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Sarah-Jane Morris for Listen Community Consulting

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When to Join Developer Community Conversations and When to Lay Low

NB: This post was originally published on Vanilla Forums' Blog on April 30th, 2019
Cover image by Cam Bowers on Unsplash

In the last post in this series, we illustrated some of the beneficial outcomes of a collaborative developer community. But how, and when, as a devrel or representative of your company, should you step aside, join in, or stoke the community fire? Our friends at Slack, Shopify, Stoplight and Atlassian have some answers.

Go with the flow: Creating Reliable Community Product Channels

Developers typically participate in communities to stay informed and inspired. Clear and consistent sources of information ensure developers know where to go when they have questions. In creating developer communication channels such as clear and well vetted docs, API changelogs, developer newsletters, forums, Stack Overflow and more, your community trust battery will grow as developers know where to look when they have questions.

By leading these channels, keeping them updated consistently and reiterating their presence and location to your community, you’ll be able to offset the number of places necessary to monitor community activity. Shopify, Atlassian, Slack and Stoplight have all made concerted efforts to let their community know where they’ll be available for questions and when developers will need to rely on each other to hash things out. Each company has a slightly different approach on when to step in and when to step aside.

Neil Mansilla, Head of Developer Experience at Atlassian, has his full team on their developer community forums, every single day. “It's on all of my team members' calendars,” he says. “There are certain areas of specialty or certain sub forums or sub topics that they kind of gravitate towards but generally what we don't want to happen is that just questions go unanswered.”

Developers know they’ll get sanctioned answers on Atlassian’s forums. Community-led spaces like Atlasssian’s marketplace vendor Slack community, where there are no Atlassian employees, are clearly places for the community to hash things out amongst each other. This distinction allows the Atlassian Developer Experience team to be responsive within their available bandwidth and maintain community trust.

Liz Couto, Developer Product Marketing Manager at Shopify, stresses the importance of not over-segmenting communication channels based on internal developer definitions. Developers dabble throughout ecosystems, and as Liz says, the trick is to be there for them when they hit valleys while building. “Developers will use what works for them, “ Liz says. “And I think for me those valleys are what we have to watch out for. How do we bounce them back up and get them building again?”

“Distance to the Frontline”

road running through desert terrain
Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

All of the community teams I spoke to have different ways to ensure community questions are answered and internal teams are connecting to the external developer community.

Neil from Atlassian already told us that being on the forums is a daily must for his team, but external communities like Stack Overflow are not a requirement. The same applies to Shopify.

Shopify, however, has gone above and beyond, creating a program called “Distance to the Frontline.” Liz says, “It’s a program where we're all (the Platform Product service line, regardless of title) mandated to actually go to the frontline and spend time with either merchants or partners once a month.” Shopify’s frontline is all of their community spaces - meetups and events, merchant support call shadowing, or community forums. “I love the fact that they're willing to have those open conversations in front of us,” says Liz. “And I find it's really helpful that they have that comfort level and will give us that real preview into how they feel about our products.”

Slack does not have a dedicated online forum. They rely on Stack Overflow to support developer questions. In fact, they have an aptly and comically named internal channel called “Slack Overflow” where all “Slack”-tagged questions on Stack Overflow flow in and alert the DevRel team, ensuring all questions are answered promptly. They are finding, however, as the Slack developer program grows, the number of questions answered by external developers increases, as does the complexity of the questions themselves. Elizabeth Kinsey, Developer Marketing Manager at Slack, says, “There are fewer questions about basics. There's fewer questions about, what should I build? Or why should I build? And it's more about I got stuck with this one thing. How do I get around this one thing?”

Stoplight, an API design tool that is in the earlier stages of building out their developer community, is still in the process of defining the official community support channels and reinforcing them with the community. Taylor Barnett, Lead Community Engineer at Stoplight says, “A lot of people still go to our Intercom (a support tool based on on-site messaging). We're still trying to figure out what is a good way to introduce the forum. I'm trying to really build up that trust.”

Unexpected Developer Community Touchpoints

While forums, meetups and external communities like Stack Overview can be more obvious touchpoints for developer communities, it’s important to ensure you’re monitoring and creating a response plan for all the places where your developers can interface with your platform.

While chatting community metrics with Neil from Atlassian, it was surprising to hear him mention documentation, a touch-point that’s fairly unique to developer communities. “We react to metrics, like the number of docs tickets people are submitting to us. It feels good to go in there and correct the mistakes or make it better but if it's systemic issue within the company, in which we're just not keeping things up to date, or we're pushing new features but not necessarily documenting them to the level that is useful for our community, that's a metric and signal for us."

Both Liz from Shopify and Elizabeth from Slack stressed the importance of paying attention to email. It may be a one-to-one touch point, but responses to mass emails can showcase community sentiment. Shopify’s email team recently included a quick survey link in a developer newsletter, and this simple addition elicited a surprisingly good response from the stereotypically marketing-averse developer community. “Our email open rate was fantastic and our click through rate was too. And all the email marketers have looked at that and been quite shocked at how high that email rate is. We attribute that to a really engaged group and the importance of actively asking them their opinions.”

If you want your developers to work more closely together in your community, you’ll sometimes need to shepard them. Consistent communication channels, signalling trust, building connections and looking for community wherever developers gather in your community spaces, both online and off, are crucial to ensure they can support each other and make a difference in your ecosystem. In our next post, we’ll break down different approaches to external developer communities like Reddit and Stack Overflow, vs. internal forums and discussion groups.

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