Growth Marketing vs Digital Marketing

The similarities between digital marketing and growth marketing can be seen in the tools and resources used by both approaches, but the way they come to conclusions, make decisions and find solutions is very different.

The terms growth marketing and digital marketing are causing a lot of confusion in the marketing world, especially among new marketers. The terms are mostly used interchangeably, and to many, they’re the same thing. However, this is an unjustified view because growth marketing and digital marketing strategies have very different objectives, focuses, and processes, even though the tools and techniques they both use might overlap.

Then we also have the concept of digital growth hacking, which is more of a hands-on process (technique); a very specific strategy or plan to achieve rapid business growth.

To better explain the relationship between digital growth hacking, growth marketing, and digital marketing, we’ll dive deep into each concept and explain the differences and similarities between them.

Let’s start with digital marketing and its transformation of the consumer buying process.

How The Digital Era Transformed Marketing

The term “digital marketing” was first used in the 90s when the internet became a global commercial network and forever changed the world. Before the Web 1.0 platform (the earliest version of the internet), marketers used offline promotional strategies, such as direct sales, TV, radio, billboards, and mail (not email) advertising. Today, offline strategies are part of what we call traditional marketing.

We can say that the digital era led to the most substantial shift in the field of marketing - from traditional marketing practices that had very local reach, to instant access to millions of people all over the world. Businesses started to see the potential in online marketing and slowly began to relocate their budget toward efforts for establishing an online presence. However, there was still skepticism and general reluctance to change.

The Emergence of Digital Marketing

It wasn’t until 2004 when Google reported that search engine traffic had grown to about 6.4 billion in a single month, that marketing done through the internet started to take over. This was probably the first and biggest steep surge for digital marketing. The second big surge happened when social media came to the scene.

The internet and social media lifted some major limitations that marketers faced offline and introduced opportunities that were beyond anyone’s imagination. For instance, the invention of the “cookie” allowed businesses to track browsing habits and visitors' traits, and identify their most valuable traffic sources. Also, thanks to technological advancements, marketers could now quantify, easily calculate, and even predict buying patterns and customer needs.

Defining Digital Marketing

Digital marketing, also known as online marketing, is marketing done through the internet with digital tools and technologies. In this sense, it’s completely justified to say that digital growth hacking and growth marketing are in a way part of digital marketing - because they’re too done on the internet.

The term digital marketing doesn’t necessarily refer to any specific marketing strategy, tactic, or method for obtaining specific business objectives. Think of it like this, referral marketing or word-of-mouth is a marketing tactic that aims to increase customer loyalty by incentivizing existing customers. If referral marketing is done offline through traditional marketing channels (physical coupons, etc.), then it’s part of traditional marketing. On the other hand, if it’s done online, through digital channels, we can say those referral tactics are part of someone’s digital marketing strategy.

From this, we can conclude that digital marketing encapsulates any form of marketing done online. However, this doesn’t say much about the tactics one’s going to employ to achieve their goals. And this is where we get to growth hacking and growth marketing.

Evolving Past Digital Marketing

Once the industry transitioned into the digital space, marketers started exploring and searching for ways to improve their business's digital footprint and establish a strong online presence. In other words, marketers were trying to find effective tactics and methods to improving digital marketing. 

For instance, we have social media marketing, influencer marketing, email marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, content marketing, affiliate marketing, mobile marketing, and so on. All these categorizations have one thing in common - they’re done online, which means they’re part of digital marketing, just as TV advertisement, billboards, and direct sales are part of traditional marketing.

And as marketing continued to evolve, it became more blended with other disciplines such as sales, IT, and others. As a result, the technical jargon became more elaborate and complex, and straightforward categorizations are harder to make. 

For instance, some concepts such as digital growth hacking are technically part of digital marketing, but they have grown to a point where they’re considered more independent and have become a complete marketing approach on their own. To give you an idea of what that means in practice, think of social media marketing, influencer marketing, and (online) referral marketing. These tactics are all part of digital marketing, but can also be part of a growth hacking strategy, too. Therefore, growth hacking is on a higher level of abstraction than social media marketing, but lower than digital marketing.

In fact, digital growth hacking was such a revolutionary and well-developed method in the digital world that it inspired the emergence of a new subfield in marketing - growth marketing

The Emergence of Digital Growth Hacking and Growth Marketing

Growth hacking as a term was first used by Sean Ellis, founder and CEO of GrowthHackers, in 2010. Ellis used the term to describe a tactic used by some of the fastest-growing companies in history, such as Dropbox and Airbnb. These companies used a strategy that Ellies described as growth-hacking to beat the market and rise to the top.

We can define growth hacking as a strategy that aims to acquire as many users or customers as possible, as quickly as possible, while spending as little as possible. So, you can see why it instantly became a rockstar in the business world. 

Growth hacking is about growth and nothing else. It uses a data-driven approach to find an answer to the question “What is the best road to growth?”

For a while, growth hacking was seen as the ultimate solution to all the problems businesses faced with digital marketing strategies, but they eventually realized that that’s not enough. As effective as growth hacking is, growth on its own isn’t sustainable and meaningful unless it broadens its focus and includes brand marketing as well - which is typically ignored in growth hacking.

Integrating growth hacking in a broader framework is what actually works as a long-term marketing model. And that’s basically what growth marketing strategy is all about.

Defining Growth Marketing

Inspired by growth hacking and the trend of blending the lines between disciplines such as product, sales, IT, and digital marketing, marketers began to redefine the way they do marketing online. Growth marketing represents an integrated process of experimentation across marketing channels that aims to find the most efficient way to attract new customers and grow the business.

This process is dependent on several things that are integral to the growth marketing model:

  • experimentation (A/B testing, measuring, and data analysis);
  • data-driven approach (all the decisions are based on the results from the experiments);
  • the primary goal is growth (growing the customer base, brand recognition, and ROI);
  • collaboration and integration with other disciplines (growth marketing is a product-led approach, not sales-led).

Differences Between Growth-Hacking and Growth Marketing

We should note that most of the time, people still use growth hacking and growth marketing interchangeably. While, in some cases, this might not be such a big deal, it’s important to understand the attempts marketers make to distinguish between the practices employed by growth marketers and growth hackers. 

The most striking difference is that growth hackers do not take into account the brand (brand positioning or brand marketing) and focus on fast results. On the other hand, growth marketing takes a more broad approach and focuses on connecting growth marketing tactics to outcomes and data.

Growth Marketing vs Digital Marketing: Differences and Similarities

Now that you know what growth marketing, growth hacking, and digital marketing are, let’s go over the similarities and differences between growth marketing and digital marketing to answer our initial question.

Similarities Between Digital Marketing and Growth Marketing

The similarities between digital marketing and growth marketing can be seen in the tools and resources used by both approaches.

First, both digital marketing and growth marketing entail online marketing activities.

Second, both terminologies can entail the same tools and resources for achieving marketing goals. For instance, both digital marketers and growth marketers might use a social media strategy for customer engagement, or they might employ the same SEO and content marketing efforts for customer acquisition. 

However, the way digital and growth marketers come to conclusions, make decisions, and find solutions is very different.

Differences Between Digital Marketing and Growth Marketing

We can say that digital marketing is like the wheel that propels you toward your specific marketing goals. It gives you the tools, resources, channels, and methods you need to achieve these goals. Digital marketers focus on different goals, which can be brand awareness, product promotion, customer retention, customer acquisition, customer loyalty, and so on.

On the other hand, growth marketing is like a road map that tells you what you need to optimize to achieve growth. It does not focus on a specific channel or a specific method, but tries to integrate all aspects of the buying process, so it can examine it as an intertwined system. To achieve this, growth marketing relies heavily on experimentation and diagnostic measures.

Additionally, digital marketing offers a wide range of online marketing tactics that marketers can use, but it does not offer a specific strategy that can guide your marketing decision, like growth marketing does.

Growth marketing goes beyond the reach of digital marketing (brand awareness and customer acquisition) and also works on customer activation, retention, revenue, and referral - all aspects of the customer lifecycle. Because of this, it is more involved with product development and sales.

Finally, we can also say that digital marketing vs. traditional marketing is a classification of marketing activities based on where they take place (online vs. offline), while growth marketing is a classification based on a methodology and objectives, and therefore it would be an unnatural comparison.

Growth Marketing vs Digital Marketing: Which One Is Better?

The reason why most people want to know the difference between digital marketing and growth marketing is to be more confident when choosing what’s best for their business - especially when we’re talking about ROI. Based on everything that we said so far, can we conclude that growth marketing is better than digital marketing, or vice versa?

Well, if we had to answer the question, then we would say growth marketing. The reason for this is not that digital marketing can’t be as effective or even more so than growth marketing, but because the term itself does not include a well-defined strategy or plan for achieving end goals.

Digital marketing gives you many different tools, tactics, and techniques that you can use to achieve almost any goal, but it does not provide a framework or strategy on how to achieve those goals. Here’s where growth marketing shines through. It gives you principals to follow when crafting growth marketing campaigns.

Growth marketing, with all its flaws, describes a straightforward process or a roadmap for improving the results of your marketing efforts and delivering greater ROI. In a way, it forces the company to set clear, attainable goals based on actual data, and comes up with solutions based on data analysis.


Based on everything that we’ve said, digital marketing, in its more broad definition, will probably keep expanding with new tools and technologies. However, it is growth marketing that provides an effective strategy for getting ahead of the curve in this modern times.

If you’re interested in learning more about growth marketing and growth hacking, please check out our blog where we regularly share insightful guides on similar topics. Finally, if there’s a pressing issue that we can help you with, don’t hesitate to contact our team back at Redwhale. We’re always happy to help  our loyal readers.

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