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Hands on with Developer Marketing

Developers have a reputation of being averse to marketing, but that’s not necessarily true. Developers—like most savvy buyers—are averse to pushy, inept marketing, but with hundreds of thousands of software developers out there, it’s naive to speak about them in broad strokes on any topic.

The truth is that developers are gaining more purchasing power and respect within companies of all sizes. Because good developers are hard to find and retain, employers recognize that it’s important to invest in tools to help them stay productive and happy.

Meanwhile, developer tools have proliferated in recent years. A decade ago, all you had was an IDE and a bare metal server to run your application, but now the number of higher level abstractions and paid services is nearly endless. Software developers buy tools to test their code, collaborate with team members, deploy to servers, and run their databases. There are even low-code tools aimed at software developers who just want to spend less time writing boilerplate code.

All this leads to a big question for marketing professionals who want to reach developers:

How Can You Make Your Developer Marketing Efforts Stand Out?

While I’ll admit that companies are getting better at reaching software developers and there are more software developers to reach, marketers still ask me this question all the time. I spent ten years as a hands-on software developer and technical leader before starting Draft.dev, so I have some thoughts on both sides of this topic.

Generally, the keys to good developer marketing are authenticity and understanding your audience. This means you need to spend time with developers—online or in-person—to understand how they think and talk about services they buy. I already mentioned that developers might be averse to marketing, but on the other hand, they tend to be averse to doing boring work, too. So if you can find a way to position your product as genuinely helpful (and ideally, something their employer can pay for), developers will be happy to give it a try.

What’s more, software developers are a well-connected bunch. Sure, we may look quiet sitting behind keyboards with headphones on, but we talk a lot in forums where we feel comfortable. That means that viral marketing and word-of-mouth is just as important in developer marketing as it is anywhere else. The next step for you, dear marketer, is finding developers.

The keys to developer marketing

Developer Marketing Tactics

So, to reach developers, you need to educate, help, and generally understand their challenges. Based on this knowledge, you have a few highly effective marketing tactics you can try.

In this next section, I’ll give you my perspective on some of the most common developer marketing tactics as both a software developer and marketer. Like any generic advice, you’ll need to filter this through the lens of your company’s product, culture, and budget, but I hope this gives you a starting point for developer marketing.

Event Marketing

While meetups and conferences have changed dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis, live events have been one of the most visible forms of developer marketing for years. There are a number of ways you can apply this strategy, but the cost and return on investment varies widely.

  • You can speak at events but you have to be careful about selling too hard. Conferences don’t like speakers to be shills.
  • You can sponsor events but naturally, developers walking by might be skeptical. That said, it’ll help you get near more of them, which is usually a good thing.
  • You can attend events but this gives you very little reach. It might be a good way to have a few more one-on-one conversations with developers, and if the event is local or virtual, the cost will be very low.
  • You can run your own events but of course, this is the most costly path. You get full control but also have to promote, design, and run things.

Big companies like Amazon use a combination of speaking, sponsoring, and running events, but this sort of complete event marketing strategy is out of reach for most small startups. Speaking at events is a good place to start because you can usually go to the event for free and the conference does the hard work of sending you an audience.

Speaking is a common form of developer marketing

Written Content

Content created for developers takes many forms:

  • Documentation is important, especially if your company sells a complex product, but very few businesses use documentation as a marketing channel.
  • Tutorials and guides can help users see how to use your product in the real world. This can help augment your documentation and might be more illustrative.
  • Awareness-driving content is written to increase the top of your funnel, and might be published on external partner sites for more reach. Places like Dev.to, HackerNoon, and DZone all allow you to publish developer content for free.
  • Blog posts on your own website allow you to engage readers and increase newsletter signups (assuming you have some sort of email capture).

All of this content must be genuinely helpful or educational; you can’t fill your engineering blog with fluff and expect it to resonate. So, most effective developer marketing content is written by developers. Most people I talk to either get their in-house engineers to write, hire full-time developer advocates, or start a community writing program.

Those options all take time and in-house expertise that most startups don’t have, so you might hire and manage freelance writers or work with an agency like us. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m also happy to offer tips for finding and recruiting your own writers.

One company that’s done written content really well is DigitalOcean. They have published thousands of tutorials by developers for developers, and they employ a whole team of writers and editors to help with it.

Running this kind of content machine isn’t cheap and the payoff is slow, but if you can play the long game, there’s a ton of value in it.

Video Content

People across the world are streaming more online video than ever before, and this trend seems to be holding true in the developer community. A lot of it is entry-level tutorial content created by new developers who want to document their journey, so I think there’s a ton of green space for developer marketing groups that want to create content for more senior and niche topics.

Of course, good video content can be even more expensive to produce and distribute. Any developer can tell you that sharing a few snippets of code is much different than sharing a live coding session on YouTube.

That said, this format is getting more popular because in-person events are essentially on hold for the next few months.

Community-driven Marketing

Communities are also popular in developer marketing. For example, Stack Overflow, Discourse forums, Slack groups, and meetup groups are all a good way to encourage your community of users to discuss and reinforce their support of your product. The hard part about community-based developer marketing is that you need a pretty large or especially dedicated user base to pull it off. It’s not likely to be your “go-to-market” channel.

On the plus side, community marketing can be very cost-effective. You’re basically encouraging your own customers to advocate for you, so it takes fewer salaries than building a team of speakers or writers in-house. You can also have your community members write and speak on your behalf, so once this program is mature, it dovetails nicely into some of the other channels here.

Microsoft has put a lot into its community development efforts lately with programs like the Microsoft MVP award. By recognizing engineers who write and speak about Microsoft tools, they essentially encourage other fans of their products to go out and do the same.

Social Media

Like most professionals, developers are also on social media, so depending on your product and approach, you might be able to reach people there. Twitter, Hacker News, and Reddit are some of the most popular social platforms for developers, but I imagine you’ll find plenty on LinkedIn, too (especially if they’re job hunting).

You can either use paid or organic posts on social media. While the prevalence of ad-blockers makes paid advertisements less appealing to developer audiences, building an organic following can take months or years. You can shortcut this by piggybacking off popular threads on platforms like Hacker News and Reddit, but these readers are especially wary of marketers on their platforms.

A lot of the recent Y Combinator companies do a good job spreading the word in the comments on Hacker News. I’ve also seen a few individuals with large followings do developer marketing on Twitter really well (Adam Wathan being one example).

Open-source Marketing

Finally, even if your company isn’t using open source as its business model, you might still be able to use open source as a marketing tool. You can release adapters as open-source packages to allow your users to help you spot bugs and maintain some of the client-side code. Or you could release open-source side projects to help generate interest in your primary paid project.

Of course, giving your team new projects to maintain isn’t necessarily a cost-effective marketing strategy. You’ll have to weigh the amount of work this adds to your team with the value you give to the community of paid and free users. While it’s really hard to measure things like “goodwill,” open-source marketing is definitely going to help you build some of it.

One of the best examples of using open source as a marketing tool is Automattic, the company behind WordPress, Tumblr, WooCommerce, and more. They give away the core WordPress.org platform as an open-source offering, but make money from people who don’t want to bother with hosting or servicing the code themselves.

Automattic’s open-source tool, WordPress

Tips for Developer Marketing

Now that you have a better idea of the viable marketing channels you can use in developer marketing, I’ll leave you with five quick tips that I outlined in more detail here:

  1. Be authentic and genuinely helpful. Developers are smart, and they know when they’re being sold to.
  2. Spend time with them online or offline. I think the best marketers know their audience extremely well, and the only way to do that is to mingle with them.
  3. Learn the language of software development. Even if you can’t write code, learn the key pieces and terminology: APIs, backend, frontend, database, HTTP, test, etc.
  4. Go deep in your content rather than simply skimming the surface. Experienced developers will appreciate this because technical depth is really hard to find online.
  5. Freemium and trial offers do well when you employ a bottoms-up approach. The idea here is to get developers using your tool on a small side project so they feel confident enough to bring it to work on their next project.

Getting hands-on with developer marketing can be intimidating at first. If you’re looking to reach software developers, shoot me an email. I’m happy to send you specific resources or tools based on your challenges.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.