Events have always been a central aspect of DevRel strategies—in fact, in 2019, only 17% of DevRel programs didn't run events. As a cornerstone of DevRel programs, events have traditionally served as the most popular channel for developer outreach.
But 2020 has seen a different and unique set of challenges that have brought in-person events to a halt. This has meant that those working in DevRel have had to make the shift from in-person events to virtual events—a change that's been difficult for many since it has required a massive adjustment to a long-held strategic approach to developer networking, outreach and relationship building.
So how do DevRel teams successfully make this adjustment without losing the value that in-person events deliver to the developers and to the brand? This is a question that was recently tackled in our 2020 Vanilla Conversations Virtual Conference by three DevRel experts: Mary Thengvall, Jessica West and Tessa Kriesel.
In their session, DevRel: Beyond Events and Travel, these experts share their two-cents on how to run successful virtual DevRel events, and how DevRel teams can continue to thrive. "While nothing can replace those one-off conversations that [you get from in-person events]," says Mary, the Director of DevRel at Camunda, "I think there's still so much that we can be doing online as far as...continuing to engage and enabling our developers."
What Does Success Look Like?
It's important to keep in mind that the success of DevRel programs aren't based on how many in-person events are held per year, or even how many developers attend those events. Success for DevRel is truly about building connections, connecting with the community, finding out what their needs are and enabling them to do their jobs better.
"Building things that are useful for them, creating content that's useful for them and connecting them with each other [is what's at the core of DevRel]," says Mary. While in-person events help to cultivate these relationships, and while there may certainly be a gap now that these types of events are unable to be held, that's really only once piece of the pie.
Successful DevRel programs are not about meeting sales metrics—successful DevRel programs are ones that look to gather feedback that can then be taken back to the organization. As Mary says, "The feedback that [DevRel teams gather] can then be taken back to the organization and have an actual impact on the product, on the roadmaps, on the way that we're talking to people and interacting with people, which then goes back to improve the product."
Building strong relationships are central to this success, however it's still very possible to create these bonds without the in-person element.
There Are More Important Things Than Travel
While travel and events have been a huge aspect of many DevRel programs, our experts warn that if your DevRel team is dependent on these events, you should rethink your strategy. That's because there are so many other components of DevRel that are crucial to its success, including having other departments understand DevRel goals and providing the type of support necessary to secure these goals. Ultimately, the end goal is to empower developers and build connections between your developers themselves and between your developers and the brand—events are just one way that this can be done.
As Tessa Kriesel, the Community Manager at Twitter, says, "If you're sitting in a position right now where [your DevRel team was] fueled by those in person events, I challenge you to start to think about how your DevRel team is fitting with the rest of the teams at your company. If the rest of your company is not helping support [your DevRel team]...then it's harder to provide value for your developers."
Tessa then provides an example of what an unsupported DevRel team looks like, and how it can negate even the benefits brought from travel and in-person events. "If your sales team is cold-calling any leads that you're bringing in [from DevRel events]—we all know as people who work with developers that that's not the way to get their attention—you need to think about how you can make changes in other teams within your company."
In other words, before you consider how to host virtual events with large-scale impacts, make sure that your organization is helping you in the right way. Having everyone on the same page will not only boost your efforts to build relationships, but it will also make this shift to virtual-only events a much easier process for you and your developers.
Speak to Individuals 1 on 1
Given that successful DevRel programs are built on strong bonds and relationships, it's important to continue to have a strong online presence in lieu of being unable to meet in person. A great way to do this is to actually schedule meetings with some of your developers to simply check-in, see how things are going and have some of those genuine conversations that would otherwise have happened in-person.
"If you do recognize folks and you have the capacity, schedule 1 on 1's and let them know that you'd love to talk to them," says Tessa. She continues,"At the end of the day, you're just trying to get to that relationship. You want them to trust you, you want them to realize that you're trying to provide them with resources, with information, and allow them to make decisions on their own—you're not selling them anything." The most important aspect of relationship building in DevRel is being transparent and genuine. While you do work for the company, you should be making sure that your community is aware that you're there to help and not looking to throw a sales pitch at them.
As Mary's DevRel mantra explains:
To the community, I represent the company.
To the company, I represent the community.
I must have both of their interests in mind at all times.
Creating and continuing a genuine conversation online through a video-chat still involves the same type of components that should be used in person. For instance, you should always try to make a connection with them. "Making that connection and making that authentic connection is key in developer relations,' explains Jessica, the Head of Developer Relations at LaunchDarkly. She continues, "[once you have an authentic connection] they'll know you as an individual and will come find you if they want to talk more."
Hosting Impactful Virtual DevRel Events
Although there are so many other ways to form connections with developers other than events, we can't overlook the fact that this is still important for many DevRel teams—and something that developers themselves look forward to. As Mary explains, "One of the things, especially right now, that people are really missing from in-person events is the engagement side of things." The benefit of having in-person events for developers is really being able to be in a room full of people who have the same interests as you and being able to have the types of "hallways conversations," that happen simply by chance.
This, however, is something that virtual events can also bring to the table—if done correctly. "There are so many things that you can do that don't involve getting on a plane and travelling," explains Jessica. "Now, with a lot of the technology we've had in the past couple years, we can do video tutorials—we've got things like Twitch, YouTube Live, Zoom—we can do webinars, and so many others things."
When it comes to virtual tools, there are a ton of options that can help ensure a successful DevRel event; the use of these tools are what's truly setting good events apart from the not-so-great ones. "Having something, whether it's slack, discord, chat or something where people can be giving feedback [in real-time] by chatting in the side channel is what's setting virtual events apart," explains Mary. Ultimately, these types of communication channels help bring engagement and collaboration back to the table.
Jessica argues that we shouldn't be looking to mimic exactly what was done at in-person events since virtual events are a whole other ball-game. We can, instead, think about what the goals are and then look to the virtually tools we need to accomplish those goals. "Giving people an opportunity to interact with each other, and letting them know how to connect afterwards is important," says Jessica.
DevRel is all about building, growing, and maintaining relationships. While it's nice for developers to have the opportunity to meet in-person, virtual events can still offer the same types of benefits through the use of effective communication tools. But events and networking is just one piece of the pie—your organization and the rest of your team need to be onboard and understand the goals of your DevRel team, otherwise your efforts could be easily undermined. As Tessa suggests, if your DevRel team is entirely dependent on events, you might want to re-think your strategy. And my friends, there is no better time than the present.