Why traditional marketing fails for developers and what to do about it
Build a great product, and the people will come, right? Well, no, not really. While a great product is necessary, it’s insufficient to gain attention and traction in the developer space. Developers - like any other audience - will want to know what your company is about, why your product matters, and how you are different.
However, different from other audiences, traditional marketing approaches usually fail for developers. In this article, we want to explore the reasons for this and also give an outlook on how “marketing to developers” can actually work.
Here is what’s different about the developer audience:
1. Developers don't like to be sold to
Developers are a receptive audience. They love to try out new tools to solve their problems, become more efficient, or just be on top of the latest tech trends. But when it comes to traditional marketing like spam emails, ads that pop up as they browse the web, or handing out their contact data to get product information, developers are skeptical— they’ve been bombarded with them all their lives. And they certainly don't like cold calling or discovery calls where someone starts asking them questions they're unprepared for.
The first reaction of developers is usually the thought that a really good product surely doesn’t need huge amounts of marketing to get their attention. So they assume that companies that resort to marketing must be compensating for their lack of product quality.
2. Developers have limited time
Developers often work in understaffed teams and are asked to do the impossible. They're expected to write and test code, launch products, keep customers happy, and so on. This puts pressure on developers who are already strapped for time and money. The result? Developers constantly optimize for efficiency and don't want to waste time on your gated white paper or webinar. They want to get straight to the point. The good thing? Developers (and their managers) are always open to tools that save time and make them more efficient. This is probably why your developer-first product exists in the first place.
3. Developers have a different online culture
Developers are a unique bunch. They have their own online culture, and they don't talk or hang out in the same online places as other audiences. If you want to reach them, you have to look on HackerNews or Stack Overflow rather than on Instagram or LinkedIn. And you have to speak their language - which is often very challenging for non-technical marketers.
But it’s very worthwhile to crack the developer audience
We live in a developer-first world. Some of the fastest-growing and most valuable software companies in the world are focused on developers as end users - think about Stripe, Twilio, Atlassian, or MongoDB. They've built their brands and products in a way that resonates with developers and drives sales. Software market segments like open source, API-first, or dev-focused applications were entirely created for the developer as a persona.
And developers are the new kingmakers in enterprise business. They are largely autonomous and can make decisions on their own. They are also the gatekeeper to the purchase of technology and developer-focused solutions and are not afraid to give critical feedback. Getting developers on your side is the "make or break" decision point in many enterprise sales processes.
A dangerous myth: “If we build it, they will come”
Because traditional marketing might not work for developers, many dev tool founders turn to the idea of “product-led growth”. The problem is, they tend to misinterpret it as “I only have to build a great product, and everything else will follow automatically.” The truth is that product-led growth is a complex process: Developers have to first discover your product, receive social proof from colleagues, and be activated.
So the question shouldn’t be: Do we need a marketing strategy or not? It should be: If traditional marketing fails for developers, which marketing approach does work?
How to get marketing to developers right
Marketing to developers shouldn't feel like marketing. The foundation is to approach it with a mindset of educating developers instead of selling them something. Be it content creation or community building, keep in mind that you want developers to LEARN as much as possible about your product. That's how you gain mindshare.
The basic need of any developer: Great documentation
Most developers will skip your shiny landing pages and jump directly to your docs. Developers are not happy when they need to figure out everything by themselves. They want extensive documentation covering various aspects of a product — from high-level concepts down to technical details like database schemas or API endpoints. On top of that, having use cases with code examples is essential for most developers. Improving your documentation is probably never a waste of time and will pay dividends - especially when you have a developer audience.
Developer-first content is king
For developers, more than for anyone else, educational content is king. High-quality technical blog posts, video tutorials, live streams, podcasts, or guest posts are great ways to communicate your message and let developers learn about your product. Remember, it's about education, not promotion. Developers will smell marketing jargon from afar - and that is something they won’t want to spend their valuable time on.
For content distribution, general platforms like GitHub, Twitter, Reddit, Stack Overflow, HackerNews, DEV, or Producthunt are worth checking out. But also smaller platforms in your niche, industry newsletters, or guest blog posts can be great for reaching developers with your content. As with almost everything, this should be a trial-and-error process.
Build a developer community
Building a developer community is one of the most powerful ways to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field. A strong community can serve as a source of inspiration and support for developers and give you, as a company, the required social proof. Even more so than a case study, a developer will trust their peers and a thriving community as proof that a product is worth trying. But building community is not easy, and it can’t be just an afterthought in your marketing strategy. You can read a post here on "How to build a developer community - a step-by-step guide".
Developers are a very different audience. You shouldn't make the mistake of dumping the typical B2B marketing tools on them. Paid ads, gated whitepapers, or cold calls probably won’t work for developers. Rather you should focus on educating developers about your product and technology. Outstanding documentation, (really) educational developer-first content, and a strong community are more than most businesses can offer today, giving you the competitive edge and the right foundation to reach your developer audience.
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