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Why generic marketing approaches don't work on software developers

·6-min read

"Most of the technical content published misses the mark with developers. I think we can all do a better job," author and developer marketing expert Adam DuVander says.

That was the very realization that led DuVander to share what he had learned about marketing to developers in two ways: He recently launched a book, "Developer Marketing Does Not Exist," and also works through his consultancy, EveryDeveloper, which helps its clients, including Algolia, HelloSign and Stoplight, with technical content strategy and production.

DuVander was recommended to us by Karl Hughes, the CEO of Draft.dev, which specializes in content production for developer-focused companies. When we interviewed him last July, Hughes explained that he would refer leads to EveryDeveloper when they needed to sort out their content strategy.

Hughes was therefore happy to recommend DuVander via our experts survey. (You can share your own recommendations here!) "Adam draws from deep experience as a developer and developer advocate to make sure his clients set a winning strategy in motion," he wrote.

This made us curious, so we got ourselves a copy of DuVander's book and reached out to him for additional insights. The main takeaway? If you are reaching out to developers, you'll absolutely want to avoid coming across as too promotional or too generic.

Here's more:

Editor's note: This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Why did you write a book titled “Developer Marketing Does Not Exist”?

Adam DuVander
Adam DuVander

Image Credits: Adam DuVander

Developer marketers certainly exist, because I work with them every day. The book title is a call to these marketers to treat their technical audience differently. To reach more developers requires more education and less promotion. Your “marketing” should not feel like marketing.

The idea for this book dates back to my time at ProgrammableWeb (2009-2014). Every press release looked the same. A company has a new API, but they haven’t bothered to explain why developers should care.

After ProgrammableWeb, I spent five years on the provider side in developer marketing roles. The book is a compilation of the philosophy I learned and created along the way. I hope the book helps anyone who wants to reach developers directly in an authentic way.

You mentioned reaching "the right developers." What does that mean?

Every developer (the origin of our name) has a few basic needs, like clear documentation, help getting started and use cases to spark creativity.

The educational and inspirational content you use to attract developers will depend on who is the best fit for your product. If you provide a mobile SDK, the right developer is building iOS and Android apps. If your customers are data engineers, it probably won’t make sense to discuss front-end web technologies.

If the most common developer marketer mistake is being too promotional, the second is being too generic. Be specific with the best developer match for your product.

What are some arguments in favor of getting external help for developer marketing?

It’s tough for companies to see their own products the way someone outside that company does. Also, they may not have the development background within their marketing team to fully understand the audience.

In addition, hiring a full-time, experienced developer marketer can be difficult and expensive. An outside partner can provide better results, often for less than a full-time salary.

And what should startups keep in mind when picking these partners?

Look for that magical combination of technical skill and communications. The "education, not promotion" ethos should be obvious in the work they do.

Have you worked with a talented individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?

Respond to our survey and help other startups find top growth marketers they can work with!

This brings us to EveryDeveloper — can you tell us more about it?

EveryDeveloper helps attract the right developers to our clients’ technical products. Our content strategy plans remove the guesswork and enable companies to produce content developers want to read.

There are about a dozen of us, split between content strategy and production. Most of the team can write code but prefer to write words about code.

Once we have jointly created a developer content strategy with a client, we’ll typically deliver two to four pieces a month.

What type of clients are best suited for the help you provide?

Anyone can benefit from fresh eyes on their developer experience and an objective plan to attract developers.

Those with a full staff of developer advocates or experienced developer marketers are best set up to execute on the plan we deliver. We sometimes work with unlaunched products, but usually there’s some initial success they are looking to amplify and improve. We also advise clients on how to build internal expertise.

All in all, we’ve helped companies from seed stage to Fortune 50 create better developer content strategies. The difference is whether it’s a product or an entire company that needs to reach more developers.

Do you have some recommendations for content and activities that you encourage companies to come up with?

EveryDeveloper focuses on content, which I believe is the most scalable way to reach developers. Blog articles are certainly core, but you want to make sure you’re covering the right topics in the right way. Don’t just publish to check a box. Make sure what you write has a strategic purpose and is something a developer wants to read. I think most developer-focused companies publishing multiple times per week would be better off with fewer, deeper pieces.

Other types of content include deep subject matter guides that barely mention the product (see the Developer Content Mind Trick) and all sorts of documentation.

Outside content, there’s events (in-person and virtual), advertising, sponsorships, open source and tools. I cover all of these in the book and the philosophy is the same: You’re more likely to attract developers when you aim to educate and inspire first.

What are some good targets for developer-oriented startups to sponsor? What should they keep in mind when it comes to sponsorship?

You want to use the same "education over promotion" philosophy even when you’re paying for the message. Developers are always skeptical, but especially with advertising.

Look for where your developers are already learning and getting their development news. If your sponsorship can feel as naturally helpful as other content from that source, you’ll be doing well.

I encourage developer marketers to think broadly about the sites, podcasts, events and tools they sponsor. Your best partner may not do any sponsorship yet.

In your book, you mention Netlify as an example others might want to follow when it comes to using tools as developer marketing. Could you sum that up? And why are acquisitions a good option in this context?

Book cover - Developer Marketing Does Not Exist - Adam DuVander
Book cover - Developer Marketing Does Not Exist - Adam DuVander

Image Credits: Adam DuVander

There are dozens of technology choices for content management and static site generation. That leads to hundreds of potential combinations and can be overwhelming for a developer that wants to build something new. Netlify recognized that problem and built filtered galleries to help developers choose the right tools.

It goes to show that developer-focused companies can recognize a problem their audience wants solved and build a tool to address it.

Better yet, look for existing tools that already have traction. Sponsor or even acquire them. I write about "the Runscope playbook" in the book, because they executed this strategy fabulously.

Do you have any final piece of advice to share with developer-focused companies?

Developer experience is foundational for developer-focused companies. They should continually look to improve the experience — both initial and ongoing. It takes a lot of effort and resources to reach the right developers, and too many companies send them directly into a poor experience.

You want to make it clear you have a product for developers, show what’s possible and get them started quickly.

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