28/04/2014

By Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid, the cloud-based email deliverability platform, explores how to build meaningful relations with developers

There has been a lot of buzz around developer relations recently and the approach companies should consider when targeting the developer community. As with all hot new opportunities, however, building and successfully executing on a new strategy is never as easy as it may first appear.

For companies to derive real value from a developer relations program, the right approach needs to be a mix of driving developer interest in a company’s products, soliciting new and existing product feedback, as well as working hand in hand with the broader developer community to solve problems.

Companies beware though: developers tend to be a very discerning bunch. Any token attempts at developer community engagement intended to benefit solely the company will likely fall flat, if not backfire.

When building a developer relations program, it’s important to bring on a developer evangelist initially who is familiar with the developer community. While most developers are inherently technical, a developer evangelist doesn’t necessarily have to write code to be part of this community. Even a non-technical person (or team) can provide value by introducing the company to the local community.

Hiring a developer evangelist can be a good opportunity to drive grassroots marketing and gather early-stage product feedback. With a diverse skill set that includes community management, development, event management, product management, tech support, and plenty of speaking experience, the right developer evangelist can act as the face of the business in the developer community and build traction for a new product or service.

One of the challenges is to decide on the appropriate tactics when engaging with the developer community. There is no set roadmap here and there can be pitfalls and misconceptions that businesses should be aware of. Measuring success with strict metrics and recruitment targets will undermine the campaign from the beginning — the commitment needs to be long-term and based on the right principles.

Embrace opportunities to hire from the community, beware prioritising ‘generating leads’ and aggressively looking for new recruits, as this could potentially tarnish a company’s reputation.

One of the key tactics is to have developer evangelists participate in many of the growing number of hackathons. While there are many high profile hackathons, such as Battle Hack, which take place in numerous cities around the world, companies should not neglect the smaller, more local hackathons.

Depending upon its business model (and available resources) it could make sense for a company to organize its own hackathon. When organizing a hackathon, it’s important to note that prizes and the aggressive recruitment of developers should not be the focus. In fact, prizes should be treated as afterthoughts with the focus on encouraging a collaborative environment where developers can learn, challenge their comfort zone, and build something of true value.

One final piece of advice to help promote developer engagement with a company’s products is to create quality online documentation. Companies that deliver good, well-organized online documentation will quickly become developer favourites. Focussing on flexible API libraries will empower readers to understand and implement a platform quickly. Open source documentation also allows for feedback from users so that they can indicate inconsistencies or typos, which can then be addressed quickly.

Overall, companies looking to implement a developer relations strategy should ensure it is underpinned by one fundamental principle: it’s about relationships and developer engagement, not about generating leads nor short-cuts to new hires.

These principles of developer relations form the ethos of developer relations at SendGrid. Our developer relations team has contributed significantly to building the SendGrid business via grass-roots developer community engagement. In addition, alongside our email delivery service, we are also working to make developers lives easier via new tools like Loader.io, which is an application load-testing service to help stress test web-apps and APIs for free. This, and many similar R&D efforts, is run by SendGrid Labs, our in-house team focussed solely on solving developer pain points.

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