Building a Lean Developer Education Program
This post was contributed by Karl Hughes, CEO of Draft.dev. It’s a follow up to the insightful webinar co-hosted by Appsembler and Draft.dev titled “How Startups Build Lean Developer Education Programs.”
At Draft.dev, we work with some 90 clients, all of them developer tools companies. We create content that helps them reach software developers. And while much of our content is done for marketing teams, it’s almost all educational as well.
This is indicative of the way developer marketing works in general. Software developers would prefer to learn about a product, experience its utility, and trust that it works before bringing it to their team for production use.
In this piece, I’ll follow up on our recent webinar and discuss the merits of investing in developer education. I’ll share more about how even small companies and startups can get value from building a targeted DevEd program, and I’ll touch on the future of developer education based on what I’m seeing in calls with clients today.
What Is Developer Education?
Developer education is all about using education, not direct marketing, to increase a product’s awareness and adoption among this specialized audience.
Some well-known developer education programs have come from larger companies like MongoDB, Redis, and Snowflake, but, increasingly, even early-stage startups are building DevEd programs.
Why Is It Important?
The way we buy software has changed.
It used to be that software purchases were a top-down process where the C-suite or Vice Presidents would decide what to buy and that would be handed down to the developers. Today, things have changed. Developers are testing new products out for themselves, running a proof-of-concept, and then going to the management with a use case.
69% of developers have some role in software purchasing decisions, and some are even able to make purchasing decisions themselves.
A few years ago, I was CTO in charge of a team of engineers at a startup. In that role, I wanted my developers to come to me with tools that would make their lives easier because retention and productivity were really important to the business.
For developer tools companies, this means it’s increasingly important to use approaches that speak directly to developers, not just managers. Developer education programs are a great way to show this, but they also bring much more to the table. Investing in a developer education can help startups by:
- Increasing search engine and community visibility
- Nurturing a community of users and advocates
- Accelerating product adoption and usage
- Reducing customer support and training calls
- Expanding the pool of potential buyers by educating non-traditional developers (eg: product managers, security analysts, and low-code developers)
How to Start a Lean DevEd Program
The perception is that setting up a developer education program is prohibitively expensive for early stage startups, but there are some simple strategies that can help. Here are a few of the types of content we see startups using to educate users while driving business value:
1. Create Use Case-driven Content
One way to target developers is to create use case pieces that demonstrate how your product fits into a developer’s workflow and the challenges it helps them solve.
One of our clients, Codecov, offers a code coverage tool that is useful because it integrates with a lot of other languages and frameworks. We did several rounds of content that showcased various combinations of integrations, including GitHub Actions and Python, Scala and Jenkins, GitHub Actions and iOS, and so on.
Tutorials like these not only help developers learn how to use Codecov, they also help them discover it as they’re searching for related information in Google.
Plus, these pieces can be just as effective when selling to managers or non-technical stakeholders. When you pitch a product to a manager or a C-level executive, they’ll bring it to their developer team and ask for feedback. As many as 34% of these sales opportunities are lost as a direct result of developer influence because they haven’t bought into your product.
The more use cases you have for your tool, the more opportunities you create for developers to get to the “Aha!” moment and get over their initial resistance to change.
2. Piggybacking on Existing Brands
As an early-stage startup with low domain authority, ranking for competitive keywords is a big ask. This means your SEO-focused content may not always get you the traction you’re looking for.
Instead, you could create pieces that tie in your product to other popular tools already on the market and grab eyeballs that way.
We took this approach with a client called Earthly, which offers a modern substitute for Makefiles. We created a number of really deep, interesting tutorials targeting specific keywords surrounding Makefiles. We then included a subtle pitch at the end, offering users who were struggling with Makefiles an alternative in Earthly.
The plug at the end doesn’t have to be a hard sell. It’s more about establishing credibility by showing you know the space really well and then saying you exist too.
You could also combine education with your SEO efforts. Another client of ours that’s done really well with this approach is Status Hero, a daily standup tool.
In doing keyword research for Status Hero, we found that a lot of its users also used GitLab, where they were having trouble with things like project management, task tracking, and staying organized. So, we created content to help those developers, but these pieces also ended up being really useful for a lot of other people in the community who were potential Status Hero users.
3. Provide Frictionless, Hands-on Learning
Anything that causes friction in the buying process for your software will steer developers away from trying it out. Once your product is out there, you want to remove all barriers to its adoption.
One way to remove friction is by providing hands-on learning through training labs, product sandboxes, and self-paced courses of the kind Appsembler offers. This gives developers a chance to seamlessly experience new software as well as see how it integrates with the rest of their tech stack.
Nate Aune, Founder of Appsembler, has a great client use case that illustrates this point:
“Hummingbot [has] this software which you have to download and install in your local machine [in order to use]. That’s just too much friction for people who just want to check it out and see if it’s something they want to try. So we built this test drive feature for them that allows a developer who’s interested…to just put their email in and start the software. And that essentially spins up an instance of the Hummingbot software in a matter of seconds…This has been huge for them. They’ve got so many people evaluating their software that wouldn’t normally have tried it out.”Nate Aune, CEO and Founder of Appsembler
4. Track Metrics and User Engagement
Once you’ve put out content and learning material, you want to be able to track its performance and see what changes you can make to improve ROI.
Part of this is tracking user engagement, including page views, leads, and conversions. If you have multiple target personas for your product or a very segmented audience, you’ll want granular data into individual user behavior. This is data you might not get if you’re only relying on Google Analytics and PPC dashboards because it’s all anonymized.
Releasing your content on a platform like Appsembler helps, because it offers you exhaustive data on each user journey. With it, you can even create different learning paths for different kinds of users, which tells you what different users value, where they’re getting stuck, and so on.
Future of Developer Education
In his blog, Lee Robinson, VP of Developer Experience at Vercel, writes that DevEx “either attracts or repels” and that “products with a great developer experience are invaluable to a developer’s workflow.”
I see more and more companies trying to build seamless user journeys and, in doing so, reimagining how DevEx functions are structured. Developer education is increasingly being taken out of sales and marketing silos and consolidated under a single “Developer Experience” or “Developer Relations” department which sometimes reports directly to the CEO.
I expect we’ll continue to see DevEd and DevEx become more strategic and cross-discipline, especially for product-led companies.
If you like this summary, be sure to check out our full webinar on building lean DevEd programs co-hosted by Appsembler and Draft.dev. Feel free to reach out to us at Draft.dev for help in creating impactful developer-first content for your company, or find me on Twitter to continue the conversation.