When Growth Hacking Goes Bad | TechCrunch
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When Growth Hacking Goes Bad

Andreessen Horowitz-backed music lyrics and annotations Rap Genius was the latest to stray over to the darker side of so-called “growth hacking,” with its spammy SEO tactics disguised as an affiliate program. Called out, exposed and now punished by Google, the site’s traffic has tanked. But Rap Genius, thanks in part to that $15 million investment, will probably recover. They’ll clean up their links, make amends, and maybe even get back into Google’s good graces. End users will once again land on Rap Genius’s pages, many of them none the wiser for the time the site spent in the penalty box.

Other startups may not be as lucky.

It’s one thing to tempt fate by breaking Google’s rules, it’s quite another to risk alienating a service’s potential end users themselves. And yet, this is today becoming far too common, especially with mobile applications. Due to the App Store’s nearly impossible to break into Top Charts, app makers have to manufacture and force growth to attract their initial users, and kick off those “viral” effects.

Social Messaging Apps Are Among The Worst Offenders

We’ve seen this in the past with Path (which burned its users multiple times), and also earlier this year with Glide’s over-eager invitation system, to name a couple of the more high-profile incidents.

Glide’s variation on the SMS spam was especially ugly, because its messages weren’t “try this app,” but things like “you need to see this! <link>” – more of a deliberate attempt to trick users into downloads.


Glide later promised it would stop “spamming” users, but a quick look through Twitter indicates that’s not quite the case. Spam, you see, is in the eye of the beholder. If it’s an unwanted invitation, well, it’s spam. And if it’s an invitation you didn’t mean to send – even if the app lets you “opt out” –  well, that’s spam, too.

When Experiments Go Wrong

Another company which popped up on my radar earlier this fall was Circle, which began ranking in the Top Charts despite little brand-name recognition. Apparently, this was due to some very ingenious, but also very risky experiments with its invitation system, as Valleywag pointed out earlier. (The company denies Valleywag’s report, for what’s it’s worth.)

There are several things that make the app at least appear like it’s been attempting to “growth hack” (overly quickly grow) its user base.

The company said a couple of weeks ago that it had 10 million users and is growing at 1 million news users per month, and on Android, it’s listed as having 5 to 10 million installs, which pointed to the possibility that Android, which has fewer restrictions around inorganic and bot-driven growth, is its source of most installs. Circle says that’s wrong though – its user base is more even at only 55% Android, 45% iOS. The Android app also has the same number of reviews as Snapchat, an app 10 times its size. Many of these have the characteristics of “bought” reviews, given they’re one-liner, five-stars, in rapid succession.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 11.40.18 AM

Again, Circle CEO Evan Reas says that’s definitely not due to Circle buying users – “we have never done that,” he claims. And finally, the app also ranks highly in countries like Niger and Kenya, or more recently, Mozambique and Mongolia, which seems odd. Reas can’t explain this beyond guessing that maybe Circle was featured in the country’s app store.

But whether or not Circle was growth hacking through less than above-board means is almost beside the point, no matter what Valleywag claims. The problem was that one of the company’s “experiments” – the term Reas prefers over the more ambiguous “growth hacks” – backfired.

The company abused SMS invitations – maybe an idea Reas picked up from Tinder? Circle had always allowed users to say “yes” or “no” to sending out its invitations, Reas says, but previously it had allowed users to invite people as many times as they wanted. That meant users could invite friends a dozen times, if they chose to do so.

photo (2)And with so many app users not really understanding or carefully reading user interface components around the invitation process, users were soon massively spamming their friends to join Circle. This all occurred at once, too, after an update was pushed out and promoted, making the issue seemed even worse than it would otherwise.

And the users were angry! They responded loudly, threatening violence. See these complaints from actual tweets, for example:

“Invite me to try Circle – The Local Network one more time and i will stab your grandma,” “…watch just how fast I will hunt you down,” ”[you'll] feel my wrath,” [you're] “getting shanked,” [you'll get] “dropkicked and thrown off a cliff,” “get shot, no questions asked,” get “a table to the face,” get “stabbed in the face,” ”get pissed on,” get “choke slammed,” “get a sledgehammer to the face,” lose “a tooth or three,” “I’m going to have to rip my own eyes out,” “flip shit,” “gonna cry,” “go apeshit crazy,” “lose my shit,” “go mad,” “snap,” “I will end you,” “slit your throat,” “punch someone,” “I might break your neck,” “gonna wrap a ‘circle’ of rope around my local neck and pull,” or “hit somebody.”

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