A Brief History Of Developer Relations Programs: How DevRel Evolved Into Developer Communities

Mike Stowe

This post is part of a series on the evolution of developer relations, evangelism and advocacy as a marketing and community-building function. Click here to read the first blog in the series, An Introduction To Developer Relations: What It Is And Why You Need It.

When I joined Constant Contact in 2013, developer relations programs were just becoming mainstream. They were popularized by companies such as New Relic, Twilio, EngineYard, and Sendgrid. It seemed like no matter where you were—at a conference, a meetup, or an online webinar—you would come across one of these companies.

Their focus on being present in developer communities helped them grow large fan bases of active users. These loyal developers then shared how they used these applications with others (usually in the form of online tutorials), helping these brands spread like wildfire.

In fact, these rabid fans became one of the single most important reasons these companies became so successful. Today, Sendgrid is known as the defacto standard for transactional emails. Twilio, the icon of developer evangelism, proudly displayed its “Ask Your Developer” billboards throughout San Francisco to show off not only their market dominance, but their unique relationship with their users before their IPO.

But as developer relation programs have evolved over the last 20 years—with exponential leaps in the last five—these programs have had to adjust their strategies and expand beyond the traditional engagement and evangelism model.

The reason? Other companies are catching on.

When developer relations programs hit a wall

Twilio is no longer alone in the market with their 5 minute demo (which became the industry standard for developer onboarding). They now face competition from companies like Nexmo, who drastically increased their event presence while Twilio scaled back.

twilio video demo still developer evangelism

New Relic now faces competition from AppDynamics, who also (for a while) aggressively increased their event presence. EngineYard took on competition from companies like AWS, Google, and Digital Ocean. Even Sendgrid evangelists can’t stroll through Montgomery BART street station (or CalTrain apparently) without seeing SparkPost banners plastered everywhere.

The simple truth is that providing a great service and being “present” are not enough to build a strong developer relations program. <Tweet this>

While every market will eventually have competition, companies that market to developers have another unique challenge: developers want to use the latest, coolest thing. Plus, they’re often inclined to root for the underdog—unless they have a sense of connection elsewhere.

So, how do you maintain and grow stronger relationships with your developer user base?

The new model of developer relations can’t rely on a “company out” model. It has to be a “community in” model. And that means leveraging new tools and more engaging techniques than ads and tutorials to drive word of mouth and developer loyalty.

Building modern developer communities

There are some companies that have been unfazed by the increased competition in this space.

Today, if you ask a developer a question, the first place they’re likely to look (after Google) is StackOverflow—a question and answer site that somehow fended off Experts-Exchange.com and numerous other attempted clones and solutions.

And perhaps the most successful—and underrated—developer relations program belongs to a company known as GitHub, a company that hasn’t invested in their program the same way as Twilio or Sendgrid has, but still boasts the largest and most active developer community.

What makes both of these companies so interesting is that they both focused on grassroots approaches over extensive event strategies.

That’s not to say that they didn’t go to events. GitHub was famous for sending their myriad of creative Lisa/Octocat stickers to conferences around the world. But that wasn’t core to their strategy.


How can you NOT love a brand with such adorable stickers?

Their strategy was built around community, highlighting individuals’ contributions, and providing a resource developers could rely on to continue growing in their careers.

StackOverflow did this with with copy and paste code snippets, bug fixes, etc. GitHub did it with numerous open source projects developers could incorporate into their work and learn from.


The hierarchy of developer success needs

More so, both of these communities were also early adopters of gamification in the developer community.

StackOverflow used badges and Karma (which contributors earn, somewhat like points, based on other community members upvoting on your questions and answers). GitHub did this with organizations (showing off the companies or projects developers were a part of), contribution highlights, and activity graphs.

As more companies have realized the importance of having “communities of impact,” more of them have adopted gamification into their platforms. Some built gamification into their forums (similar to StackOverflow). Others took a more focused approach, such as MuleSoft with their Champions Program, in which developers could earn points, badges, and prizes as they completed challenges. Salesforce introduced Trailhead, a program in which users earn badges and prizes as they completed challenges. Even Microsoft has launched their own gamified version of Trailhead, with Microsoft Learning Paths.

How gamified online communities are changing developer events

The importance of these gamified developer relations programs isn’t lost in real life either, but instead helps drive the very core of business strategy. The MuleSoft Champions Program took center stage at MuleSoft’s CONNECT conference. The Trailhead program was the main theme of Salesforce’s DevZone events, as well as their separate developer conference last year.

Both programs do this by having booths and spaces devoted to developers in the online programs, and have stations where these brand advocates can complete challenges and earn prizes on the spot.

While events are important for generating leads and raising awareness, most post-event follow-up falls short—mostly because brands make outreach about themselves and their product offering.

However, if developers receive an email with updates, news, and relevant information, they’ll pay attention—and might subscribe for more. 99% of your marketing outreach should be geared at benefiting your potential developers over a hard ask for a demo or call.

There’s one more important reason to run and attend events: bringing the developer community together. But to do it, you need to have a community already in place.

The secret to great developer relations programs: mobilizing evangelist communities

We’ve come back to where we started when it comes to building a foundation for developer relations: growing a grassroots community.

dr phil gif developer community

Bet you never would have guessed!

While events and online gamification are important parts of a developer relations program, your overall goal should be creating developers who not only can act as evangelists, but want to act as evangelists for your company in the community (like the ones I talked about for Sendgrid and Twilio).

99% of your marketing to developers should be geared towards training and empowering developer advocates to use and share your technologies. <Tweet this>

To create these vocal fans, it’s critical that your program focuses on education to make them subject matter experts (which brings them deeper into your community).

Then, you must encourage them to take a central role in your community, and find ways to recognize them for their efforts professionally amongst the community. (You can learn how other companies do this in this eBook.)

The real success for a developer relations program comes from being centric to the developer’s’ life; a resource that they rely on to grow professionally, that allows them to not only use your technology and network with others, but to grow their skills and gain knowledge that is relevant to them. Developer relations programs must rely on education and interacting with the larger developer community more than ever.

Over the last 20 years, developer marketing has moved from a style of traditional marketing (“Let me tell you how great we are!”) and company-specific calls to actions (“Buy our product!”) to education (“Let us help you grow.”), community (“We’re in this together.”), and symbiotic calls to actions (“Share your knowledge about our technology and gain more recognition in the industry.”).

To be truly successful in developer marketing, your company’s developer marketing must too.

This post is part of a series on the evolution of developer relations, evangelism and advocacy as a marketing and community-building function. In the next post, we’ll get more into developer advocacy, followed by a post specifically on setting up a developer relations strategy.

More developer relations resources:

How MongoDB Reaches Developers With Advocate-Created Content
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