When you are starting from scratch and you have no audience, launching your creations (products, apps, articles, podcasts, etc) 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 pop-startup and indie hacker scenes 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 can be exhilarating. But is it best?

The truth is that 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 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?

Too Specific

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.

Just right?

“JAVASCRIPT PROGRAMMERS!” or “GRAPHIC DESIGNERS!” or “COPYWRITERS!”

While the % 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? Now you have to keep their interest. But you’re already past the first, biggest barrier.

Every opportunity they have to ask the question “are they talking to me?” you run the risk of losing them entirely. Avoid creating those opportunities!


BTW, 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 general in your messaging or your 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 in the crowded room of the internet.

Choosing whose attention you are trying to get really, really matters

In a recent post on the Indie Hackers forum, someone shared the results of a recent pair of launches:

hacker-news-vs-newsletter

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 behaviors of individuals, but audiences do tend to behave predictably in averages.

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 you answer these questions, the lower quality the traffic is likely to be.

Looking to launch to people who care?

Let’s go back to the example from the Indie Hackers forum:

hacker-news-vs-newsletter

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 it from others.

Here’s to build your own audiences to launch to, from scratch.

This approach has been deployed successfully by hundreds of our students, and it’s exactly how Amy and I built the audiences that we have!

  1. Pick 1-3 online communities where you know your SPECIFIC audience looks to and trusts when they need help, advice, ideas, inspiration. This could also include industry-specific newsletters and discussion lists, podcasts, video series, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. Be helpful and supportive. Don’t just talk about you and your stuff - talk WITH them and their stuff.
  4. Continue doing this a few times a week. Remember you’re here to earn trust, and learn what they really care about.
  5. 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.

There's more where that came from

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