Before I wander too far down the cost savings rabbit hole, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. And, in 2023, the elephant in every room is always generative AI.
Could you save money in a content program using generative AI? Sure. You could also save money by not writing content at all or by ignoring child labor laws and having your kids write content.
And before you accuse me of fatuous comparisons, I invite you to consider this absolute “can’t make this up” mic-drop of a blog post conclusion that a generative AI tool handed me yesterday while I was conducting some light R&D:
Unless you want it to “proudly” tell your readers whatever that was that it bleeped out, I might wait on AI as a serious savings approach at scale. (I am in no way denying the game-changing implications of generative AI, but I am suggesting that its role in reducing developer marketing program costs will, at least for the short term, be surprisingly marginal.)
So with that out of the way, let’s look at some battle tested-methods for bringing down costs in a developer marketing program
What Is Developer Marketing?
Before I get to that, though, what do I mean by developer marketing?
Developer marketing is, quite simply, a subset of the broader discipline of marketing aimed specifically at software developers. It tends to revolve heavily around content marketing and community building, and it often faces stiffer headwinds in other areas of marketing, such as traditional advertising.
You might also wonder why it earns its own designation when things like “lawyer marketing” or “physicist marketing” don’t seem to.
That answer is a bit less clear cut. But I believe this is largely because software developers are so heavily enmeshed in selecting, producing, and improving all manner of digital products. As a marketer, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll want a software developer to buy, recommend, or adopt and extend something that your organization makes.
What Do Developer Marketing Programs Entail?
As I mentioned briefly above, developer marketing programs tend to revolve heavily around content marketing and creation–and, more broadly, around developers teaching one another to do things. In fact, an entire job category, loosely called DevRel, has emerged as the developer marketing workforce.
This role, and developer marketing in general, fuses software development with marketing and ecompasses all manner of content marketing activities:
- Creating written content
- Making tutorial videos
- Hosting podcasts
- Speaking at conferences and user meetups
- Managing and growing communities
Developer marketing programs are thus programs that operationalize some of these activities, with the purpose of acquiring users. A particularly famous example of a highly successful program is the Digital Ocean community program.
Digital Ocean’s origin was as a web hosting company, and they reasoned that targeting web developers with content made sense. Rather than create a bunch of content about themselves or about hosting, they created a community tutorial exchange where guest bloggers posted web development tutorials.
This fairly straightforward but ingenious premise wound up driving millions upon millions of qualified leads to their site, in the form of web developers googling how to do things and finding the answer on their site.
This might be the platonic ideal of developer marketing.
Generally speaking, developer marketing programs involve enlisting software developers to create content, generally educational, for other software developers. And there are levers we can pull to bring costs down there.
Cost Reduction Tactics
Historically, especially among venture backed companies, the coffers for a well-planned developer marketing program were deep. And why not? If you built an engine that brought a lot of software developers to your site, a product company might even have a plan B as a media company–with an engaged, affluent demographic frequenting the site.
But over the course of late 2022 and 2023, that conventional wisdom has fallen away in favor of a desire to bring down acquisition costs and extend runways.
So in that climate, how does one reduce costs associated with such a program?
Here are some ways to make that happen.
1. Encourage Community-Generated Content
The first thing I’d suggest is brainstorming ways to crowdsource content and attention.
Most developer marketing content will come from, well, developers. So the most straightforward way to source content is to hire them as FTEs or as contractors, which will often come with a price tag of $100K per year or $100 per hour, respectively.
These are expensive professionals, and they won’t run a discount simply because you’re asking them to write prose instead of code.
But you can encourage low- or no-cost participation in creative ways, assuming you make it fun. This can involve allowing people to pitch topics as guest blog posts, running hackathons with your offering, building digital communities, and generally anything that prompts the developer audience to participate, with content as a byproduct.
It’s unlikely to be the alpha and omega of your program, but it can be a significant and low cost portion of it. Making it fun for developers to create content reduces the cost of that content.
2. Ease Up On the Red Pen
Speaking of making it fun, let’s talk about the opposite of that.
It’s fun for a software developer to share some recently acquired knowledge about how to build something. It’s not fun to do that and then have another engineer tell them they did it wrong. And it’s not fun to hear a product marketer say that they need to plug some offering more. Nor is it fun when an editor tells them they’re completely getting the oxford commas wrong…or an SEO specialist tells them they need to use less passive voice and stuff the word “DevOps” into their post at least seven more times.
When you do this, you’re essentially recreating the worst moments of college. They’re suffering through English 101, Marketing 101, and a picky TA in one of their programming courses.
If you’re sourcing content via freelancers, they will respond to this by ghosting you. If you’re doing it with staff engineers, they’ll suddenly and mysteriously lack time to write. A DevRel, on the other hand, kind of has to put up with this, but you will see staff attrition in the role.
I’m not suggesting you let content go out unchecked, not by any stretch. But I am suggesting that you pick your battles. If those who contribute to your program find it fun, it will not cost as much to get (force) them to contribute.
3. Factor Ease of Fulfillment Into Content Ideation
From the outside looking in, it can seem that any software engineer is a specialist. But not all specialists are equally special.
As you’re doing this, if you find that fulfilling the program by and large looks like quite a challenge, you might want to regroup at a more strategic level. Is the only way to acquire and nurture leads by demonstrating technical superiority? Or could you perhaps take a more grass roots approach?
If, for instance, you sell a tool that helps software developers become more productive, you’ll save a lot of cost by inviting the community to exchange productivity tips instead of going out, locating, and paying the most knowledgeable developer productivity influencers on the internet.
4. Create a Channel Partnership Program
In a slight variation on ease of fulfillment, you can get creative and manufacture a situation where skilled people want to create your content for free.
I’m talking about a channel partnership program, wherein you cultivate relationships with community members that are not employees. You certify them, promote them, and hand them leads for service work around your offering. In exchange, they promote you to their audience and create content about you.
This might sound somewhat avant garde, but there’s a well-worn path here in tech. Microsoft has its MVPs, Docker its Captains, and AWS its, well, AWS Partners. And you can bet that those MPVs, captains, and partners create a lot of non-compensated content on behalf of their channel partners.
5. Establish (or Buy) a Microsite
One of the most surefire ways to stack content costs, both opportunity and direct, is to have a lot of painstaking review in the editorial process. Intensive, multi-party review is a tried and true quality control tactic, so it’s understandable that quality-minded brands would establish such a process for content on their site. Doubly so if superior authority is part of the brand’s positioning.
But that doesn’t alter the fact that such a process is extremely expensive. Not only are you paying the direct cost for all of this review, but you’re also making it more expensive to source the engineers to create the content, as per the above section about red pen. And on top of that, you’re slowing everything down, which means you need to produce more content overall, due to the compounding effect of volume in most content channels.
That said, I’m not trying to talk you out of being judicious about your brand in this section. I am saying that you should find a lower stakes way to produce content with less review and bureaucratic overhead.
Enter the microsite.
A microsite is a separate site and brand that you can establish as a kind of community property. You don’t make it a part of your brand; rather, you position your brand as a patron or sponsor, creating some insulation while still leaving you full control over marketing automation concerns on the subsidiary property.
Now you can have a much leaner review operation for the bulk of your content without sacrificing brand voice concerns on your main site. Oh, and if you don’t want to build one from scratch, you can often buy out an existing site or community relatively inexpensively.
6. Hire Enablers Over Gatekeepers
If you don’t want to go the microsite route and you establish a guest blogging program, hire freelancers, or hire FTEs, you can control costs with the charter and nature of the person you put in charge of the editorial calendar.
Specifically, look to hire someone who views themselves as an enabler or facilitator for publication more than an arbiter of quality or a gatekeeper.
From my days as a management consultant, one of my favorite aphorisms about org theory was “if you give your staff a metric, they WILL hit that metric, even if they have to burn the company to the ground to do it.” So if you hire a gatekeeper for your content and task them with quality, they WILL spend with your wallet toward that often nebulously-defined end.
After all, through that lens, the best way to ensure total quality is to produce no content. The second best way is to enlist as many people as possible, for as much time as possible, in a neurotic pursuit of some kind of je ne sais quoi definition of good content.
So instead, look for someone with the philosophical outlook not of a gatekeeper but an enabler. Look for someone with an editorial mind of “let’s make what you’re doing the best it can be and then get it out there.” For developer marketing in particular, this flips the reviewer from the annoyance of “content grader” to white glove service of “personal editor,” all the while assuring that content production moves along at a healthy clip.
Bonus Tips: Things I Wouldn’t Do to Save Money
Having covered some tactics that I would recommend to save money in developer marketing programs, I’ll offer some quick hitters that I wouldn’t recommend, either because they would likely be ineffective savings vehicles or because they would do more harm than good.
- Don’t cut costs via gimmicks. I would lump the “have ChatGPT write it” concern here but generalize it to suggest that you not look to cut costs through a series of micro-optimizations, spammy tactics, or weird hacks. Your developer audience will see inauthenticity or gimmicks a mile away.
- Don’t swamp technical founders or early employees with the content creation burden. While there is arguably no one more qualified than an articulate technical employee to create developer marketing content, these folks have enough to do building the product. If they LOVE content creation, you can lean into that a bit, but understand that pressing non-marketers into marketing to save money is a serious organizational anti-pattern.
- Don’t offer patronizing perks instead of money. Don’t ask developers to write content for free and tell them that they should do it for “exposure” or an extended trial of your product. This will backfire and get you roasted.
- Don’t have non-developers pretend to be developers. Contrary to popular belief, marketers without development backgrounds can effectively create content for and market to software developers. Just be authentic about it, and whatever you do, don’t pretend to be a developer when you’re not.
- Don’t astroturf developer communities. Developer communities and discussion sites (Hacker News, various subreddits, etc) are extremely sensitive to gratuitous self promotion, especially if you do it from some kind of sock puppet account. This will blow back on you.
Community-Friendly Approaches Lead to Savings
When it comes to saving and extending runways, developer marketing is a true double-edge sword.
On the one hand, you’re marketing to a highly skeptical audience and you need to enlist people with an expensive skillset to do it. And to make matters worse, a lot of traditional shortcuts have marginal or even negative returns here.
But on the other hand, the developer community is large, collaborative, and generally happy to exchange advice and content. There are unique opportunities to crowdsource marketing efforts, enlist prospects as part of your workforce, and build thriving communities, all of which can happen much more economically than traditional approaches.
Interestingly enough, these two “edges” actually complement each other when it comes to savings. Acting in more community-friendly fashion is both more cost effective and also just more effective. So you can rest assured that these tactics will continue to serve you well, even when the need for conservative approaches has passed.
About the Author
Erik Dietrich is the CEO of Hit Subscribe, a unique marketing business that helps companies reach software engineers by involving engineers in the content strategy and creation processes.