In the startup world, growth hacking tactics are often used to supercharge the rate at which a business or its product offerings can scale. But could these same tactics also be applied to filmmaking? I believe so.
Since this article is geared toward filmmakers, I’ll speak to growth hacking primarily in the context of product development. Every movie is inherently a product, so there is no reason why innovative growth tactics used on other products would not apply to movies.
At its core, growth hacking is about engineering a product (or service) that is 100% optimized for the user experience, therefore generating tremendous organic growth and rendering traditional marketing tactics – like paid advertising – irrelevant.
Growth hacking rejects the approach of creating a new product completely on spec, or relying on antiquated traditional advertising to simply “hope for the best” once the product is launched. Instead, it’s driven by a set of principles that ensure your product has the best shot at succeeding… Even before it has been created.
Imagine you are a business owner with a product – Would you rather create a product so well designed that it markets itself through word of mouth? Or one that costs a fortune to promote, since there is little intrinsic value to what you are offering?
Most would choose the latter, of course.
The question then becomes, how exactly can you achieve those kind of results? And specifically how can you do so in the context of a feature film product.
Let’s start by establishing the basic philosophy that growth hackers follow when it comes to product development: Experiment, adapt, modify.
Growth hackers make their decisions based on one variable above all else: growth.
By experimenting intensely on their products, measuring results, and then modifying as needed, they are able to dramatically increase the odds of their product “going viral”.
Think of it like a testing lab where the goal is not only to create the best possible product, but one that motivates its users/customers/fans to share it with 100 friends.
As Ryan Holiday shares in his excellent book Growth Hacker Marketing, this is how countless tech companies like Dropbox and Uber achieved such insane growth.
Take Dropbox just as one example. In their early days, they achieved exponential growth by offering users 250mb of free storage for inviting a friend to the platform. Existing users jumped at the opportunity to invite as many friends as they could. The more people they brought on board, the more free storage they got. And Dropbox was more than happy to give out the free storage, as their user base skyrocketed nearly overnight.
The growth they experienced wasn’t just a result of the idea itself, but also (as we will discuss more soon) the rigorous testing and experimentation process that preceded it. No amount of traditional advertising could have replicated the success of a simple feature built right into the product.
The exact same strategies these tech companies are using to growth hack their products can apply to feature films too. In fact many films have already done this quite successfully, although more often than not by fluke.
Think about any of your favorite indie movies that completely defied the odds. Without name talent, star power, or traditional advertising, there are those rare films that take on a life of their own through organic word of worth. They had a certain X factor that made everyone who saw them want to tell all of their friends to do the same. They had a growth hack.
While every film is a gamble to an extent, there is no denying that virtually any movie could improve their odds of success by following some, or all of the of principles I will share here today.
Below, I’ve included the 4 key steps outlined in Growth Hacker Marketing for achieving exponential results, and outline how I believe they can directly apply to filmmakers.
Find Your Product Market Fit
The backbone of growth hacking according to Holiday is finding your Product Market Fit. Only if your product is perfectly tailored for the market you’re going after, can the product reach maximum potential. This is why growth hackers test their products so aggressively while in development, and why testing is a cornerstone of all great growth hacks.
In this respect, filmmakers have the perfect testing ground for their product. It’s already built into the natural filmmaking pipeline: The screenplay.
Typically filmmakers will workshop their script with a few trusted friends or partners, but otherwise shroud it in secrecy – especially from their eventual audience.
But what if the notion of hiding your work was flipped on its head? What would happen if you opened up your creative process, sharing details with your potential fans along the way? How would crowdsourcing feedback from your audience impact the final product?
I’ll find out soon enough, as this is something I plan to do with my next feature film.
Rather than keep my script in the dark until it’s time to shoot, I will open it up and make it available to my existing audience. I will solicit feedback at several points throughout the writing process, which will help guide my creative decisions. It’s still going to be up to me to decide which ideas I want to include or discard, but I’ll have a ton of input and data to draw from, which will only lead to better choices.
It’s a very unconventional approach, but often that’s what it takes to find unconventional results.
Some would be scared to show their work too early, fearing it may be stolen. In my experience, this is extremely rare – especially on an indie/micro-budget level. And to me, the potential benefits you could gain from this type of transparent insight far outweigh the unlikely risk that your idea will get taken.
Post-production offers even more obvious opportunities for this type of collaborative input.
At each stage – rough cut, picture lock, sound mix, etc. – you have the ability to test your film with your prospective audience. Obviously you won’t want to make your movie publicly available, but if you have a built in audience you can engage them in your creative process. Perhaps you let 100 of your fans opt in to a private channel where you can share cuts of your work safely.
This type of testing is done constantly on Hollywood films for good reason – it works. Not only should be following suit with our indie films, but we should take it to the extreme, while also affording the same benefits to the screenwriting phase.
How you run with these ideas is up to you, but the end goal is the same: Test your concept and execution rigorously, and use feedback of current or potential audience members to ensure you have a great product/market fit before moving ahead.
Find Your Growth Hack
I would define a growth hack as a core function of your product that both enhances the user experience and encourages user sharing. Let’s look at a quick example from Google’s Gmail –
When Gmail initially launched, the platform was invite-only. This created a sense of scarcity and intrigue. Google recognized this, and capitalized on it by giving new users the ability to invite 5 friends to create Gmail accounts.
Since having a Gmail account was so coveted at that point in time, users would jump at the opportunity to invite their friends on board. It made them feel cool, as if they were part of a special club. Google didn’t need to advertise to get new users to sign up… Their users were inviting all their friends. And then when those people joined, they invited even more people.
This is just one example of course, but similar ideas have been used by countless businesses from Uber to Slack to Tesla, all of which have seen insane growth.
In the context of a film, this strategy could apply in any number of ways, but perhaps most obviously through story choice, scene design, or execution.
I don’t know about you, but I regularly watch films that I’ve never heard of solely based on the recommendations of friends. Usually, they go something like this: “I saw this crazy movie that you’d love. I can’t tell you anything about it because I don’t want to ruin it. Don’t even watch the trailer, just put it on.”
These kind of movies that don’t need to spend a dollar on advertising because the movie itself is its own advertisement. This could be because of a mind-blowing twist ending, an emotional scene that sheds new light on an important topic, a never seen before technical breakthrough, or a thousand other things.
Often times, it’s not the entire movie, but rather one specific aspect of the movie that incentivizes audience members to share it with friends.
That said, obviously you never want to inject gimmickry into your film simply to inspire discussion. If you force an idea into your film solely as a marketing ploy, the audience will notice it and not forgive you.
But what you can do is challenge yourself to bring the most unique qualities of your film to the surface. Often times we shy away from our least conventional ideas because we haven’t seen them done before. But those are often the exact ideas we should be embracing. Great films get talked about because they did something new, something special. Not because they were derivative.
When it comes time to market your finished product, building a growth hack into that strategy is even more clear cut. Perhaps you set up a secret online premiere that inspires guests to invite friends, or you supply super fans with screening kits to host local premieres across the country and collect royalties. The ideas are truly endless if you apply the same creativity to your release as you do to the film.
If both your film and your marketing strategy are created with some sort of growth hack in mind, the reach will inevitably be greater than without them. How strong of an effect of course, is dependent on the quality of the idea and execution.
According to Holiday, going viral online is simply a matter of having happy customers talk about your product excessively with their friends. If you’ve created a truly great product (AKA film), you’ve already laid the foundation for large scale growth.
That said, you can still speed up the process by amplifying the organic/word of mouth effect. One of the most effective ways to do this is through influencer marketing.
While many filmmakers spend tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads to promote their film, they could likely spend a fraction of that cost and find better results through influencer marketing.
One prominent film reviewer, blogger, or social media star might easily have a reach in the millions. For less than you would spend to blast an ad to few thousand loosely targeted people on Facebook, you could have someone credible promote your film to a relevant audience on a massive scale.
Better yet, if you can utilize several different influencers/platforms simultaneously, you might just cultivate a viral moment for yourself. Keep in mind though, viral potential can be found through other means too. The above is just one example.
For instance, if you’re selling DVDs of your film, you could offer fans a free special edition copy if they refer a friend to make a purchase on your online store (or even if they just sign up for your email list). This simple offer – which can be entirely automated during checkout – may result in 25% – 50% of your DVD customers referring brand new fans to you.
Again, this is just one idea and the tip of the iceberg.
Ideally, you build viral concepts into your film at every level. From the film’s execution, to the release strategy, to your website and sales page, there are opportunities everywhere to encourage perpetual sharing. Just be careful to do so tastefully and with purpose.
Retain & Optimize
Everything outlined so far has laid the foundation for the successful launch of a movie. But what comes after your release is just as important.
One key to growth hacking is to not only focus on new customers (or fans/audience members), but to pay equal attention to retaining your existing ones. After all, it’s 5x easier to re-engage an existing customer than it is to find a new one.
For tech companies or businesses with recurring products, this step is pretty straightforward. It’s all about constantly updating existing products to better serve your current customer base, and using their input to drive changes moving ahead. This typically keeps them on board as happy customers, and incentivizes more great word of mouth marketing.
With respect to movies, things are little less straightforward. By nature of the medium, most movies are in fact one-off products (with the exception of franchise films). So in that sense, you can’t really retain and optimize a movie the same way that you could a piece of subscription software, just as an example.
What you can do however, is think about your current and future films not as individual components, but as a cumulative body of work to build an audience around.
Let’s assume you have a small audience already as a filmmaker, and you’ve just released your latest feature film to them. Eventually, when it comes time to make another movie, you can leverage the audience from your last film to help optimize the creation and release of your next.
The amount of insight and perspective your existing audience has about your work is unparalleled. If you allow them to come along for the ride with you, they may quickly become your most valuable asset – sharing invaluable feedback that will all but guarantee your work improves in quality and reach.
This is one of the many reasons why I advise filmmakers against building audiences exclusively around a single film. It’s far more effective to build an audience around you as a filmmaker, or around your production company/slate of films. Either of these approaches allow you to stay engaged with your audience, and maintain fans from film to film.
Most importantly, you learn more about your audience with each passing film. You get to see first hand what they respond to and what they don’t. As you move ahead to your subsequent films, you can adjust course to better meet the demands of your audience – if you choose to do so.
Of course, it’s always up to you to determine which feedback to take or leave. But if you turn a blind eye to the audience experience of your work, you are likely missing a huge opportunity.
Overall, I do believe thinking about film through the lens of a growth hacker can be a winning strategy for many filmmakers. I’ll be employing many of these tactics on my upcoming micro-budget feature film, and will document the results here on the blog.
What are your thoughts on growth hacking for filmmakers? Leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in learning more about audience building, be sure to enroll in my course using this link: Online Audience Building For Filmmakers