Finding Balance: Marketing, PLG and a Developer Audience

The first rule of marketing to developers is to never market to developers. They are too good at sniffing out and immediately seeing through anything that even borders on the inauthentic. They will choke on it, and you will pay the price.

Instead, if your organization sells to developers, you should focus your energy on building communities that allow you to deliver value, create goodwill, and build actual relationships. When it comes to engaging developers, you have to be genuine about your desire to help. It’s not about how you can profit off developers. It’s about how you can partner to ensure that all your ships rise together.

The business challenge is figuring out how to successfully (and respectfully) convert your community into revenue that can sustain a growing company. It’s a delicate business, especially for product led growth (PLG) companies that are used to following product’s lead and may not have experience with any kind of formal marketing function.

This was the exact challenge that I faced when I was VP of Growth Marketing at GitHub. It’s also something that comes up a lot with the companies I advise. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this complex question, but there are a few universal pieces of advice that can help anyone get started on the right foot.

Introduce Marketing The Right Way

When integrating marketing into the mix, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about traditional marketing. Just because you’ve decided to take the leap doesn’t mean you can abandon what you’ve already built. Remember the value of the community you’ve built and never ever try to monetize what you’ve always given away for free. That’s a surefire way to inspire outrage at the highest levels.

The wiser, more effective approach is to keep delivering all the goodness you’ve always provided through your product and community, and then add incremental value for the people who are willing to pay for it. This might be additional features or capabilities, expanded use, or other items of value. But, remember, even when you’ve determined how to add this incremental value, you still want to steer clear of traditional marketing tactics like emails and other digital campaigns. To developers, that kind of communication is just white noise.

Instead, figure out how to weave your marketing into the product experience in a way that’s helpful instead of promotional. Based on user behaviors, use in-product tactics like tooltips, interstitials and other messaging options to highlight relevant features and upgrades that might be of interest. For instance, you could invite a user to add team members, noting that they can add up to five collaborators for free, or unlimited collaborators if they upgrade.

The other angle to consider when introducing marketing to a PLG company is who you are marketing to. Just because you have a substantial community of developers doesn’t mean they are the only possible audience for your marketing message. When I started at GitHub, my job wasn’t to market to the developers in our massive community; it was to market to companies. We intentionally left the developers in the hands of our very capable developer team and focused marketing efforts on enterprise organizations.

This approach obviously involved more of a learning curve, but the effort was well worth it. Our account-based marketing (ABM) strategy was pretty simple: use the data we had about our install base to identify companies where we already had a big footprint and should be pursuing conversations with managers and other executives about bringing GitHub to their whole organization.

Our initial efforts weren’t super sophisticated, but it didn’t take us long to sort out the two key ingredients required for a successful ABM Effort:

  1. Know who you want to go after: Where is your market opportunity? Who already has your product installed? Where is there the potential for expansion within an organization? This is all about who you know and what you know about them.
  2. Know what story you want to tell: Transitioning from developer relations to enterprise marketing is a pretty big leap. You need to have the right content around business value. You need to be able to explain to a potential buyer how to justify the investment and how to bring your product on board for the whole organization.

Align with Sales and Product Behind the Scenes

Once you’ve figured out your basic strategy, it’s time to tackle the challenge of bringing your sales, marketing and product teams into alignment around the mission. This is no easy task. Sales and marketing have a long, sordid history of internal warfare. And product and marketing have also been known to wind up head to head, especially in PLG companies where product is used to driving the proverbial bus.

On the Sales side

Then GitHub sales team was actually really excited to have a marketing partner who was interested in driving revenue. Until we arrived, sales had been shouldering a pretty heavy burden on their own. Mutual respect led to a strong partnership that was valued by both teams. In the initial stages of forging a sales/marketing alliance, it’s important to build in some space for teams to get to know each other and gain a detailed understanding of not only what each does, but how they can help each other. Sales will have questions about how introducing marketing to the team will change what they’ve been doing all along. Take the time to answer those and invite conversation.

With a strong, collaborative working relationship in place, the GitHub marketing team was free to focus on how we were going to level up our contribution and execute more effectively. This meant that we wanted to move beyond just sending leads or even improving the quality of leads. We also wanted to move beyond the top of the funnel and think about how marketing could help sales in the field with things like deal acceleration; identifying and creating new, later-stage opportunities; building and utilizing pipeline and attribution metrics; getting smarter and more sophisticated about the ABM initiative; and generally building momentum with the marketing flywheel.

Ultimately, all our hard work paid off. Within about a year, we had more than doubled the pipeline number that marketing was delivering to sales for follow up. By leveraging the marketing discipline in a way that aligned with the sales process and objectives, we made great progress.

On the Product side

In a PLG company, it’s absolutely critical that product and marketing are tightly coupled. What you’re saying to the customer inside the product and what you’re saying to the customer outside the product need to line up. As with sales, this is a matter of respectful partnership.

While it makes sense for the product team to lead the experience, they should be collaborating with marketing in order to take advantage of all the valuable insight and guidance marketing can provide. There might be a little friction at first if the product team is used to holding the reins. The key to overcoming these speed bumps is to help them understand how they can benefit (and how—ultimately—their users will benefit) from marketing’s contributions.

At GitHub, marketing faced it’s share of resistance and deep scrutiny. Every single suggestion we made was put through the wringer. This is a pretty natural reaction, especially for a PLG company that sells to developers. Everyone was very afraid of offending the market. And we all knew how much damage could be caused by a single misstep. We were all on board with being cautious.

As an example, until marketing arrived on the scene, GitHub didn’t use cookies on its website at all. This isn’t unusual for a company that works with developers because developers a) hate marketing and b) are super tech savvy, which means that they know when they are being tracked, and they don’t like it. As marketers, however, we knew that this was a major lost opportunity. Tracking user activity and behavior provides valuable intelligence that helps you make better decisions about messaging and communications.

I kept making the case that millions of companies can’t be wrong, and that tracking and retargeting are simply where the market is today. But even though the trend was clear, we still got a ton of pushback on the idea. Using cookies just didn’t align with how GitHub thought of itself. Even after GitHub was acquired by Microsoft (which uses cookies to market to their own developer audiences), we took a very careful and conservative approach. We implemented cookies only on a few very specific pages that we knew were almost exclusively the destination of enterprise traffic rather than hands-on developers.

On the Customer side

When product and marketing coordinate their efforts, they create a more cohesive and effective experience for the user. For this to work, everyone has to have the same big-picture understanding of things. Ultimately—even though teams may be working on separate pieces of the strategy—the user experience should feel like everything is being handled by one team, or even one person. This kind of approach is especially applicable when you’re trying to reach a marketing-resistant audience like developers. To overcome that challenge, you need to work multiple fronts in a coordinated way.

For instance, people often think that if they have established a beachhead within an organization’s developer community, infiltration into the enterprise is a certainty. But, this isn’t the case at all. Even if you have many developers using your product, they may not be willing or able to become champions for an enterprise-wide license. In GitHub’s case, many developers use our product both at work and at home. The individual license they have serves their purposes just fine, meaning they aren’t incentivized to advocate for anything different.

To address this scenario, GitHub combined the efforts of two teams. A product-based team focused on developer-centric activities like Meet Ups, technical newsletters, university recruiting and supporting users. At the same time, a sales and marketing-based team focused on the business leaders that ran engineering teams within organizations. Even though their teams were already using GitHub, many of these executives weren’t native GitHub users themselves. To compensate for their lack of experience with the platform, we had to ensure our messaging and content were relevant. We had to educate them about how our product was helping their teams and was, in fact, a mission-critical asset.

We had a shared goal between our two teams, but needed to take very different outreach and engagement approaches with the two distinct audiences. What made it work was our focus on knowing our customers and understanding how to talk to them.

If Nothing Else, Remember These Three Things

At the end of the day, the success model for integrating marketing into a PLG company that sells to developers is pretty straightforward: everyone needs to work together toward a common cause. You are all, after all, on the same team and working to solve the same problems for your customers. Stepping back from the intricacies of specific strategies and day-to-day operations, there are three keys to overcoming both the internal and external challenges that you will have to face:

Know who your audience is

Understand who they are, what they need and how to talk to them. Spend time to learn what kinds of communication they like and don’t like. Listen and pay attention to their feedback, whether it’s given directly or you hear it through the grapevine.

Stay focused

Keep your eye on the prize. Define your objectives and stay the course. Things move so fast in the software industry; it’s easy to get lured down the rabbit hole by the latest shiny object. Resist the temptation and stay true to your core goals. Your objectives will evolve over time, but you should only shift when you’re truly ready. GitHub, for example, focused all their early efforts on building community. They knew they would eventually need to drive revenue, but they didn’t let that future goal distract them from doing what needed to be done in the moment.

Make sure you’re serving your customers’ actual needs

In other words, solve real problems. This is one of the most effective ways to ensure sustained success. Delivering an amazing product that solves customer problems is the bedrock on which everything else you do—community, marketing, sales—sits.

(Former) VP, Growth Marketing
GitHub

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