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Do Software Developers Hate Marketing?

radiomorillo profile image Stephanie Morillo ・7 min read

Having spent years on marketing teams at B2B startups, I heard the following phrase a lot: "Developers don't like marketing." It was used to explain away many of our decisions. If we did or didn't do something, it was “because developers don’t like marketing.” But is it true?

The answer is no. Developers don't dislike marketing as a practice; they actually dislike gimmicks, irrelevant messaging, and things that don’t actually address their problems or their needs. They hate feeling like their time and their needs aren't respected. They hate "sleazy" sales tactics and spoken to as potential customers as opposed to people with real problems.

I know developers don’t hate marketing because many developers care about personal branding, content production, and selling their products and/or services. New products, tools, frameworks, libraries, and even programming languages emerge, and developers adopt them enthusiastically. Word-of-mouth, blogging, guides, even conference talks......all of these are forms of marketing that developers already use to build communities, generate leads, and turn leads into customers. And there are plenty of examples of people who are doing marketing well with developers.

So who is currently winning at developer marketing? Developers themselves. The best and most successful developer newsletters, blogs, screencasts, podcasts, events, books, have been created—and shared—by developers. These are all developer-led, and there is much that marketers at B2B companies can learn from this group.

Here are mistakes marketing teams make when marketing to developers:

  • Not specifying which "developers" they're referring to. Every developer is not in your audience, and yet time and time again, we use the singular (and enormously broad) “developers” label to define what is actually a very specific audience. What kinds of developers are you targeting? What do they know? What tools are they using? What are their problems? The more specific you can get, the more relevant your message will be. A product that targets enterprise developer teams is different from one that is meant to be used by security engineers. The best way to learn more about your audience is to talk to them. Not just draw conclusions based on a few conversations, but talk to them, observe them, and immerse yourself in their ecosystem. If the work they do and the conversations they have excites you, it becomes much easier to look at them as people versus "potential customers you have to study".

  • Expecting something from developers without having earned their trust. If you haven’t taken time to develop trust with your audience by consistently creating and sharing valuable content, they will hesitate to give you something in return. The problem is not that "developers" don't spend money; it's that they want to make sure your product addresses their problem first. Before you add friction (like placing content behind a gate) ask yourself: have I delivered enough value to my audience? Have I made it easy for them to find and access this information? In exchange for their email address, am I truly giving them something of value, something that will help them succeed in some way? The trust-building doesn't end there; you have to think more downstream. If you're asking users for an email address, what kind of nurture stream or funnel will you put them in, and what value will they get from that? You have to deliver value at every stage of the customer lifecycle.

  • Crafting messages that don’t address real problems. You've seen it before: the visually appealing B2B homepage that uses terminology like "blazing fast" and rattles off a bunch of cool features its signature product has. That's all well and good, but how does this solve my problem? "Value propositions" are sometimes interpreted as "list out the feature set and specs" by marketers, which leads to a missed opportunity. Users don't care how fast your product is; they care what your product can help them do. Talk to a bunch of customers and users and ask them about their problems. Listen to the words they use. Ask them what the solution would enable them to do; not just at a low-level, but in a high-level. What will they be able to do once the problem is solved? You want to understand the entire problem space, including the downstream effects of using your product. Your feature set only matters if you've framed them in terms of actual wants and needs. (Note: one of the reasons this happens is because marketers speak to both users and the people making purchasing decisions, who are not always the user. The person making a purchasing decision might have different boxes to tick and scan your site for the right keywords—typically features. Features absolutely have their place! But you still have to understand the problem space very well.)

“Users don't care how fast your product is; they care what your product can help them do.”

  • Everyone in the company describes the product differently. This is related to the problem above, but if everyone isn't singing the same tune, that will reflect in the company's marketing strategy—and not in a good way. If too many people have different ideas about who the audience is, what the value props are, and describe the product in different terms, the misalignment will lead to end-user frustration.

  • Using gimmicks and employing marketing tactics because a competitor is doing it (or because they don't understand the customer's goals). Two things are true: competitive analyses are helpful tools for gauging what your competitor is doing well (and not so well) AND doing something because your competitor is doing it makes you look unfocused. We don't have to reinvent the wheel here; just because Company A's multichannel strategy is comprised of heavy TikTok usage, an amazing podcast, and a hugely successful annual hackathon program does not mean that you need to do these things, too. There is and should be room for experimentation and trying new things. But jumping on the latest trends without tying them into the overall strategy and not investing the time and resources into building these channels out will make you look like you're trying too hard. Furthermore, adding a gate or paywall in front of a blog, putting an obtrusive pop-up before users have had the time to click through the site, or taking people to a page they did not expect to land on are frustrating user experiences. Multiple CTAs in an email are overwhelming. What is the most important thing here? What are users trying to get out of this interaction? You have to look at your marketing in terms of a user flow, a journey, and an end-to-end experience to better understand why some tactics will turn people off.

  • Not showing other teams internally how they can help. Have you heard the phrases, "UX is everyone's job" or "security is everyone's job"? The same is true of marketing. There is a difference between marketing as a corporate role and marketing as a practice and set of activities. Marketing is everyone's job at a company because ultimately people want to build, promote, or work on products that other people want to buy and use. That engineer who gave a conference talk about the way they scaled a team? That's marketing. The developer advocate who wrote a guide in the official documentation about deploying a site onto your cloud platform? That's also marketing. The designer who published a blog post about working for your company and shared job listings for her growing team on Twitter? That's marketing. The truth is marketing teams can do a lot to help their sister teams internally get their messages out, refine their messaging, or do better at their job. Is customer support writing their own canned responses for support tickets? Offer to review and/or rewrite these messages with them and share best practices, maybe a corporate style guide! Did the technical writing team produce new guides this last quarter as a result of incoming customer requests? Publish them in the weekly newsletter and push them out on Twitter to help users find them. There's other content being created and marketing-adjacent activities (like developer relations) taking place in non-marketing teams that nevertheless further company goals. Find out what those are and show people how your team can be of service.

“There is a difference between marketing as a corporate role and marketing as a practice and set of activities.”

Here are some guiding questions that will help marketers reach these audiences more effectively:

  1. Are there other ways of meeting our goals that create less friction for the user?
  2. What are they doing when they land on this page? What do they expect to see?
  3. How do our users consume new information? Does this format facilitate user understanding?
  4. What do our users value? What do they need?
  5. What do we as a company do really well?
  6. What problems do our products solve?
  7. Who is my audience? What do they do? What conferences do they attend? What do they want to learn? What do they read? What do they like? What do they need?

In summary, developer marketers (and developers marketing to other developers) can learn a lot by observing and listening to their target audiences without judgment and without giving into preconceived notions about their audience's habits and preferences. Technologists are discerning customers who are sensitive to misused marketing tactics that exist only to get their money versus deliver value. Technologists value honesty, transparency, and people who understand their problems and their needs. Developer marketers who lead with a desire to learn more about their audiences will be more effective at reaching them and delivering value more consistently.

This post was originally published on my blog.

I'm Stephanie, a Content Strategist and Technical PM. Visit developersguidetocontent.com to learn more about my work!

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radiomorillo profile

Stephanie Morillo

@radiomorillo

🇩🇴 I'm a Senior PM and Content Strategist with an MSc in UXD. I help developers become better content creators.

Discussion

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I'm talking for myself, but in general I don'0t dislike marketing, I don't trust marketing.

When something is good I just need the facts about it, is still marketing if you just give information?, maybe I'm just used to go to the "product", I don't care about flashy things, most of the tools I use are in the terminal, I used Linux looking for a Windows alternative, the heavily marketed Windows. I think marketing as gotten too good and we don't like to be manipulated. Also marketing has made collecting personal data something "desirable". Is just making a good readme and documentation marketing?, is to clearly list features en github marketing? because that's how I look for my tools, if I want a watch I look for it, I research, I don't like brands pushing them to me. When I see a TV spot about beer they are not telling me about its attributes, they are trying to insert some idea into my subconscious , we can debate about how that moves the economy and maybe is true, maybe not, but in the end I don't like it.

I think marketing went from, make products/services visible and share it attributes and tell consumers why it's better than the alternatives; to manipulate, to abuse our primitive brains, to take advantage of our weaknesses. Why would I like that?. Every day is more about some psychological exploit and less about the product/service. You care about features?, you don't need a fancy website, models with tiny skirts in conventions or some other sort of manipulation, just plain B&W text and screenshots are enough. I think marketing has made a very poor marketing for itself and made its own reputation.

But that's just me...

 

In answer to some of your questions:

“Is just making a good README and documentation marketing? Is it still marketing if you just give information.” The answer is yes, in the same way that good documentation and READMEs are good UX. Community engagement is marketing. The lines between certain disciplines blur upon further inspection. It’s marketing because these are touch points between you and a brand or company; it’s how you become aware of the company and what it does. At a very foundational level, that’s what marketing is: awareness.

I agree and hear you on many of your points. None of us like to feel we are being manipulated. Not to defend this behavior, but as a means of explanation, the crux of the problem is this: marketing teams at every company, including companies that make products you like and use, are tasked with making money for the business. They are often under immense pressure to hit high numbers, and these numbers are also tied to sales goals. Marketing teams at tech companies face a lot of pressure; if a company doesn’t hit their revenue targets, marketing and sales leaders are put in the hot seat. Marketing teams are also given large budgets in order to hit these numbers; there must be an ROÍ for the business. Thus, facing these pressures, marketers might adopt tactics that are questionable but might generate quick “wins”. This is not the case for EVERY tech company but it is a pattern I have observed having worked in this space for years.

And you’re right: a company doesn’t need gimmicks in order to attract your attention! A good product that is well positioned to solve a real need and a company that listens to the problems of its users. As I argue in my piece, developers are doing amazing at this. I subscribe to newsletters by individual developers and follow developers on social media. These are forms of marketing and yet they don’t feel forced, sleazy, or irrelevant. When marketing is done right, it doesn’t feel sleazy. :)

 

Great content. Seems like most programming communities are hostile to ads, marketing, and self promotion (at first glance). Also seems like a majority of developers have an ad blocker installed. This led me to believe that developers hate marketing in general, but I've slowly changed my mind due to articles like yours. Maybe developers don't hate marketing, but they do hate low effort marketing (flashy ads, bad sales pitches, blatant promotion without value, dishonest), as you point out. Some really good ideas here, thanks!

 

Thank you! And indeed you’re right: on a visceral level, programming communities are hostile to marketing because a lot of the marketing they’d encounter feels fake, forced, and dishonest. That’s why I’m always in awe of the developers who are actually doing marketing but don’t appear to do so. It’s because their marketing angle is one that comes from being authentic and transparent. And that’s refreshing to see. Marketing is just a tool, and like any other tool, it’s only as good or as bad as the intentions of the individuals doing it. Thank you for reading!

 
  • Marketing talks to users.
  • Developers talk with users.

Or at least, if you want to develop good software which solves the problems users have, you need to talk with them. You need to engage in dialog. As a developer your are trying to understand the user's problem. Most marketing is about telling users what their problem is.

If marketing would go into dialog with the developers to understand why certain features where developed, and use this why is marketing instead of talking about a feature as if it existed without reason, then you would get a marketing. And better marketing and developer relations. If you don't convey the why of features, new users will form their own ideas and create expectations about the feature which does not hold up. The developers will get blamed for the missed expectations, not the marketeers.

 

Marketing talks to users. Developers talk with users.

That's one way of looking at it! At the risk of sounding pedantic, it's more nuanced than that. The truth is good marketing does both; marketing should talk to users and customers, and many marketers do this. They do this to better understand the problem space and to come up with messaging that lets a user know: "This is my problem and [product] will address it." But to your point, this isn't a constant thing; some teams talk to users only sporadically or use a proxy for the user (like a developer advocate) instead of finding opportunities to learn from users continuously.

But beyond that, talking to users isn't an activity limited to marketing. Product teams are also responsible for helping marketing derive value propositions whenever a new product or feature is built. And this makes sense because product managers are closer to the customer voice and the implementation than marketing is. Marketers aren't, and shouldn't be, subject matter experts in the product. What they do need to be is conversational in the domain space where they work and great listeners, observers, and interviewers so they can extract the information from SMEs that will resonate with their audience.

I definitely agree with you on this: "If you don't convey the why of features, new users will create expectations which don't hold up." Value propositions should not be a simple rattling off of features. This is due to lots of problems, though, and some I've listed in my responses to other folks: communication breakdowns between teams, not enough conversations with the user, underlying pressures to grow at the expense of everything else. But it may surprise you to know that this is not something limited to professional marketers; developers who have created their own products have done the same mistake. In the past, I was a freelance copywriter who worked with dev shops and small developer-led B2B companies. Many of their mistakes were the exact kinds of marketing mistakes that turned off developers, and they weren't aware why their messages weren't landing. Doing marketing well is actually really hard; it takes a lot to master and it's not enough to say "This is bad" or "We don't like this"; we have to articulate the "why". The good news is there are many examples out there and phenomenal developer marketers and product marketers who are doing this well. And the same goes for developers who decided to study as much about marketing as they could in order to do it the right way. :)