The simplest and straightest answer: most of the time, it’s just a buzzword.
Like so many buzzwords, the phrase “growth hacking” might have meant something specific to the person who coined it—but then, because it sounded good, people were quick to repeat it and (maybe) attach their own meaning and then pass it around. Terms like “growth hacking” aren’t meaningless, but they’re useless wherever people don’t have the same meaning in mind.
Still, having cautioned you, we’ll do our best to draw a line around the idea:
Growth hacking is the use of creative, low-cost strategies specifically to grow a business (i.e. its customer base and ability to retain them), usually over a relatively short period of time. The term is most popular with start-ups, early-stage companies, and other businesses trying to dramatically swell their customer ranks in a relatively short period of time.
But what exactly do you do when you’re growth hacking?
Therein lies the issue: growth hacking isn’t a specific tactic, nor does it point to any specific tactics. What works best for quickly growing a business will always, always, always depend upon the circumstances.
The more important element of growth hacking (which doesn’t get enough serious attention) is the importance of experimentation, data, and quick iteration; that’s just the only way to find the magic, period. Growth won’t usually come from a can or someone’s magic universal formula; it comes from finding your own groove and nestling comfortably into it.
Last thing we’ll note for now. Remember some old advice, because in this context it’s as sound as ever: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are no silver-bullet solutions, as tempting as the ideas might sound… so be wary of anyone who claims to sell one.