Why Can't You Market To Developers Like You Can To Other People?

Let's get right down to business.

I am a marketer, an internet marketer. I've been doing what I do for about 20 years. I moved into this field after spending a few years as a software developer.

I deliberately chose to move away from the technical side of software and into business for a few reasons. Foremost among those were a few moments of self-awareness that had me feeling that my career as a developer was causing me to lose my sense of humor, even my personality, because I was spending too much time plugging away at defining classes and variables, writing functions, reading through StackOverflow and other troubleshooting forums, and hunting down missing semicolons — a daily work environment that found me interacting much more with a computer screen than with fun and energetic people.

Developers Aren't Monkeys

At one point while working at my first major job, one in which I was the lead developer for a startup company, I got a clear sense for how business types feel about developers. While discussing our aggressive due dates, our CEO explained that he was considering locking us developers in a room and shoving pizzas and soda under the door until we came out with the product that represented what he'd been selling to investors and potential customers for months. My reaction to his statement, despite my commitment to be a team player and do my part to help the company succeed, was something like, "Ummm...I happen to have an opinion about your plan."

Our CEO's blithe explanation of how he was thinking about handling his little development team sounded like what you'd hear from a pet owner rather than a manager of real people.

Why are software engineers sometimes treated like zoo animals?
Most developers who have witnessed the expression of the "developers are useful dummies" mentality coming from their employers or managers feel the same way I did as a developer: like a specially trained zoo animal rather than a real person with human feelings and a personality.

For some reason the non-technical world has determined that it's appropriate to treat software developers and other highly technical IT people (except for the rare outliers who give Ted talks and wear clothing other than t-shirts) more like machines or animals and less like people.

Who created this paradigm?

Developers Are Bright People - Maybe the Brightest

Several years ago I sat in an all-hands meeting with about 600 IT people who provide various support functions for the LDS Church. The speaker, an attorney, gave his observation that 20-30 years ago, it was well known that doctors and attorneys were the smartest, most educated people around. Now? Things are way different. His professional assessment, having spent decades interacting with doctors, lawyers, and technical people, is that software developers and other IT people who are now the smartest.

I'd agree with his assessment. If you want something done, but you don't want to (or can't) explain every detail about how to do it, ask a developer. He'll figure it out. He's programmed to solve problems.

The intellectual prowess commonly found among developers compared to regular people can't be coincidence. All the crazy amounts of data that has to consistently be retrieved from the brain of a good coder - functions, classes, dependencies, syntax, relationships, logic, etc., etc. - makes it so there's a lot of neural activity happening constantly, in so many ways, sharpening the mind and boosting intelligence. Software developers essentially spend their days doing mental exercises that make them smarter.

But what are the consequences associated with using computers to become intelligent? My experience tells me that there is often a social opportunity cost associated with being a developer. It seems like the more time you spend coding, the less you can relate to ordinary people.

This emotional and intellectual separation of developers from the rest of society often creates awkward relationships between computer people and non-computer people, which brings me to the next point.

Throughout my career I've successfully marketed to sales people, accountants, attorneys, other marketers, business owners, doctors, parents of young children, women who like to decorate, people interested in religion, and lots of other distinct personas. I've never (check that...rarely) had one of these people be offended that I was trying to sell them something, especially when it was done in the course of marketing best practices, meaning don't spam people. Don't try to trick them. Be respectful.

As a marketer, I've been vigilant to make sure I don't fool Google into making a page of mine show up at the top of SERPs for a term that it shouldn't. I don't go out interjecting "have you considered product x" into a conversation where "product x" doesn't positively contribute to helping someone solve a problem. I've never even been tempted to pay companies to write content that fills up the internet with useless words and phrases that only serve to take rather than to help solve a problem.

But in the months I've spent trying to connect dev personas to Nanobox, I'm learning something about developers: the best practices for marketing to other personas don't cut it for developers. They tend to hate marketers.

Why Are Developers So Offended by Marketing?

I've had some pretty good success as a marketer, but now I find myself experiencing a bit of a crisis in my career.


Because in this new role, I'm supposed to be marketing our platform to software developer types. This challenge is unique. Developing a marketing strategy for developers must involve a very different approach than what I've used for the rest of the collective personas I've marketed to. You can't run the same marketing plays with developers as you do with other folks.

Here's one quick example. I asked a question in a Ruby on Rails Facebook group about people's experience deploying apps to the cloud that have been developed in the Elixir language, which was created by one of the Rails core team members. There is an ongoing discussion in the Rails community about Elixir and its benefits and limitations relative to Rails. In asking my question to the group, I also included a link to an Elixir deployment how-to article we published on Nanobox.

Developers are highly sensitive to connections

A member of that Facebook group gave a legitimate answer to my question. We were having a useful discussion. It was great. Those who wanted to "listen" in on the discussion or participate could certainly benefit from the back and forth. However...

Right on the heels of a solid discussion was one of those "don't you dare market to developers" police I've come to expect to hear from every time I mention something related to Nanobox. A coder stormed into the conversation to show off his unique talent of identifying intruders. He must have dug deep to find out that I was connected with Nanobox: it's listed clearly at the top of my Facebook profile. You can see my response above.

On another occasion, one of our team members was banned for 90 days from the /r/webdev sub-reddit simply for sharing the results of an AWS versus Digital Ocean performance test he performed. His crime was that he works for Nanobox and his article was published on the Nanobox website. Nevermind that the article was highly useful to members of that community and others, many of whom were highly engaged with the article and the implications of the test results.

Apparently, there is a rule in the IT community that if you have any connection whatsoever to a product or a company, you have to explicitly state that connection and all of its implications ANY TIME you reference anything related to the company online, regardless of how irrelevant your connection is to the discussion or how objective the reference.

From an outsider's perspective, this developer hypersensitivity to the social context from which any information is shared seems to reinforce the zoo monkey mentality. It feels a lot like my four-year-old screaming like a baby to his older siblings, "I'm not a baby" when they've referred to him as a baby.

I understand that there are reasons developers have aversions to people trying to sell them things they don't need, and interrupting their busy schedules with bait and switch tactics. All of us have some level of disdain for people who want us to buy things we aren't interested in. We reject those who obviously value their own financial gain much more than they do our specific needs.

What I'm still trying to figure out why there is a need among the development community to take personal offense, even when someone offers objective, useful, insightful information (e.g. AWS versus DigitalOcean performance results), just because there's any hint that the presenter might be able to benefit from presenting the information to a group.

Loyalty to The Developer Tribe

My company, Nanobox, is made up mostly of developers. This team has spent over a decade together in the development and devops trenches, including everything from setting up the largest Magento installation on the web to creating hosting infrastructure for Facebook. They've used their collective experience to create a development platform that is a tremendous time saver for app developers and development teams, especially those who don't want to waste time with environment configuration overhead or muddle through devops chores required to deploy and manage apps.

Our list of value propositions covers everything from allowing devs to create nicely organized, isolated dev environments for their respective stacks of choice to helping companies move their hosting from a data center into the cloud and avoiding the problems with vendor lock-in that haunt technology businesses.

Stated objectively (wink), Nanobox is the perfect solution for many of the issues currently facing development teams and their business managers.

The problem is...I can't just plop this thing in front of developers and expect them to be like, "Oh yes! Thank you."

I realized that that's just not how my target persona is configured. They are just too smart to be duped by people who have any relationship with the company extolling the virtues of a new product, even if that product is exactly what they need. Their fixation with potential conflict of interest tends to blind them to things that could actually benefit them.

Market to Developers or Their Bosses?

When I first met the Nanobox team, I had some questions about their approach to getting customers. The website deliberately used no stock photography. There were no pictures of beautiful smiling people using Nanobox to make them happier, wealthier and more attractive. There were no "Schedule a Demo" forms to be filled out and submitted to sales. There was no "Chat with us!" window that could instantly connect visitors to an attractive blonde waiting on the other end ready to talk about topics like nginx and Docker. The website felt a lot more like one you'd see for open source software than a commercial business. There wasn't even a phone number listed. It was much different from any other company I've worked with.

I quickly found out the reason for the extremely non-salesly look and feel of Nanobox.io: "We don't want to scare away the tribe!"

Okay, so apparently there is a tribe mentality that exists among developers, ALL OF WHOM can instantly sniff out whether you're trying to sell something to them or in any way influence them or anyone they know to pay money to you. Crossing this line in any way can either spook the entire tribe and cause them to run for the hills or can get you put permanently in the penalty box.

I was informed that devs are becoming (or have become) the real decision makers, that companies like IBM and Oracle, whose old-school 1990s attitudes towards devs are causing those businesses to decline. Businesses are finally starting to realize that the pizza-and-soda-in-a-locked-room, babysitting attitude towards devs simply doesn't work anymore. Devs have grown into an understanding of the power they now possess, and they are demanding more control, more influence over business decisions.

In the first weeks and months after starting my new marketing job, our marketing team had lots of discussions about who we should be targeting: devs or their bosses.

Devs could take our platform and make it viral if we didn't break from their established communication protocol. But they want everything for free. The business people, we reasoned, are concerned about bottom lines, which means that they are happy to pay for something that will make their development teams more efficient by eliminating the need for them to waste time talking about containerization and Docker or Kubernetes.

What We've Learned

Although our marketing efforts are certainly iterative, and we have much to learn. Ultimately, we understand that if we get into the nitty-gritty of app development programming languages, and solve the most difficult problems faced by developers in context of our product, most developers are not offended. In fact, many of them are very appreciative. We've learned that if we make it clear that we're there to give rather than take, that gesture is taken well.

We've learned that you have to be careful not to oversimplify the dev persona. Software developers span the globe. They speak lots of different languages and come from so many different cultures and backgrounds that while it may be easy to apply a blanket stereotype and group them all together, it's not useful.

Instead, we've made our marketing efforts granular, sharing our guide specific language guides in context with those who seem like they'd find them useful, inserting Nanobox naturally into documentation for the languages we support, and writing and promoting content that directly targets our dev personas (and their bosses). Lots of our content doesn't even talk about Nanobox or introduce our platform in away way. Our goal is to establish ourselves as a trusted resource among the development community. We figure that giving to the community this way will naturally come back around in one way or another.

We've added a phone number to our website. People call that phone number and ask questions about our product, which allows us to sell to them. That may seem salesly to devs, but we're hoping that having a call to action in your website header doesn't cause those more comfortable with remaining anonymous to run for the hills.

We've found (more so than I previously thought) that developers tend to be very self-serve. They don't often answer emails asking if they need help using your product, even if they really do need help. They don't like to be prodded towards entering credit card information before they absolutely have to. However, if you give them the resources (documentation, explanations) they need to become paying customers, they'll make it happen.

Is our marketing strategy for a product that's made for developers working? It seems like it. Our ultimate success is TBD, but if you start noticing that you hear the word "Nanobox" like you've heard the word "Heroku" in the past, you'll know that we've figured it out.