05. March 2024 - Team OSP

The Essential Guide: Best Practices in Marketing to Software Developers

Tailored strategies for effective marketing to software developers



Effective marketing to software developers can be challenging—they are particularly resistant to promotional content. Understanding their mindset will help you craft effective marketing strategies if you want to reach and influence a technical audience. Once convinced, developers can become powerful advocates for your product.

Developer marketing is tough—a recent book on the subject by Adam DuVander even claims in its title that Developer Marketing Doesn’t Exist! But the rewards are clear. Liam Boogar-Azoulay, VP of Marketing at Scaleway, puts it like this: though there are “seemingly insurmountable challenges,” the “opportunity is enormous—the era of the engineer has well begun, so knowing how to talk to them at scale is one of the largest opportunities to be seized.” 

By adapting your messaging for developers, you can directly reach the people who need your product or service most and who can share their great experience in their company and with other developers in their communities. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of best practices, strategies, and metrics to successfully navigate the developer marketing niche.

Crafting and fine-tuning messaging to communicate value and technical truth at every level of detail is painstaking work. This, however, is what we live for at OSP! We have DevRel in our DNA. We bring years of experience communicating about complex technologies to transform your detailed knowledge into clear, consistent messaging for your audiences. OSP specializes in building technical value into every aspect of product messaging, using our OSP Value Map and Product Communications Framework to create a product adoption strategy based on technical truth.

Get in touch to learn more!

Understanding the developer psyche

What makes a developer? Who are software engineers? They have a particular mindset. They’re curious, care about the details*, and love solving problems. Devs care about the products they work with. Buzzwords, fuzzy descriptions, and vague promises turn them off. Many think good work speaks for itself and treat marketing as a dirty word. In the words of one developer, “I hate hate hate marketing”—even as the author recognizes its necessity and the impressive skills of talented marketers.

When evaluating new tools, developers want to know that a product works before they make a commitment (of their time, money, or reputation) or advocate for it in their team or company at large. Effective developer marketing allows for actual product use before product adoption, from accurate messaging to tutorials, guides, events, and free trials, the ultimate free trial being open source tools of course ;-)

*In other words, they are allergic to BS.

Why traditional marketing doesn’t work for developers

Marketers, by nature, tend to be good with words. Traditional marketing and advertising can achieve great results among a non-technical audience with catchy, inspiring content. Not so with developers, who prefer accuracy and efficiency. Good content for software engineers gets to the point and doesn’t waste their time. 

Traditional marketing tools can cause special difficulties for developers. Here are two quick no-nos:

  • Don’t spam. If you’ve done some networking and obtained an email address, don’t expect any conversions from pro forma newsletters. With developers, you need to follow up personally and build on that first connection before sending any automated campaign messages. 
  • Use calls to action judiciously. Conversions don’t happen quickly with developers. As Adam DuVander writes in Developer Marketing Doesn’t Exist, “Blatant calls to action … will either be ignored or negatively called out. Worse, it could be seen as a trick that raises the skepticism you’ve worked so hard to diminish.” Provide something of genuine value, establish social credit, and then consider asking for action. Be generous first and always.

Developers are better equipped than other internet users to avoid content they don’t want to see. It’s not just a mindset. They use browser extensions, have ad-blockers, and know how to read search results. If they do click through to a product or site, it’s because they have reason to think they’ll receive genuine value. The aim is to make sure they’ll find it with you.

Best practices in developer marketing

Effective developer marketing should be compelling and technically accurate content that speaks to developer communities. We call this “Authentic Communication” at OSP. We founded OSP on the three principles we believe are essential to successful communication in our field:

  • Empathy. Understanding the developer experience and challenges makes it possible to craft honest, effective, compelling communication about the strengths of your product or service. You should say what the product can do well, what it can’t, what bugs to look out for, and how to troubleshoot them—in language that connects with your audience.
  • Clarity. Providing genuine value means respecting developers’ time with content and interactions that are concise, relevant, and devoid of fluff. As soon as they start reading, the clock is ticking. You have only seconds to get your message across.
  • Trust. Emphasize genuine communication and avoid overt sales pitches. Strive for quality technical content, and be transparent about your products and services—including their limitations. Build trust through short, successful interactions that leave them with a good impression and a reason to come back for more.

Tailor the message to address developers' specific pain points. Rather than just list product features, directly address how your product solves a particular problem. Back this up with case studies, testimonials, and real-world scenarios that prove how your solution addresses challenges in the real world. If that means amplifying the voices of developer community members—all the better. Build trust and credibility by avoiding jargon and promises your product can’t deliver. You should aim to produce content based on the technical truth of your product, connecting features to the business value they provide. There are many ways to go about this. At OSP, we use our Value Map methodology to track these details.

Effective channels and tactics

It helps to have an ear to the ground in spaces where your target audience spends time. Conduct user research to discover which platforms and spaces your audience uses most. The most common include:

  • Reddit
  • Stack Overflow
  • GitHub or GitLab
  • Community Slack channels
  • Discord or Mastodon servers
  • X (formerly known as Twitter)
  • LinkedIn

By engaging on social media, forums, and platforms, you can listen and learn from ongoing conversations among developers. Participate in online developer communities—always be yourself, sincere, genuine, and generous.

In addition to participating in online spaces, effective marketing strategies include some lateral moves to provide genuine value and establish your brand as an expert in the field.

  • Provide educational resources like how-to guides, webinars, and tech talks
  • Give conference talks, presentations, and workshops—in person or virtual 
  • Contribute, support, and sponsor (relevant) open source projects and events
  • Create practical tools like APIs and SDKs 
  • Connect with and leverage influencers within the developer community

Bridging the Tech-Biz Gap: the key to reaching developers

Break down the silos! Finding the right approach to developer marketing can start in your own company: Business teams might be making promises without consulting the technical experts; VC investors might be pushing the board and CEO, unable to believe the lag between actual and predicted sales; developers may be disengaged because Marketing is promoting the product they’ve built in a way divorced from reality.

Foster communication between developers and marketers. Finding a common language is the crucial first step. Jargon is useful in specialized discussions but can be off-putting to outsiders. In meetings between different teams, practice putting terms in clear, everyday language that helps reach clarity and consensus.

Here's more about bridging the Biz-Tech Gap.

Decision-making dynamics in dev teams

Teams can differ significantly in structure and decision-making processes according to their organization’s size, culture, and the nature of the project. Many teams operate on a consensus model, valuing the input of all team members. Often, individual contributors have a significant influence on the decision-making process if they can demonstrate the efficacy of a new tool or method.

  • Team leaders balance technical needs with business objectives. They define project goals and priorities, make big-picture decisions on architecture, technology stack, and tools, and often serve as a bridge between the development team and upper management or clients. 
  • Individual team members focus on the day-to-day tasks of developing, specialize in particular areas of code or technology stack, and are typically responsible for identifying the need for new tools or processes.

Lean into this decision-making dynamic to optimize your marketing strategy. Craft multipurpose, multi-tiered messages that appeal to team leaders and individual contributors. Tiered product adoption strategies are also key. Trial versions, free tools and open source projects allow developers to test and adopt your solutions incrementally within their teams.

  • For team leaders, you might emphasize how your solution can contribute to business goals and improve team productivity. Case studies and white papers may be especially effective for this part of your audience.
  • Individual developers, meanwhile, will appreciate messaging that focuses on ease of use, efficiency, integration with existing tools, and how your solutions address specific technical challenges.

Empower advocates and influencers. Understanding the decision-making dynamics in developer teams (and tech companies broadly) means recognizing that team members can be powerful internal advocates for your product.

How OSP creates strategically relevant content

We use empathy and clarity to build trust: these are the fundamental values that guide us as we develop any marketing messaging. Operationally, this means that we can look at both our overall strategy and our content creation as breaking down into three stations.

  • Strategy + Empathy
    • As many stakeholders as possible contribute to the Value Map.
    • We help varied perspectives and priorities come into alignment.
    • Going from technical truth to business mission, reach agreement on priorities and product vision.
  • Strategy + Clarity
    • Product/service information is de-siloed.
    • The Value Mapping process creates a single source of truth for all.
  • Strategy + Trust
    • The process can create unity, common vision, motivation, etc.

Content Creation: Content for technical audiences needs to be compelling AND accurate (no BS ;-) )

  • Content + Empathy
    • Interviews with stakeholders allow us to understand varied perspectives and use this language in our content
    • Quoting SMEs, happy clients, etc.
    • Writing using appropriate language, tone, and terms for the audience
  • Content + Clarity
    • Appealing pages, scannable, easily consumed content (lists, bullets, headers that also tell the story, explaining jargon and acronyms)
    • Help readers self-qualify 
    • Honesty. Also say what you can’t do.
  • Content + Trust
    • Don’t use FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt)
    • … All of the above helps build trust with discerning audiences like devs.

Our strategic methodology results in a comprehensive understanding of your product built on technical truth. Our approach to creating content, which we call “Authentic Communication combines stakeholder information with a strategic understanding of its value, turning it into compelling, accurate content.

How does all of this align with effective developer marketing? Let’s look at a hypothetical. A content management system (CMS) can easily have 700 or 800 features. During the Value Mapping process, we group these features into clusters, and an overall hierarchy of features takes shape: a pyramid of value. With so many features, smaller units, sub-clusters, and mini-pyramids also emerge. Any of these can be the technical answer to one or more business questions, from the macro to the micro level. The Value Map not only integrates technical language into the rest of the marketing and business model, but it also empowers developers by giving them the language of marketing and business

OSP's approach in action

Now for some real-world examples of how OSP creates communication strategies.

Consider b13, a web development agency specialized in creating efficient and sustainable digital solutions with TYPO3. But while they have always excelled at delivering great projects, they needed help communicating their particular strengths to a broader audience. “We don’t like talking about ourselves—we just want to do cool stuff,” said one of the co-founders. “OSP enabled us to tell clients what we want, and how we want to work with them.” The other co-founder agreed, “Trust factor is key—we felt we could trust jam and Tracy on our topic.” They still use the work from the project in sales pitches today and benefit from the content resulting from their ongoiung work with OSP.

Or take Sulu, an open source CMS. With the growth in demand for open source solutions, Sulu was in a great position to capitalize on market conditions… technically speaking. But they needed to take their message to the public. Turning to OSP allowed them to see their work with fresh eyes, and OSP could provide the marketing resources they didn’t have to reach a global audience. Developing the Value Map of their product and offerings with OSP gave them the foundation for bringing clarity and precision to their communications. 

Sulu co-founder Thomas Schedler reflected on what made the process work: “The Value Map forced us to be super clear and focused. Until that event, we kept repeating arguments that were kind of weak. OSP pushed us to be more precise—they forced us to make bolder statements, be more confident, and position ourselves more clearly.” Working with OSP, they put out tools that got their products noticed by the developer community. Co-founder Bernd Hepberger commented, “The guides and solution pages are super important to us. That’s the content that sets you apart from small OSS projects and shows professionalism.”

Let’s take one more example. The DDEV Local development environment was perfectly positioned to help the Drupal community solve one of its critical challenges. Drupal excelled (and still does) at welcoming people and making them enthusiastic to contribute at in-person code sprints at most community events. Yet there was a problem: it took experienced developers up to a day to prepare contributors’ computers to work on and contribute to Drupal core code. Many first-time contributors never came back a second time. The setup experience was just too long and painful. DDV Local, however, could be quickly downloaded or passed around on USB drives and installed on most computers in minutes. Using DDEV brought the initial orientation time between Drupal mentors and first-time contributors down to about an hour.

The company behind DDEV at the time asked OSP to help them spread the word. We created another example of authentic, valuable content for the tech market in the form of a sprint guide. On top of the speed and ease DDEV Local gave the technical side of contribution, the Brilliant Sprint Guide added a wealth of tips, tricks, and suggestions to help open source contribution sprint organizers run welcoming, productive events. Think about everything from Wi-Fi bandwidth to food and drink, hours and working styles, volunteer tips, and much more. DDEV sent packages of USB sticks and PDFs of the sprint guide to any and all event organizers who wanted them. The resulting sprints were more satisfying for participants, got more results faster, and won DDEV a lot of positive attention

Poop emoji in front of a screen with deeply misspelled text representing "Garbage in, garbage out."

Future trends in developer marketing: AI

AI is dominating everyone’s thinking about the future of marketing at the time of writing, in early 2024. It is already having a significant impact on marketing operations, in some cases leading to staff reductions in content production. The sheer volume of generative AI content means that many marketing firms will likely establish dedicated content authenticity functions and respond to proposed legislation regarding “ethical AI.” Gartner predicts many businesses will shift 75% of marketing production staff from production to more strategic activities in response to AI by 2025. And that in the next four years, more than two-thirds of firms will simultaneously establish safeguards to combat misinformation and fake material.
OSP’s view? As early hype claimed, AI has proved useful but is far from the answer to everything. It can add some value and efficiency to content creation processes. It’s great for summarizing and rephrasing, for example. But AI cannot currently replace human creativity, experience, insight, or diversity of perspective. AI produces dull, factually messy copypasta in anything beyond very formulaic genres. Use AI when and where it makes sense, but AI requires guided input to produce valuable output. Even while AI technology provides incredible resources for augmenting research and content, sticking to our principles of empathy, clarity, and trust means it is crucial not to lose the human touch in developer marketing. Furthermore, OSP’s focus on interviewing and quoting subject-matter experts while Value Mapping and preparing content means we are creating new, valuable content in the world, not recombining existing work with the help of the robots.

Wrapping up

Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground, navigating the tricky and shifting terrain of developer marketing, from understanding developers’ discerning and skeptical mindsets to various strategies for messages that resonate with honesty and utility. As we’ve seen, traditional marketing approaches don’t work for this group, which is defined by its technical acumen and an aversion to fluff.

Marketing to developers means engaging in a dialogue guided by respect for their craft and the need for a sincere desire to enhance their work. The question then becomes not how we can make quick conversions and recruit new clients but how to serve the creators at the forefront of technical innovation. 

Participating in developer communities is one way to cultivate genuine engagement, as is understanding the decision-making dynamics within developer teams. Offering trial versions or free tools and connecting technical value with real benefits at every level of your product offerings empowers developers to become advocates within their teams and communities.

To begin your journey in transforming your company’s approach to developer marketing, get in touch with OSP today.

Image credits

Flat art head surrounded by nodes of information by Jeffrey A. McGuire and our robot overlords. Garbage in, garbage out image by ChatGPT and Dall-E. Poop emoji by the World Emoji Council.

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