If you’re a startup marketer, you’re familiar with the term growth hacking. Since Andrew Chen’s popularization of the term in his April 2012 blog post, its usage has exploded:
At RJMetrics, we’ve been growth hacking since 2010. We use a specific tactic we call PR hacking. The formula is simple:
- Identify a topic that’s receiving a lot of attention in the press.
- Use growth hacking tactics to compile a never-before-seen dataset related to that topic.
- Analyze the data in RJMetrics to uncover newsworthy information.
- Tell the story in a blog post and/or research report.
- Notify all of the reporters who are covering this topic about the analysis.
This works so well because we uncover new information on newsworthy topics. They don’t always generate attention, but when they work, they work really well. Some examples:
- We were one of the first companies to study Twitter usage using data from its API. This has since become a common practice among countless journalists, academics, and data junkies.
- Our Pinterest analysis was quoted in dozens of major print publications and still gets pingbacks to this day.
- Along with tons of traffic, my post on Chatroulette earned me a bevy of insults from the Tosh.0 blog (I couldn’t be prouder).
- This Hacker News analysis was #1 on Hacker News for almost 24 hours, yielding nearly 100,000 views.
- Our recent analysis of Jelly data was tweeted hundreds of times and was picked up by TechCrunch, Mashable, and Fast Company.
Sure it works…but are we lame for doing it?
It’s true: our main motivations for doing these posts are selfish ones. We hope to show off the powerful features of our software, establish ourselves as thought leaders in the universe of data analysis, and generate leads.
That said, these posts only work when they add to the conversation about much-discussed but little-understood topics in technology. Often members of the press want to cover a hot story but don’t have much material to use. We add substance—real data—to the mix.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. People we respect quite a bit have called us out and criticized this approach. And they raise a perfectly fair question: “Is PR Hacking ethical?”
Interestingly, for the hundreds of tips, tricks, and tactics about growth hacking on the internet, there isn’t a single meaningful exploration of growth hacking ethics. When you consider all the companies out there trying to hire growth hackers, this is a pretty scary thought. Growth hacking done wrong can be spammy, annoying, and even credibility-destroying.
While we don’t claim to be an authority on this topic, we have thought about it a lot over the years. In that time, we’ve developed a “Code of Conduct” that we follow when PR Hacking. Thanks to this Code, we sleep well at night knowing that what we’re doing is both ethical and, in our opinion, not at all lame. We’re proud to share it here.
The PR Hacking Code of Conduct
Sharing your data collection and analysis methods is critical to the credibility of your research. Not to mention that misrepresenting the data in any way would be libelous.
To keep yourself honest, give readers enough information so that any equally capable technologist could collect the same data and run her own analysis. When writing, put yourself in the role of a suspicious reader and anticipate the challenges and questions that might be asked– and then answer them proactively. Also be sure to monitor comments on your post and respond to any question that arise.
Find an API? Great. Want to scrape some public pages? Even better. But do not ever hide who you are when making your requests. No header spoofing, no IP anonymization, and no login credentials from temporary email accounts.
This naturally raises the question: what if they cut you off or you can’t get the data you want? It’s simple: you stop. We’ve killed plenty of research projects because we couldn’t get the data in a white-hat way.
It’s easy to apply Warren Buffett’s “newspaper test” in these scenarios. Buffett challenges decision-makers to only do things that they wouldn’t mind seeing described on the front page of their hometown newspaper. You’re dealing with the press here, after all—assume that the truth will always emerge and behave accordingly.
Not all PR hacks are about companies, but many are. Don’t ever research a company for a PR hack that isn’t actively seeking media attention. Product launches, growth announcements, and other company milestones are often triggers for our research.
Even if your methods are white-hat, shining the spotlight onto a startup that would prefer its privacy isn’t the right thing to do. Startups inviting attention, however, should expect a certain level of scrutiny from researchers and reporters.
We adopted this rule recently and have never looked back. If your report is about a company, it’s likely that the information you surface will be a surprise to them; it’s only fair to give them an opportunity to comment prior to going public. If they do, it helps verify the accuracy of your findings and lends credibility to the report.
In the case of the recent Jelly post, for example, we contacted the company a few days in advance of publishing via Twitter and their press e-mail address to let them know what we were up to and offer an opportunity to preview the results and comment. (In that particular case, we never got a response.)
The core purpose of PR hacking is uncovering new newsworthy data. Don’t undermine yourself by writing a narrative that draws conclusions your data doesn’t support! This rule, combined with Rule #1, is designed to eliminate any self-serving biases.
I am absolutely certain that we could drive more traffic by having more sensationalist headlines and more dramatic prose in our reports. However, that would be an extremely short-sighted approach. When in doubt, let the reader decide.
We’re not the first people to ever wonder about the ethical implications of publicizing new information. PR hacking is really pro-bono journalism, and when you engage in it you’re acting as a journalist. And, for those of us who didn’t go to J-school, it turns out that there are generally agreed-upon standards for journalistic integrity.
If someone criticizes your PR Hack, it’s tempting to challenge them with the question “would you have a problem if a journalist had researched and written this same story?” That argument only holds up if you’ve follow the same standards as that journalist would have. Make sure you do.
The internet is changing journalism, as it has changed so much else. Lots of attention has been paid to its impact on content distribution, but it has also changed the way that good journalists gather data for their stories.
We believe data analysis is the future of journalism. We think that the practice of PR hacking will soon just be called…journalism. But like most things, the geeks got here first, and we’ll enjoy the tactic while we can.
Obviously, the book isn’t closed on this topic, but as long as we follow this code, we think we’re coming down on the right side of history. If you have thoughts on this topic, we’d love to hear them. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.