Marketing to Developers: Core Values & Tactical Tips from Gitlab’s Ashley Smith

Kyle-Lacy-300×300 by

Ashley Smith has always been fascinated with the idea of building things out of words, numbers, and equations. Though her early education didn’t include programming, she dabbled in HTML when she was a kid, and eventually graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering. After college, she was hired by the San Francisco-based cloud software company Twilio, where she played a key marketing role helping the company reach, engage, and convert its developer audience.

Smith followed her time at Twilio with several similarly pivotal marketing roles at other companies serving developers: Director of Marketing at Parse, Product Marketing Manager (for Parse) at Facebook, and Head of Developer Marketing for Google Maps at Google. Today, she is the CMO at GitLab, a SaaS application that enables developers code, test, and deploy together. The company’s software is used by more than 100,000 organizations including RedHat, NASA, Intel, Uber, and VMWare, just to name a few.

Smith’s direct engineering experience and years spent working with and marketing to developers has made her a specialist in the unique challenges of successfully plugging into and communicating with this customer community. Over the years, she has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to building successful relationships with developer audiences, software marketing teams, and technical CEOs.

Core Values: Getting it Right with Developers

“Most engineers are really smart. They realize when someone’s trying to trick them,” Smith says. “Some people think of traditional marketing like a form of tricking people into doing something. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s definitely the perception.” To create an authentic and sustainable connection with developers, Smith makes sure her marketing efforts avoid any trickery by adhering to a few core values.

Honesty

“Honesty is the key,” Smith says with conviction. “You have to respect your community. If you try anything that’s the least bit shady, they will immediately know it.” Whether you’re addressing known issues, changing your infrastructure, or considering new features, being open, honest, and transparent about your plans is of paramount importance. “Say you’re building some sort of software, and you want to promote the fact that it scales,” Smith offers as an example. “When you’re writing copy for a developer audience, everything you say has to be actually true because the first thing someone is going to do when they read it is test the product. You can’t lie.”

Clearly, the phrase truth in marketing is not a sarcastic concept when marketing to developers. Highly engaged developer communities and social media channels up the ante by giving disillusioned developers platforms upon which to voice their ire. “If you aren’t truthful, your audience will call you out,” Smith says. “Just look at the Twitter feeds of any of the top developer companies and you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of people complaining about things they felt were done improperly.” Smith adds that, in most cases, the causes of such outcries are not the result of “bad marketing” as much as they are the result of innocent oversight.

Clarity

Being clear and direct are two attributes that are highly valued by the developer set. “With developer marketing, you have to be very clear. It’s almost like you need to speak a different language.” Smith says. “There’s a different way of writing when you’re addressing a developer audience. It’s very direct, almost like technical writing. Think about a lab report – you don’t add extra words, you just say exactly what you’re trying to say – no sugar coating, no fluff.”

Usefulness

Finally, as problem solver, developers naturally value things that are inherently useful – including marketing.

“You have to make sure that the marketing materials you’re putting out into the world are actually helpful,” explains Smith. “Engineers are naturally curious people who will be far more interested in content that teaches them something rather than just trying to get them to buy.”

For this reason, marketing initiatives that include tutorials, lunch-and-learns, and so forth are usually a good fit for this audience.

At GitLab, Smith includes many such events in her marketing plan, often partnering with other companies to expand the depth and breadth of information she delivers to her audience. She’s also launching a lunch-and-learn roadshow that will take her team to meet with developer communities in New York, San Francisco, and London. “It’s not just to teach them about GitLab,” she says. “It’s also about giving back to the community by teaching them something valuable about DevOps or whatever other topic is most relevant. Almost everything we do is about teaching.”

Big Picture Tactical Tips

In addition to helping her develop these strategic core values, Smith’s career experience has provided her ample opportunity to hone her in-the-trenches tactical skills. Here are just a few of the real-world marketing lessons she’s learned while managing hundreds of successful campaigns:

Stop Saying Yes to Everyone

Smith’s first piece of advice is as applicable to life as it is to marketing. “When you start a new job, it’s human nature to want to say yes to everyone,” she says. “You want to make everyone happy, but at some point you have to realize that you can’t do that.” Instead, Smith recommends starting the process by talking with people in order to identify the points of alignment within the organization. Then, you can step back and create a strong plan. Just don’t, she warns, “Fall into the trap of making promises you can’t keep during those initial conversations. Keep your perspective.”

Know Your Community

As an open source product, GitLab has to be especially aware of their community; but understanding the people who use your software is important for any SaaS company. “The community is everything,” Smith says. “If they are unhappy and stop contributing, your product is done.” She adds that many marketers don’t realize just how much is involved in successfully establishing and maintaining a strong community relationship. “If developers don’t like you, they won’t use your product,” she says simply. “So, you need to always stay on top of the relationship.”

Stay Focused on Your Audience

While events tend to be a popular tactic when marketing to developers, Smith cautions against any marketer over-focusing on any one channel. In her experience, successful marketing uses a combination of channels and is optimized based on which channels perform best for the specific audience. Using events as an example, she points out that whether or not they are a good idea is not a yes or no question. It all depends. Some people love events, and some people hate them. The point is to stay focused on your audience. “Events can be great when they’re done right,” says Smith. “They’re good for the community and for getting face-to-face. It makes sense from a sales perspective. But, you have to make sure it’s a developer-focused event because you’re selling to developers. You can mix in some of the stuff the sales team wants to talk about, but only on top of the core tutorial, developer content.”

Maintain a Regular Internal Communications Cadence

One of the interesting things about the GitLab team is that they work remotely. This emerging model might trip some marketing teams up, but the team has a strong system to keep everyone in sync. While individuals are usually heads down on their own tasks, the team engages in quick ongoing conversations via Slack and adheres to an established schedule of regular meetings. In addition to company team calls every Monday through Thursday, Smith’s marketing team has a quarterly summit for planning, a monthly meeting to review active campaigns, a twice-weekly standup meeting to get tactical about who’s doing what, and a monthly town hall at which they present to the whole company. In addition, Smith has one-on-one conversations with each of her team members on a bi-weekly basis.

Though it may sound like a lot of meetings, it’s a process that works well for the organization. “Everyone is on the Slack marketing channel and GitLab issue tracker every day, so you can tell what everyone is working on based on that,” Smith says. “We all work pretty asynchronously, so the meetings are really just a reinforcement to ask if anyone needs anything. Generally, they go pretty quickly because we’re all moving along together in GitLab and Slack.”

Insights on Working with the Technical CEO

Working with technical founders is, Smith has found, not all that different from working with developers – direct without sugar coating – and she likes it that way. “They tell you exactly what they want,” she says. “At other companies, marketing often ends up answering to non-technical people who don’t understand the product fully and are much more ‘fluffy.’ I don’t enjoy that.”

In addition getting used to direct communication, Smith also finds that technical CEOs tend to expect marketing initiatives and performance to be data-driven. In other words, prepare to know your numbers. “You need to frame your marketing conversations in terms a technical person will understand,” she explains. “You can’t just say, ‘We’re doing a giant campaign and someone’s going to be happy,’ you have to actually tie what you’re doing back to metrics. You need to connect the dots between the brand’s touchy-feely stuff and the numbers.”

Finally, Smith comes full circle back to the concepts of honesty and transparency. “If something goes wrong, just say it’s gone wrong,” she says. “I’ve found that technical, founder CEOs are very dialed in to many different parts of the business. They’ll find out if you’re not telling the truth.” At the end of the day, successful partnerships with technical CEOs are built on the same values as relationships with developers: getting stuff done, being honest and direct, and building something useful.