Skip to main content
Content StrategyPodcast

029: The Art & Science of Hacking Growth with Morgan Brown (VP of Growth, Shopify)

The Art & Science of Hacking Growth with Morgan Brown (VP of Growth at Shopify)

Morgan Brown is Vice President of Growth Marketing for Shopify, where he’s responsible for Shopify’s merchant growth. Prior to Shopify, he was a Director of Product at Facebook, working in the Messenger organization. 

He is also the author of Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success. Morgan has spent his career helping companies of all sizes grow at the intersection of digital marketing and product development. 

Growth is a word that has nearly lost its meaning. Somewhere along the way, it went from a model that prioritized product and experimentation to being a synonym for performance. It’s become a label that gets slapped on everything from growth hacking to growth PR. But that doesn’t mean it no longer has value. Morgan has gone from working at agencies during the birth of digital marketing to leading product management at Facebook. 

In this episode of The Long Game, Morgan shares his early introduction to growth, the career lessons he’s learned, and the successful tactics employed by his team at Shopify.

Connect with Morgan Brown:


LinkedIn and Twitter

Listen to the podcast

Watch the video

Key Takeaways

19:25 – Look beyond textbook marketing

Morgan’s experience at a digital marketing agency in the early 2000s led him to think beyond the traditional marketing approaches.

“That was my first exposure to this idea that you could build stuff that led to better outcomes in terms of digital marketing and success than just use the traditional advertising model of I’m going to buy banner ads. I’m going to spend on pay-per-click. And so for me, it was that, I wouldn’t say it was like an ‘aha moment,’ but it was this inclination where I was like, oh, we can do these things that most people that have MBAs would not consider marketing. They would not consider this kind of software development, its products, it’s whatever. But they are real drivers of success in terms of digital marketing and hitting digital goals and that type of thing. And so I really started to lean into what are the things we could build, whether it was a blog or a calculator or a community forum or that type of thing. And so just started to take a slightly different lens into what it means to grow something online.”

26:12 – The art & science of viral content 

Morgan was inspired by Ryan Holiday’s books about marketing and PR, which validated his unique approach. He still felt something was missing, though: the measurement side.

“We talked a lot about his American Apparel work, and his subsequent book ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’ is a great example on how to influence media through PR and stuff like that, and then systematize that and kind of turn that into leverage intentionally. So I think a lot of people think of virality as lightning striking, which is the wrong mental model for it. And Ryan’s book is very much like, no, it’s not lightning in a bottle. There is a method, there is art and science, but there’s certainly a method to figuring this out. And yeah, so for me, I was like, yeah, this is the type of stuff I’m doing. And then it was just, there’s so much more there though. Because I think the piece that was missing, and it’s been many years since I read his book, but it was more kind of on the stunt side and less on the measurement side, and the strong, causal understanding, like the CRL part.”

29:46 – Test often and iterate quickly

When Morgan was working for a startup incubator in L.A., James Currier came to their office and talked about the minute-by-minute customer acquisition testing they were doing using Facebook.

“[James Currier] described a situation where their team was just sitting around in a circle testing different friend invite prompts. Seeing which ones drove the most virality, and literally every few minutes testing a new one and then doing the same thing with their ad copy. Posting a Facebook ad, seeing a response rate in real-time and then iterating on those. And so that whole notion of software as leverage, figuring out what really makes a channel work, rapid optimization and testing where they’re doing it almost in real-time was just another part of the puzzle. I was like, oh wow. This makes a ton of sense. The traditional speed of marketing coming from my agency background was you have a planning cycle for a quarter. You then go execute on that cycle for a quarter. You come back at the end of the quarter, you produce results and say what worked and what didn’t. And you propose new things to try. And I was like, oh, these guys are literally changing things by the minute.”

39:14 – Growth has lost its meaning

Over time, growth has become synonymous with performance instead of relating to product and experimentation. People have tacked it on to just about everything.

“I think a bunch of people realized the potential value for themselves, or if you add the word ‘growth’ to anything, it would get more business priority, maybe more visibility for the projects they’re working on and so on and so forth. So then you end up with growth hacking, product-led growth, growth marketing, growth PR, everything. Performance marketing is renamed growth marketing, conversion rate optimization gets lumped in with growth. It just kind of snowballed, and now I think it’s so messy that there isn’t really a lot of value. If you see someone with growth in their title, you cannot make any assumptions about what they do or what they’re good at or anything like that at all. And so versus something like email marketing is very clear, or out of home is very clear. It’s become a term of, there’s no differentiation in it at all anymore.”

42:52 – Determine who owns outcomes

Growth teams have flourished because of the gap that exists between marketing and product. What’s less important is the growth team itself and simply assigning ownership to the business outcomes that get lost in the middle.

“I think the thing that happened was that marketing didn’t have ownership of the end outcomes. So they only focused on the things that they could influence, which were top of the funnel stuff. And then product was really just focused on building product, building the vision that they have for it. And so it left you with this chasm in the middle of who actually owns the outcomes of the business. And the answer was really no one. And so I think that’s why you see all growth teams flourish. Now that thinking is pretty widely accepted or is becoming more and more accepted. And so I think whether you actually need a growth team or not anymore is really dependent on the stage the company’s in, the game you’re playing, and that type of thing. I think growth teams overall have had a pretty spotty track record to date in terms of their success and longevity. I think ultimately it is that mental model of who owns the things that matter the most in your business.”

45:29 – Focus on core growth 

Morgan described how Facebook had different layers of growth, from the core growth of increasing users to each product having its own supply and demand teams for growth.

“The core growth team was really just responsible for Facebook’s monthly active users and daily active users and the levers that drove that. So if you think about Facebook’s business model, [it was] highly reliant on the number of monthly active people that use it, and daily active people that use it. And any given product team is not really going to be worried about that top line metric because they’re so focused on their own product. Where Facebook Marketplace team is not going to be worried about the overall daily active users for Facebook. And that same is true for any product team. So you have a growth team that’s focused on those core inputs and core metrics for the overall business health. And they just own them every day, all day, around the clock. And so that’s their focus. That’s the core growth team. Then every product team uses some of their engineering resources and product resources to drive growth. So those product teams have growth teams, which are really focused on product adoption, retention, and success.”

59:07 – Bring content, and business goals together

Shopify has teams focused on identifying what strategies can improve business outcomes, like content and SEO.

“I think some of the things that work well or that are lessons – one is having teams that are focused on the conversion of the traffic, from the audience development side and the content side into the business outcome side. So we have a team called Channel Acceleration, and they’re really focused on taking the largest surfaces of our customer acquisition apparatus and helping to experiment on those and identify opportunities to improve business outcomes. So for example, the editorial team at Shopify figuring out the right articles to write, they partner with SEO to identify net new areas to go into, cross-linking opportunities, keywords we want to go after, so on and so forth.”

1:01:42 – Validate experiments

The experimentation team at Shopify helps other teams to create their experiments, but it also serves to check whether an experiment is worth doing.

“The experimentation team is a center of excellence that helps any team in Shopify run trustworthy experiments. That’s their mission. So it’s, understand the experimentation platform, understand what it means to run a successful experiment, understand whether it makes sense for an experiment to run or not. And they serve every team, whether it’s a product marketing team, brand team, product team, they’re the clearinghouse for advice on how to run trustworthy experiments and help teams identify which those are. So if a team comes to Chanel or Cassandra and they’re like, ‘Hey, we want to run an experiment where we change this footer link on this page to maybe this other foot link, is that a good experiment to run?’ They’ll be like, no, you’re not going to get enough traffic. You’re not going to get a large enough sample. Do something different.”

1:04:46 – Use a cross-functional model to reach goals

Teams shouldn’t have a single function. They should be integrated together to achieve business objectives.

“They’re playing the same game, playing the same song, but you have the autonomy and opportunity to be creative and apply that and to create something that’s new. And so I think Toby Lukey uses the jazz band analogy a lot, which I really like. I mean, scaling’s hard. And so previously, Shopify was organized into single functional teams. The content team just did content stuff, but they weren’t really integrated with the SEO team. The SEO team operated over here, the content team operated over here. And one of the things we’ve done over the last year is to get them into a true cross-functional operating model where we have a business goal like organic growth. With people from content, people from SEO, people from engineering, people from data science, people from user research, people from operations cross-functionally in this. We call them missions against this business objective, which bring all of these collective strengths together.”

1:06:23 – Define a north star to work toward

The hardest part of having cross-functional teams is deciding on the shared goals that everyone will work toward.

“That’s super important I think, having that north star for what the team is trying to achieve. Like I mentioned, we’re kind of focused on the active merchants of Shopify. Everything rolls up into that. And then you have operational metrics which help people do their jobs. But the operational metrics kind of ladder up into this overall north star. And then you try to standardize the way people think about the potential opportunities that they have to go leverage across the ecosystem towards that end goal. So that everyone’s talking the same language in terms of their contribution to the business or how they think about prioritizing their work. And I think that’s actually the hardest piece of the puzzle, because some areas are by definition easier to measure than other areas. And so kind of harmonizing all of that is the hard work.”

Connect with Omniscient Digital on social:

Twitter: @beomniscient

Linkedin: Be Omniscient

Listen to more episodes of The Long Game podcast here:

Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.