How (not) to address community concerns: A free lesson from Product Hunt

Socrates Teaching in the Agora — sculpture, Harry Bates, 1883

Socrates Teaching in the Agora — sculpture, Harry Bates, 1883

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”  — Socrates

Recently, a user on Medium raised a concern about the popular discovery site Product Hunt. Co-founder Ryan Hoover responded to the controversy, but didn’t address the core concerns that sparked the controversy in the first place.

Today I want to talk about what he could have done instead and why from a community management perspective, what he did might have been worse than doing nothing at all.


On December 15, Ben Wheeler wrote a post titled “How Product Hunt really works”. In it, he addresses a concern he has about how Product Hunt works and their lack of transparency about their product.

I’m not going to dive too deeply into Ben’s posting, because this article is much more about Ryan Hoover’s response. As I see it, Ben’s post covers a few main concerns that a community manager might want to address.

First, the actual mechanics of Product Hunt, that is, how the service does what it does.

Second, how community members might wish to change how they interact with the service in light of this information.

Third, Product Hunt’s lack of transparency about a very important aspect of their service.

Product Hunt is a fantastic example of a quality product empowered by an active community management team. Community Manager and Co-Founder Ryan Hoover is an active and accessible part of the Product Hunt experience, so it was natural and necessary for him to respond to the posting.

His response, “Let’s continue to build Product Hunt, together” is positive, informational and highlights a lot of things that make Product Hunt a great product and a community.

Unfortunately, he deftly slides right past the three concerns we identified earlier. His failure to directly respond to the concerns raised was, to quote commenter Max Woolf, a PR move.

When a concern arises from within your community, if you’re going to address it, you need to actually speak to the heart of the concern.

In that moment, your members need re-assurance, and as the community manager, it’s your job to provide that reassurance.

You do this by displaying that you have listened to them, read their feedback and taken the time to really understand the issue as they see it.

Once you’ve done that, you then need to explain any discrepancies between their perception and reality. This could take a few forms, but here are some typical ones:

Your perception is incorrect. Here is how things actually work.
Your perception is correct, but it’s a feature, not a bug.
Your perception is correct, but it’s not actually a bad thing and here’s why.
Your perception is correct. You’re right that things are broken and here is how we intend on addressing the issue.

As you’ve probably noticed, the one thing all of these approaches have in common is that they start by addressing the community’s perception directly.

The “PR move” approach is to address the community’s perception indirectly. By offering peripheral explanations and information, you appear to be addressing the issue. This tactic provides new transparency, demonstrates commitment to the community and establishes a track record of responding to problems.

To an outsider or a casual member, it can look great. Like you really care — you’re engaging with constructive criticism, internalising it and using it to improve your product.

To the community members who cared enough about your product or service enough to bring a potential problem to light, for free, on their own time, in the interest of helping you improve, it’s maddening.

Not addressing the core of the issue is insulting to the intelligence of your power users. For casual users and outsiders, it’s ambiguous at best and deceptive at worst.


Whatever users believe about your product or service is reality. Multiple realities about a brand, product or community can exist simultaneously.

To users who perceive Product Hunt as transparent and equitable, it is.

To users who perceive Product Hunt as opaque and inequitable, it is.

A simplistic reduction of the situation might look like this:

Wheeler: I believe your product is inherently unfair for Reason A.

Hoover: I’m sorry you feel that way. I think our product is great and fair for Reasons B-C. We messed up, and we’re going to be more open from now on.

Can we honestly say that Mr. Wheeler or the other community members concerned about Reason A are going to have their perception shifted by a response like this?

By addressing the issue peripherally, Product Hunt ignores the perceptual reality where Reason A is a cause for concern.

When feedback like Ben Wheeler’s comes along, community managers are given the opportunity to bring conflicting realities into agreement. When deeply involved community members raise a concern, they are warning you about how you are being perceived.

They want to stay, they want your product to be great, and they’re willing to give you a free evaluation to help make that happen.


Duplicity is transparent. We live in the age of the public apology, and the more people are exposed to PR style deflection, the better they’re going to get at spotting it, calling it out and ultimately, leaving the interaction disappointed.

I believe that addressing issues peripherally and dancing around the heart of a concern isn’t the way to do things. It wastes your time, your users time and sets a precedent of being evasive in the face of criticism.

We can do better. Our members deserve it. We all deserve it.

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