CEO. It’s hard when you’re a full-time marketer … because it just changes so quickly. But as CEO I’m down to maybe 25% of my time of being able to really kind of stay on top of things. What I can say is for three years I really kind of atrophied in a lot of my areas of strength to where I just couldn’t really keep up with things but I got really good at general operational business things.

But basically in the last year since we launched, I need to spend a lot of time on the site, I need to engage with people to kind of keep the conversation going, to keep it growing. And so as a content aggregation site about growth related content, it means that if I spend two hours on there every day — which is about what I spend — reading articles, engaging in discussions, talking about things, my learning curve is probably sharper than it’s ever been, ever in my career, because I never spent that much time.

So we’ve got our own experimentation, we’ve got our own process and a lot of what I do as a CEO is really making sure that the whole company is thinking about, ‘How can we drive growth?’ What is the role of growth that each person in each role can really contribute to and how do I make sure that everybody’s contributing ideas?

Then combining building that sort of experimentation culture across the whole company with reading about all kinds of other people’s experiments and updates to different platforms that are out there. All of this different information has helped me grow.

I go to some conferences, but most conferences I tend to find are not a great use of time for me. We actually just hosted a conference in London. In that case then I can basically pull together all of the people I want to hear talk, all the people who I want to put on panels. I really just created a conference for myself that other people got to sit in on. But then I can get pretty interesting … a lot of it was me taking heads of growth of a bunch of companies and just in interview format where I could sit down and ask them all the questions I want to ask them. It just happened to be on stage to where I think the answers that they gave me were probably interesting for other people as well. (Edit: His answer continues in the next section.)

5. Who He Admires, Why Webinars Are Useful and What the Future of Content Marketing Looks Like

SE: Anybody who’s very experimental, I think I can learn a lot from. At our conference, Rand Fishkin presented, any time I see Rand present, he’s always got really good stuff. I really did like Hubspot’s Inbound conference as well, they have so many speakers and so many tracks, that that’s good. But if I wasn’t personally speaking at conferences, I wouldn’t go to more than two or three a year.

I think you learn a lot more through doing than through talking about doing and so getting enough of an input of ideas of things to experiment on and then being able to run experiments tends to be pretty good. I do think webinars can be really effective, because if it’s not useful content in a webinar you can just turn it off, where a conference you’re kind of carving out a whole day to go to. I do learn quite a bit from webinars with topics that I think are pretty interesting, and if I’m not learning anything I will turn it off.

SZ: So actually I’ll make this my final question: So you correctly outlined that marketers face a pretty significant challenge particularly now give the many demands online, but what excites you going forward, what keeps you motivated in terms of the challenges you’re facing?

SE: I think what excites me is that there’s probably more understanding of the physics of growth of companies than ever before. I think in the past a lot of sort of marketers talked in jargon and really sort of tried to make it this kind of mystical thing, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t get it,’ but there wasn’t necessarily a lot of substance there. So for some people there was, but it was really hard to tell.

I do think that there’s kind of … things like NPS — net promoter score — and realizing the correlation of net promoter score, passionate evangelist-driven users and the sustainability of growth that companies have and CRO and being able to test and iterate on on boarding flows — there’s so much more science to growth today that that’s the part that excites me.

I think that science is accessible, science is something you can learn, science is something you can study, and there’s definitely still some art to it but it’s probably more science than most of us kind of realized in the past. As people recognize that things are predictable, that’s when you start to get systems like … Moz for managing inbound marketing.
You’ve got [to] where essentially it’s more about process and continuing to execute a process and having the systems to kind of manage that process and having good feedback loops and A/B testing within there.

I think as it starts, to be understood that there’s better marketing technology, and the investment companies are making in marketing technology has gone up a lot too, and I think will continue to go up. There’s going to be a lot of stuff that turns out to be pretty useless, but I think that good tools that help to sort of harness those physics of growth and help to steer people toward the things that matter are pretty exciting.

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