Twenty-six-year-old me would be very proud. Four of my essays have trended on the first page of Hacker News, bringing thousands of like-minded technologists to the site you’re currently reading. In this post, I’m going to share a few tips. And I am kinda proud, too.
What is Hacker News?
What is the website you open when you’re in the mood to read something? New York Times? Reddit? Facebook? For me, and millions of other technologists, it’s Hacker News. It is an aggregator of links gathering content from around the web, with a voting system, created by Y Combinator – a startup accelerator.
Open-plan offices offer few pleasures; one of them is snooping on other people’s browsing habits. When, years ago, I began working for tech companies in San Francisco, I noticed that my co-workers were always scrolling through a beige, text-only Web site that resembled a nineteen-nineties Internet forum. They were reading Hacker News—a link aggregator and message board that is something of a Silicon Valley institution. Technologists in Silicon Valley assume familiarity with Hacker News, just as New Yorkers do with the New York Post and the New York Times.
When I circled back, we treated this site a little too seriously. We probably made technical decisions based on pieces of technology that happened to be popular and deemed everything trending worthy of our attention. Our views on social issues were quite in sync with the site. The other users are builders, techno-optimists, fans of obscure historical trivia, socialists, libertarians, and billionaires. For better or worse, my people. And some of them have read my stuff.
How did you launch on top of HN?
Go to your people
As I pointed out before, I spent significant time browsing the articles on the site. Is it possible that I somehow internalized the algorithm to think like the hive mind of Hacker News?
For an individualist, this is a scary thought. But it’s reassuring to feel like a part of something. The lesson is boring, and not very novel – promote your writing in the community you are already a part of.
When I heard this lesson in the past, I used to think that’s because of the trust you radiate as an established member. But now I realize that promoting in your existing online communities works because you deem them interesting and they influence your writing. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.
Where do you spend your online time?
The hardest problem in computer science is naming things
Hacker News has a very minimalist design. You don’t judge the book by its cover, you judge it’s by the title and others’ upvotes.
While wrapping up my essays, I find myself thinking “Hey, this is an interesting twist. How can I adjust the title to tease that promise?“ And later, after adjusting the title I make sure the rest of the article follows that promise – it usually makes for a much more interesting angle. That’s why in the Write of Passage community, we call that a shiny dime.
Hacker News has a voting system, and clickbait is definitely not the way to the top. When I now reflect on the titles that have trended, they share a few common characteristics:
Something that makes you “huh, that is interesting, haven’t thought of that”
Has to have something with tech
Has to have a promise of teaching something new
My combinations have this vibe of “old + new”:
Here are my successful submissions. Each one brought about 4000 – 6000 visitors during the first day:
That last essay is an expanded version of my response to Paul Graham’s Tweet. It got a bit of attention, so I transformed it into an essay.
Only after the essay has taken off on HN, I realized that Paul Graham’s followers ARE HN readers, since he built the site. In Write of Passage, we call it the content triangle – you move the idea onto a “higher level” (in this case, an essay) only if it succeeded in conversation, on Twitter, or in your DMs.
There really is no way to cheat the system, but there is an extremely pleasant obvious route: Write content YOU would like to read and share it with people like yourself.
Your Hacker News visitors
You also need to know a few things about the browsing habits of the HN crowd.
We are reluctant to convert
We really hate spam, so converting these spikes of traffic into an email list requires a really good pitch.
This is a story of how I started a podcast, in 3 hours (apart from waiting for iTunes verification), with a total cost of $5/month. And that included my own domain name! I share detailed instructions on launching a brand new podcast on WordPress, and later promoting it on iTunes and Spotify.
Why would you want to start a podcast?
Podcasting has been hailed “the new blogging”. According to Edison Research, 51% of Americans have ever listened to a podcast and the medium use has grown 122% since 2014. Listening to a conversation creates a deeper connection and for some, it is more entertaining than the written word.
Together, with a group of Polish bloggers, we were dreaming about a foray into podcasting. We created Placebo Podcast in hopes of meeting interesting people and frankly – having fun.
The title reads “Your dose of absolutely nothing. Confirmed clinical efficacy”
What are the benefits of podcasting?
You can connect with your audience on a much deeper level thanks to your voice and the unscripted nature of the conversation,
It is a fantastic excuse to reach out and meet interesting people,
Interviewing people can help you practice listening skills
How does it all work?
You may have listened to a podcast on iTunes, Spotify or another app. But did you know that the content you are enjoying does not originate there?
The beating heart of every podcast is it’s RSS feed. It is a particular format of new blog content that other services – like iTunes or Spotify can consume and display in the appropriate apps, Alexa devices and various services.
To start a podcast, you need a blog. Then you submit it’s RSS feed to podcast services – like iTunes or Spotify.
What is the easiest way to start a blog? With WordPress.com you can be finished in 10 minutes. You don’t have to worry about hosting, hackers, FTP, GIT, NSA, and other scary 3-letter acronyms. The service has been around for more than 10 years and you don’t have to watch out for ground shifting under your feet. You own your domain and can take it to any competitor.
Full transparency: I work for the parent company (Automattic) on an unrelated product line. I was motivated to check out how our podcasting offering works.
These instructions will also work if you have your own installation of WordPress, on your own host. Once you set up a site, and connect a domain – the following tutorial should be similar.
What do you need to start?
Settle upon a memorable and distinctive name,
Record at least three episodes, so when you are published on iTunes, your listeners will have a better taste of your style,
Edit them with intro and outro so that your listeners can recognize your work. Also, if they listen to a standalone episode, it’s good to explain to them what your whole podcast is about and ask them to subscribe,
Make sure iTunes and Spotify present a fetching cover art so that it is easily recognizable on the list of podcasts,
Make sure your episodes have a place to live, where you can connect with your listeners, posts notes, etc – that is your site!,
You have to submit your podcast to iTunes podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. Majority of podcast listeners use one of these services, so you have to meet them where they are,
Promote, promote, promote,
The name of your podcast will help your listeners find you in their favourite podcasting app. Making it memorable was our main goal and trying to be somewhat humorous was the second. We came up with “Placebo – podcast with a confirmed clinical efficacy”.
People will consume your amazing podcast through an app. You have only a few places to stand out:
Cover art should be simple and easy to recognize. Since my podcast is named Placebo, some kind of satirical medical vibe would be best. One of my co-podcasters had a Shutterstock account, where we found a nice graphic. After a few tweaks, tada!
Cover art should have 1400×1400 px, so remember to find big enough image
Itunes limits the summary to 250 characters, so you have to distill the description of your intended content. We wanted to give listeners a taste and encourage them to give us a listen.
We also made sure to link to our site, where they can learn more.
Podcasting Settings on WordPress.com are located here.
How do you record? Do you have fancy gear?
I have some good news and some bad news for you. Good news:
You don’t need fancy gear!
You have no excuse to keep browsing podcasting gear.
You should get to work right away. Here is what we do:
My podcasting friends live in different cities, so we decided to record our podcast in a distributed fashion.
We are using zoom.us, a teleconferencing software similar to Skype. Because our meetings have 3 participants, we are limited to 40 minutes if we want to keep using the free version. We embraced this limitation – 40 minutes of listening to me can drive anybody mad.
The audio will travel through the magic portals of the Internet to the meeting hosts’ computer, where it will be recorded. After wrapping up, we have a recording to publish. If you decide to go this route, I have a few tips for you:
Buy some decent (not fancy) microphone. I am using Sennheiser SC-160. Just don’t use the earbuds you got with your phone
Jump on a quick call before you start recording to make sure the audio is ok
Turn off video if you want to save transfer for better sound. Video tends to steal from audio quality
Remember to press record! You don’t want to have the most exciting conversation in the history of conversations only to find out you never captured it. Or maybe you do – in which case podcasting may not be a good fit.
After you finish your zoom call, you will have a file `audio_only.m4a`.
Here is how you can edit using most basic tools
What is the best tool? The one you already have. My Mac came with GarageBand preinstalled, so I decided to stick with it. There is now a plethora of fancy podcast-editing setups, but this is just a fun session with friends, not money-making business recording.
Podcast editing in Garage Band
Get your audio logo. This will be the piece of music that will evoke memories of your other episodes and make sure listeners recognize you. I purchased a one for $10, but there are sites with free music you can download,
Fire off Garageband, with a new “Voice” project,
Record your intro. We decided that intro should give a taste what is in the episode and entice the listeners to give it a try,
Record your outro. After the episode, we want to convince the listeners to try other episodes or check out more on our sites. We recorded outro once and reuse it on all episodes.
Now you can overlay your audio logo with your intro and outro.
Drag audio logo file to Garageband
To create nice transitions and regulate audio levels, Select Mix->Automate and select “Volume” from the menu that just appeared under your audio track.
Now clicking on your audio track will create a graph that will help you create fade in and out
Drop your recording file, adjust the volume
Export the audio file
To make sure iTunes presents your image next to the episode as well, you have to edit what is called ID3 tags. The easiest way to do this is iTunes. Select your file, click “information”
After you edit the information in iTunes, upload your cover art and click OK, your episode will appear in iTunes Podcast library. You can find this file in your Home Directory / Music / iTunes / Podcasts
Uploading to WordPress
On WordPress.com, each episode of your podcast will be a separate WordPress post. You will have a unique link to share with your audience, a way for them to listen to your episode without the app and the place to share notes and links to the episode.
Maybe it is my scout upbringing ( “be prepared” ), but I like to double-check things. I recommend submitting your podcast feed to a service like https://podba.se/validate/ .
The online validator will do a few checks and reassure you that you are ready to submit your podcast to iTunes or Spotify.
Time to go live
You have your domain and a site for your podcast,
You recorded a few episodes, gave them intro and an outro,
Uploaded them and published on your site,
Checked your podcast feed and everything is working
Now it’s time to publish your podcast to the world!
As I mentioned, majority of people consume podcasts through an app. Be it iTunes podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, etc. Fortunately, they all work by checking your RSS feed. After you submit it to those services, your podcasting magic will work seamlessly!
After your podcast is reviewed and approved in the libraries, remember to publish those links on your site. That way you will be able to promote your beautiful WordPress.com domain and when somebody visits your site, they will be able to choose their preferred podcast consuming technology. We put these buttons right up at the top:
As you can see, publishing a podcast is not hard. That means a lot of people can do it – and indeed, they do. The number of podcasts is exploding, and that is a good thing – more and more quality content (like yours) will be created.
But it also means more competition.
You will have to promote your podcast on Social Media or meet with other podcasters to appear on their shows. I do plan on doing that myself, and I will share my findings.
Now that you have everything set up, whenever you publish a new post with the audio file, it will automatically be picked up by iTunes and Spotify.
Your listeners will marvel at your brilliance, and advertisers will fly bags of money directly into your mansion so you can fill up your Jacuzzi with $100 bills.
Or, you end up like me, with about ten people listening to you 🙂