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The Guide to Building Developer Communities

[Developers are currently the hottest property in the mobile industry. Tens of developer programs have sprung up, aiming to woo developers.  However, besides Apple, Google and perhaps Microsoft, other developer programs have had at best a lukewarm response. Guest author Gyanee Dewnarain investigates what makes developers tick and the faux-pas to avoid.]

The Guide to Building Developer Communities

Have you been ramping up your developer marketing efforts lately with a view to attracting more developers to your programme? How are your efforts faring? Let’s have a look at what works and what does not.

First and foremost – who to target?

Before you set out on your quest, it is important to know who you are targeting. We have all come across the perennial cliché of a developer as being the unshaven geeky guy with long hair and sandals. This image is outdated: developers nowadays are a rapidly expanding community that includes software engineers (architects, implementers, discoverers, thinkers, inventors) within small, medium and large enterprises, hobbyists or indie developers (working on open source or proprietary software), high school kids aspiring to go to MIT, commissioned developers, brands developing  B2C apps, system integrators targeting B2B apps, investors funding mobile development and 100s of start-ups.

Each developer segment has varying goals and incentives and the ways of engaging with them vary too. It pays to do your research first and understand who you are targeting and how to do so. However, irrespective of the segment you are targeting, there are a few key ingredients (so-called hygiene factors) that need to be in place in your developer program for the greatest chances of success. These hygiene factors are covered extensively in VisionMobile’s Developer Economics 2010 and 2011 reports. This post focuses more on developer marketing strategies and tactics.

First Impressions Matter

The first step in a developer marketing program is to create a solid first impression. Developers expect you to invest considerable effort in the way you present your tools, APIs and documentation to them as well as the way you present their applications to your customers. This is a competitive marketplace and if you want to stand any chance of getting noticed, your offering needs to stand out from the other developer programs which are vying for developers’ attention.

It is equally very important that your messaging and your branding are consistent across all your digital assets – website, blog, storefront etc. If your branding and messaging is confused, developers’ confidence in your developer program will erode rapidly.

Developers also have an aversion to long, convoluted, legal terminologies; don’t make them read and sign long T&C’s before they can access any of the exciting stuff (code, APIs, tools and documentation). Second opportunities come seldom in this market.

The “coolness” factor

Developers like cool companies (think slide, smoothie bar, collectable pins) and cool brands and if you appear stuck-up, they will run a mile. If you want to engage with them, you have to think about the image you and your company project – you have to speak their language and dress like them. The language on your website should be simple and straightforward (cut back the marketing blurb).

While more technically inclined, developers still like devices which have mass market appeal (both from the perspective of personal interest and also from the perspective of user reach and revenue generation). Engage with other brands and channels to increase the desirability of your device, your storefront or your cloud platform.

In addition, make sure that your products are able to get developers excited (from the development tools, emulators and documentation through the storefront to the actual devices that you are selling in the market).

Encourage openness and interaction

Do not bind your developers into contracts and NDAs that forbid them from sharing useful hints and tips. Even Apple realised the mistake it was making by preventing discussions amongst its developers and had to retract its NDA three months after the launch of its iPhone developer program. You should encourage your developers to share their experiences, best practices and code snippets by creating places and opportunities for them to meet and interact with each other.

Online forums, blogs, mailing lists (both on your own website and on popular 3rd party fan websites) are must-haves. Such communication amongst developers helps build a sense of community.   Developer events are equally de rigueur in any developer program. Your events should ideally favour hands-on code oriented tutorials and workshops as opposed to marketing presentations.

Learn the art of listening

Building communities means extending bridges. The mantra is – communicate, communicate, communicate; whether it’s through one to one e-mails, social media, developer forums or third party developer events. Keep in touch with your most loyal developers, as much as you can, and in a personalised manner. Formulate your message in such a way that you make them feel important; the focus should not be on your company but on them.

The worst thing you can do is have a big developer bash and disappear off the radar for a while. That might have worked a few years back but in the current market, with everyone competing for your developers’ attention, if you do not constantly keep in touch, someone else will snatch your developers away in the blink of an eye.

Honesty is the best policy

Changes to existing APIs and introduction of new APIs are a natural part of software development. However, be as transparent as you can with your developer community. Inform them about the changes that you have made to your APIs and try to have a sensible upgrade path so that there are no rude awakenings. Ensure compatibility with previous versions; this would show that you are respectful of the time and effort that developers are committing to your program.  Despite facing a lot of criticism with regards to fragmentation risks across its multiple releases, Google has gone to great lengths to explain API updates to new Android releases.

Share your vision of the future

Sharing your vision for the future is a critical part of engaging with developers. It is therefore essential that you communicate the rationale behind your business strategies, technology decisions (e.g. moving from native to web) and the future direction of your program very clearly to your developer following.  Endeavour to provide your developers with the opportunity to provide their feedback, comments and suggestions. Arguably, developer programs such as BONDI and JIL failed due to their inability to communicate any tangible vision to developers. Unfortunately, WAC seems to be following a similar path.

Favour substance over style

If your platform does not ship; if your tools look good but do not deliver;  if your code samples are too difficult to learn and use, your developers will churn to greener pastures. This means:

  • If you are going down the route of having your own platform, then you have to ensure that the tools that you provide are easy to learn and your programming paradigms enable quick coding and prototyping.
  • Provide APIs that are rich and that offer developers the opportunity to go the extra mile in creating truly innovative applications. These could include select hardware APIs (that are normally hidden) and in some cases network APIs such as billing, location, user profile etc.
  • Provide debuggers and emulators that are fast and provide accurate target device mirroring.
  • Make sure that your development environment includes an app porting framework and solid emulator integration.
  • Choice is good – provide options for advanced use cases for example both a basic command line text editor and a web based IDE.

Moreover, if you get lethargic and do not constantly look at ways of evolving your tools, being innovative with your business models, and seeking newer markets, boredom is likely to set in and your developers may start looking at other alternatives. Therefore, continuously check how your program is faring against competition. Several operators dismissed Apple and Google for more than 2 years until it was too late to figure out a positioning strategy.

Bridges to developers need constant maintenance

You’ll need to set aside a significant budget to finance various types of seed programs as well as developer competitions. Seed programs include many incentives for developing such as:

  • Releasing early builds of your platform/ SDK version to developers, both to get feedback about bugs and other issues as well as to give developers lead time to test software or experiment with adding new features.
  • Commissioning developers to develop apps specifically for your platform or port existing apps from other platforms.
  • Fast tracking the certification of apps for a select group of your target developers (especially useful when you need to get an app ported from a competitive platform to your own)
  • Distribution of free reference hardware or commercial devices to your installed base of developers in order to build loyalty.

Show me the money

Many of the developers that you want onboard (especially those with a commercial role) want to see a return on their investment. From the outset, it should be clear in your own mind how your developers are going to make money from their apps and you should communicate this in a very clear manner to them – what are the devices that you support, how many people are using those devices, how do they get their apps on those devices, how do customers find, download and pay for the apps and how, when and how much do developers get paid.

The other thing to note is that developers are smart and discerning consumers who will fact-check you before they can trust you – make sure you have the figures to back your marketing assertions.

One of the critical issues facing developers currently is “discovery” of their apps by customers. The developer programs which come up with the most original ideas to improve discovery and present new business models for increased monetisation are likely to gain traction with the largest number of developers.

Casual settings work better

When socialising with your developers, small informal events work much better than large formal conferences. Make sure that the developers and software engineers from within your company get the opportunity to interact with each and every developer, answering their questions, listening to their issues, encouraging them to interact regularly and share experiences and difficulties. So far, BlueVia has been amongst the operator developer programs that have most successfully embraced this philosophy by holding small developer events in pubs around London.

Jump onto the social bandwagon – Facebook It, Tweet It

Studies show that over 60% of people within the 15-35 age group (and that includes the vast majority of your developers) spend on average 20 hours per month on social networking websites. This is where you are likely to find them and this is the medium they will use to spread the word about you if they like you enough (viral marketing). Social media is where you need to advertise your events, inform developers about the availability of the latest release of your SDK or the latest device you are planning to launch.

Locate your Evangelists

Find out who are the people who believe in your platform – the fans, the early adopters– the people who would be willing to fly the flag for you. Check the people who write favourable blog posts about you, who comment on your blog posts, tweets, participate in your forums and Facebook or LinkedIn discussion groups. Approach them and provide them further incentives to spread the good word.

Developers listen to their fellow developers – therefore, get your early adopter developers to talk about how easy it is to create apps using your APIs and SDKs and how fast it is to certify the apps and get them published.

Reward your successful developers – promote their apps in the media, ask them to come and talk about their success stories at your events; publish their success stories on your website and in your marketing collaterals; encourage them to publish stats about number of downloads and the amount of money they’ve made.

Putting it all together

In summary – decide who you want to target, make sure the hygiene factors are in place, keep your messaging and branding consistent, keep legal blurb to a minimum, be a cool brand, encourage your developers to share experiences and best practices, value feedback from your developers, be transparent about changes to APIs and code, communicate your vision and roadmap, provide high quality tools that are on par with competitive offerings,  prepare to invest, show developers the return on their investment, interact frequently with your developers preferably via small informal events and via social networks, locate and draw upon your evangelists and last but not least, reward your successful developers.  Many have tried and many have failed over the years. Sometimes, a few decisions can make or break your program. Be quick to learn both from the failures and the success stories!

Happy Community Building!

- Gyanee

[A mobile technology aficionado, Gyanee Dewnarain has 8 years' experience working within the international telecoms business environment. Gyanee has worked for a host of companies within the mobile industry ranging from consortia (LiMo Foundation) and start-ups (Carrier IQ) to large corporations (Gemalto and Alcatel). Prior to that, Gyanee was involved with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and co-chaired the ITU Youth Forum in Johannesburg. Gyanee holds an MSc in Telecommunications with Distinction from University College London (UCL). She can be reached at gyanee.dewnarain (at) gmail.com]

  • Gizelda Gruntcaskets

    What's the point of this article? Who's it targetted at?
    Starting off with a definition of what a developer program is would have been a good idea. At least to benefit myself if nobody else.
    Are you giving advice for how companies in general should recruit mobile developers? It doesn't sound like it – sounds like its specifically for companies that have developer programs and communities whatever they are. Whatever they are, sounds like a very small % of companies that have them (which companies want to develop a developer community which doesn't already have them?), which brings us back to the question – who is this article targetted at? And why?

  • Gyanee Dewnarain

    Hi Gizelda, thanks for your comments and apologies for not introducing the the topic more comprehensively.
    This is aimed at all organisations which want to engage with developers and the purpose of the blog is to highlight some of the stumbling blocks and recommend some best practices. If a company has a developer program, it does not necessarily mean that its job is done and it no longer needs to attract more developers or spend efforts in maintaining the relationship with its registered developers. In fact, the contrary is very much true. A vibrant ecosystem is one that grows organically and one in which the developers are happy and motivated as they are being taken care of, being offered the best opportunities and being made to feel important. Other than Apple and Google, I cannot see any other developer program that can claim it is extremely successful and therefore, no longer needs to spend effort on developer marketing and developer recruitment . Can you?

  • LiMo Inc.

    But your company (LImo inc) had never engaged with developers because after the O.S. releases your colleagues have not developed anything new, neither have shared your famous native SDK. Why don't you writte anything about buying partnerships?

  • a LiMo user

    Typical case of: "Look to what I say, don't look to what I do".
    open source code + huge partnership fees = LiMo
    Developer communities outside the commercial/partnership bound = 0 (*)
    Simple equations which end with: LiMo = 0, nice lifestyle to a bunch of guys and gals though.
    (*) In fact theres a big group of LiMo hackers, but even with those there's no connection… go figure

    • http://www.visionmobile.com/blog/ VisionMobile

      Our view (as VisionMobile) of LiMo has a lot of things in common with yours – see our 2009 criticism of LiMo strategy. At the same time you should't expect Gyanee (the guest author and ex-LiMo employee) to express or endorse LiMo views. Much like one's views won't reflect their employer's views. We 're people first after all.

      – Andreas / VisionMobile

  • Sarah

    I found this article helpful and with good tips in it. I work for small tech startup and we're interested in starting a developer community, or at least encourage more developers to integrate our technology into the apps they create. I thought this article had some very good advice in it for what we're trying to do. The other commentors on here seem to have a gripe against a company that the author previously worked for, rather than evaluating the content of the advice.

  • http://www.greenloveseat.com Griselda Cuevas

    Hi!
    I liked the article as a general idea on how to build a community of developers. However I support Gizelda, I don't think this apply only to mobile companies, this is more useful for startups and people who wants to understand how to interact with Developers.
    I like the fact that you are real about not stereotyping developers, nowadays developers come in all shapes and sizes. However it is very important to know and define who your target audience is and what is their cultural background like, this because your company's culture will depend on this. Thanks for sharing!

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