How Community Marketing Presents a Huge Opportunity for Building Developer Relations

7 minute read

August 30, 2018

How Community Marketing Presents a Huge Opportunity for Building Developer Relations

What Are Developer Communities?

Developer communities grew out of developer relations programs. It happened when tech companies figured out that developers speak a different language than marketers.

Today, some of the biggest communities on the internet are developer communities, many of which cater towards specific platforms or brands. For example, developers who make software for Windows are often closely involved with the Microsoft Developer Network, just as developers of mobile apps often head straight to the Google Developer Community for all things Android-related.

Owing to certain similarities with religious evangelism, developer relations are often known as platform evangelism.

Much like charismatic religious evangelists, platform evangelists are devout fans of a specific platform. They’re tasked with the job of getting new developers onboard and creating fan communities.

The goal is to build a vast wealth of tribal knowledge in online forums through discussing their projects and sharing ideas at offline events like trade fairs. However, unlike traditional advertising, it’s not about direct selling – it’s about giving them what they need to get the most out of your product.

An effective developer community presents itself as a thriving hotbed of discussion and collaboration in which developer outreach staff engage third-party developers directly. Developers also help each other out by sharing their experiences and answering each other’s questions.

That’s why marketing to developers is all about empowering them to use your technologies to their fullest potential – through robust onboarding processes and access to a wealth of community-driven knowledge.

What Are the Characteristics of a Great Developer Community?

When you’re building developer relations, community marketing isn’t really about marketing at all – at least not in the traditional sense. While the ultimate goal is much the same (i.e. to drive sales), the method of communication is very different.

Let’s say you offer a communications API, allowing your developers to embed voice calling and instant messaging into web or mobile apps. To achieve this, they need easy access to the right information. At the most basic level, you’ll likely use things like product documentation and onboarding to allow them to reach at least a basic level of functionality. 

That’s a great start, but it’s not where developer relations end. That’s because developers often want to make the technology their own by adapting it to their specific needs. And they’re not just looking for the latest technology, either – chances are they’re looking to have a real impact on the fast-changing technology landscape. Documentations and generalized onboarding processes can only go so far.

A great community is the next step in developer success, since it empowers your users to collaborate with others and reveal potential that you probably didn’t even know was there. A strong community is an educational resource where the next great idea is born. It goes far beyond what your own internal team can ever hope to achieve by itself, since it gives your entire customer community a centralized space for testing, feedback and constructive collaboration. Your community is a constantly growing informational resource where developers help each other out by answering each other’s questions and providing their feedback. From an internal perspective, this also makes your community a go-to resource for information that you can use to regularly improve your product.

How Successful Communities Inspire Constructive Participation

One of the biggest challenges facing online communities is motivating people to post constructively. Even professional communities, such as those geared towards software designers and engineers, aren’t immune to puerile behavior, spammers and trolls. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the anonymity afforded by the internet that can encourage certain types to go off the rails if given the chance.

That’s why abandoned online communities are disastrous, since they’ve long since been forsaken by anything resembling constructive participation. Without oversight from the brand behind them, they quickly end up as a liability to your reputation.

Among the most common strategies for building a healthy developer community (or any other online community, for that matter) is to implement peer-to-peer moderation through gamification. Using game-design elements to reward constructive members helps keep the conversation in the right direction. For example, members might be able to rate posts so that the most valuable content becomes the most visible, while constructive posters are rewarded with recognition.

The community forums of the Microsoft Developer Network achieve this by allowing members to vote on posts, while assigning forum ranks and points to members based on the number of votes they receive. MSDN also uses gamification to onboard new members by providing achievement points for first-time activities, such as answering questions, reporting spam or  identifying valuable content.

While gamification is an important tool for engaging audiences and building a healthy community, it should never be taken for more than what it is – a tool. It will never be a substitute for having developer advocates on your side and maintaining consistent involvement in your community-building efforts.

In conclusion, no matter how much technology you have on your side, it can never replace meaningful and personal interaction with your developer community.

So, How Does this Relate to Marketing?

Perhaps you’re wondering at this point how developer relations relate to marketing. You may still be thinking about a more traditional approach to advertising. As we’ve discussed, developers don’t like advertising. With the banner blindness epidemic in full swing across virtually all industries, it’s more important than ever to remember that people generally don’t like to be spoken at, and developers (more than most) aren’t interested in lofty claims of greatness. They’re interested in seeing results.

The fundamental characteristic of building developer relations through community marketing is that you’re not trying to sell anything. You’re helping people do more with your product and meet and surpass their goals. By empowering your developers to be successful, you’ll inspire brand advocacy in a world where online reviews and recommendations are everything. To better understand this, let’s first consider five factors that make a platform become recognized and respected as an industry standard:

  1. Easy onboarding and integration of APIs
  2. Flexibility and scalability in a constantly expanding range of use cases
  3. Prompt customer support
  4. Listening to and acting upon feedback from third-party developers
  5. A name that’s synonymous with quality and industry authority

These five factors aren’t about lists of supposed benefits and specifications. They’re about how well received your product is among its target audience. Unlike consumer products, the success of an API is driven by whether or not it succeeds in helping its users increase the profitability of their own businesses. After all, using an API is very different to using an end-user product – it’s a complex and serious matter in which a strong support community plays a crucial role. To that end, your online community is your #1 marketing asset.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing people tasked with building and nurturing developer relations is being able to provide a high return on investment. You can’t simply say how great your product is and hope that developers will come knocking at your door.

When it comes to making B2B purchase decisions, customers are more interested in what other people have to say about a product. They’re interested in the real-world use cases, emphasized by case studies and success stories shared not just by you, but more importantly by your customers.

This brings us to our next topic – how to choose a developer relations manager who acts as a liaison between you and the members of your community.

Bridging the Gap Between Your Brand and Your Developers

For B2B technology companies, your developer relations manager is your marketing person. This doesn’t mean they’re there to talk about how great your product is or how many cutting-edge features it brings to the table. They’re the person tasked with connecting each stage of the developer relations cycle.

In the beginning, you have your internal product and engineering team tasked with developing the platform in the first place. The next stage of the cycle is to get the word out by raising awareness and stimulating inspiration. While newsworthy content (such as patch notes and other updates) is critical, the main responsibility of your developer relations manager will be to provide the necessary resources for third-party developers to succeed in their projects. Once they’ve done that, they’ll pass on developer feedback and sentiment to the product and engineering team, so they can focus on improving their product. In other words, a developer relations strategy is about being a canonical source of truth through each stage of the cycle.

It’s imperative that your developer relations manager is respected as a peer among your community. That’s not likely to happen if they come from a more traditional marketing background. They need to be software engineers themselves who understand the platform thoroughly and can exhibit great authority in the industry.

It’s important to remember that the tips and code they share with third-party developers may end up being used by millions of people, so they need to know what they’re doing. And since developer relations go full circle, they’ll be heavily involved in the development of the platform itself – they’ll be passing on feedback, thereby influencing the design of your APIs.

Developer relations managers must also have outstanding communications skills since they are the public face of your development team. Having a deep understanding of the best coding practices is only half of the battle – they must also be able to onboard others by crafting material that’s engaging, informative and entertaining. Forget the geeky stereotype – you need someone with charisma and industry knowledge to help and inspire people with a wide range of perspectives.

Diversity is another important trait for developer relations personnel. While they must be intimately familiar with your own platform, that’s not the be-all and end-all. They must also  be familiar with other programming languages, as well as industry best practices. If all they know is your platform, it won’t be long before third-party developers start thinking that they’re just sales people in disguise. Rather, they need to have a deep understanding of the unique challenges facing their target audiences so they can better relate to them.

Finally, a robust developer outreach strategy needs consistency. Developer advocates must be regularly involved, ready to listen and respond to questions and feedback. In fact, they should engage with third-party developers in much the same way that the most valuable members of your community engage with each other.

All this to say that an effective developer relations manager is, in many ways, identical to your ideal customer. That is precisely what makes them such an important marketing asset.

Final Words

API providers must take developer relations seriously if they want to make a lasting impact on this highly competitive and fast-moving industry. A great community-building strategy will put you on the fast track towards raising awareness and establishing a name for your brand as a respected industry leader.

A strong developer community won’t just help you increase sales; it will help you build a better product and serve as a resource for testing and feedback. Developer advocates who back your product with a deep understanding of their fields and are able to forge strong connections with your target audience, will give you everything you need to thrive in one of the most exciting and dynamic industries of all.


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Charles Owen-Jackson

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