Finding Success with Developer Marketing through Trial and Error
There’s a reason why developer marketing is even a thing. There are agencies, platforms, podcasts, books, blogs, groups… all dedicated to solving this puzzle; namely, how do we get developers to pay attention and take action?
If you’ve spent any meaningful time in this space, then you know developers are a tricky bunch.
- They ignore ads or use ad blockers
- They don’t open or respond to emails
- They aren’t interested in fluffy blogs that lack substance
- They don’t show up to webinars
- They couldn’t care less about your free trials or ‘irresistible’ offers
In general, they don’t respond to any traditional form of marketing and are largely resistant to the idea of being ‘sold’.
So, how then do you break through to them?
As a Director of Marketing for many years, and now as the CMO of my own agency, I’ve had my fair share of experience in this space. During my trials and errors, I know what works and what doesn’t work in Developer Marketing. While still far from an expert, I can share my experience in hopes it can save others a lot of time, money, and stress. Like following a string through a maze, you can learn from my mistakes and avoid going down paths that lead to a dead end.
What doesn’t work
Let’s start with what doesn’t work.
As mentioned in the intro, your traditional marketing tactics to developers aren’t likely to work. You can talk to anyone who has been in this space who has tried to market to developers, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing.
In terms of ad platforms, I’ve pretty much tried them all – LinkedIn, Google, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Stack Overflow…
Generally speaking, it’s really expensive and ineffective to use any of these platforms targeting developers to carve out demand for your product or service.
- LinkedIn Ads
While LinkedIn has amazing targeting capabilities, it is really expensive and doesn’t offer that high of a click through rate. Now, you may have a different experience and say that your CTR is really high on LinkedIn.
I would first ask you to click the Breakdown menu and select the On/Off Platform option. When you do that, you will see that your high CTR is actually not on LinkedIn as you may have thought. LinkedIn has a sneaky way of spending your money and not actually showing your ads on their platform. Where do they go? Who knows! But I can tell you that that high CTR on some mysterious 3rd party network sites is garbage and doesn’t convert.
To ensure your ads only appear to your target audience on LinkedIn, you must disable LinkedIn Audience Network and Audience Expansion, as well as set your Location targeting to Permanent. I won’t go into a full LinkedIn Ads tutorial, but as a starting place, at least ensure you spend a lot of time with your targeting and exclusion parameters.
You can also look into market leaders in your category and see what ads they are running. The assumption is that if it’s working for them, it may also work for you (not always the case). Sometimes, market leaders have deep pockets and internal politics that forces them to use marketing budgets in wasteful ways, so take this advice with a grain of salt. When I went to one of my top competitors, I noticed they were doing something very different than me.
I was running single image and carousel ads to drive traffic to my site. This works on some level, but it’s expensive. You also have to factor in the cost of retargeting ads. This means your CAC and CAC Payback will be high and you are likely to have a negative ROI (i.e. it costs more to acquire a customer than the value the customer brings in).
LinkedIn also requires you to have a minimum audience size of 300, so if you don’t have that, you’ll have to spend a lot of money to build up that audience size. Also worth noting, while LinkedIn shows a lot of clicks, they are vague about what a “click” actually means. It does not mean clicks to your website.
There’s a filter to show actual clicks to websites. If you look at your website traffic from LinkedIn, and the retargeting audience size under LinkedIn’s Audience Manager, these often tell a very different story. You will notice that very few of these clicks are actually going to your website. It may be bots clicking on your ads that never actually go to your website, or they leave your website before the LinkedIn Pixel event can trigger.
Wrapping up my point about what I discovered while looking at my competitors’ ads, I noticed that they were promoting some value-add downloadable (i.e. eBook, white paper, data sheet, etc.). I’ve tried using this lead-gen approach and it can work to get leads, but the quality of the lead usually isn’t very good and often doesn’t equate to pipeline revenue.
- Google Ads
Shifting to Google Ads, Display and video ads generally don’t work. I do like high-intent Search ads and competitor takeout campaigns, but there’s often not a lot of search traffic to fully rely on this approach.
Since I shared some basic advice for LinkedIn Ads, I’ll share one tip for Google Ads as well.
If you’re running Broad Match keywords, go to Keywords > Search Terms. This will show all the keywords Google is running your ads against, which are costing you a lot of money (wastefully).
For those unaware, there are three types of keyword types in Google Ads:
👉 Broad match – some key term that is tangentially related. For example, suppose you’re selling wholesale coffee beans, Google will show people looking for energy supplements. Sure, both are kind of related, but barely. Not your ideal customer.
👉 Phrase match – stylized like in quotation marks (e.g. “coffee”) – this will show your ads to people who search for coffee shops near me. It’s a little close, but still not your target customer.
👉 Exact match – stylized in parentheses (e.g. [coffee beans]) – this will show your ads to people who search for this exact thing / or the exact substitute of that thing. For example, coffee berry or coffee seed = coffee bean.
Stack Overflow boasts that it is a hub for developers who are searching for solutions. They recommend spending at least $10,000 per month for 3 months to get your ads in front of enough developers.
However, developers don’t seem to click on ads, and the ads don’t actually look appealing on the site (i.e. they are tiny and look like old spam ads from the early 2000s). So, you’d be paying a lot of money (really expensive CPMs) for brand awareness. In my experience, there are much cheaper ways to get brand awareness – namely Twitter and Reddit.
On Reddit, for example, I received 15,000 impressions for $30 dollars (Twitter was similar) and I get full control to pause my ads, make changes, test creative, etc.
Here is a few months’ breakdown to show the cost comparison of cost per impression and cost per click.
Look at how underpriced attention is on Reddit and Twitter. I spent 1/5th the price, yet received 5x the impressions. Granted, CTR is low and perhaps the targeting is less sophisticated than LinkedIn, and less intent driven than Google Search, but for cold-layer brand awareness (treating these ads like billboards where all I care about is cost per impression and I don’t actually need them to click-through) it’s a pretty good deal.
Stack Overflow cannot touch these impression rates.
The secret sauce to developer marketing
What I have found to have worked can be summed up in one word: leverage.
In other words:
- Who can I get to amplify our message?
- Who can I get to distribute our content?
- What unfair advantages can I use?
As you may know, a sales and marketing relationship is much like a romantic relationship. There’s a courting process and a sequence of events that generally needs to happen in a specific order. It’s generally not a good idea to ask someone to marry you on the first date. You’d be looked at as a crazy person and would likely scare the person off.
Similarly in sales and marketing, you need to warm up the relationship. It’s about time and exposure with your brand, and they need to see you as a thought leader. But breaking this down even further, it’s about trust. This is key – companies only do business with people they trust.
One way to build trust is to be around for 100 years and establish a good reputation for delivering value. But, we don’t have 100 years. We need to fill the pipeline asap. Some companies only have a couple months or quarters of runway before they need to make some difficult staffing decisions, which we never want to get to that point.
So, how do we do it? The answer is, we use leverage.
Imagine going on a first date with someone who has been highly vetted, not only by you doing hours of research reading the person’s blog, pursuing their social channels, visiting their LinkedIn profile, and getting an endorsement from someone whose opinion you trust. All this, plus your friend’s trusted stamp of approval will naturally lower your guard.
Sales and marketing are no different. So, how do we use leverage?
I’ve personally found success marketing to developers with the following leverage:
- Leverage personal network
- Leverage influencers
- Leverage partner network
- Leverage podcast guest networks
- Leverage associations
- Leverage events
Aside from leverage, there are two other things you need, which are patience and persistence. You will fail a lot before you finally break through. So, having the fortitude to endure the beating you’re likely going to take is key.
Often with B2B marketing there is a lag where it feels like nothing you’re doing is working, until one day, a lead comes in through a marketing channel, then another, then another. In all likelihood, the activities you’re doing today are causing people to take notice. Your buyers are sharing your content with each other through internal channels.
They may be in boardrooms right now discussing your solution. All of this is invisible to you until many months later when suddenly all your efforts begin to pay off. Be patient, stay the course, you’re likely doing everything right but just don’t have any validation yet.
In addition to leveraging advocacy and building trust, here are some other ways to break through to developers.
- Educate: Developers are always learning. Invest in creating technical content that helps developers solve problems and learn new skills. Use tutorials, webinars, podcasts, and other channels to provide this content.
- Listen to feedback: Developers are vocal about what they like and don’t like. Actively listen to their feedback, engage in conversations, and make changes that reflect their needs.
- Foster community: Developers thrive in communities where they can share ideas, ask questions, and get help. Invest in creating community forums, Slack groups, and other channels to foster these interactions.
The webinar has been a staple in lead-gen for over a decade and for good reason. It allows you to showcase yourself as a thought leader and warm up a sales engagement, and you have a ‘permission to contact’ as registrants generally understand that in exchange for free content, they must provide their contact details (ideally work email, company name, job title). Webinars also have a long tail, meaning the content can live on, be repurposed, and promoted indefinitely.
The challenge with webinars:
- Getting people to show up at a particular date and time. Not all who register show up. In my experience, if you want 5 people to show up, you need to invite 300 people. So, getting the word out requires you to flex your marketing muscles – 1:1 outreach, newsletter, social, website landing pages, ads… Going back to leverage – if you can partner with someone who has a much larger reach than you, definitely do that!
- They require a lot of effort to set up. I set up my webinars on several platforms: website, Eventbrite, LinkedIn, and Meetup. Then you need to create the content, graphics, landing pages, email automations, social posts, ads, newsletters, meeting links…
- If no one shows up, it’s not a good look. I equate traditional webinars to cable TV – if you want to watch a show, you must show up at a certain date and time, and sit through ads. If you miss it, you miss it. The alternative would be to just record the talk, upload it to YouTube, and promote it. This would be the equivalent to on-demand programming, which gives people the freedom to watch (rewatch), pause, skip, comment, and share as they wish. You do, however, lose the leads that come from the registration form.
Podcasts are a great way to get content from your SMEs. Better yet, use leverage to invite guests who either share a customer base but are not competitors, or could be a customer themselves. Podcasts are a lot of work to get everyone together, they require the speakers to be engaging, and require countless hours of pre- and post work. But they can be highly effective if done right. Of course, the content can be repurposed into short-form video, social posts, newsletter, blog, etc.
Events & conferences
There are at least 4 ways to participate in events & conferences:
If you’re a smaller company who doesn’t have a lot of brand recognition and budget, I would suggest being a speaker is the most effective form of conference participation. This will allow people to see your company as a thought leader, and makes it easier for people to come up to you after your talk. At larger conferences, this isn’t always possible.
Setting up a booth is good, but can be expensive, and may not be as effective as you’d like it to be. You still need people to come up to you, and often unless you have some gimmick or swag, they won’t. You can scan badges and collect emails, but are those people your buyers – or are they other sales people attending the conference looking to sell you their solution?
Sponsoring is incredibly expensive, especially if you plan on attending multiple conferences throughout the year. In my experience, the ROI isn’t great with this approach.
Attending is good, but you need to send the right people. Send someone who is technical and who is comfortable speaking to people such as a technical sales person. They need to have a depth of knowledge to converse with developers.
Research in advance the companies who fit your ICP will be in attendance, then create a list of all your ideal buyers. Developers are often not your buyers, so seek out VPs of Engineering and CTOs.
Email them on LinkedIn asking if they are attending and if they are open to connecting. Try to set up meetings before you attend the event. It also helps if you have an after party at a nearby pub. Also, go prepared with business cards, brochures, etc.
A matchmaking service is a 3rd party organization where buyers and sellers come to the table anonymously, pitch what they are buying or selling, and the platform matches you up. If both parties agree to the meeting, then you get charged. If either party decides, for whatever reason, that they are not the right fit, they can decline the meeting.
The great thing about these services is that buyers must provide details about their company, industry, job title, tech stack, nature of their issue, etc. One of my clients had not had a single lead in months after trying everything under the sun and spending thousands of dollars on ads. I suggested using a matchmaking service and within 24 hours of signing up, they received five highly qualified, strong-buying-intent companies that fit their exact ICP. We let this continue to run and the leads keep flooding in.
All the calls are recorded and after, the matchmaker interviews the buyer and they provide brutally honest feedback about your company – your pitch, your offering, your pricing… it’s all recorded for you and your team to listen to. This is highly valuable information. You just log in to the platform and view your dashboard with all the details and recordings I mentioned. You can even pitch to buyers. Often when a buyer is considering you, there are no other competitors so the close rate is very high – in our case over 80%.
There are two companies we’ve used – Sagetap and Strategy Insights. Sagetap is roughly $500 per meeting – they are much smaller, and Strategy Insights is roughly $2,000 per meeting – this company has been around for 35 years, has over 1,000 employees, and operates mostly in Europe, but has recently branched out to North America. I won’t go into more detail about each company, but I encourage you to do your own research.
Solving the developer marketing puzzle and achieving success
Developers trust their peers more than brands. Utilize advocacy by creating programs that reward developers for sharing their experiences and knowledge with others. Developers have a keen sense of when they’re being ‘sold’, which is why it is essential to create a relationship with them through building trust.
Start with thought leadership content, share customer stories, and prioritize open-source contributions.
Developer marketing is a puzzle that requires a unique approach to get developers to pay attention and take action. While it can be challenging, there are ways to break through by leveraging advocacy, building trust, educating, listening to feedback, and fostering community.
By avoiding traditional marketing tactics and focusing on these strategies, you can save a lot of time, money, and stress.
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