How to build a developer community: a step-by-step guide
For companies targeting developers, a healthy community is crucial to get a product off the ground and grow sustainably in the long term. However, building a vibrant community is not an easy task.
Developers tend to be cautious and skeptical about how brands engage with them. The usual marketing and sales speak won't work with this audience, and you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression (for more, we wrote about why traditional marketing doesn’t work for developers here). Developer-focused businesses have identified community building based on authentic interactions as a more effective strategy for expansion than marketing.
While positive effects on growth is the outcome, building a community that provides actual value and authentic interactions to its members needs to be the primary goal. If you get this right, it will have a positive impact on your product and company.
But where do you begin, especially if you don’t have a dedicated community or DevRel department yet? We created this guide to help you lay the groundwork for your community approach, provide advice on how to get started, and then keep the engagement going.
Here is what we will cover:
- Defining (developer) communities and why they are important
- Developing your community strategy
- Choosing your community platform
- Finding your community members
- Creating rich content for your community
- Creating consistent engagement & finding your advocates
- Building relationships
- Writing a Code of Conduct
- Measuring the success of your community
First, what is a (developer) community, and why is it important?
A community is a group of people unified by a common characteristic. This commonality may be shared interests, attitudes, values, and needs. Originally communities tended to share geographical space, but nowadays, it's often through virtual community platforms. Developer communities are a group of developers that come together to learn, share ideas, support each other, and build software through collective knowledge.
Some common platforms developers gather include Discord, Twitter, Slack, Reddit, GitHub, and others. Virtual or in-person events are also common ways for developer communities to assemble.
So why should you care?
Done right, a community of like-minded people with shared interests and goals can be an efficient tool for exploring and solving problems together. They can be the basis for successful bottom-up adoption to accelerate customer acquisition, retention, and engagement. They help developer-focused companies stay close to their user base and get unique insights into their needs and ways of working towards product-market fit and widespread adoption. Some companies that have subscribed much of their success to their community include Figma, Notion, GitLab, and Stripe.
Hopefully, you’re convinced now, so let's dive deeper into how to start a developer community.
Do your research and develop your community strategy
Starting a Discord or Slack server and pointing to it on your homepage doesn’t mean you have a community. Especially in the early days, when very few people know about your project, you need to do the legwork to get it going.
The good thing about starting from scratch is that you can be intentional about how you set up your community. You can create an environment that delivers value to your community and fits your business goal. For example, if you want a community that helps you generate content for specific use cases, your questions and interactions will be different than if your goal is for developers to share their best practices with each other.
Based on the project or business you are building, there are a few questions you should ask yourself to develop your community strategy:
- What are the needs of the developers you hope will join your community?
- What value can the community bring to your members that fulfill their needs?
- Is it mainly to provide support content?
- Do you want to share helpful information about your product?
- Are you hoping to stimulate some contributions to your open-source project?
- How will you be communicating that value to your members?
- Will a community bring you closer to your company mission?
- How much time will you have to commit to engaging your community? How many times a day/week/month will you post in your community?
- Who in your team is responsible for which tasks around your community?
- What kind of core values do you want within your community?
- Where do your target community members spend their time? How will you convince them to join your community?
- What platforms do your target community members like using? Do you want your community to be on a public or closed channel?
To stimulate some thoughts and clarify all this, think about the (developer) communities you or your team members have been a part of. Which were successful and which maybe weren’t so inspiring? Can you take some learnings from these communities and bring them into the one you are building? There are already many case studies and blogs out there from businesses that created thriving communities. For example, you can check out the following:
- How Plausible bootstrapped to $500k ARR through community
- Building a developer community based on directness and transparency at Checkly
- Community-led growth: How Duolingo, Figma, Notion, and Hubspot leveraged the power of community to scale fast
Write down your answers to the questions above and articulate your strategy and goals accordingly. Like you have hopefully done for your business, write your community vision, mission, and values statements. At this point, you can also start thinking about what kind of content you could prepare in advance to get a community going and encourage initial interactions between members.
Our advice: Be strategic. Think thoroughly about your community's target audience and goals before you start. Most importantly, identify the value you can bring to your members and what this will look like in practice. Really articulate it and write it down somewhere.
Choose where you want to build a community
As mentioned, there are a lot of different channels where developer communities gather and interact. It can range from your followers on Twitter and contributors on GitHub to your invite-only Discord server. Your community will be dispersed depending on where you are already active and building your developer tool. And this is a good thing; you want to meet developers where they are and have several points of entry for interested individuals to find and engage with you.
However, as far as you can, and especially when it comes to your owned communication platforms, e.g., Discord, Slack, or Mattermost, we encourage you to pick one and master it. Figure out the best channel and format for your group of developers. Ask yourself: How many members do I want to reach? Are there any specific functionalities you need?
We have written a few guides on different platforms and communications tools where you can get a detailed overview:
- Top 7 platforms for developer communities
- Slack vs. Discord vs. Mattermost
- 6 best communication tools for developer communities
If you focus on building your community on too many channels simultaneously, it will be challenging to create and tailor content accordingly. Additionally, they will look and feel more empty because your members will be scattered. If you focus on one channel, you can create richer content, it will fill more steadily, engagement will rise, and you can directly reach a more significant portion of your community through it.
Our advice: Be intentional about where you build your community, focus your efforts on one channel first and grow from there.
Find your first community members and create a strong core
Your first thought when building a community might be to grow as fast as possible. However, we recommend first building a strong and active core. This core consists of a handful of members who share the same passion for the space you are building in as you do. So again, this might sound counterintuitive at first, but start small and grow slowly.
With a small, hand-picked group of people, you can more easily shape and model your community to align with your strategy. It is much harder to change directions with a large number of people. Also, it can help your initial members feel more valued and influential. As you may have heard before, building a product that a few people love, rather than thousands, turns out to be more potent at the start.
So try starting small. Invite 10-50 members to your community launch. Let them know you hand-picked them to be part of your small group and say why you would love them to join. Those people will be your founding members, the backbone of your community. Make sure that you can tick the following boxes for your founding members:
- They are interested in what you are building and happy to provide feedback on MVPs
- They are very willing to join the community and are likely to be active members
- They share the same values and community culture
- They see value in being founding members
- Bonus: they have a high reach and strong network in your space
Don't underestimate the impact your founding members have on the development of your future community. These founding members will interact with each other, share content, and create a culture that hopefully represents your vision. Members that join later will see, observe and replicate their behavior.
For inspiration on getting your first community members, check out first1000members.com for an overview of how successful open-source projects grew their communities at the start.
Our advice: Start small, be selective, and grow slowly.
Nurture and grow your community with content
Content really is king for developer community building. Not only can it help you attract your first members who might have otherwise never heard about you, but it is also the primary way you can create value for your community members. Which, as we discussed, is key to a thriving community.
For developers, content is at its best when it's highly technical, specific, and informative. Developers in your community tend to have an existing broad knowledge base of the space and industry you are building in and will have a high degree of technical knowledge. That’s why content needs to be extremely rich and specific to add more to their current understanding.
The right content helps you achieve your growth goals. Great content tends to be shared; if just a few people in your community do this, the effect can be huge.
A few essential buckets of content that will help bring your developers to you, support them in adopting and contributing to your project, and keep them engaged:
- Blogs: Including, for example, detailed how-to pieces, case studies, interviews, and industry news and trends
- Technical Product Docs: These will include detailed information on your product architecture (check out crowd.dev product docs as a reference here)
- A Newsletter: A monthly newsletter with product updates or community news
- FAQs/Support channel: A place where developers can turn to to get their questions answered
Your community will also be a great source for future content. If you keep close tabs on everything going on in your community, you’ll be able to identify what types of content are still missing and are being requested. On top of that, you can even crowdsource content from your community; GitLab, for example, works very closely with its developer community to generate their technical documentation and blog posts.
Our advice: Invest a substantial amount of time into content, as it's the lifeblood of your community. Make sure it’s highly targeted to your developer audience. We definitely vote for quality over quantity when it comes to content and build-up over time.
Create lasting engagement & find your advocates
We have talked to hundreds of DevTool founders, and one of the biggest challenges of starting and growing a community is to keep the engagement going after an initial spike and excitement. Disclaimer: community building and bottom-up growth take continuous effort. You can’t just put in the time upfront and then leave it up to your members to keep the momentum going.
One essential engagement tool will be your content which we discussed earlier. A constant stream of high-quality content will give you and your members plenty to discuss. You can ask your members for their opinions and experiences to encourage them to learn from each other. When members are genuinely involved, that makes a difference and turns a community into a community.
The main idea is to give people a platform to share their experiences and insights about your product and the entire ecosystem around your product.
Here are a few more ways to engage your community and encourage interaction:
- Have a well-planned onboarding - Welcome your new members, ask them to introduce themselves, and provide some background (make a list of things that would be useful in relation to your product and community goals).
- Ask for feedback on your product - For example, whenever you ship a new feature or are deciding on your product roadmap ask your community for some feedback. Pro tip: highlight to the community when you have incorporated their feedback and give specific people shout-outs, kudos, or swag for being extra supportive.
- Be responsive - A big part is just answering all questions and comments in a timely and interested way. Avoid dead-end or one-word answers and keep the conversation flowing once one has started.
Potentially the most potent tool for long-term and high engagement is finding some developer advocates and keeping them enchanted with you and your product. Find your community's most active and high-reach developers and treat them well. These individuals can take on a leading role in and outside your community to spread awareness and excitement around your product. We will go over some more ways to encourage these individuals in the next section.
With crowd.dev, our developer-focused community growth platform, we easily allow you to filter and spot influential or highly engaged individuals.
Our advice: Walk the talk, share content for discussion, and ask for feedback from your members. If you see some who have the potential to become advocates, give them some extra love and attention - it will be worth your while.
Build authentic relationships
Your task as a community leader is to increase engagement and grow your community. You can do this by recognizing valuable members and giving them the limelight they deserve. For example, you can hand out kudos, and share individual member stories in a blog post or a podcast.
If you want to go above and beyond, you can implement a rewards system: statuses, points, badges of honor, or even give out awards. This will motivate your members to contribute productively and make them feel appreciated. SWAG or free services are also a great way of winning people over - who doesn’t love a good hoodie?
Another approach is through events. They can either be online, like a webinar or hackathon or in person at a conference or a down-to-earth pizza and beer event at your office. You can invite expert speakers to share their projects or do live coding tutorials, whatever suits your community best. Hosting these events gives you insights into your community's interests and lets you know what kind of content works with your audience and what doesn't. We recommend you host these events regularly, at least once per quarter but preferably once per month.
Later, when you have established a relationship with your community, you can start thinking about community-led events. Let the community members organize events themselves. It personalizes the community experience, and the hosts probably understand the community's needs better than you.
We pointed out that the founding members provide a specific value for your community. So you should put in extra effort to let them know they are highly valued. You can do this by:
- Hosting dinners (in-person)
- Private Zoom calls
- Live experiences
- Asking for their opinion & feedback
- Letting them host events
- Giving away privileges and responsibilities
Our advice: Build a strong community bond by doing things like implementing a rewards system and hosting events.
Implement a code of conduct
For a community to thrive, you need a safe atmosphere. Your members should feel welcome and free to share their thoughts without worrying about judgment or harsh commentary. What we don’t want is for our community to turn into another hostile Reddit thread.
You want your community to be active, share insights, learn from, and debate with each other. Sometimes developers (as we all) can be passionate about a topic and end up being less professional in tone - especially behind the barrier of the internet. Act as a social guide and watch your participants' interactions. Interfere if necessary. Participants should feel heard and respected.
However, you also need to strike a balance and don't want to go overboard with your restrictions and rules, as this may block real conversation.
As a leader, it is your responsibility to shape the culture of your community by carrying through a healthy policy. It goes without saying that sexism, racism, harassment, and any kind of discrimination shouldn't be tolerated. You should create a code of conduct and share it within your community. Maintaining a contact page where members can report violations and take action when necessary sends a solid message to your community.
Our advice: Make clear there is no space for discrimination in your community by creating and implementing a code of conduct - think of it as your community manifesto.
Measure & manage the success of your community
Without the right tools, this one is a challenge. How do you really measure and track the health and success of your community efforts? It's time-consuming and continuous work, especially when your community is spread across platforms and multiple conversations are going on at any one time. However, we do recommend measuring as much as you can; otherwise, you won’t know what is working and what’s not. It’s also important to choose metrics that relate to your business and growth goals, not just vanity metrics like community size and likes.
We have written extensively about the top metrics to measure for open-source communities here. It will depend somewhat on your goals and type of product, however, some of the most important ones include:
- Community sentiment
- Time to first response
- # of qualified leads within the community
- Amount of feedback collected
- Engagement level (also related to specific content)
- % of active members
- Community growth
To help, we’ve built crowd.dev, the community-led growth engine for developer-first companies. crowd.dev makes tracking, getting insights from, and turning community into real growth much more effortless. We give you rich information on all your community members across platforms and can provide valuable metrics like sentiment analysis. You can also quickly identify members that are highly engaged, but also those are likely to slip away so you can take targeted action.
We also know that metrics without a reference can be pretty meaningless. We strive to give you reports based on industry best practices and benchmarks to show you whether your community is healthy. You can download it for free and choose from a hosted version or host it yourself.
Whether it's with crowd.dev or through manual tracking, gaining an understanding of the impact your community efforts have is critical to shaping your future actions.
Our advice: Find the metrics that suit your goals and continuously measure your community right from the start.
- Be strategic. Think thoroughly about your community's target audience and goals before you start. Most importantly, identify the value you can bring to your members and what this will look like in practice. Really articulate it and write it down somewhere.
- Be intentional about where you build your community, focus your efforts on one channel first and grow from there.
- Invest a substantial amount of time into content as it's the lifeblood of your community. Make sure it is highly targeted to your technical developer audience. We definitely vote for quality over quantity when it comes to content and build-up over time.
- Walk the talk, share content for discussion, and ask for feedback from your members. If you see some who have the potential to become advocates, give them some extra love and attention - it will be worth your while.
- Build a strong community bond by doing things like implementing a rewards system and hosting events.
- Make clear there is no space for discrimination in your community by creating and implementing a code of conduct - think of it as your community manifesto.
- Find the metrics that suit your goals and continuously measure your community right from the start.
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