When you’re starting from scratch and you have no audience, launching your creations (products, apps, articles, podcasts, whatever they may be) on Product Hunt or Hacker News can feel like the best way, or the only way, to get attention and that initial bit of traction or feedback.
Well, in spite of their reputation among bootstrappers and indie hackers as “part of the journey” I’m here to tell you… don’t do it.
Let’s take a closer look at why you probably shouldn’t ever launch on Product Hunt or Hacker News, and why you definitely shouldn’t count them as your first or only options.
Launching to a big audience is exhilarating, but is it best?
The hard truth of Product Hunt is this: just because your launch rises up the leaderboard doesn’t mean you have a success on your hands.
The flip-side is equally true: just because the upvoting masses don’t click, doesn’t mean your product is doomed to failure.
Even if you know this intellectually, it’s very easy and common for the results of a PH launch to trick your emotions into believing success (or failure) is already written.
Yes, HackerNews and Product Hunt have sizable, click-happy audiences. And if you get a little lucky, you can end up with lots of traffic.
All of that traffic and attention feels nice… but be wary of this kind of high. Because these particular sites tends to be, at best, a distraction from real marketing efforts. At their worst, they provide terrible false signals.
Just because you have access to them, doesn’t mean you can reach them. Let me show you what I mean.
How to get attention
Imagine being in a crowded room with hundreds or thousands of people.
Your goal in this experiment is to get and keep the most peoples’ attention with just one word/phrase. The only rule is that you can’t yell “FIRE!” or other implications of danger.
How would you do it?
If you shout “JOHN” or “NICOLE” into the room, odds are that basically 100% of the people with those names are likely to turn around. But unless you’re at a convention for people who share the same name, this strategy won’t work in real life.
Not specific enough...
What if you tried yelling “MAKERS” or “HACKERS” or “CREATIVE PEOPLE”? True, some people might identify strongly with terms like these, but broad category terms are far less attention-grabbing than you need to cut through all of the other noise (ie. likely other people yelling those words too).
While the percentage of people who turn around might be smaller than the people who turn around to a more generic term, they **know **that you’re talking to them, with no question in their mind.
On the internet, you’re shouting into a crowded room. Everyone’s attention is limited, and you have limited time to make it clear to a reader or viewer that you’re talking directly to them.
Once they’re sure you’re talking to them? You have to keep their interest. But at least you’re already past the first, and biggest, barrier.
Every opportunity they have to ask the question “are they talking to me?”, you run the risk of losing them entirely. At all costs, avoid creating those opportunities!
By the way, if you’re thinking to yourself “well, my product could be used by lots of different audiences”, that’s great; but it’s not an excuse to be overly-general in your messaging or offering.
Unless you have tons of money to throw at advertising, PR, and sales, the more specific you can be with your messaging, the better.
Your job is to be clear about who you’re trying to reach; so clear that you can say the thing they identify as (or a problem they identify with) and they’d turn around immediately in the “crowded room” of the Internet.
Choosing whose attention to grab really, really, matters
In a recent post on the Indie Hackers forum, someone shared the results of a recent pair of launches:
Just because you have access to them, doesn’t mean they’re the people you want to reach.
The source of the attention you seek matters because it defines what is likely to happen after you get their attention.
- Do the people visiting already pay for things like yours?
- Do the people who click take action (e.g. sign up for an account or newsletter)?
- If they sign up, do they USE the thing?
You can’t predict the behavior of individuals, but audiences tend to behave predictably on average.
The biggest clue that sites like HN and Product Hunt aren’t going to be as useful as a more focused watering hole is by asking yourself questions like:
- Who is in this audience?
- Why do these people come to this site?
- What do they have in common?
- What kinds of conversations happen in the discussion/comments?
The more broad and vague your answers are with these questions, the lower quality the traffic is likely to be. For PH and HN, all the answers are pretty too-general-feeling.
Looking to launch to people who care?
Let’s go back to the example from the Indie Hackers forum:
Think about that niche newsletter, and what it represents.
Instead of focusing on the list of email addresses, think about why the people behind those email addresses signed up in the first place.
- Because they are looking for help, advice, ideas, and inspiration.
- Because someone earned their trust enough to be a source of help, advice, ideas, and inspiration.
When you are starting from scratch and you have no audience, the temptation is to seek out the biggest audiences and figure out how to get them to pay attention.
The much more effective approach is to seek out places where you can skip the noise and earn trust, or even borrow trust from others.
Here’s how to build your own audience from scratch
This approach has been deployed successfully by hundreds of our students at Stacking the Bricks, and it’s exactly how Amy and I built the audiences that we have.
- Pick one to three online communities where you know your specific audience looks to and trusts when they need help, advice, ideas, or inspiration. This could also include industry-specific newsletters and discussion lists, podcasts, video series, etc.
- Get active in those communities. Start reading, listening, and taking notes. Pay special attention to the challenges and problems that people talk about. Look for questions, and answer them thoughtfully.
- Be helpful and supportive. Don’t just talk about you and your stuff—talk with them and their stuff.
- Continue doing this a few times a week. Remember you’re here to earn trust, and learn what they really care about.
- By the time you’re sharing something of your own, the members and leaders of that community can and often will signal boost too.
This is the groundwork for building audiences you can reach AND who convert to customers.
There aren’t really shortcuts. It takes time. But it’s reliable as hell and the results compound quickly over time.
The only downside is that this approach doesn’t come with the crashing waves of dopamine of a “launch day” on Product Hunt. But remember, once that dopamine hit wears off, you’re going to have to do the work anyway. Don’t buy into the hype, and don’t look at PH and HN as the only ways to grassroots success. You can do it yourself, without the trials and tribulations of being subject to the Internet.
Hopefully, this article helped you understand why Product Hunt and Hacker News shouldn’t be the basket that holds all your eggs. And if you still vigorously believe in them, more power to you; hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought at the very least. If you have any of your own advice, or want to start a discussion with your fellow room-shouters, comment below! Thanks!