Commentary: If you want to get ahead with developers, one winning strategy is to market exactly what your product can’t do. Find out why.

anti-marketing image.
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Pinkypills

Developers like to pretend they’re allergic to marketing, but they’re just as susceptible as anyone else. In fact, ask a developer-turned-company-founder what they wish they’d done a lot more of, a lot earlier, and they’ll likely tell you “marketing.”

The question is: What kind of marketing?

The best kind of developer marketing might not look like the kind of marketing you’re used to. Take, for instance, HashiCorp co-founder Mitchell Hashimoto’s suggestion that a company should market what it can’t do, not just what it can. It’s a seemingly backward approach to enticing developers to try your product, but given HashiCorp’s outsized popularity with developers, it’s worth looking more closely at Hashimoto’s advice.

Maybe you should try something else

HashiCorp’s atypical approach to marketing first came to my attention in a tweet from Redmonk co-founder James Governor. Governor stressed that it was “notable” that “in the obligatory vendor competitive landscape slide, HashiCorp shows the [things that] API Gateway…doesn’t do that competitive platforms do.” As he goes on to mention, “[T]his is quite rare, but it’s very useful.”

Useful, perhaps, but not the norm. Indeed, Gartner’s Fintan Ryan lamented that when he’s suggested a similar approach to clients, he’s had “Very, very negative [reactions].” Why? Because, he noted, “[M]arketing feel that admitting they can’t do x and are better suited for y is a weakness (it’s not),” and most companies “Absolute[ly] refus[e] to mention a competitor in any of their docs or other materials.” It’s “silly,” he said, but it’s standard.

SEE: Hiring kit: Android developer (TechRepublic Premium)

HashiCorp has chosen a different way, as I indicated above, for reasons that Hashimoto argued are more compelling than trying to pretend to be all things to all people. On Ryan’s first point, Hashimoto responded, “[Y]ou might get more people through the front door but they’re a lot more pissed when they inevitably go out the exit.” And the second point (about not referring to competitors)? “Disrespectful, head in the sand strategy [because] customers are going to find the competitors anyways.”

He has a point. It’s not as if it’s hard to find detailed information on pretty much anything today. (Want to adopt a pig for your city apartment? Here’s what you need to know!) By shading or attempting to hide the truth, you simply make it more likely that the developer will lose interest on their way to finding the answers they want.

SEE: Business leaders as developer: The rise of no–code and low–code software (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

One of the things I appreciated most about MongoDB when I first looked at joining the company in 2013 was how the co-founder, Dwight Merriman, explicitly called out when you might not want to use the database. I loved questions like this in the documentation: “If you had to pick one thing you wouldn’t use it for, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” While the database has evolved to embrace some of the use cases Merriman might formerly have steered users away from, such honesty helps foster trust.

Which, ultimately, is what the best marketing is all about: creating trust that helps a would-be buyer make an informed decision about your product. The more detailed and honest the information you provide, the less likely a prospective customer will seek other, competitive sources for information about your product.

All of which is a long way of saying that marketing is critical for developer-oriented products. But not marketing-as-usual. Instead, the best developer marketing should seek to inform developers on how best to use your product, and when to try something else. The resulting developer trust is a great foundation upon which to build a long-lasting customer relationship.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB, but the views expressed herein are mine.