Ultimate How-To Guide on Marketing for Developers & Techies

What is marketing…really?

Marketing for developers may be a dirty word…for some a voodoo science…to many, marketing is practiced by overpaid ‘suits’ with no understanding of product development who create expensive but ineffective ads. In reality, anyone who’s been through a startup launch realises that marketing is critical as the biggest problem that any new business faces is attracting customers. Growth is the defining characteristic of a startup, and marketing creates and drives growth. Most Developers know that marketing has its place and probably feel that they should be doing it, although fear getting it wrong. In fact, Developers are crucial for marketing success and are already practicing it in many respects.

According to the American Marketing Society, marketing is “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” Central to this definition is ‘value’ – in basic terms, marketing is the creation, delivery and communication of value…how do you do that? By solving real problems for people.

So you accept that you need to be doing marketing, but where do you start? There is little useful guidance available and literally hundreds of things that you ‘could do‘. The following 10 principles are intended to give you the basis for defining, building and executing an effective marketing program to drive real and sustainable customer growth.

1. Think marketing early and always

Marketing should be considered from the very beginning and throughout the ongoing development of the product; rather than something merely introduced at the end. This may come as a surprise to some, especially those who consider ‘development’ to be their fiefdom. Yet, to create something that will be demanded, enjoyed and shared by users or customers, something of ‘value’, then you need to bake marketing in from Day 1. There are 2 fundamental reasons to do this: i. using marketing (and I’m not talking advertising here) as a means of gaining feedback and insights into your product will allow you to hone it to maximise growth when you go-to-market; and ii. to build groundswell of anticipation and demand takes time to sow the necessary seeds through establishing relationships with influencers and early-adopters. There are numerous examples of break-through startups who have done this successfully, but to highlight a couple:

Dropbox logo

Created a private beta launch video that they released on Digg, generating 12K Diggs and increasing the beta waiting list from 5K to 75K in one day (March 2008).

Mint Finance logo

Generated a waiting list of over 20K pre-launch, fundamental to which was creating a unique personal finance blog, very content-rich, that spoke to a neglected, young professional crowd. Eventually the blog became #1 in personal finance, and drove traffic to the app.

2. Build something useful…solve ONE real problem

To deliver a product or service that customers will demand and ultimately be prepared to pay for requires that you offer something that’s useful, i.e. of sufficiently perceived value. Value is created when you fulfill a need that is derived from the existence of a problem experienced or anticipated by the customer. The more specific, evident and painful that problem – the more ‘real’ it is – the greater the value you will be able to generate.

Marketing for developers solve one problem

You can read my post on Problem Definition – 9 Key Questions to ask when defining what you’re looking to solve for, to help understand the nature and scope of the problem before embarking on developing your solution.

3. Deliver a remarkable overall experience

In this day-and-age though, just creating something that solves a problem isn’t enough. When people select to purchase or adopt a product or service they consider 2 things: i. does it work (i.e. do what they expect and / or need it to), and ii. is it interesting? The world is already full of things that work. To be successful, people need to care about your product. If they don’t care, they won’t talk about it and share the experience; hence you won’t drive growth. To care, they have to find it interesting; to be interesting it needs to have personality. Nobody wants boring stuff! Personality builds a relationship with the product and, ultimately the ‘brand’; as @FAKEGRIMLOCK puts it: “PERSONALITY IS THE API FOR LOYALTY” (he always uses caps!). People make friends with personalities; you want to help a friend; you forgive a friend when they’re not always perfect; and you want a friend to win.

Just look at Google as an example; the way they create doodles with their logo adds nothing to the functionality of the product or how it solves the problem for the customer; but it does add personality, people talk about it and share! They celebrate special occasions, feature celebrities, have spun-off interactive games (play the 30th anniversary PacMan version if you haven’t already) and now even have a  Google product devoted to them. It’s all part of the overall experience that Google are delivering, not just the product or service.

They’ve made it ‘remarkable’…if there aren’t reasons why people (prospects, customers, influencers) should remark about you, why and how are you going to generate word-of-mouth? Look at how do you build share-ability into the experience – emotionally as well as functionally.

4. Understand your target audience…intimately

Before you can build a plan for communicating and sharing your product experience, especially to those important first early adopters, it’s critical to understand your target audience…intimately! Although a good starting point for deciding the problem that you’re going to solve is to look at yourself, you need to be wary of solely focusing on you (and your team) as the primary user. Often both development and marketing assumptions based on your own perceptions and experience come back to bite, as they don’t reflect those of the actual audience who will ultimately demand and pay for the product. Steve Jobs was infamously quoted as saying, “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” but that’s not to say that Apple didn’t and don’t go to extraordinary lengths to understand their market.  

To identify who your target audience is in the first place, you should look at audience groups through 4 dimensions:

  • Scale – The quantifiable size of the audience – is it large enough? Don’t confuse a group of early adopters necessarily with your target audience; if there aren’t enough of them, or they won’t directly influence a bigger group, your business won’t be sustainable…so why bother?
  • Affluence – How much available spend do they have? And how much of it do you think you can get?
  • Competition – How saturated is the market from incumbent players / solutions? How much ‘white space’ do you have?
  • Affinity – How much alignment is there with your proposition? How much value are you delivering to this specific group?

The group that addresses each of these 4 dimensions to the highest degree should be your primary target audience.

Once you’ve identified your audience, it’s time to REALLY understand them so you can develop activities and messages that will engage and resonate. You need to learn everything you can about them so you can devise a list of requirements, just as you would before embarking on a development project. A quick approach to this is as follows:

  • Create an initial list of keywords / phrases that pertain to your product and market space (think broad and then hone it down)
  • Run searches on each of these in turn and start absorbing the content – articles, blogs, videos, etc. – that are relevant
  • Take your keywords and run searches through social media channels such as Twitter and Google+. There are also a plethora of social media monitoring and listening tools that make it easier to search across platforms – a list of these can be found here
  • Start reaching out to people who are regularly engaging in communications around your space to further your learning and start building relationships with potential influencers and future users
  • As you search, build a knowledge of:
    – The topics and subjects that are being communicated and, especially, discussed;
    – What specific language – words and phrases – are being used; take these and use them to keep refining your keywords list.

Once you’ve built a picture of your target audience, you should validate your assumptions to ensure that you truly understand who you’re going after, what they want from a product or service like yours, what they’re interested in, and how they communicate (language, channels).

Remember, ‘research’ is not a one-off exercise, but an ongoing discipline of ‘listening’.

5. Have a unique and compelling story

From the days when mankind first walked the Earth, stories have been the primary method through which we absorb and learn new information. Marketing most effectively uses stories to express the value that is generated from the delivery of the product or service. Clearly I’m not talking about “Once upon a time…” here, and this is where you may think that marketing starts to get ‘flowery’ – don’t panic! What I’m referring to is having a clear and focussed core message, that is expressed simply and with relevance to the context within which it is communicated; delivered with impact, engagement and personality (yes, that word again!).

In marketing parlance, the basis of that story is often referred to as your ‘Value Proposition’; for this I use the ‘ANSWER Framework' explained here.

You will tell your story in many forms, through many channels and vehicles, but ensure you keep it consistent to your core Value Proposition. The more you repeat it, the more it will become understood, absorbed, accepted, acted upon and repeated by others.

6. Tell your story through creating content

Once you’ve constructed your story, you tell it through the content that you generate. The premise of ‘Content Marketing’ is that by providing material sought and valued by your audience, you circumvent the barriers that exist for more traditional ‘interruption’ marketing activities. This once sound strategy though has become a victim of its own success…EVERYONE is now creating content, which has resulted in the quality being delivered coming down and down, and down. Audiences are now being bombarded with a deluge of…rubbish! (To put it delicately.) Think of your own feeds, how much of it do you actually consume and value? I warrant a very small proportion. As a consequence, content platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as consumers themselves, have put filters in place to sift for only the most interesting, entertaining and informative content. In essence, they’ve now put the barriers up. We’ve gone full circle to having to create impact with our content to ensure that it cuts through the clutter, to grab peoples’ attention…to interrupt!

The starting point comes from your audience research and listening to really understand what content your audience are consuming, what they’re interested in, engaging with and, critically, sharing. It’s essential to discover what stories resonate so you can tap into the themes and topics that matter most to them. Use these as inspiration, but try to develop content that’s unique. Tell your own story, share your own opinions and make your own mark – remember, impact and standout are key! At the same time you need to be adding value – how are you solving their problems and fulfilling their needs? Notice the number of ‘How to’, ‘Top 10 ways to’, and ‘Guides’ that you see in blogs and videos. Keep coming back to your core story (Value Proposition) and reinforce your key messages as much and as often as possible. Try to be topical: provide comment on what’s happening in your space; remark on what others are saying with your own take; provide your insights and perspectives on trends. Above all, be compelling…give people reasons to want more and share what you produce – if you want your business to scale, your voice needs to resonate and proliferate beyond those with which you have direct contact.

Creating a blog is a great place to kick-off (note the Mint.com example above), but don’t just concentrate on the written word. Images, audio and especially video are now hugely important elements of an overall content mix. With the latest devices and tools that are available, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to create good quality, multi-format content.

7. Get social

Some Developers may have a natural dislike or even distrust of social media, whether that’s because of concerns over privacy and security, or because they don’t want to follow the crowd. Like it or not, the social space is where your future customers are, and you need to be engaging them there if you’re going to effectively understand them, persuade them and motivate them to adopt your offering. Many are also wary of the time and commitment required to build and maintain an effective social presence. Let’s be honest, there is no silver-bullet here. My starting point on this is always that there’s no-one more informed and passionate to tell your story than you are. You may feel that you’re not the best writer or presenter, but what you are is genuine, and that outweighs everything else. You’ll get better at articulating your story and key messages the more you do it. Social doesn’t have to be a chore and there are many services and tools that can help to make it more manageable (see my list here for starters).

There are many tricks and tactics to being effective in social, but ultimately it comes back to creating unique, relevant, compelling and impactful content that you share and then others proliferate further. Social isn’t free. It always costs in one way or another; to be successful requires time, energy and focus. Frankly, there’s no shortcut or off-the-peg solution that will bring you social amplification overnight, and I’d be very wary of anyone that tries to convince you otherwise. Clearly, there are a million other things that you need to be doing; but engaging directly with influencers and customers MUST be top of your list, if for no other reason than to gain feedback, insight and verification for your developments.

My top tips for social success are:

  • Social Media is not ‘free’ – you have to invest time and energy
  • Each network works differently – learn and understand each before committing
  • Focus on 1-2 key networks based on your audience’s profile and behaviour; make them a success and then extend you presence out from there – don’t try to be everywhere straight off the bat
  • Talk and act appropriately for the environment – be relevant, interesting and shareable
  • Use your keywords to maximise engagement and sharing
  • Never buy audience – earn and amplify
  • Build fewer, deeper, higher-value relationships with key influencers in your space
  • Use networking best practices: do your homework; provide value upfront and don’t expect it return; always ask: “what’s in it for them?”; what connections can you facilitate? (this is the social currency)
  • Have an ‘always on’ approach, including evenings and weekends – use the tools available to help manage
  • Integrate updates across networks, but beware of the different contexts

8. Don’t Think What’s Right for Google…Think What’s Right for Users

Just like social, search marketing can seem daunting. Developers are better positioned than most though to appreciate its subtleties. The basic premise of a successful search strategy is to focus on what’s right and makes sense for users, rather than trying to ‘trick’ the system or control Google (other search engines are available). Search marketing is effective but often unpredictable. Keep the value that you’re delivering and the overall experience for the user primary, and the traffic will follow.

There are some basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Focus on increasing the number of keywords sending traffic (keyword portfolio), rather than improving specific keyword positions; 70% of searches contain 3 or more words in a query, and over 20% of search queries are completely new that have never been searched before
  • Optimise your site’s technical set-up for SEO:
    – Check your URL structure – how easy is it to crawl?
    – Check and remove any duplicate content
    – Use meaningful titles and anchor text within copy
    – Fix any internal dead links (either dead pages on your site or external dead pages)
    – Use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to measure how quickly your site loads in Google’s view
    – Expose text in objects to search (videos, sound, slides / presentations, etc.)
  • Distribute and promote content through social media; search engines use social signals in their ranking algorithms
  • Publish content on trusted, quality third-party sites with link-backs to your own
  • Network with key online influencers; think about mutual benefits to earn references and rich-links where possible
  • Test and iterate with Paid Search to maximise ROI:
    – Start with a small number of keywords to test and then iterate to optimise
    – Use keywords and phrases that are very specific and targeted to your audience, even if there is a low search volume
    – Don’t over bid for keywords unless you are sure no one else is doing the same
    – Constrain your spend; test and then expand spend where you see positive results

Remember, search is a means to harvest demand, not to create it – someone has to search on a specific keyword / phrase in the first place in order for you to be found. On its own, the effect of search will therefore be limited without a wider marketing program in place.

9. Measure success, iterate, optimise

Just as you would test that your product is working through a defined QA process, you should do the same with your marketing channels and messaging. Measure, iterate and optimize are the watchwords for marketing effectiveness, just as they are for development. Eric Ries talks about ‘vanity metrics’ versus actionable metrics; vanity metrics are things like registered users, downloads and page-views that many businesses and commentators roll-out to show traction, but often don’t reflect the actual health of the business. It is important to be clear on the metrics that can make your products better, attract more customers, and make them happier; and then focus on these as your ‘key performance indicators’. Your product and marketing should be properly instrumented and opinionated to get a true picture and not blindly go by the loudest users or metrics; measures including active users, engagement, acquisition cost, repeat usage, retention, and ultimately revenue and profit, should be top-of-mind and understood. Get granular to spot movements quickly and align events to data to cross-reference timelines and understand what’s the impact of changes so you make informed decisions about possible improvements. To achieve this, it’s necessary to establish baselines before embarking on any product developments or marketing initiatives. Vanity metrics aren’t completely irrelevant, just don’t be fooled by them.

A key concept in marketing measurement is ‘attribution’. Customers research, compare and make purchase decisions at different times and in different places – according to Google, the average customer now consults 10 different sources before purchase. Traditionally, the performance of marketing was viewed based on the ‘last click’ before conversion, hence giving an incomplete picture. Attribution modeling and tools look at interactions across different media and show how these channels work together to create sales. This allows the marketer to invest resources (focus, time, money) to engage across the customer journey and optimise the marketing mix to maximise conversion. With current technologies, attribution is still an imperfect science, but you should take the rough output, make changes, observe the impact, identify insights and be less wrong over time.

There are a host of tools and resources available to measure, track and optimise you marketing efforts; you can find a list of some of the key ones here.

10. Have multiple legs for growth

Many businesses often fall into the trap of becoming reliant upon one or a (very) small number of channels to drive acquisition and growth (primarily in the case of Google AdWords). They find that these channels start to quickly generate the overwhelming majority of visitors and leads to their site, and hence put all their resources into these baskets to the exclusion of others. More often than not though this proves an ill-conceived and self-defeating approach that ultimately becomes overly costly and potentially fatal to the success of the business. Firstly, as I mentioned previously, search is for harvesting demand and not creating it, hence you need to have activities and mechanisms in place to generate the demand in the first place, otherwise your search traffic can soon stagnate. Also, being beholden to one platform is never a good idea – just look how Zynga has suffered by being at the whim of Facebook – they are prone to changing the rules in their best interests and not necessarily yours; often undermining your efforts to optimise resources and sometimes being catastrophic by removing your source of business altogether. Finally, you find that as you try to scale it becomes more and more difficult, and more and more expensive to generate incremental customers, and your growth starts to wane off once you’ve absorbed the lower hanging fruit.

All channels intertwine and leverage off each other in some way; so the more that you can develop a multi-pronged approach, the greater the overall amplification. Social, search, PR all work together and build groundswell from the bottom-up as they interact. The optimum approach is to have a mixed channel strategy with scope to experiment to find new methods for driving customers (note, not just traffic). Start by allocating a portion of your time and budget to things that you haven’t done before. See if they work and, if so, double down. If not, tweak and iterate.


Marketing is a craft requiring a balance of art and science to get it right. The above principles provide a starting point and direction, but there is no one answer. Marketing in Startup-land requires a mix of Hacker, Hustler and Hipster…get it right and you can change the world!

For a directory of services and tools to help you set up and maximise your marketing efforts, look no further! Find all here.