Marketing to Developers via Facebook Ads: The Right Strategies and Approach | Hacker Noon

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@stephcasolaStephanie Casola

A marketer in the tech space specializing in AI, developer marketing and high-tech marketing.

Targeting developers is not an easy task, no matter how good your product is. Developer marketing is a nuanced space because developers are notoriously difficult to reach.

Facebook Ads tend to be a favorite in the marketer’s toolbox. But does using a generic platform like Facebook Ads make sense for this audience? In general, there are many reasons why businesses turn to Facebook Ads. They can be very successful for certain businesses and industries as they can potentially reach a wide audience.

However, there are a few considerations before choosing to incorporate Facebook Ads into your marketing strategy. This article will go over whether Facebook Ads makes sense in particular for A) software start-ups and B) targeting a developer audience.

These are my personal opinions that come from my experience working at tech startups. My hope is that sharing them with you will help you out. 

Targeting the Developer Audience

Developers are tough to market to. So why not just make it “feel” like it’s not marketing? Well, they can see right through that, most people can. I don’t think any of us enjoy constantly being marketed to, even when it’s disguised.

In fact, I think developers might resent that more, such as when content marketers show up on developer exclusive channels like Lobste.rs, sharing sales pitches disguised as high-quality informative content.

Or, when aesthetics take priority over content on a website in an attempt to lure users in with visuals. “The design is so good i didn’t even realize it was marketing!” yeah, this won’t happen. 

Developers often use ad blockers and are diligent about their privacy. This makes it tough to reach them with ads. In addition, they don’t look to traditional social media when they are trying to find the latest tech and new software to use.

They might use the most popular social channels, but it is not where they go to research new software tools. Several developers use Twitter, and follow coders, but it is not their main source of technology-related information.

They tend to spend more time reading high quality articles from good aggregators, and hang out in chat rooms such as Discord (a very popular one recently). 

Software developers are even becoming weary of “content marketing”. They don’t want to read articles that are sales pitches disguised as high-quality content, as I mentioned earlier.

Nonetheless, companies targeting developers need to create high-quality content (that is helpful and not just a sales pitch), which is time consuming. Blog articles, tutorials and docs help with product and feature adoption. 

Where do developers learn about new software and tools to try out? According to the Stack Overflow 2020 Developer Survey, over 60% of developers ask other developers they know and visit developer communities like Stack Overflow to do their research. 

Word of mouth plays a huge role in developer communities. I believe that the most reliable way to attract developers is to get other developers to recommend your product to their peers.

Anything organic is a slower burn, it takes time, which means it can sometimes be disregarded by companies looking for fast growth. However, this will only hurt them in the long run. 

Two major mistakes that tech companies and start-ups make

This is the perfect segue into some of the major mistakes a lot of startups and tech companies make in the early stages that will hinder them in the long run. 

The first mistake is ignoring the brand journey and not having patience for organic methods that take more time such as word of mouth and SEO. Not building a strong foundation of brand recognition and recall before moving on with their marketing strategy.

Many leaders of tech startups believe that the product is so good that it will sell itself. This just simply isn’t true, especially with a fickle developer audience. If you don’t invest the time in building your community and encouraging organic methods of brand awareness, you are doing the company a disservice.

Don’t be impatient with something important just because it’s slow, and the results can be somewhat intangible at first. This often makes leaders at start-ups want to jump the gun to methods that get quicker results, more conversions, more sign-ups!

While these are legitimate goals to have, they happen later in the brand journey. If the early stages are disregarded, growth won’t happen as quickly later on. Companies will need to revisit tactics geared towards the earlier stages of the brand journey, but likely won’t do so because they take too long, and it’s crunch time. Building a brand that people recognize takes time.

Things like SEO take at least 6 months to a year before they start working effectively. The standard funding cycle for startups is 18 months. If you don’t pay attention to the brand journey from day one, time will quickly run out. 

The second mistake is only investing in marketing and not in sales. Sales and marketing need to work together. Marketing can create demand and generate leads, but sales will need to do the relationship building and deal closing.

Without that, you can’t expect sustainable growth of paid users, especially larger enterprise accounts, which in most cases is where the big money lies. If you want a developer to pay to use your tool on an ongoing basis, you will need to target decision-makers at the companies they work at. This is where your investment in sales will prove its worth. 

Marketing Strategy and the Brand Journey

Okay so what is this brand journey that I keep talking about? When a brand is born it will go through growth stages. Below is a brief summary of the brand journey that I pulled from this course, where you can learn about each stage in much more detail. 

The brand journey can broken down into 6 stages: 

Brand Identity: This is the first impression that the brand makes. Most people forget about within a few moments of coming across it. In fact, when it comes to ads, most people have to see an ad ten times before actually clicking on it.

Brand Awareness: At this stage, your brand is moving beyond being only visible to the prospect. The goal is to reach a point of instant recognition and recall.

Credibility: Once the audience recognizes and remembers the brand, they will associate it with a feeling. Managing the brand’s associations is a part of this; being associated with other credible and established brands will help your brand be associated with positive feelings that they already have for these other brands that they trust.

Engagement: At this stage, the customer is willing to talk to you or try you out.

Receptivity: Based on a customer’s experience engaging with the brand, the first stage of loyalty can take place. They are still testing at this stage, whether the brand is worth committing to and/or introducing to their friends. Note that this is where the “word of mouth” referring to a software platform would happen with developers, at a late stage in the brand journey. 

Resonance: The second stage of loyalty; not just using the brand’s product or service but becoming a fan, meaning that they identify themselves with the brand. Similar to how many developers are loyal to Linux and identify themselves as Linux users. 

At a start-up, before investing into ads, resources should be invested into the earlier stages of the brand journey. Ads will happen later, although it might be tempting to use them sooner to pay to get the sought after results such conversions to paid users.

At the beginning stages of the brand journey, when the company is founded, efforts should be allocated to building a strong foundation and a strong community through developer advocacy and partnerships with developers who write or blog.

For example, if developers find out about new tools from other developers and on forums like Stack Overflow, you would want to have a dev advocate interacting with other developers (by attending events) and having a presence on forums.

At the early stages of the brand journey, you would want to build partnerships and relationships with developers and other companies who are credible in the space and essentially further along in the brand journey. 

So why do tech companies advertise on Facebook at all? 

If at the beginning stages of the brand journey, resources are allocated to ads instead of community building, the ads might still get results, however, they might not be sustainable. I’ve seen Facebook Ads generate sign-ups for free trials of a platform.

However, those “users” never went on to use the free trial, they just signed up and forgot about it. My hypothesis is that this happens because the platform had no brand recognition in the developer community.

From a dev’s perspective, they are at work, they take a break and your ad manages to get on their radar, they think “this is cool”, sign up for a free trial, go back to work thinking one day they might test it out.

Then they essentially forget about it. It could be a different story had the developer heard of the brand before seeing the ad from their colleagues or on forums such as Stack Overflow or Hacker Noon. With a strong presence in the community and on the forums, you might not even need the ad. 

There are benefits to Facebook Ads but they depend on what the goals are. I don’t think that the ROI is worth it for tech start-ups and for targeting developers.

However, brands that are more established, have brand recognition and trust, a solid community and more wiggle room in the budget, could use Facebook Ads to compliment all of that. If you aren’t relying on Facebook to bring in new users or active/high-quality users, then it can grow your following on the Facebook social channel, which is good for optics.

Having a lot of followers on social media can look good to VC’s and investors. FB Ads can also increase web traffic. Web traffic is an important KPI, however it doesn’t make up for a lack of product adoption in the community.

It could be used to create brand awareness, although I do believe that developers won’t take it as seriously as word of mouth, or seeing the brand in developer communities. 

When it comes to geography, developers from other countries tend to use Facebook more heavily than American developers. Chances are very low of pulling in developers from the US on Facebook, but you could attract developers from other parts of the world such as India, Europe and South America.

I have seen Facebook Ads targeting developers globally getting free trial sign-ups. However, it was clear that the majority of them never used the free trial, or used it once, which doesn’t qualify as product adoption. If you want a lot of free trial sign-ups, Facebook Ads could potentially work, and this is also good for optics.

You could use these numbers to appeal to VCs. But remember, it’s their job to see through this, and chances are, they will. They know that free trial users are not likely to convert to paid users on a subscription platform if they aren’t even active on it when it’s free.

So again it depends on the company’s goals and where they are at in the brand journey and what kind of resources they have to allocate to Facebook Ads. 

To Facebook Ad or not to Facebook Ad? 

To summarize, Facebook Ads are not going to be worth it if you are an early-stage start up, targeting developers, especially in the US, with little to no brand recognition or credibility, and want to attract users that will get very active on your platform and eventually convert to paid users. If this is what you want, Facebook is not the answer. 

Marketing should happen in layers; in steps; trials and iterations. This doesn’t necessarily mean slow, plenty of companies have hit a dedicated and vocal group of core users who helped propel them to wide adoption.

However, it doesn’t make sense to try everything at the same time. If you go for everything, you will end up with nothing. Using Facebook Ads will depend on your goals.

However, there are things you should try before Facebook Ads, and it makes sense to start with one tactic and then add on other tactics. 

If you are focusing on developers then developer advocacy and community building should come first. If you want to try some ads, Google ads are a great way to test your market.

You can figure out where your market is at by using the google keyword planner to gauge how many monthly searches your keywords get. If they are low, around a few hundred a month, then don’t expect to get thousands of paid users right away. You should also start investing resources into SEO from the start. SEO can be complicated and take time, but it is key for every business.

Why wouldn’t you want to capture an audience of people who are actively searching for what you offer? Most software companies have a blog and dedicate time to creating high quality content, which is essential for the developer audience.

A lot of companies also have a blog because it can help with SEO, but this won’t happen automatically. From the start, you need to make sure that your website is set-up to optimize SEO, otherwise your blog or website won’t work in your favor.

In fact, they could work against you if the Google crawler bot penalizes you. If you’re not optimizing, you are essentially hindering SEO. At this stage of the business, I would consider solid content to be an essential component of developer advocacy.

Tutorials and docs are a must; you must make it as easy as possible for developers to learn how to use the tool you’re offering. 

Should you use Facebook Ads? It depends. I think Facebook Ads are a good add-on to a strong strategy built on solid foundation stemming from the brand journey.

However, you should not rely on Facebook Ads as your main source of new users or quality users. This is especially true if you are targeting developers or if you are at a start-up with a limited marketing budget.

Beware!

The results might look good at first, but your time and money will be better spent in other places.

Don’t even think about Facebook Ads if you don’t have strong developer relations and advocacy and if you haven’t done any sort of community building. 

Facebook Ad Don’ts 

  • Use it as your main source of attracting new users or customers, especially if you are targeting developers.
  • Expect Facebook Ads to attract quality users and paid customers if you haven’t first built brand recognition and credibility.
  • Invest in Facebook Ads over developer advocacy, community building, sales, SEO and even google ads.
  • Invest a substantial amount of time into it if you are targeting developers, reach them at the communities they are a part of and where they go to research new tools and platforms. 

Facebook Ad Dos 

  • Use Facebook Ads as an ad-on or to enhance an already strong marketing strategy, if you have wiggle room in your budget. 

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