5 Steps to Building a Strong Developer Community

June 26, 2019

Since joining OpenView as Venture Partner a few months ago, I’ve had many conversations with founders around the intersection of product led growth (PLG) and community. I find myself answering a similar set of questions about how to build a developer community the right way on a daily basis, so I hope this article is helpful to those looking building a community around their product, project or company.

Community is a powerful thing. It bonds people together, provides an arena in which to share ideas and creates opportunities for collaboration. With the right setup, a community of like-minded people with shared interests and goals can become a surprisingly efficient and effective tool for exploring and solving problems, together.

In the SaaS world, well-built developer communities offer software companies unique insight into the minds of the people who are creating the code that powers the digital age. A developer community serves a crucial role not only in helping newcomers to learn the ropes, but also in getting them excited about your product and—more to the point—excited about being part of the team behind your product.

And the best developer community takes on a life of its own, expanding your product’s overall reach to a new and broader audience.

Building a successful developer community is not an easy task. Developers can be rather particular about how brands engage them and, if you’re building a community solely for the sake of marketing, you’re doing it wrong. The usual marketing tactics don’t usually land well with this discerning and highly analytical group. They can smell an inauthentic pitch a mile away, and if you make a bad first impression you may not get a second chance to make a good one.

Putting your best foot forward is a matter of understanding the ideal attributes of a strong developer community, knowing the steps to take to create that kind of environment and making sure you give back as much as you gain.

Five Steps to a Strong Developer Community

The most effective and sustainable developer communities are much more than a fan club or a thinly veiled way to generate demand. The best developer communities are the ones that actually offer members a way to be actively involved in what’s happening with the product and among users. These communities offer developers a variety of ways to engage—learning from others, teaching others and even partnering with the product team. The space should be open, collaborative and respectful. And it should encourage dialogue.

But before you can attain such heights, you have to start where every other developer community starts—at ground zero.

Create Content – Give Them Something to Talk About

The human brain is wired for story, so it’s no surprise that content is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal when it comes to driving community engagement. Publishing a steady stream of content that inspires, informs and challenges readers is one of the most reliable ways to draw developers into a dialogue about your product.

And the good news is, you don’t have to do it all yourself. In fact, inviting people to create content for your community turns out to be an excellent way to build a community. When people are fired up and eager to share what they know, they will happily write content for you. From customer stories and case studies to tutorials and product comparisons, developers are an incredibly valuable source of front-line material to power your content engine.

Two brands that harnessed this source well are Digital Ocean and GitLab. Digital Ocean’s Write for Donations program invites applicants to “teach others and grow as an author while supporting tech-focused nonprofits and charities doing important work in the field.” Digital Ocean compensates writers who submit approved tutorials and other content, giving community writers the chance to share their knowledge and giving their brand the benefit of dipping into a deep pool of expertise. GitLab’s Community Writers Program uses a similar approach to solicit articles from their community on a wide range of topics.

The main idea is to give people a platform to share experiences and insights not only about your product, but about the entire ecosystem around your product. Let your community connect the dots between topics to create a comprehensive archive of relevant content for your whole audience.

Be Available Online – Keep the Conversation Going

Once you’ve got some content out there creating buzz, you need to maintain your momentum. This means keeping the lines of communication open on social media and in online forums. Nothing will turn a community member off more than being ignored. People want to be heard. They want to feel like they are truly involved and can make a real difference.

Of course, one of the main challenges to maintaining the conversation and being accessible and available to your community members is finding the resources to cover all the conversations in a timely manner. Not only do you need to be responsive, but you also need to ensure that the people engaging your community know what they’re talking about.

For smaller organizations of 10 people or less, this role usually sits with founders and the engineering team. They are the most well-versed on the relevant topics and best suited to addressing incoming questions. Once an organization gets a little larger—say 10 to 50 people—it may be necessary to add reinforcements from the technical support team and developer advocates group. And for companies of more than 50 people, the best solution may be to start thinking about a technical social media developer advocate or a community advocate.

When you reach the point of pulling in community members to help manage the conversation, you’ll need a way to identify and attract the right folks to take up that role. You can keep it informal, or launch a program like Twilio’s Champions Program, which extends an invitation to “passionate members of the Twilio developer community” to share their expertise with others.

However you organize your response team, the main goal is just to keep people engaged by following up in a timely manner and in a way that provides value, extends the conversation, and draws more people in.

Find Your Champions – Treat them Well

Speaking of champions, identifying these individuals and building a strong relationship with them is a really great way to inject more energy and activity into your community. Champions are people who really love your product, people who are passionate about not only the technology, but also about what they can do with it. You might find these people in client companies, incubators, at vendors who sell your product or experts who write about it. You should explore your entire ecosystem. These aren’t people you’re trying to get cheap labor from in exchange for a free t-shirt; these people are the lifeblood of your product and you should treat them as such.

The great thing about champions is that you really don’t have to look too hard to find them. You just need to pay attention. They will usually raise their hand by being really active with your support team or sales team. They will engage with you regularly on social media and in forums, jumping into conversations, answering questions, and sharing your content. They will seek you out at in-person events to tell you how much they love your product. These people are the superfans who can’t contain their enthusiasm.

Once you’ve identified a champion, let them know you see them and recognize their contributions to the community. Send a private message. Send them a t-shirt. Invite them to a meetup or to take part in a roundtable discussion. Make it clear that you’re thankful for their support and their engagement.

After getting them on board—either formally or informally—as a product champion, keep the love alive by continuously working to make them feel welcome and valued. Your appreciation can take many forms: early access to betas, a seat on customer advisory boards, special pins and badges, free invites for your products and don’t forget swag!

There are literally countless ways to give your champions a little something extra. Be creative. GitPrime gave their champions a hard copy of their book 20 Patterns to Watch for in Your Engineering Team, a strategy that not only helped express their gratitude, but also did double duty as a way to expand the reach of their own message in a meaningful way.

Be Where Your People Are – Get on a Plane

Stepping away from the screen and into the real world, there’s definitely something to be said for in-person events. But, you want to be intentional about how to engage in real life. Major industry or company-sponsored events have their place, but they are not always the most effective venue for nurturing and strengthening developer relations. While a huge conference will get you face-to-face with a lot of people, it’s not conducive to the in-depth conversations that help solidify a relationship.

As a complement to large events, you may want to experiment with more casual, smaller, localized events. A pizza party with a dozen developers can be a really valuable event that generates great conversation, ideas and even collaborations. You can hold indie events in any location you like—key cities around the world—or coordinate your events to take place adjacent to larger conferences.

When considering these kinds of events, you have a lot of topics and format options to choose from. Don’t take all that responsibility on yourself. Engage your community to find out which topics they’re most interested in, which problems are top of mind and which meeting structure is most appealing. Depending on your situation and your community’s preferences, you could do a lunch-and-learn series, put together a developer advisory board, or coordinate some informal “birds-of-a-feather” meetups around subgroup interests.

While in-person events are not for everyone, it’s unwise to overlook the power of this tactic for the community members who like getting together IRL. These groups can take on a life of their own. Parse, for example, is a product that was shut down years ago, but faithful users are still organizing meetups on their own to collaborate on the open source version of the platform. That’s staying power.

Give Them Swag – Don’t Underestimate the Power of Cool Stuff

Finally, while “trinkets and trash” are often considered frivolous bits of marketing fluff, they also have a surprising level of staying power. Everywhere I’ve worked, it’s always given me a little thrill to see my company’s swag out there in the wild—a t-shirt on the street or a decal on a laptop. We gave away so many Twilio t-shirts that, for a while, I think a lot of people thought we were an apparel company.

As silly as it might seem, people get excited about this stuff. You can even find unboxing videos! (Chalk up another win for the Twilio t-shirt brigade!) In addition to delivering little moments of delight to individuals, swag also has some real pull when it comes to increasing brand awareness. They say that a person has to be exposed to an ad seven times before they can recall it. The more swag you have out there in the world, the more times people will see your brand.

More importantly, when people are wearing/carrying your goodies as a badge of honor, that says a lot about their love of and loyalty to your product. The fact that they are literally willing to wear their heart on their sleeve for you says a lot.

Everyone Wants to Be Part of Something

It’s human nature. People like being involved. They like having influence. They want to be heard and they want to contribute. Your job as the creator of a developer community is to give them the space to do all those things.

The biggest mistake companies make when embarking on this venture is to assume that they have all the answers. The whole purpose of a community is to create an open dialogue. Don’t fall into the trap of creating a community only to keep information to yourself. A community won’t work if your product is a black box. Be open. Share your roadmap, ask for feedback, do beta releases with your champions (and give them ample opportunity to provide honest feedback), hold customer and developer advisory boards. In short, engage your community to give you the feedback you need to make your product the best it can be. You don’t have all the answers and you never will. Tap into your community. That’s where the gold is.