Note: This is one of the chapters in Secret Sauce: A Step-by-step Guide to Growth Hacking. The full book is available to order now.

Beating the System

A lot of people view growth hacking as beating some sort of system. They figure out how to beat one system, and then, holding that hammer, start to look at everything as if it’s a nail. That is the worst way to go about it, because it works well enough to get results but not well enough to learn what will get great ones.
Instead of looking down the list of networks you know how to beat, I want you to learn to break every marketing effort down into these three steps:
  1. Understand exactly who your customer is
  2. Figure out where people like your customer tend to congregate
  3. Figure out how to make contact with them where they are
Even though we ended up selling $4,000 of a highly-niched product on day one because of Instagram, we didn’t start off knowing we would be using Instagram. That came as we explored the growth mindset.

The Mindset

User acquisition is, above all else, a mindset. The tactics will always vary according to the circumstances of the network or audience you’re targeting, but the thought process is always very similar. We want to take you through the thought process from the very beginning. By the end, you’ll be able to pick this process apart and reverse engineer it — doing so will work on any other network and with any other product or service.
At the highest level, user acquisition consists of two steps:
  1. Creating something desirable enough that some subset of the human population wants it.
  2. Getting in front of those people in the right way


We approach every user acquisition problem the same way you should break down any complex problem. The first step is to stop and slow down.
Do not go nuts creating an account or posting. Instead, grab a piece of paper and a pencil and start breaking things down into smaller pieces until we have a solidified roadmap.
As you’re thinking through this, do not inhibit or suppress your thought process. You want every thought and idea out on paper to sort out later, and your mind is the conveyor belt bringing those things to the table. If you stop the conveyor belt, you won’t have the idea to play with when you want it. Stream of consciousness here is great; just let thoughts flow wherever they may go.
Here is how our thought process worked in this particular example:

Learning to Think Like Johnny P.

> OK, so we have a bunch of neckties that are a little bit crazy. They’re not really my style. Who wants to wear a necktie that’s been made out of fabric someone pulled off a used couch?
> Johnny P. would wear this — that’s who. He’s always wearing weird crap like that. Vests with hide from a water buffalo, clothes some orphan hand-knit in Venezuela, color combinations that shouldn’t look good together, but do, somehow. Johnny is kind of a weirdo. But he also dresses really well. Sometimes it’s over the top, but that kid must put a ton of time and effort into the way he looks. Probably drops a ton of cash too. Ya, he’s the perfect person for something like this.
> OK, so I’m Johnny. What is Johnny’s day like? Who does he hang out with? What websites does he visit? I know he’s really into international film — he’s kind of a “designy hipster” — big beard, cardigan, teardrop hats and all. And most of his friends are the same way; I assume they all like similar stuff. How would I describe what Johnny is into?
> Johnny is really into creating things; things being “authentic” and “real,” almost anti-corporate. Craftsmanship. Artisan. Those are the words I would choose to describe Johnny. To him things aren’t just to be used; objects have a heart and soul. Everything is art. Indie music, TV shows that most people wouldn’t care to watch.
> When I think Johnny, I think wood grain and thick wool. I think restored apartment in Soho. Very Thoreau, yet in a weird way very inner-city. New York or San Francisco. Very Urban-Rustic. He’s what would happen if you mixed Into the Wild and GQ. Is Americana a word for that?
> I hate this word, but you could call him a hipster. I don’t know too much about hipsters. He may be offended by that. I should ask Johnny about it.
> But OK, back to Johnny. What does Johnny do? What’s his daily routine? What websites does he use? He’s not really a big Facebook fan — well, at least he talks about how he hates it, who knows how much he really uses it? He’s always making fun of Pinterest, too, which is interesting — you think he’d be the Pinterest type. Definitely an iPhone guy, almost to a “make fun of Android” extent. He loves design; I wonder if he studied design in college or if he’s just into that stuff? Did he go to college? Oh yeah, I know that Johnny is on Instagram all. the. time. That’s probably because he’s into photography — most of the very arty/designy types are, to some extent. I wonder if that was the original audience of Instagram — if their first users were really artsy people who got into using the photographic filters? It was kind of like Hipstamatic I guess. Did Instagram come before or after Hipstamatic?
> Instagram, that could be interesting. So assuming that Johnny is on Instagram, he probably has a bunch of friends that are too. After all, Johnny isn’t everyone, it’s just his type we’re looking for. How could I find them?
After at least 30 minutes of this kind of brainstorming, we can start “digging.”

The Digging

> Alright, let’s find Johnny’s account. Who does he follow? Huh, it looks like he only follows friends and family. Or at least, these seem to be friends and family, I’m not sure if they all are not; he has a lot of friends that look and act just like him. These could be celebrities in his world for all I know. I’ll find if there are any big accounts later. What words does he use, what kind of photos does he post? How can I find all these people?
I could just look at the people that Johnny follows. But there’s probably a lot of friends and family; I know he follows me and I’m not the target audience. But who does he follow? Who are the big hipster Instagram accounts? Not like Humans of New York hipster — that’s too “mainstream”.
> Here’s a picture of a lake. Hashtags #lake. Very understated. Not much going there, not much to work with.
> Here’s one with him in it. Oh wow, he’s cobbling his own shoes. Uses the #artisan hashtag. Let’s check that out.
> Eh, this looks mediocre at best. The first few photos are someone making chainmail, remodeling their house, etc. Not as targeted as I would have thought. Back to Johnny.
> Family photo. Next.
> Oh very interesting. He’s got on a suit from goodwill — that fits him really well. Hashtag #dapper. #Dapper — that’s very interesting. That’s very GQ. Not as artisan-y, but let’s check it out.
> Wow. These guys are all obsessed with clothes. Weird clothes. This dude made a coat out of hair extensions. That might be too crazy for Johnny, but crazily enough it seems to fit our niche. Whoa, how does this photo have 13,000 likes? Let’s check this dude out.
> Yeah, this guy is the type. He and Johnny would hang out and talk about clothes. This is the person we want. If we look at his posts the hashtag I see again and again is #dapper.  And there are millions Johnnys using that keyword. Here they are — the perfect market of people we want to reach.
So perhaps that is a little bit annoying, but If you take that apart and look at where the stream of consciousness started, you’ll find a few things.

Always start with the target market.

The biggest mistake I see people make is they start with figuring out how they can get reach. That is bad news. Start by figuring out the type of person you want to target, and where a bunch of them congregate. From that point we can figure out how to target them or get our message in front of them — you’ll see throughout the rest of the book that this can be the easy part. First we have to know who they are and what they like.
Sending out an email to 15 million random people would probably be less effective than engaging in a real conversation with a dozen of these folks. We just avoided a lot of wasted time.
  1. Get in the mind of the people you want to reach

Later on we’ll do A/B testing and figure out where we were wrong, but your assumptions and playing around can get you a long way, especially in the initial stages. The most enlightening thing to do is talk with someone who falls in your target market (ideally you are that person), but for now we’ll just stereotype and try not to be too broad in doing so.
  1. Find where the people you want to reach congregate
You want as large of a grouping of your target market as you can get. You also want that target market to be as specific as you can. You can’t always do that in traditional ways like finding accounts they follow or finding a big intentional group of them.
One of my favorite ways is finding a keyword or hashtag that a specific group has unintentionally adopted.
  1. You’ll find you already know how to reach them
The interesting thing about following this process is that in doing to you accidentally figured out what your marketing should look like. In this example the words that stick out are “artisan” “dapper” and “craftsmanship.” Now we go into creation mode with a great understanding of how to build up a world that they want to be a part of.

Creation Mode

Our end goal will be to get in front of the market we’ve found, but more importantly, we have to have a home where they can land once we find them.
Looking back at the discovery process, you found the look/feel we were going for — words like “artisan,” “dapper,” and “craftsmanship.” Once we had that for guidance, actually creating the content was natural.
Not surprisingly, these photos were some of those that performed the best:
You can see they all went for that handcrafted feel.
And we know that Johnnys of the world are gathered on Instagram, just ready for us to pick them up, which brings us to our next chapter.


Instagram seems like an odd place to start a growth hacking book, because Instagram doesn’t exactly seem like an ideal marketing platform.
Turns out, that’s part of why it’s an excellent marketing platform.
So how did we go from no Instagram account to $4,000 of Instagram sales in two weeks?
First, let’s work our way through some of the fundamentals of this network, and learn how we break down a social network.


Continuing from the Thought Process chapter (which you should go back and read if you skipped ahead), this is where the fun stuff really starts.
We found a million people who we think may want what we’re offering and we created a few great photos that would resonate with that very specific audience. We spent a lot of time doing this – unique photos, tastefully posed and crafted. Nothing makes up for authenticity.
Now we need to optimize the funnel all the way down to help people get to a point of purchase.

Conversion Backwards

Once your market is identified, the next thing you should do is find the point of conversion. Is that a sale? Is that a new user? Find that point, and we’ll work backwards from there.
Final Step: In this case it’s fairly obvious – it’s a sale. Someone puts a tie in their shopping cart and checks out. Simple enough.
One Step Back: Walking back from there we have to get someone to the point where they’re checking out the selection of ties.
Two Steps Back: Back up more and we’re at the point where they’re learning who we are.
That’s a fairly straight-forward conversion funnel, but it’s important thatwe begin with the end in mind. I’ve seen some of the best marketing tactics ever applied to empty Twitter accounts and pointed at pages that didn’t point to conversion.  
As our marketing funnel grows and branches, the level of complexity of our marketing effort will increase. There will be more supporting work that doesn’t contribute to the end result later on down the road. But in the very beginning, we’re going to be like a mosquito – built to score and nothing else.
We have to get people to know who we are, get them to the point where they can check out our stuff, and make it easy to buy at that point.
Instagram does provide a couple of wrinkles.

Channel Idiosyncrasies

Instagram is a little tricky, because no links are allowed in the posts themselves. That is probably a good thing as far as engagement is concern— it forces you to keep your posts non-spammy. If you really want to send people to a specific link, it’s common practice to add the comment “link in bio” to a photo, and change the link in your Instagram profile.
So let’s put a link in the bio, but looking at this I’m still a little skeptical that people will automatically click through and buy. That’s a big step to take for a first-time user.
How can we simplify that process?
We may have to warm someone up and add a little urgency. So instead of just going for a straight Instagram to store conversion, let’s add an interstitial step. Dealing with Instagram made us rethink our funnel. It now looks like:
Final Step: Someone puts a tie in their shopping cart and checks out.
One Step Back: They get an email that the store is open and they have a one-day 10% off coupon.
Two Steps Back: Someone sees our account, looks at some of the cool stuff we have, and notice that they can get 10% off when the store opens if they drop in their email
Three Steps Back: We now need to figure out how to get someone to check out our account.

Finding a Non-Intrusive Touch Point

So we now have:
  1. Our customer identified
  2. A funnel to conversion created
All that’s missing is our customer. We have to get in touch with them somehow.
We need to find a touch point where we can reach out to someone new, make them feel welcome, and smoothly tip them into our conversion funnel.
Generally these are already available on the network you’ve started exploring. So let’s think about the functionality contained within the network we’re using.
There are five obvious ways I can get in touch with a Johnny using Instagram:
  1. Tag him in a photo
  2. Comment on one of his photos
  3. Like his photos
  4. Follow him
  5. Send him a direct message
It seems pretty simple, but this is enough of a framework to work from; we just have to utilize as many of these as we can, as effectively as we can. Let’s walk through them.
Tagging in a photo.
This one seems spammy to me, and you have to be following me first in most cases. Next.
Commenting on photos
Very promising, could be pulled off, but would definitely take a lot of time and effort. I don’t know if I have enough time to write 1,000 unique comments, although that would work. Let’s keep that in our back pocket and look for something a little more simple.
Liking photos
Liking photos is easy, and no one hates it when others like their photos. It’s possible the likes will be buried amongst dozens of other likes, but I know that I notice it when people like my photos, and I’ll often go check theirs out. This isn’t a bad strategy.
The most obvious and easiest way would be following. You show up independently to them for a few minutes, and they’ll most likely check you out. Having more followers is a good thing as well, so I almost feel like I owe you something for following me.
So let’s take these things and develop a strategy around them.

Follow, Like, Like, Like

At this point, you’ll want to pull out your phone, log into your account, and start playing. Take half a day, a whole day, it doesn’t really matter, this is all part of the learning process. That’s exactly what we did with our first Instagram experiment.
After about a day of experimentation and testing, we found the method that works the best for us is something we call “follow like like like.” The process is simple — go to the most recent section for the hashtag we chose to target and select the top picture. Follow that account, go to their photos, and like their most recent three.
This shows the user that not only did someone who is kind of like them follow them, but they also dug a little bit and really liked what they found.
Here’s the crazy part: When we did this, the follow-back percentage approached 25%. Meaning for every four people we followed, one would follow us back. And, more importantly, we could see a decent amount of traffic going through to the pre-launch landing page we had set up, and we saw the emails filling up our list.

Going to Work

We did this for a week before setting the product live, and by the end of the week we had 10,000 followers. In one week, with one simple process, all manually and something everybody reading this could do. Each photo we posted was getting over 300 likes, and other people were being tagged in each of the photos by their friends.
The content was great, and people really cared about what the company was doing. And, perhaps best of all, it was all done legitimately, without (we hope) annoying too many people.

We also did it completely manually. It did get tiring spending literally all day liking photos on Instagram, but it was all worth it come launch day. As with most social media platforms, you need to be wise or risk being banned for using spammy techniques, so don’t stop reading before you’ve finished this chapter, and be responsible about investigating Instagram’s rules yourself before you launch your first campaign.

Targeted following

If you’re following a lot of people, there’s a really good way to see if you are targeting your actions well enough; see if you can actually enjoy your feed. If following completely ruins the Instagram experience for you by filling your feed up with junk you don’t want to see, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Be very, very selective about who you follow. Make it as tight of a network as you possibly can, and as directly targeted as you can.

Fool’s Gold

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make on social networks is to use the number of followers as the most important metric. There are plenty of accounts that will follow back just because. You’re not looking for those — you’re looking to generate interest and create a community around your photos, not get a bunch of ego boosts that don’t help you at all.

Launch Day

Launch day came, and, as stated before, the company sold over $4,000 of inventory. This had been a side-project before that, but the creator was able to quit his job and go full-time doing what he loved. He hasn’t gone back since. He’s been able to control growth at a level that works for him. As an “artisan” who insists on “handcrafted” products, he’s been able to build traffic and revenue at a pace that allows him to maintain his goal of producing quality product without forcing him to abandon his own principles of creating truly hand-made (as opposed to bulk-manufactured in China or Vietnam) softgoods.
As a marketer, there’s nothing more rewarding than letting the makers support themselves by doing what they do best. In addition, we made the process easy and repeatable so he can manage his own Instagram account rather than paying a consultant to do it for him. That’s another indication that this process generated legitimate results.
It’s always a good rule of thumb to do everything in marketing manually first. Once you see that your method is working, you can consider automating and scaling.
There will be more on scaling out later on in the book, but for automating there are some really simple bots you can use to save yourself the time and effort of mashing your fingers on Instagram screens all day, but we need to focus on core principles before we get into that fancy stuff.


For automating the Instagram process, I recommend FollowLiker. FollowLiker is a program that can do some of the liking and following for you automatically, but you’ll still want to be doing your own thing manually. You’ll need a PC or a virtual machine to run these bots, unfortunately, but for a few dollars per month it’s probably worth your sanity.
Make sure that you know your process is working manually before automating it. Bots do not solve problems for marketers; they just make the processes that work more repeatable.
Note: Bot at your own risk. If you do anything that seems unnatural or automated or break the terms of service, you risk getting banned.
Instagram is getting stricter with its rate limiting (how many you’ll be able to like and follow per day), so you have to be careful with the settings the bot is running.
We currently use the following settings per account (you will need to stay on top of Instagram’s rules in the event that things change in the future):
* 2100 likes per day (17–22 second delay)
* 450–600 follows per day (15–20 second delay)
* 350–450 unfollow per day (15–20 second delay)
* Minimum of 1–2 photos posted manually per day while running these settings,
* The average account will increase at around 250 followers per day at these levels, while the better ones will approach 500 per day.
Unfortunately, the bot doesn’t allow the “follow-like-like-like” strategy, so it will be per photo/account, but even the worst accounts should grow by about 7,500 followers per month. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have 90,000 people seeing your photos after a year, you’ll see the sales/traffic really start rolling in.
There are other methods to grow your Instagram account, which can work in addition to the follow, like, like, method mentioned above.


Perhaps the fastest way to grow an Instagram account is to use already-existing networks of influencers in your space.
There are marketplaces where you can contract Instagram influencers by the hour or by the day to post promotional posts for you. Two of the biggest are Shoutcart and Instafluence.
These work very well if you know how much revenue you’re going to bring in and are a little bit farther along, but they can be very expensive, especially in the beginning, and with less-targeted accounts. Instead of using these networks specifically we’re going to reverse engineer that method and build out our own ad-hoc influencer network to drive down the costs.

Rolling Our Own Influencer Network

One of the ways we’re going to beat this system is by finding people with larger yet untapped audiences.
If you have 1 million followers you are probably approached for shoutouts several times per day. If you have 100,000 followers you are probably approached several times a week (and more if you’re on a shoutout selling network). If you’re approached that often you can piece together some semblance of pricing based on what people are willing to pay, and likely have an idea of what the price of such a service should be.
In my experience those with between 50,000 followers and 100,000 followers are virtually never approached for shoutouts. Because of this, they have no price set for a shoutout, and we can often buy shoutouts from those folks for cheap.
For example, buying a shoutout from an account with 1 million followers has run people I’ve worked with as much as $20,000. I’ve purchased dozens of shoutouts from accounts with ~50,000 followers for $5-10.
Let’s assume, for a moment, we put in the legwork to find 20 accounts with 50,000 followers and paid each of them $10 for a shoutout. We pay $200 to reach the same number of followers other folks are paying $20,000 to reach. A $19,800 savings by putting in a little more work and creativity – that’s exactly what growth hacking is for.
Your numbers may be slightly different, but $10 per shoutout serves as a good starting point.


The first tool we’ll use to find influencers is Audiense (formerly known as SocialBro). Audiense has a free plan that will let us find and target Instagram users by niche, sorting them by number of followers.
So in this case we would create an Audiense account, enter our niche (we’ll say “fashion”), and see that (at the time of writing) there are 490,492 people we can target.
Now we want to filter this for influential people, but still not so influential that they have a price for shoutouts. Let’s say we want to target 10,000 to 50,000 followers for this test.
We now have a neatly curated list of people to approach for shoutouts, and we can sort or filter them in any way we see fit. (We may, for example, choose only to target males, as we’re selling neckties for men.) It’s time to start wheeling and dealing.

Affiliate Deals

Perhaps the best (and definitely cheapest) way to structure these types of deals is to shoot for some sort of affiliate structure: If my cost on a tie is $20 and I sell it for $80, let’s agree to split the profit with the influencers. That means for each sale we each make $30.
This is more difficult to set up and manage, but it aligns the incentives of all parties involved. If you have an influencer who sells five ties with one post, you can bet they’ll be doing everything they can to promote your product in the future.
Going back to Google Analytics we can create a URL for each affiliate, which we can give them to place in their bio.
Using this kind of a URL we can track eCommerce conversions by source/medium, and know how many sales came through our affiliates.
In the Admin section of Google Analytics we can also grant “read only” access to our account for the affiliates to see. Just click Admin, User Management, and add permissions for an email to “read and analyze.”

Contacting for Shoutouts

Luckily, because we’re the ones with the money, the process of reaching out is relatively simple. Depending on who is following whom, we can either send them a message, comment on a photo, or contact them off of Instagram.
The template is straight-forward, “Hey, would you be interested in a sponsored post on your account? Email me at [email].”
Shoutouts on the biggest accounts are sold by the hour, but you should shoot for a 24 hour minimum.

Passing Likes

A fair number of big influencers may not want to jeopardize the authenticity of their account. For those there is another interesting solution.
When looking at the notifications section of Instagram there is the option to select, “following” and see all of the activity of all of the accounts you follow.
If a big account doesn’t want to sell shoutouts, you may be able to convince them to occasionally like yours. This only shows to people who are looking for it, and if you’re the only photos they’re liking. I’ve seen accounts pass as many as 100,000 followers in one month. People do use that section, and a lot.
You may be able to find a large account that doesn’t generally like any photos, and pay them a much lower premium than you would have to pay them to post on your behalf.


The other method of growing your Instagram account is a little more experimental, but it’s free. It’s known as regramming.
Regramming makes it more difficult to build authority, but much quicker for people to find your account and follow you. Simply put, we’re going to find people who post photos in our niche that get a lot of likes, and reach out to the poster in a direct message or comment.
We might say something like, “Hey, I love your photos. I’m trying to start a hashtag of surfing shots called #youcanthandthissurftho, can I regram you rpic to my account? I’ll give your @ handle a shoutout.” Almost people will say yes – you’re offering to grow their exposure.
The interesting part is that many of these accounts will regram your photo. It’s almost like sharing someone’s praise about you – it’s still your content, but someone else loved, you might as well show people how awesome you are.
What they don’t realize is that in doing so they also allowed you to inject yourself into their feed. I’ve seen regrams from one account alone pass over 5,000 followers. It also carries with it the side benefit of getting closer to the influencers who drive a lot of traffic and conversions in a hashtag.

Making the Most of Your Instagram Posts

There are a lot of blog posts out there about how to create a great Instagram post, and most of it is common sense so we won’t delve too far into that. What we will talk about is the stuff that accompanies a post – the comments and hashtag.
What not a lot of people understand is how hashtags work. There are a lot of people (and I mean a lot) who constantly go through hashtags as their way of finding new posts to see and new people to follow.
The goal, given that such is the case, is simply to use the right hashtags so that we get in front of those people.
A really great way to find popular hashtags is using tagsforlikes. It monitors Instagram and gives you a list of the most-liked hashtags within a given category (injecting its own hashtags, which is a little annoying, but what can you do).
There’s even a tagsforlikes iPhone app if you want to have these hashtags easily accessible.
What not many people realize is that your posts don’t only show up based on the hashtags in your original post – they also show up for the hashtags in your comments. That means that if you really wanted to you could sit there and drop in five different comments full of hashtags and push your photo to the top of hundreds of hashtags. The timestamp for your photo, however, remains the same, so do it quick! You will get the majority of the likes from people who don’t follow you in the first 10-15 minutes you post a photo, so optimize for that.

Cheater Posts

There are two posts that work endlessly on Instagram, and they work better than you would ever believe. They are:
  1. “Double tap if you X!” e.g. “Double tap if you need pizza more than a relationship in your life”
  2. “Tag someone who Y!” e.g. “Tag someone who needs this in their life” or “Tag someone who’s a great artist”
It doesn’t make sense, but people will like and tag those posts all day.

Creating & Scheduling Posts

If you’re not a designer you can use to create beautiful images that are exactly the right size for your social media channels. If you want to really be able to step away from Instagram you could create 100 posts in Canva, then use something like Hootsuite or Buffergram to schedule them.
Both solutions are pretty cheap, and they’ll let us line up posts long in advance.
Instagram seems to not be a huge fan of apps that allow scheduling, so sometimes they are cut off from the API, but I’ve never seen them put a user’s account in danger, so long as they’re above board.
Apps like FollowLiker also work for scheduling, but are more complex and appear to be operating against the ways Instagram would like to see them be used, so use caution.