Iron Horse | What is Developer Relations?

By Darren Yuen

Frequently the terms developer relations (DevRel) and developer marketing are used interchangeably. They both target developers on behalf of a company or brand, but they are not the same concept. DevRel focuses on maintaining and growing relationships with the ultimate goal of building advocacy, whereas developer marketing looks to build awareness and get developers into the funnel. While these concepts have differing objectives, they do work in tandem to drive ongoing engagement with developer audiences.

DevRel efforts build and bolster relationships with developer communities through activities that occur after a developer has been captured and placed into a CRM or database. DevRel initiatives encourage developers to adopt products or solutions, facilitate usage through trainings and events, and ultimately partner with the brand or company to create something with their product and advocate for it. DevRel is vital to the success of a developer marketing program. It’s often seen as its own function at larger companies that separate marketing and customer/user success, while on smaller teams it’s weaved into the same function as developer marketing.

DevRel tactics revolve around high-quality touches and deeper education, led by more direct and interactive events, like workshops and training sessions. A primary goal of DevRel activities is to get developers to interact directly with the company or brand that is offering the product or solution to provide feedback and engage in more inclusive conversations about future development.

Developer marketing campaigns tend to provide macro overviews or high-level awareness assets, meant to garner attention and elicit a deeper dive. These assets can include things like thought-leadership perspectives, blogs, white papers, industry overviews, and case studies.

DevRel campaigns, on the other hand, generally deliver interactive content and opportunities for developers to engage more intimately with the product/solution or experts at the company. Resources tend to come in the form of virtual and physical events, along with educational and “hands-on” pathways that allow for interaction and active use.

Resources that facilitate learning and promote community discussion are often key focuses of DevRel content. Again, the objective of DevRel content is to drive long-term and reciprocal community relationships with active audiences.

The best content deliverables for DevRel, pandemic notwithstanding, are:

Operationally, methods used to reach developers and build relationships mirror tactics utilized on the marketing side. Where things differ from more superficial marketing activities is in the messaging and intent. DevRel tactics should be more direct and provide value for the individual. An easy way to think about productive and feasible DevRel tactics is to imagine it as mid to bottom-funnel in marketing terms.

For example, as part of developer marketing campaigns, promotion of case studies can be presented through messaging along the lines of “find out how companies are using Product X.” DevRel campaigns are more intent-focused and “human,” highlighting opportunities for a developer to “learn to use Product X to bring a solution to market now.”

One often overlooked tool/initiative for building DevRel is the use of developer-generated feedback to drive an active discussion. This could be direct access to content for developers, allowing them to understand adoption processes, product shortcomings, and/or aversions to messaging and narratives.

Regularly surveying developer audiences provides insight into what developers and is invaluable to all marketing, product development, and community efforts. With more intimate access to a developer audience, DevRel teams should aim to create environments that act as a continuous feedback loop, and in turn, drive future development and optimization of:

  • Product releases: improving features and roll-out plans

Gathering and actively utilizing feedback not only improves QA and development cycles for the company, but also creates a more inclusive setting in which developer communities feel more like partners as opposed to customers. This type of relationship is inherently more valuable to both parties from the perspective of development and engineering.

An easy way to identify what channels are better for marketing versus building relationships is to understand the developer’s use of a platform or community. Ask yourself, “are developers here to consume information and learn at a high level, or are they there to troubleshoot or understand how their peers are using products and services?”

Larger channels like Stack Overflow and Reddit are great examples of platforms that can support both marketing and relation-building activities at scale. Unfortunately, developer communities of this size are few and far between; niche developer communities, however, are abundant and usually more suited for DevRel activities and promotions. Why? Developers in these spaces are generally much more focused on the limited topic scope that better suits their interests and purpose. Rather than reaching out to a large swath of developers across multiple industries and functions, with smaller communities messaging and resources can be better aligned to the developer’s needs at their stage in active development.

Tactically, more direct forms of communication provide better DevRel experiences. As previously mentioned, 1:1 trainings, small webinars, direct email, and media retargeting campaigns tend to lead the way. These communication channels have identified initial developer intent and should be building off that early engagement.

Whichever the case, channels for DevRel engagement should be viewed and evaluated through the lens of intimacy and efficacy. Developers seek and appreciate brands that make them feel more included and human, rather than sales targets. Much like in consumer marketing, businesses will rely heavily on influencer channels. The most active DevRel channels should facilitate peer-to-peer and direct dev-to-brand communication.

One of the biggest mistakes we often see developer programs make is taking a one-size-fits-all approach to developers and their associated activities. While developer marketing and DevRel groups do not always need distinct practices, outreach teams to understand the various phases of a developer journey. Developers vary drastically based on their actual demographics and experience but also are greatly influenced by how far along they are in a development cycle. Successful DevRel programs seek to provide actionable approaches and usable resources at all phases of development, not just at initial adoption.

Originally published at on September 21, 2020.



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