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Getting Above the Brief: How to Improve Your Developer Marketing Positioning

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think this audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)

Start with a paragraph… Introduce the reader to your topic with a brief summary. Keep it simple. When you’re ready, lead the reader into the first section with an h2 tag.

Recently, I wrote a post about changing Hit Subscribe’s positioning, which I intend to distribute to clients and prospects in appropriate situations.  I shared it to DaedTech as well, assuming that an audience of (I think, still) largely engineers might find the positioning insight interesting.

What I didn’t expect was the traction among developer marketing folks, including a bunch of people reaching out to me for direct discussion.  But since that’s what happened, I reread that post through the eyes of a developer marketer.  And doing that, I realized my explanation of why developer marketing made for terrible positioning was unsatisfyingly hand-wavy:

It’s terrible positioning because it’s all about the labor and not at all about the client, what they’re looking for, and what kind of transformation they’re hoping to achieve.

That’s true.  But there’s not a lot of meat on the bone if you’re a developer-marketing freelancer or small shop.

So, even though it has little relevance for either Hit Subscribe’s prospects or my historical engineer audience, I’m going to unpack this a little more.  I’ve spent almost fifteen years blogging about whatever is on my mind, so why stop now?

Let’s look at the positioning problem with “developer marketing” in detail.

What Makes Developer Marketing Different?

“Developer” is, broadly speaking, a job title.  This makes “{job} marketing” the abstract base class of “developer marketing.”

So the question becomes this: what makes developer marketing different from, say, lawyer marketing or shift-supervisor marketing or just plain marketing?  What, specifically, does it involve and what makes it distinct?

I googled “developer marketing” and here’s what I found people saying it involved:

  • A near-universal agreement that “developers hate (traditional) marketing.” (I don’t agree with this, BTW.)
  • An understanding of how to leverage Stack Exchange sites and GitHub.
  • A knowledge of the “fragmented” communities in which software developers hang out.
  • A knowledge of social media on which developers hang out.
  • “Authentic” and “deeply technical” content with code samples and demonstrations.
  • Being a software developer or just deeply understanding one, depending on whether the agency targeting the keyword “developer marketing” was practitioner-led or not.
  • Creation of content that shows (not tells) a developer tool’s value to the prospective audience.

I could go on, but I think this covers most of it. And piling on to what you already know isn’t germane to my point.

Below the Brief: All of Developer Marketing in Three Tragically Tactical Concerns

What is germane to my point is what this all actually reduces to, in the grand scheme of things.  Everything that makes developer marketing different from other flavors of “{job} marketing” folds into these three concerns:

  • Who should write the content?
  • What should the content include?
  • Where should you distribute this content?

(I’m omitting the reader persona as a fourth concern, since the marketing group doesn’t strictly control that.  They control the three above and hope the persona reads, if they’ve done it right.)

For context, here’s a modified and highlighted screenshot of one of our brief templates:

Everything about developer marketing sits “below the brief.”  To clarify what you may have already inferred, I’m distinguishing “above the brief” from “below the brief” as a sort of Mason-Dixon line of strategy and tactics.

Above the brief, you have marketing and business strategy.  Taking into account the business’s value prop, GTM motion, and budget, among other things, the marketing group forms a strategy, which consists of marketing channels.  Within those channels, they launch campaigns as tactics. And when those campaigns involve content, they have briefs as the most tactical thing with any strategic component to it whatsoever.

That’s above the brief, and it doesn’t concern developer marketing.  Below the brief you sit, dear developer marketer, crafting code samples for posts and knowing how to share things to r/programming in a community-friendly way…assuming the brief calls for you to do so, that is.

The World Below the Brief

At this point I want to call something out, lest you think I’m needlessly dismissive.  Tradecraft at the individual contributor level is both valuable and a hard-won skill.  As someone who has been doing both for decades, I can tell you that content writing and programming are anything but easy, so you should be proud if you’ve become proficient or mastered either, let alone both.

But none of that makes these skills strategic, from an organization’s perspective.

However well you know GitHub, whatever your Stack Overflow score is, or however many content marketing badges you have, it’s all tactical. It’s all below the brief.  In this sense, developer marketing is like “Chicago-style-guide marketing,” where you write blog posts in that style, or “markdown marketing,” where you write blog posts in markdown.  It’s all so tactical that it doesn’t bear mentioning during strategy meetings.

Incidentally, it’s also table stakes for a job description.  In other words, nobody writes a brief that calls for an author who doesn’t know what they’re talking about or an editor who doesn’t know the style guide or collaborators who can’t use the drafting tool.  Rather, the person writing the briefs is specifically looking for staff proficient in these skills as a simple requirement.

Up Periscope: Peeking Above the Brief

This is rock bottom, in terms of what I’m asking you to accept.  I want you think of “developer marketing” as positioning sharing the same fatal flaw with “Chicago-style-guide marketing” and “I-write-in-markdown marketing.”

If you can do that, even as an exercise, I think it’ll become easier for you to recalibrate and move towards more productive positioning for your practice or business.  And that’s what I’m going to discuss for the rest of this post.

I want you to stop positioning yourself as competent at table-stakes tactics.  I want you to stop boring your economic buyer with your commodified tradecraft.  I want you to get above the brief.

The first step is a small and subtle one.  Understand that you, as a developer marketer, aren’t selling content.  You’re selling staff augmentation.

Specifically, you’re selling an answer to the question, “Who will execute this brief within the allowed budget?”

Remember, tradecraft (using code samples, writing “good quality content,” etc.) isn’t strategic.  But staffing and budget are, even if you’re currently interacting with them two levels below where the players sit.  So start by understanding that your current positioning solves a staffing and recruitment problem.

Next Step: Lose “Developer” from Developer Marketing

The problem is that selling staff augmentation is also highly commodified and thus fairly prescripted with positioning.  Staff augmentation (and thus developer marketing) agency positioning is iron triangle stuff:

Fast, cheap, good.  Pick any two.

Generally the upward pressure of software skills on your cost of goods sold (COGS) will cause you to land on “fast-good.”  This is likely why all developer marketing services wind up marketing themselves with how “technically deep” the content is and how you can get it to the buyer when other people struggle to do it.  You’re justifying the higher cost of staffing with engineers than with, say, general comms folks.

So how do you escape the iron triangle and being a staff augmentation service?  How do you blast into a third dimension and look down ruefully on your erstwhile competitors lying flat inside the triangle?

Lose “developer” from describing what you do.

You do marketing.  Or, probably, content marketing, since that seems mostly what folks mean by developer marketing.

It’s All the Same Stuff

Let me explain this bit with an example.  I’ve only recently articulated positioning for Hit Subscribe, mainly because I’ve only recently bothered to give specific positioning any thought.  But I understood the inherent flimsiness of “developer marketing” years ago.

I say this because just before the pandemic, in early 2020, we started to work outside of developer tools.  Even back then we’d been delivering traffic hockey sticks through keyword research long enough that clients came to us for SEO expertise.  And when our contacts at some of those companies started to leave and take different, non-dev-tools jobs, they asked to bring us with.

Can’t you just do for my new company what you did for us before?

After a little hesitation, my response was, “Huh, now that you mention it…”

Modulo the author backgrounds, building from zero to significant organic traffic was the same.  So back in early 2020, we found ourselves asking whether we should set up “Hit Subscribe Transportation & Logistics” and “Hit Subscribe Legal Tech” as divisions or possibly franchises.

(We did briefly start to have divisions but have since concluded that it’s not worth trying to maintain specialized benches in other disciplines.)

Discovery and Removing the Wrong Focus

The important thing to understand here is that all of the developer marketing concerns were tactical and fungible in the face of a business goal: open up organic as a channel, fast.  It was with this realization and against this backdrop that I put on my management consultant hat and started to do a long, casual process of discovery.  Instead of hawking content at the blog post store, I started to learn a lot about marketing strategy by talking to and collaborating with founders and execs.

(It obviously didn’t hurt here that I had a lot of prior career experience as an exec and working with execs.)

When you remove the word “developer” from what you do, it forces you to stop wallowing below the brief.  You have to start looking at your clients and their desired outcomes to reorient yourself.

Okay, clients turn to you to staff their briefs, but why? Why not staff in another way or just forgo the channel altogether since it’s expensive and challenging?  Why not just run ads?

You can conduct discovery over time to learn these things.  Or, absent that, you can study your book of business for common themes.  What common themes (other than markdown to write blog posts and code samples in them) do your clients share?

How do the content campaigns you staff help those businesses?  What do they do to help the marketing group?  How do they help your main contact earn a promotion?

Positioning Is a Journey

I won’t pretend that this market research and discovery is easy.  Far from it.  Learning about your buyers this way is far harder than creating content about the technical tradecraft you’re comfortable with.

But it’s crucial.

If you’re an indie, people always tell you to “niche down.” And “developer marketing” feels like a niche, so dropping it feels like a step in the wrong direction.  It isn’t.  It’s a step down from a low local maximum and toward a higher one.

“Developer marketing” and below-the-brief activities aren’t niches because they aren’t about your buyers and their outcomes in a meaningful way.   As such, it won’t help you in identifying niches or positioning (e.g., don’t iterate toward “developer marketing for B round companies with purple in their logos”).  You need to get above the brief to start having meaningful outcome conversations.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll stop creating technical content or stop doing service delivery in the world of software or dev tools.  You probably won’t.  But you will realize that developers are just humans and marketing is marketing.

And when you stop mesmerizing yourself with your own tactics, you can make room in your head for strategy—and then positioning.

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