For marketing with developer events, connection and authenticity matter

If you want to make developer-centric events a success, columnist Josh Aberant explains, you need to be able to connect with the dev community.

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Developers can be skeptical, dismissive of hyperbole, willing to bench-test any product claim and unhesitatingly open to sharing their opinions with the rest of their community. It’s part of how they work.

But can we please drop baseless stereotypes like the idea that developers are asocial loners? One only needs to look at the thriving world of developer events to be disabused of that false notion.

But let’s be clear what we’re not talking about when it comes to developer events: trade shows. Sure, they’re a staple of the enterprise tech marketing circuit. Honestly, though — they sometimes feel like a careless afterthought for companies that otherwise employ focused developer marketing.

Perhaps that’s why too many mainline shows seem like they’re full of marketers talking to other marketers. It also helps to explain the parallel universe of smaller events built “by developers, for developers” that has blossomed over the past decade.

Marketers can get (and give) a lot of value from developer-centric events like these. But it takes more than freeloading on the work of the developer community to make it work. Like a boorish wedding guest, a marketer who crashes that party just to gawk and drink the free wine shouldn’t be surprised to get a cold shoulder from their hosts.

Here are several things marketers selling to the developer community need to consider to help make events successful — and authentic.

Commit to being real

In their way, developers are all from Missouri, the “Show-Me State.” Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies them: demonstrating your bona fides requires creating actual connections to this audience.

What’s that mean? It means getting face-to-face (or avatar-to-avatar) with developers whenever possible. It means getting social via virtual events. It means always having dialogues focused on real-world problem-solving, not product promises.

Involvement means more than sponsorship

First of all, if you put your name on any event or initiative aimed at the developer community, it’s not enough to have your brand on the banners. You need to show up, and you need to engage on a personal level.

You have to make your own developers and practitioners available to your audience, share insights and information exclusive to the session and demonstrate that you’re really a part of the community, not just a carpetbagger with deep pockets and something to sell.

Show what you’ve learned with real experience

Stop focusing on your product and what it could do. Instead, think about what you’ve actually done and learned. And then share it. That’s really what it means to be authentic.

Don’t fall into the trap of making your appearance into a product dog-and-pony show, but present interesting ideas and learned wisdom. Did you learn something when you deployed a new feature? Well, talk about it. Educate, first and foremost, whether it’s as a keynoter, session participant or just the occupant of Booth #212.

  • Put your own developers and engineers out there, as well as influencers and evangelists who are participants in the developer community. If they understand the domain space and the challenge your customers face, you can stop worrying about being “on message.”
  • Similarly, don’t put marketing and salespeople within sniffing distance of the dais, unless they actually know what they’re talking about. Strike that — are they interested in sharing and learning from the people they meet? That’s all that matters, and it’s what authenticity means.
  • Have them discuss specific challenges and solutions that have real value for people; if you’re at a general industry event, don’t be afraid to present in-depth education about your specific category, because you’ll stick out in attendee memory if an issue ever arises for them in your specialty.
  • Try putting on your own event, which doesn’t necessarily entail taking over a ballroom or a convention center. There are plenty of opportunities to hold smallish, local, salon-style meetups that can offer more intimacy and one-to-one dialogue than larger ones ever could. Think deep rather than broad.

Show what’s possible and expose core benefits with a hackathon

  • Bring positive and collaborative energy to it. Some prize-oriented hackathons have gotten negative buzz of late due to the competitiveness and seemingly mercenary nature. At heart, though, hackathons are about demonstrating creativity, technical chops and the value of the framework or product in play.
  • Design it from the ground up to strengthen and inform the community you’re targeting, give them a chance to learn something new, provide opportunities to get help with their own projects (not just work on yours) and offer a welcoming space for new members of the developer community.
  • Have it led by a stakeholder or subject matter expert with outstanding credibility so the project is steered to a successful conclusion, while attendees get to pick that leader’s brain and engage with his or her real-word experience.

Virtual events have a place, too

You can put on a webinar, of course, but a scripted webinar isn’t truly all that interactive — not in ways that’ll engage and impress a developer audience. It’s better to focus on virtual events that are inherently collaborative, that promote more interaction between participants. Some of your options?

  • Hold a virtual hackathon, a Q&A session, or solutions-focused roundtable in virtual space. And online doesn’t mean on the cheap — think about the same rules and investments you would exhibit in the offline world.
  • Use collaboration platforms like Slack to give your audience access to your developers and product leads, either during specific periods or even as an ongoing channel.
  • Hold “developer office hours” events where developers can interact with your team, or even with community evangelists or other independent experts. These can be rigorously scheduled (as Salesforce does it) or ad hoc. Either way, use tools like Slack to support discussion and keep the conversation going.

Join the communities

Finally, get out there. Don’t just target the community — join the community. Go to the actual places were devs meet up. There are dozens of flourishing online developer communities, from Stack Overflow to Freenode to GitHub and beyond, so have your own project leads and evangelists become active participants in problem-solving within these groups.

  • Ask your own team what groups they’re already active in, and have them leverage their existing presence and connections.
  • If you want to create new presence in a specific community, make sure whoever is assigned to it is a good fit.
  • Don’t shill, and don’t force it. You’re in the community’s space, so listen, share and be real. Good things come from making the connections — not from repeating the company line.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Josh Aberant
Josh serves as the CMO at SparkPost. Prior to joining SparkPost, he served as Postmaster at Twitter for four years. Josh was the Co-Founder and CEO of RestEngine before the company was acquired by Twitter. At RestEngine he led the launch of its industry-leading social data outbound marketing automation platform. With over 15 years of growth & marketing best practices experience, Josh has led teams at MarTech platform companies including Marketo, Lyris, EmailLabs. Additionally, with over 20 years of experience at tech startups, Josh has been involved in the success of many early stage startups including Collab.Net & Intershop. Josh holds a Bachelor’s in Physics from San Francisco State University and was awarded the Faculty Prize in Physics from Bishop’s University.

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