I've spent over 200 hours analyzing 489+ IndieHackers interviews, trying to discover which acquisition channels work consistently for founders (see Zero to Users for more details). One of those channels is Hacker News.
Take Qbserve ($2K/mo), a time tracking app for Mac. When asked how did they attract paying users, this is what Ivan (the founder) said:
I created a "Show HN" on Hacker News, and Qbserve became one of the top submissions that week, bringing a huge stream of sales and feedback. I've spent multiple days doing nothing but replying to dozens of comments and support requests.
I already mentioned a huge boost from Hacker News that bootstrapped the app: we earned over $20,000 in one month, with a $4,269 peak on the day when the trial ended for most new customers. In the following year, the revenue was only $15,370, so without Hacker News, I wouldn't have been able to work on Qbserve almost full-time.
Background: The HN crowd is pretty unforgiving when it comes to spam (more on my experience this later). If you push your product more than once in a short period of time, you're likely to get banned/warned.
How do you solve for this problem? Answer: In addition to content marketing, also consider using side-project marketing as well.
Content marketing is about writing a useful article. Side-project marketing is about coding a useful (often small) software tool.
Chris Chen is the founder of Instapainting ($32K/mo), a service that turns a photo to a pointing. He used this approach successfully to get on the front page of Hacker News several times:
I leveraged my experience on Hacker News to push out content marketing pieces that were crucial to SEO. For example:
I built a robot in 2 weeks that could autonomously replicate artist paintings in black and white and, later, in color
I released an article detailing some of the things I saw when touring artists and art factories in China, which was read by Ev Williams, re-published on Backchannel, and totaled over 71k views.
Being lazy, I milked the robot I'd made earlier and hooked it up to Twitch.tv, where people could control it to collaboratively paint.
Most of these things had orders of magnitude more traffic than the Instapainting home page ever received, and they usually maintained some traffic gains consistently afterwards. But most importantly, these efforts brought in massive amounts of inbound links from reputable sites like Intel.com, Wired.com, TechCrunch, Engadget, etc.
Pretty much all of these initiatives started by making front page on Hacker News, and then they'd get more coverage afterwards which would boost SEO, even if the coverage itself didn't convert to orders:
Chris built a bunch of small, interesting things and pushed them to Hacker News. All of these things were relevant to his niche (painting), which drove qualified traffic and backlinks.
I first started to experiment with Hacker News 2 months ago. I began by posting relevant comments on various HN threads and then managed to get one article on the front page.
There is one interesting thing I've noticed after doing both posting and commenting; the comments brought me more sign-ups than getting on the front page there (I even wrote a post on IndieHackers about this).
It turns out I'm not the only one with this experience. 11 days ago, Gabe Ragland wrote a post on IndieHackers on how a single Hacker News comment brought him 16,737 visitors and $891 in sales (be aware that he didn't just drop a random comment, but targeted a relevant thread asking for a question where his comment was quite relevant).
Founders from various IndieHackers interviews say the same thing about commenting. Take Crowdraising ($500/m), a crowdsourcing platform where people pledge time instead of money, and how they got they got their first users:
We reached out to our networks and posted on Hacker News (HN), Product Hunt (PH), and Quora to get our initial bump of traffic, but it wasn't as large as we expected. On HN, for example, Max and I actually got better results when responding to other people's posts like this one.
The nice thing about commenting on Hacker News is that it's success is more predictable than posting. Once you post something on HN, only the grace of God could help you reach the front page. With comments, you're getting on the "front page" i.e. the comment page automatically.
Not too long ago, I maintained a mirror site of ZeroToUsers called FirstPayingUsers. Once I saw that each comment i left on HN brought me 20-30 new email sign-ups, I went full-blown into it and seized every opportunity to mention my site. I looked for every story around founders/startups and tried to connect that topic to what I'm writing about.
This worked well (I got 500 email subscribers) until one day I got a reply to one of my comments from the main Hacker News moderator:
You've posted your link 23 times in the last month—that's well over the line into spamming. Even apart from that, your account is using HN primarily for promotion, which is against the site guidelines (https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html). We ban accounts that do these things, so if you wouldn't mind reviewing the guidelines and taking the intended spirit of the site more to heart, we'd be grateful. The intended spirit is intellectual curiosity, which is not at all the same thing as having something to promote, though it's fine to bring up one's own work as part of good conversation.
My comments weren't spammy per-se. Take this one, for example, which received 16 points. If they were spammy in any sort of way, the HN community would downvote them to death
In the end, what brought me down was the fact that I posted the same link at the end of my comments (where I connected the HN thread to what I'm working on). The moderator gave me a warning. I didn't have a choice; I apologized and did not continue doing this.
The lesson: Instead of commenting a lot (quantity), write fewer high-quality comments that are more likely to get upvoted.