The rise of the digital advocacy program

Emerald Bull by, Pablo Picasso | What’s with the random art?

Last week I published a post title “Creating the virtual developer experience”. After publishing, I realized that the post was really all about a transition that I predict is going to take place with developer advocate and developer relations roles. I’ve decided to update the post to be more focused now that I’m able to articulate my thoughts on the subject with greater clarity. I want to express my apologies if you took the time to read the first post, I jumped the gun on publishing and it wasn’t my best work. Below is a much more thought-out and more importantly practical advice that can be implemented in a way that will drive results. I truly believe that this is a transition that has been in the making for a longtime and if you can get ahead of it, can create a unique position in the market.

Creating a high-quality developer experience, is one of the most difficult aspects of developer marketing and developer relations. As an industry, we’ve been over-dependent on the use of in-person events to drive engagement our developer communities. In-person events are not scalable, are time-intensive, are not capital efficient, and tend to box your message into an eco-chamber. Creating good developer experiences in-person is difficult, and that will increase exponentially online. But now that conferences and Meetups are virtual, there’s an opportunity to re-think the experience that we create for our audience. I believe that this opportunity is the responsibility of developer marketing teams.

Whether we realize it or not, developers have been conditioned by software vendors to expect a certain type of experience in return for joining their community, using their product, or participating in an event. They expect to speak with a subject matter expert vs a sales rep, they expect to receive swag for visiting the booth, they expect to be invited to the developer-only happy hour, and so much more. Most of these expectations are impossible to meet virtually. So how do you make up for it?

In the future, I’m sure the perfect platform will be built. It might be VR or AR, and have all sorts of cool ML aspects. But until that happens, I believe that the future of developer relations and advocacy resides in the hands of a hybrid function called digital advocacy.

Refocusing on digital developer engagement

Advocating on digital platforms is not a new concept to developer marketing and relation, however, in most developer organizations digital mediums have taken a secondary role to in-person events. Similar to the normal role of developer evangelists/advocates/relations (whatever you want to call it), digital advocacy takes the 1:1/1:few interactions that would normally happen at a conference or on-site with a customer and prioritizes them online. These interactions happen on forum style channels, like Reddit, Hacker news, or Quora, but are not limited to those channels.

Companies that establish a native digital presence, can insert their point of view into the conversation, the same way they would at a conference or Meetup. It will require dedicated resources, spending time on these channels and building trust with communities. Once it’s done, these digital advocates will have daily access to audiences that dwarf those of the biggest developer conferences with none of the overhead.

The digital advocacy stack

New functions require new tools, or at least combining a stack of existing tools that can accomplish the job. There are a few components that I believe are essential. The first tool is a live stream with the ability to host a live chat. The second component, is a sharable and cloneable development workspace, that can take a snap-shot of the branch the developer is working on and contain an exact replica environment (build and run dependencies, configurations, etc), and have the ability to do peer-programing. The non-essential, but very helpful tools include those of a developer marketer or the support of a digital marketing team to back them up and amplify their efforts.

Live-streaming is a major part of the digital advocacy role. I believe we need to take a lesson from how gamers are hosting live streams on channels like Twitch, YouTube Live, or the new Facebook. Their success hinges on their consistency and dependability. The build audiences that are conditioned to expect a live stream at the same time every day of the week. This results in daily audiences of 10-250K! Far more than you could ever reach at a conference.

We’re seeing a bit of these live-stream interactions happening during virtual conferences, but I think that moving forward it’s going to play a larger role in the developer marketing strategy. And I’m confident that the teams that invest in building up their audiences before anyone else does, will ultimately win.

The second component is the development workspace. When we look at enterprise development, there are just too many factors when it comes to replicating a project environment for a large audience. Digital advocacy teams need the ability to quickly clone their workspace and share it with their audience so that the audience can get hands-on with what they advocate is working on. Then if an audience member is having an issue, they can jump back into an exact clone of the audience members project and show them exactly what went wrong. There are several online IDEs that allow for this type of workspace sharing, my favorite would be hosted Eclipse Che.

Leveling-up product documentation

One aspect that will be of increasing importance is good documentation. High-quality and accurate docs are force multipliers for developer advocates and developer marketing teams. There is a ton of developer data that showcases the importance of good product documentation and the frustration that poor documentation creates for developers. As we focus more on virtual experiences, it’s important to make sure that your documentation doesn’t undermine that effort. The better your documentation is, the less time your digital advocates will need to spend on topics that are already ‘well-documented’. Developers lean towards self-servicing their issues; documentation makes that possible. When documentation is out-of-date or non-existent it’s impossible for them to solve their problems and forces them to reach out to your team.

It’s important to realize that there are two types of documentation. The documentation that you own on your site, and the documentation that is crowdsourced on channels like Stack Overflow, Quora, and Reddit. Verifying the accuracy of crowdsourced documentation is the job of the digital developer advocate. It’s also their job to proactively answer new questions and hopefully, direct members of the community back to the source of truth, your high-quality proprietary documentation.

Developer marketing’s role in supporting the shift

Developer marketing is built on programmatic elements. A programmatic element is a marketing effort that doesn’t have a defined start and end date (unlike a campaign). This would include a weekly/monthly developer newsletter, cadenced tech talks, podcasts, or consistent publishing on a blog/social. These elements are designed to build awareness and affinity. The more virtual your developer marketing strategy becomes, the more important it is to embrace and develop programmatic elements.

In addition to maintaining these activities, developer marketing teams need take on the role of amplifying and coordinating the efforts of digital advocates. This looks like augmenting activities with virtual events like a hackathon, boosting the reach of a live-stream with paid ads, or creating a blog post of upcoming stream topics.

The final part is to eliminate one of the biggest issues in developer marketing … vendor or solution bias. The goal of developer marketing isn’t to sell, instead your goal is to help developer solve their problems. Since there is no such thing as a one-size fits all solution, constantly pushing your product is a big turn-off for developers. Your goal should be to provide the best solution, sometimes it’s your product, sometimes it’s an upstream project, and other times it’s another vendor’s product. At the end of the day, adding unbiased value will have a greater ROI than pushing a sub-par solution. The best way to accomplish this is to change how developer marketing teams view their role. Distance your activities from demand gen and focus on developer relations activities. If your goal is to make the developer successful at all cost, you can’t go wrong.