The Traffic Hacker working hard at his computer desk with a fresh cup of coffee and his multitude of tasks floating around him

“Traffic Hacking” is the New “Growth Hacking”

(…or, Tips for the Grown Up Marketer)

Silicon Valley creates new job titles with the same zeal and regularity as some third-world economies print new money. Are you a “user experience philosopher”, a “data ninja” or a “brand story warlock”? No? Well, if you work in online-marketing for any super hot and meteorically-rising startup, then there’s an excellent chance your title is probably “growth hacker” (at least, this week)!

However, most folks in this industry don’t realize that “growth” as a KPI itself is somewhat questionable. In this article, I’ll illustrate how “website traffic” is a better KPI for technical online marketing than “growth”. Based on that, I’ll outline a new job role (and title) for an expert every online marketing team needs these days: the “traffic hacker”.

What’s wrong with “growth”?

Before we start, let’s briefly return to the growth hacker: this title describes someone who ignores typical marketing conventions to grow a startup’s user base. It’s actually a much cooler and less verbose name for “tech-savvy product and online marketing specialist, in a small, flat team, working in the fast-growing startup economy, driving new users to the services of a younger company”.

But there is a big problem with “growth” as a metric for marketing: from my experience, only in small companies with small teams and flat hierarchies does a marketer truly have a direct impact on company growth. The bigger the team grows, the more departments a company is organized into, and the more complex a product becomes, the harder it will be to truly impact the growth of the user base via marketing alone.

At a certain level of company maturity, every marketer must deal with hierarchies between management levels and/or vertical borders between departments and even teams (classical marketing vs. online marketing, anyone?). One must also do battle with with budget restrictions, meeting culture, company policies, divided responsibilities, and so forth.

To make an overture to these problems, bigger companies often try to install “growth boards” at the management level, or if you’re lucky, you might even get a CGO (“Chief Growth Officer”). But who honestly believes that yet another committee or manager can solve issues concerning slow company growth?

Sadly, most of the time, all the talk about “growth” (outside of fast-growing small companies) is at the very least misleading and, at the very most, false advertising.

Traffic as KPI in online marketing

What is the net effect of all of these issues? The online marketing channel having only a limited direct impact on company growth! Still worse, online marketing is often only one of many channels for reaching new customers.

Therefore, the “growth” metric doesn’t actually do much to define an online marketing specialist’s role.

In direct contrast to this, “website traffic” as a metric to measure “potential customers” or “new users”, is something any online marketing specialist clearly could deliver for any web-based project.

The image is a donut chart showing search interest in two topics: "website traffic" (80.6%, red) and "growth hacking" (19.4%, blue), with website traffic having the larger share.
This chart shows the proportion of interest in the search terms “website traffic” vs “growth hacking” over the last 12 months, in the category “advertising & marketing”, according to Google Trends.

A common critique of website traffic as a KPI is that it would somehow be too unspecific and noisy to be relevant. More important KPIs would include sales, leads, app-installs, downloads and so on.However, these parts of the sales funnel aren’t controlled solely by the people responsible for the website traffic. While these are the KPIs to push at the end of the day, they are driven by the product team, designers, developers and management. The good news is that these KPIs will also scale if a website gets better quality traffic. Thus, while it is true that “more traffic” per se is nothing, a website must also attract the right traffic to meet its objectives. To grow commercial website projects, most companies need specialists who can acquire the traffic to fill their funnel with new opportunities.

The image is a world map from Google Trends, with countries colored red where "website traffic" is searched more frequently and blue where "growth hacking" is more popular. Red dominates the map, indicating a higher search interest in website traffic globally.
This world map of search interests, according to Google Trends, shows countries where “website traffic” as a topic is searched more often than “growth hacking” and related topics. In “red” countries, traffic” leads while in “blue” countries growth-related topics are searched more.

In fast-moving areas like online marketing, new job titles are created every day. However, new titles and roles should not only sound cool, they should also represent how the industry works. Therefore, I propose a new role: the “traffic hacker

Traffic Hacker: a generalist, website-traffic-acquisition specialist.

What defines a “Traffic Hacker”?

Please note that, in our description, we’ll use the generic “he”, but we do mean anyone!

First of all, a traffic hacker, like any other serious marketing expert, loves data. He often needs to reach his goals with limited resources and, to do so, uses techniques he finds appropriate. In essence, a traffic hacker concentrates his efforts on optimizing and synergizing traffic sources like search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, search engine advertising (SEA), social media optimization (SMO), and display advertisement, along with whoever is delivering high-quality traffic for the type of web-based project he is working on.

But there is more to this role. The traffic hacker is:

…data driven

Traffic Hacker - data drivenHere, the real “hacking” begins. The traffic hacker loves data so much that he knows how to find gold nuggets in raw data, no matter the source. He is comfortable working with data he collects both across his company and from the diverse technical systems of his clients. He also knows how to implement, design, develop and run tools on large data collections. For him, “Big Data” is not just a buzzword. Generally, he must apply the same technologies as a business intelligence (BI) engineer. Often, he has to build his own traffic intelligence infrastructure to get the right insights from all the data that he and his team have collected. A committed traffic hacker even implements his own data warehouse, or at least some sort of custom dashboarding solutions. To do his job, he needs a constantly updated and accurate flow of all the KPIs from the complete range of traffic sources he deals with: acquisition costs, campaigns performance, search rankings, conversions, ROIs, MQLs, CPCs and so on. In the end, he’ll have all the relevant data at his fingertips to make data-driven decisions on how to acquire optimal traffic.

…technology based

Traffic Hacker - technology-basedA traffic hacker adapts technology and software for his needs. He wouldn’t adapt his processes to fit to some legacy software used in the company he works for. He always seeks ways to play around with new tools and how he could incorporate them into his processes. This often involves coding and prototyping of software tools, especially for data manipulation and traffic acquisition.



…creative and open minded

Traffic Hacker - creative and open mindedTo keep the visitor streams flowing to a website, a traffic hacker must stay on top of new developments. He must always seek opportunities to unlock new traffic sources. He must adapt, recreate and invent. To be really successful, he always seeks the new and unexplored over “industry-standards” and “playbooks,” because he knows that you can only succeed if you’re risking something to do it differently. He must be totally open minded and creative in exploiting new ideas and techniques.

A traffic hacker’s creativity doesn’t stop there: online marketing is always about creating the right content. From campaign and banner messaging to infographics, blog posts, white papers, case studies, ebooks and video content, there are as many different content types as there are different audiences. Even when he is working with agencies and freelancers, he always needs to brief these content creators and guide their direction.

…strategic and analytical

Traffic Hacker - strategic and analyticalTraffic acquisition, if done via paid advertising alone, is not actually very sustainable: If you stop paying, the traffic also stops. An experienced traffic hacker therefore must also plan for the future. Regular investments in content creation and curation along with SEO are an absolute must. Planning strategies often go as far as team planning, as well as project and stakeholder management. Thoughtful planning also helps to squeeze more visitors out of future campaigns. TV campaigns, for example, usually result in a lot of search activity for brands, claims, hashtags or products. Not planning corresponding SEA campaigns is a waste of money. Also, a common hack is to plan “parasitic” Google campaigns on bigger competitors who’ve missed this opportunity.

But strategy is pure theory without measuring and testing. A strong analytical mindset helps him translate strategy into action. When a traffic hacker is, for instance, coordinating A/B tests while unearthing better traffic sources, he must be able to gain insights from complex data. Ideally, he is able to work with the same methodologies as a dedicated data analyst.


Traffic Hacker - socialA traffic hacker must also communicate a lot with different departments to get things done. Because he’s in a central position in the complex network of a company, he needs to convince people to cooperate and help his team! In this case, he could even think in terms of “social engineering” like black hat “hackers” sometimes do.





Traffic Hacker - curiousA traffic hacker has a deep desire to understand the technical and social systems he is trying to optimize: no matter if we’re talking about Google Rankings (for SEO), the newest Pinterest smart feed adjustments, the consumer psychology rules in Pay per Click advertising (PPC) or email opening rates. A traffic hacker must absolutely fit in all those channels and combine them to use and maximize the cross-effects between them. In fact, he is often so curious that he tries to reverse engineer the very systems he has to optimize with the help of the data he is collecting and analyzing. His curiosity is reflected in his wide range of topics of interest, with which he constantly practices self education.


…about more than growth

Traffic Hacker is about more than growthA true traffic hacker must know how to “grow” traffic streams from zero visitors on, but he is usually responsible for website traffic which counts not in mere thousands but in many millions of visitors a month. Thus, he’s not only responsible for the traffic growth, but also for maintaining already achieved high levels. This could be for example a necessary SEO adjustments to Google updates, or to external market changes, such as mobile usage growth in recent years or reactions to new competition and even new legal challenges.



…knows how to scale

Traffic Hacker knows how to scaleAs a traffic hacker, one must always find ways to scale things to work for large websites: we’re talking millions of documents, including many imperfect ones! A common restriction one has to deal with in this role are less than optimal landing pages generated from huge databases that store hundreds of thousands of products or keywords. Those can rarely be optimized individually (think of websites from large retailers or price comparisons).

It is also not only important to scale the “output” (e.g. websites) but the “input” for his work (the data). The online marketer’s most beloved tool is still the spreadsheet, but a traffic hacker must definitively know how to to scale his data processing capacities well and truly beyond his desktop computer.


What do you think? Are you a “real Traffic Hacker”? 😉