The Do’s and Don’ts of Marketing to Developers

Dev tools and API companies are on fire right now, so a question I’m hearing a lot lately from founders is: How do I build a strong developer brand like [Stripe]?

Easy, I tell them. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Be a great developer.
  2. Hire great developers.
  3. Engage 24/7 with developers using your product.

To which I tend to get :eyeroll: and one of two responses. Either they can’t do anything about the fact that they don’t have all of these things or they’re already doing all of this and want more. In both cases, founders start to hire marketing-types to help grow the developer brand and community. Unfortunately, there are very few resources available to help marketers learn how to engage with developers. Here are some thoughts to pass along.

Put down the B2B marketing playbook

“A good programmer is someone who always looks both ways before crossing a one-way street.” –Doug Linder

When founders of developer-focused startups look to hire experienced marketers, they quickly come to realize that B2B marketers are in large supply and marketers with experience selling to developers are few and far between. So understandably, many of them end up “settling” for a solid B2B marketer to join the team. It’s important that these founders understand how B2B marketers operate, and absolutely critical for B2B marketers to un-learn a few things they are used to relying on to get results, to succeed.

Traditional B2B marketing techniques fail with developers because this is a community that is resistant to anything that looks, sounds or smells like marketing.

A developer isn’t going to sign up for your company’s webinar, give their email to download your whitepaper, or click on your link-bait. They detest spam and any attempt to sell products to them. They don’t want to hear that your product is the best; they want to get their hands on it quickly and decide for themselves, so remove any lead-capture techniques that feel like barriers.

Developers are problem-solvers who get deeply invested in their work. Like good investigative reporters, they are intensely curious and skeptical by nature. The best developers rise the ranks because of their ability to poke holes in conventional thinking and find the bugs nobody else sees. You can expect the same level of scrutiny with any marketing you put in front of them.

The mortal sins in selling to developers are 1. Sharing inaccurate information, and 2. Slowing them down.

So, my first piece of advice is to think of it as community building (where the goal is engagement) and not marketing (where the goal is lead generation → sales)—and hire marketers who will understand the difference.

Developers share the love

“Optimism is an occupational hazard of programming; feedback is the treatment.” –Kent Beck

Developers are famously loyal. If they fall in love with your product, they will evangelize it to their communities. And because they’re pretty much online 24/7, developers tend to be very engaged in online communities as they work out problems with peers.

This means that early efforts to build a community around your product can pay off in a big way down the line, as we’ve seen with brands like Stripe, Twilio, Github, Plaid and Segment. Once a small base of developers loves and evangelizes your product, you’re in a terrific position to grow—and then, leverage—what’s working.

When to build a dedicated developer relations team

At the earliest stages, it’s difficult to justify hiring someone to build and manage a community of developers. In this case, the founders and a few other team members should take on the work themselves, answering questions and engaging with developers on Twitter, Hacker News, Stack Overflow, community Slack channels, etc. This is great for developers, as there’s no better expert than the people who built the product. For the founders, direct engagement with users can be just as valuable, if not more.

When startups can justify a dedicated hire for community management or “developer relations,” it often makes sense to hire from within their community. If the founder is fluent in the technical language used by developers, this initial hire should at least be conversational. The community manager will transition the company from mostly responding to requests to facilitating discussion among community members. Patrick McKenzie at Stripe is pretty much what best-in-class looks like. Best wishes to everyone on finding their Patrick.

Many companies eventually build out large teams dedicated to developer advocacy and evangelism. The group should have some technical chops (for example, they should be able to navigate and edit docs), but for the most part will have just a working knowledge of the technical language. Mostly, they’ll share a passion for helping developers do their jobs (here’s a first-hand account from a Twilio “devangel”).

Measuring ROI

As is the case with brand marketing initiatives, it’s difficult to measure ROI on developer relations. The payback often comes years down the road and in ways you don’t anticipate.

After all, how do you put a value on a relationship?

Tracking things like developer satisfaction, engagement, and retention can give you a sense of how you are doing. Companies can eventually track upsells or conversions to a paid version of the product down the line.

The main thing to understand is that building a developer community happens tweet by tweet, event by event, with little reward in the beginning. This requires immense amounts of patience. Many brands abandon their efforts too early, or continuously delay their start (most common).

The payoff

For those who do stick with it, selling to developers has proven to be a profitable business.

Just look at Stripe, the country’s most valuable private tech startup. Or Plaid—where I led marketing and communications—which this year completed a $5.3 billion acquisition from Visa. Or Segment, which was just acquired by Twilio for $3.2 billion.

As the success of these companies demonstrates, creating a loyal following of developers can pay huge dividends for companies that invest the time and resources to do it right.

But first you have to get their attention. Here are some rules to follow when engaging with developers.

Rule 1: Show, don’t tell

“Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” –Linus Torvalds

Developers are highly resourceful and skeptical of marketing. Make whatever claim you want—but know they’ll need to experience this for themselves to believe it. Break down barriers to getting their hands on the product as quickly as possible so they can determine whether or not your product is right for them.

When we re-branded and re-designed Plaid’s website, for example, we made a point of providing a link to download API keys on every page. No matter where a developer landed, they had easy access to our tools and weren’t distracted by unnecessary selling points.

Rule 2: Features not benefits

This is counterintuitive to everything marketers learn about selling to business buyers and consumers. Taking developers on a journey where they need to imagine how much better life will be with your solution is a waste of time. Be straightforward about specs and feature comparisons against other product lines or competitors. Don’t bury the lede.

A word of warning here: Whatever you say about your product, make sure it’s 100% accurate and stands up to scrutiny. In a 2017 survey of 752 developers, Accenture found that technically accurate and up-to-date content ranked as the two most important elements in a company’s developer ecosystem among 15 elements researchers queried.

Rule 3: Be genuinely helpful

Aim to prove yourself as a trusted guide. Invest in comprehensive, high-quality resources (e.g. great API documentation, a well-maintained help center, how-to videos, sample use cases) and make it easy to contact you directly if they need some extra help. (Chances are, they won’t)

Timely, knowledgeable, and capable support was the next most important element developers identified in the Accenture survey.

Rule 4: Be direct

Avoid being salesy … but also don’t be so direct and cold that you forget to be human.

The best advice I’ve heard on how to effectively write marketing copy targeted at developers is to go out and get to know a developer and then imagine you are writing to that individual person each time. This quickly eliminates anything sales-y and helps produce genuinely useful content.

Recognize that developers are obsessed with precision. An error in a line of code could be fatal. So they naturally hold a low tolerance for spelling and grammar errors. The fastest way to lose credibility with developers is to include errors in your writing.

When crafting marketing copy for this audience, take the approach that Hacker News adopts for accepting title submissions for links: Get to the point in as few words as possible. If you can say it in a tweet, you’re getting close (though you can probably cut more). Segment was known for optimizing many of their early blog posts specifically for HN, which got them into a good habit of writing directly and succinctly.

Rule 5: Think beyond the 9-to-5

Many developers are developers in and out of work, with side projects on a wide range of topics (from hacking their dishwasher to building a marketplace or a game). This is especially true during a pandemic where everyone is working from home and the lines between days and nights are blurring together.

Part of community building for developers can also include providing technical examples and inspiration for these projects supported by your service.

Conclusion

More successful exits of developer tools and API companies will produce more new startups—and investors who want to fund them. Yet, as many founders are finding, it’s difficult to find marketers who understand how to build and engage developer communities because the demand far exceeds supply. My unsolicited advice to non-technical recent grads who want careers in tech: Go work at an API or dev tools startup (in any role) and learn this audience ASAP. I hope this post is helpful.

Note from Helen: Thanks to Charlie Cheever, Ed Sim, and Eva Sasson for bs-checking this post.

Editor’s note: This post was first published on Helen’s blog.

Helen Min
Helen Min
Head of Marketing
AngelList

Helen Min leads marketing and communications at AngelList. She also advises and invests in fintech and developer tools/API startups including Kite, CapWay, Puzzl, and Argyle. She spent the last 12 years leading marketing teams at Plaid, Quora, Dropbox, and Facebook. Prior to working in tech, Helen worked in the advertising industry managing automotive and technology clients for Venables Bell & Partners and Young & Rubicam. Helen holds an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MS and BS in Communications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently lives in San Francisco with her son.
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