There’s a particular thing that happens to online communities whose members’ business interests are too closely aligned with the community’s spirit. It’s part corruption, part tragedy.
Product Hunt, a community-driven leaderboard for tech products that went from an email list to an Andreessen Horowitz-backed company, is staring at this fate. The organic, small community I joined more than a year ago has now become the hottest marketing platform for tech startups and makers.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the turn happened, it was gradual — likely around spring or summer of last year, when Product Hunt really started to pick up steam in the press and tech industry.
Just as the tech press eventually became a line item on startups’ marketing plans, something to get done, with as many “hits” (the industry term for each article or media mention) as possible, Product Hunt is becoming more vulnerable to these companies’ marketing greed. It’s all about upvotes, making it into the day’s top 10, and feeling really cool about it.
“Launching on Product Hunt”
Although the number of pitches from startups looking to convince tech reporters to write about their product launch has certainly not decreased, Product Hunt has emerged as an alternative route for some of them. You can do the traditional press launch, or you can “launch on Product Hunt.” Instead of monitoring media mentions, you’ll spend the big day counting upvotes, responding to questions and comments, and begging everyone you know to vote for you.
At least a handful of startups have chosen that route and written about it, describing their decision process and the results. Poornima Vijayashanker, a well-known engineer, recently wrote a post on her Femgineer blog, outlining how to “launch on Product Hunt like a pro,” based on her own experience and lessons. Batch wrote about the experience, including how they have to pre-arrange the posting of their product. (I recently heard from a Product Hunt team member that it’s largely because so few people have immediate posting rights, so most items go through the submission queue).
The takeaway: When startups and product makers are writing entire blog posts about how to successfully launch on your site, you’ve become a marketing tool.
And to be fair, it’s completely understandable that startups would look to Product Hunt as an alternative to the traditional press launch — they have much, much more control over it. And since, to startups, press is part of the marketing strategy, why not choose the tool they can actually control, right?
When your job is to write about startups (or most other companies), you quickly realize your work is a commodity to them — it’s just an additional item they can add to their website’s “press” page. And now, being “featured” on Product Hunt (which, by the way, doesn’t actually mean anything) is the latest of these vanity badges. And so is being in the Top 10 of that day’s products — seriously, you get a medal if you made it into those top 10 products.
And that brings us to the voting aspect of Product Hunt, and the frenzy it sends founders and makers into. I’m sure you’ve seen friends — or strangers — soliciting votes on social media, wishing and hoping they make it to the top of the day’s chart. The funny thing about this, however, is that it actually goes against Product Hunt’s community guidelines.
That’s right — you are not supposed to ask people to vote for you. Product Hunt’s team is frequently reaching out to folks to remind them of that, despite the fact that it’s getting pretty hard to police that. At least they can still control the board and keep products down when they spot voting rings. Founder and chief executive Ryan Hoover told me via email that they’re “investing more in voting ring detection, spam protection, and other changes to the algorithm to ensure the rankings are authentic,” which is reassuring.
When Hoover reached out to me a few months ago with news of his $6.1 million in new funding, I knew what it would mean: monetization, and in ways that could compromise Product Hunt’s organic nature.
Although Hoover said it’s not a current focus, he and his team have been thinking of creative monetization ideas, such as making it easier to sign up for or purchase products directly from the Product Hunt site, and making a commission. And then there’s advertising and promoted products.
As I said at the time, there’s no doubt startups will abuse Product Hunt’s originally genuine and organic community to promote their products when given the opportunity to exchange money for publicity. Just like choosing Product Hunt over the traditional press launch, it’s about control — why take the chance of doing it organically when you can pay for guaranteed exposure? There’s an entire industry built on enabling marketers to control and measure their promotional efforts.
Product Hunt continues to grow and thrive, and there’s no doubt Hoover and his team continue to care for the community they’ve built even as they scale and look to spin off themed sites (Games Hunt, perhaps?). And Hoover made an excellent point that startups and makers find great use in the feedback and conversation Product Hunt can facilitate. He added that “‘self promotion’ doesn’t make the product any less useful or interesting … People want to talk directly with the makers.”
But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking it’s still the community it was a year ago — it’s too big of a publicity machine for marketers to stay away.