How to market to developers —  according to a CTO

Industry experience and highly targeted content will take you a long way; our CTO Stephan Schulze explains how marketers could reach “tech people” and what skills you need to talk the talk

By Merlin Carter

With the rise of product-led growth and the developer tools market, it seems everyone’s trying to get developers to notice their products. But building awareness among developers is famously difficult. Traditional marketing and sales tactics tend to fall flat. So how do you do it? Well, one way to find out is to ask tech leaders, and that’s exactly what I did.

Our CTO Stephan Schulze explained to me how he thinks marketers could reach “tech people” and what skills you need to talk the talk.

You can listen below. I’ve also included the full transcript further down.

Moving from B2B to “B2D” marketing

Merlin: More and more companies are becoming successful by producing products that are aimed squarely at developers. Some examples are Twilio, SendGrid, and Confluent. This has led to a new type of marketing strategy called B2D (Business to Developer). This strategy is an offshoot of the B2B marketing discipline, but it focuses on developers rather than managers.

However, B2D marketing is still an emerging discipline, and many new startups aren’t sure how to get started. Now, Stephan, you’re a CTO, not a CMO. So marketing isn’t your specialty. But still, I’m sure you have some advice for marketers looking to get developers interested in their product or service.

So what do marketers need to do differently when they’re trying to reach developers?

Some B2B tactics still apply to B2D

Stephan: I think people sometimes assume that B2B marketing isn’t any different for developers. This assumption is understandable, but it won’t get you anywhere.

But of course, there are some common guidelines that still apply — even when marketing to developers. The most important guideline is that you should understand your target market.

Figure out their pain points. Find out what solutions they’re looking for. Identify the problems that they’re trying to solve.

This will help you structure your messaging and your value proposition.

However, the problem is that the technical landscape for a developer is incredibly complex and fragmented. This makes it very difficult to understand even for IT professionals.

Developer pain points are hard to grasp if you don’t understand concepts like DevOps

Merlin: That’s true. In fact, I was just thinking of our recent discussion about managing cloud costs. I was wondering, “How would you market a niche product that helps developers optimize cloud costs in a very specific way?”

For example, in that discussion, you mentioned the service spot.io, which automatically spins up spot instances on AWS. If I come from a pure marketing background, I might have difficulty understanding that pain point at first.

Would someone from traditional B2B marketing know that AWS instances can be very expensive, but they have this special type of instance that is a lot cheaper? Would they know that these so-called spot instances are created and destroyed on an unpredictable schedule? That’s why they’re cheaper.

The pain point is that it’s hard to use spot instances to save costs because they’re so unpredictable. The solution to the pain point is that you can use this service to save money without having to constantly monitor your spot instances. In a way, this service is exploiting kind of a technical loophole in Amazon’s pricing scheme.

And now, I’m trying to imagine a traditional marketer trying to describe this pain point to their team. You have to understand AWS pricing tiers, the idiosyncrasies of application deployment, the different hosting options, and so on. There is a huge risk that important details are misunderstood. So Stephan…. do you think that marketers need some kind of technical background before they can market to developers?

You need industry experience before you can talk about how your product solves developer pain points

Stephan: Well, you’re living proof of that, right? You do technical content marketing, but you have a background as a technical writer. So you understand the technical aspects of cloud computing.

If you want to do marketing for a company like spot.io, you need to learn about the industry. The problem is that it’s not so easy to learn.

People often see these platforms as “black boxes”. There’s some kind of complex magic happening behind the scenes, and in the end, you get a web app.

So it can be an intimidating field to dive into. There’s a vast universe of tools and technologies. There are thousands of different approaches to the same problems.

And there’s very little standardization. But the fact is, you need to dive deep. You need to commit yourself to a long learning path. Otherwise, you’ll only scratch the surface, and you won’t know how to have meaningful conversations with your target audience.

B2B marketers already work with highly specialized products — are developer tools any different?

Merlin: That’s true. But some B2B marketers are very talented and have a knack for learning quickly. For example, our marketing team helped our portfolio company, Kry, market their app to doctors. Doctors aren’t exactly technologists, but they’re still a very specialized audience. They have distinct requirements that you probably couldn’t anticipate as a layperson.

So the marketing team needs to understand the target audience of medical professionals in a very short ramp-up time. And they seemed to do this quite successfully. Do you think it would be harder for them to ramp up when marketing a developer product? Do you think they would need more time than a company like Kry?

Stephan: It depends on how thoroughly you want to understand the space.

You definitely need the right people to talk to. For example, someone like you could explain the cloud approach, what the options are and how it generally works. You could hold a few workshops and try and compress that knowledge into roughly one week.

I think that would be enough to understand the problem that the product solves. Then you would have enough knowledge to start marketing it.

Traditional B2B sales tactics won’t help to start conversations

Merlin: I guess that would also apply to sales as well. I know there are some tactics, such as cold calling, that might not work so well when selling to developers. So how do you think they could still be successful in selling to this market? How would their tactics need to change?

“you need to make it really clear how the product will solve their problems on a detailed technical level.”

Stephan: Good question. I definitely agree that a classic sales approach will never work.

And the question is whether you try to sell directly to developers or whether you sell to the person in charge of the budget, such as a VP or a CTO. If you’re trying to sell to a manager, you could apply more traditional B2B selling tactics.

You do cold calls, send follow-up emails, and try to get them to understand how the product solves their problems.

If you’re selling to developers, you also need to make it really clear how the product will solve their problems on a detailed technical level.

For example, take our portfolio company Quix. There are a lot of people who need to do machine learning on an event stream, which is complicated to set up in an efficient way.

Then they need to maintain these machine learning pipelines. So the best way to sell it would be through education, right? You put out content where you speak about the problem and describe the approaches that can solve it.

You talk at conferences, create YouTube videos, and produce high-quality content which gets people hooked. Then, hopefully, you convince developers to give it a try.

And it’s crucial that developers can try your product before they buy it. If your product doesn’t have a free trial with self-signup, then it’s almost impossible to sell directly to developers.

Creating highly targeted content is the first step

Merlin: I agree….but regarding what you said about selling to developers….I would call that content marketing or product-led growth. So in that approach, you would rely more on marketing than sales.

But if we go back to sales for a second, I’m curious about your experience as a target customer. You’re a CTO, and you manage a large team. So what tactics do salespeople use on you?

“you would need to gather some intelligence about what I’m searching for”

Stephan: I get emails every day from people trying to sell me some kind of product or service. But they typically end up in the trash.

I might scan the first few lines, but I usually delete them because they clutter up my inbox. I don’t get phone calls because my phone number isn’t public.

If it was, I assume that I would get cold calls too. I think, in this case, you would need to gather some intelligence about what I’m searching for.

So let’s go back to the Quix example. Suppose that you found out that I was searching for a solution to run machine learning on a couple of events per second. You could send me an email and say, “hey, look, I have the solution to your problem”. This would be one email that I wouldn’t ignore.

I would take a quick look at it because it could help me with something that’s already on my mind.

Merlin: Yes, precise targeting is always better than the “spray and pray” approach, where you send the same email to a large unsegmented distribution list.

Although, it would also be slightly spooky if you were Googling for streaming technology then someone sends you an email about that very subject. But I think there’s a way to capture that intent in a non-spooky way.

Stephan: I hope so. This would be the perfect type of targeting, right?

If you understand that I’m currently researching this particular subject, it would be the perfect time to approach me and offer me a matching service.

SEO is crucial, but you need to create content for different types of developers

Merlin: Yes, search intent is a very interesting subject when considering the developer market. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that developers would use Google more often than employees in other departments. It’s one of their main information sources, especially for things like code snippets and solutions for specific errors.

I also know that SEO is a hot topic in the developer relations community. And I think this is because developers don’t typically respond well to paid search advertising. So instead, content marketers try to create content that matches what developers are searching for.

So…considering what you said before about targeting… would you advise marketers to focus on SEO when trying to reach developers?

“If you create tutorials with a lot of code samples, I think you would reach more junior developers”

Stephan: I think it really depends on the type of developer you’re trying to target. Because there are lots of different types.

For example, you talked about code snippets. If you create tutorials with a lot of code samples, I think you will reach more junior developers. The majority of people who search for code snippets tend to be searching for inspiration or want to see a finished implementation that solves a certain problem. And these people are usually less experienced.

So you probably won’t reach more senior developers with this approach.

But on the plus side, junior developers don’t yet have fixed opinions about the right technologies to use. They’re perhaps more curious about all the possibilities. So they would be more likely to try out a new tool.

Of course, their more senior colleagues also have problems to solve. But these tend to be more complex infrastructural problems. They’re not looking for code samples, they’re looking for more high-level information on how others have solved the same problem.

Merlin: Yes, but hopefully, the junior developers can at least recommend new tools to their teams. They might not have a budget or influence, but they’re more motivated to try out new tools.

Stephan: Definitely. You might not have much influence, but you can increase your visibility in your team if you recommend a tool that everyone likes.

Senior developers and tech managers use their networks to validate new products

Merlin: But what about senior staff and managers like yourself? I’ve noticed that you often ask for opinions about specific tools in our team Slack channel. I can see that you’re interested in technologies that relate to developer operations, such as tools that help you manage cloud costs or deploy applications more efficiently.

So I can see that your first impulse is to ask your network. You probably belong to other Slack groups, you talk to CTOs at our portfolio companies and other CTOs in the Berlin startup scene. I would guess that you probably rely on word of mouth more than just Googling for “X” technology.

Stephan: Yes, exactly, this input reaches me from different sources. I do indeed talk to a lot of CTOs from our portfolio but also other external sources. And you’ll occasionally catch wind of new technology.

Then I think, “Oh, that sounds interesting, let’s find out what they’re using it for. Let’s see what problem they’re solving”.

So I have it on my mental shortlist, and then I’ll look it up online.

SEO for tech managers should focus more on brand names

Merlin: Ah, I can feel all the SEO experts pricking up their ears. So you Google brand names rather than answers to problems.

Stephan: Exactly.

Merlin: And while we’re on that subject of brand names, how did you find out about “spot.io” — the tool that you mentioned during our discussion on cloud costs?

“I had a strong motivation to understand these types of tools because I wasn’t even aware that they existed. And that’s a big problem in tech”

Stephan: A colleague told me about it. I’m not sure how he discovered it.

I know he was searching for solutions to bring down his AWS costs. There are lots of tools that help with this, but I know “spot.io” worked well for him, and the name stuck in my mind.

Merlin: Exactly, I guess you thought, “My colleague is using it, and he’s not an idiot, so I’ll give it a try too”.

Stephan: Yes, and I was also able to get a first-hand look at how it works in production. This was a huge advantage. It didn’t have to rely on a salesy demo video, I could really see how it works.

And I also had a strong motivation to understand these types of tools because I wasn’t even aware that they existed. And that’s a big problem in tech.

You often come across tools that solve problems that you weren’t even aware of, right?

You can’t just dabble in developer marketing, it’s a career

Merlin: Yes, the tech landscape is incredibly complex, and it’s always changing because people are constantly coming up with new innovations. So it’s not like an established market for an established type of product.

So if we go back to the takeaways for marketers….I think that you need to be in it for the long haul. This isn’t a field that you can just dabble in, you have to make a conscious decision that you would like to specialize in developer marketing.

Would you agree with that? Would you agree that marketers need to be prepared to specialize long-term?

“I would say that there is no way around specialization”

Stephan: I think you have to specialize. But that’s the same for every B2B market, right?

Maybe there are some areas where it’s easier to acquire that specialized knowledge, and others are more complex.

Tech is definitely on the complex end of the spectrum. I would say that there is no way around specialization. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to convince developers, right?

They’ll see that you’re not a techie and you don’t understand what they’re doing. They won’t give a shit about your opinion because you’re clearly trying to sell them something. Then you’ve blown your chance to engage with them.

Merlin: But that’s quite a contrast to how we normally work, where our marketing teams help out with a broad range of B2B marketing projects.

For example, they might work with a medical startup, then they’ll switch to a real-estate startup, and then they might help market a teleconferencing product. So they’re springing from industry to industry.

So If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that would be very difficult to do in the tech industry. If you want to do developer marketing, you would need to focus on tech long-term, right?

“The tech industry is much newer, it’s broader, and it’s constantly changing and evolving in every aspect.”

Stephan: That would be my understanding. What I think is different about those other industries you mentioned is the target audience. They’re easier to understand. For the real-estate startup, you’re targeting people who want to buy property, and some of us have been in that situation ourselves.

The medical sector is a lot more complex, but it’s also been around for a while. This means there are a lot of experiences and practices out there on how to do marketing and sales.

The tech industry is much newer, it’s broader, and it’s constantly changing and evolving in every aspect. And it is super easy to spin up a new tech startup nowadays. So there are constantly new products coming into the market that solve new problems.

You need to anticipate how someone would express the need to solve these problems. There are a thousand different ways you could describe a problem and a thousand different ways to describe how your product solves that problem.

And that’s basically what a tech person is doing every day — they’re trying to see what products are out there and which ones can solve their specific problem. And that’s a very broad space.

Merlin: Yes, and I also want to bring up the problem of terminology and language. In the tech space, you constantly have to invent new names for things or borrow words from other domains. For example, take the term “spot instance”. I know the word “spot” means something slightly different in the financial industry where they talk about “spot trades”.

Or let’s take another innocent-sounding term like “distribute”. A salesperson asked me how a certain software company distributes its product. I was very confused because they make a SaaS product and they don’t need to distribute anything. But he meant “distribute” in the sense of “selling” rather than the process of delivering software to the end-user.

So if you can’t keep track of the industry terminology, you’re going to get incredibly confused. Would you agree that as a marketer, it’s part of your job to learn this technical vocabulary and keep it up to date?

Stephan: Perhaps……but I just want to add something about marketing in general.

I’m not an expert in marketing, but what I see from the outside is that it’s a pretty standardized discipline. So are standard best practices on things like how to do SEO or attribution or whatever. You can research your task, find the best practices, and do the task more efficiently.

But there is a general consensus on the best practices for each task. I think that’s very different in tech. As I said before, there are a thousand different ways to solve a specific problem or perform a specific task.

When there are so many possible solutions, it becomes a lot harder to find the target audience who would be the best fit for your product. So you need to be very skilled at identifying and describing the scenarios where your product could help.

Merlin: Great, well, that’s all the time we have for now. If there are any questions, feel free to post them in the comments. Thanks a lot, Stephan.

Stephan: Thanks, Merlin.